Sitting behind a laptop in an IT-company in 2010 compared to walking across continents 10.000 years ago might show very few similarities at a first glance. However, the key factors to survival and prosperity for any community or organization turn out to be quite similar in spite of the vast gap in time.

I’ve previously mentioned some thoughts presented through Paula Underwood (1932-2000), the holder of an ancient Native American oral tradition. Paula Underwood put this oral history into writing in “The Walking People” and gave the rest of us a chance to learn from this well of wisdom.

In the beginning of their history The Walking People are victims of several natural disasters that decimate their numbers and wipe out the majority of their knowledge that has been held by a few elders. In order to survive, the people set out on a journey to learn again and to find a new safe ground. The journey begins with the long walk from somewhere in East Asia (Korea?) across the Bering Strait and into North America to find a safe place for the people to settle down. This is pre-maps, pre-navigation software, pre-GoreTex and pre-management methods. Yet we get to read about a people following a vision, planning just a couple of days ahead and always adjusting to circumstances. A people surviving all challenges mainly because they are united by their common vision, their goal of learning and a constant search for the balance between acting for the common good while looking out for the individual and the surrounding nature.

Their search is not for a land of plenty, it’s a search for enough; enough food, enough water and enough shelter. A land good enough to fulfill their needs.

Whenever they reach some new grounds where the future direction can not be seen or predicted they perform spikes, sending out one person (“go and see”) in each direction of interest to look a couple of days ahead along the path and then return to report their learnings.

The Walking People refer to themselves as a learning people. They constantly adjust their view of the world and their processes in order to improve their lives, to improve their learning and to find new patterns. One of their first lessons after loosing their elders is to manage their truck numbers by sharing the wisdom and by inviting everyone into the decision process. They begin to sing about the lessons made and share their wisdom through these lyrics.

As the size of the tribe is quite small they also want everyone to be able to help in the different disciplines of the daily chores:

“… and – as the divisions were less …





Several principles from these ancient tales have been reinvented by the agile community and todays management methods based on systems thinking. I myself have not yet even begun learning from these stories, so far I’ve just recognized the patterns that I already try to apply myself. I’m convinced that repeated reading of The Walking People will unravel many new learnings for me and I do think that this book constitutes a great reading material for any manager willing to learn from history.

Ok, why wasn’t I told about this before? I was probably one of the last people in the world to find out about it. But what an epiphany when I did find out about Ashby’s law of requisite variety. It seems so intuitive that it bothers me it’s not called Morgan’s law of requisite variety.

“If a system is to be stable the number of states of its control mechanism must be greater than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled.”
“The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate.”

Of course! If we want to control something we need at least as many degrees of freedom as the system under consideration. Why on earth didn’t I see that. Well now that it has been brought to my attention it makes several things so much clearer. One of the most important implications that comes to mind is self organization. If we want to handle a complex problem, we’ll need to be able parry it’s possible moves. Giving one manager the responsibility to handle a complex project leaves us to the mercy of his/her limited model of the world. Giving an entire team the responsibility to handle the same project gives us an almost infinite number of possible combinations of experiences more fit to handle the whims of a chaotic world.

The agile movement helped me realize the benefits of self organization several years ago but Ashby just recently gave me the actual proof for why it’s working.

So to paraphrase that old t-shirt slogan:
Self organization – it’s not just a good idea; it’s the law.

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