Back to top

Normative or Pragmatic?

“I have a hammer, a screwdriver and a saw. Which way of working should I choose?” If I ask this question, everybody is quick with their answer: “It depends what you want to achieve.” But what happens if we change that just a little bit: “We have Scrum, SAFe, the Spotify Model or Holacracy. Which way of working should we choose?” Is the answer of the same kind, exploring the pragmatic side of things, or is it normative: “It depends what you believe in”?

There is a wonderful little metaphor I’ve learned from Dave Snowden during the pandemic. In the first half of 2020, people got to terms with the fact that politicians and authorities could not tell how long the pandemic or the lockdown would last, or how bad it would become. And often a first reaction was that since the future was thus unknown, there was no point in planning. And here’s where this metaphor comes into play. Imagine stacking an empty dishwasher. You don’t know exactly how many pots and bowls you will be using later in the day, so you don’t know the one best way of stacking your dishwasher. And yet most of us don’t just stack it in any possible way, but in such a way that the chances of having to re-stack the dishes later in the day are small. We start at the outside and move towards the centre. We put same to same. So it appears that there are more or less intelligent ways of acting now so that later you don’t have to correct, even if you cannot predict the future. And this can be true for business during the pandemic. 

I’ve used this metaphor many times since. I’ve even made two pictures of my dishwasher and had participants in my trainings argue which one was better prepared for the uncertainty of further dishes, and why. But here’s a surprise: These discussions were much less univocal than I expected. Quite a few started arguing in favour of a more haphazard way of stacking, and only corrected their view when they heard the more elaborate arguments of the other side – arguments that the other side had to go search and develop only after they had chosen their position. They appeared ill at ease with the task of finding pragmatic arguments for their choice. However, when I asked them how they stacked their dishwasher in reality, they all pointed to the one which followed the above principles. I asked them why they did so. And they answered, because it is more orderly. Orderly, in this sense, is a normative term. Shall we be orderly, or shall we be wild and negligent? Are we orderly as someone once told us to be? Or shall we oppose these authorities? 

It is exactly this shift from pragmatic to normative which happens when it comes to selecting approaches to management, or business. If the purpose of an organisation is to be viable in what it does, towards a vaguely foreseeable future, then the dominant approach to any question about how one should be going about this task should be pragmatic. The form of organisation, the choice of product portfolio, the way in which to organise our documentation – everything is a means to the end of serving the organisation’s purpose. We choose what works better for our purpose. And yet, this is not always what’s happening, especially when it comes to branded ways of working. ING Bank publicly state they believe in Scrum. Spark Lightning Products believe in Six Sigma. Fujitsu believe in Lean thinking. But no-one in their right mind would say they believe in the screwdriver. 

Why should this be a problem? Because it changes the nature of our conversations. If someone comes up to us with a contradicting proposal, with a pragmatic mindset we may respond: “Show me that it works better, and I am all for it.” Maybe we have to add some detail – risk, cost of change etc. – but we are fundamentally curious, and hungry for any improvement we can find. But with a normative mindset, a contradicting proposal challenges the norm. “How dare you!”, we may say, or “Are you one of us, or are you not?” In some situations, this translates into: “This is not how the Scrum handbook says it is done.” Anything that already exists for a long time can be dismissed as “Tayloristic” management (and we sure don’t want that, do we?). There are also more subtle ways this can play out. I’ve once heard a conversation in an organisation adopting Holacracy: “I remember from my training that Brian [Brian Robertson, the founder of Holacracy] told otherwise.” Those who had been sent to a cheaper training by a no-name Holacracy consulting company, duly withdrew their point. 

So a normative approach to something that would better be pragmatic, has negative effects on finding ways to do a good job. Why then are we becoming normative in the first place? 

Could it have to do with the difficulty of our choice? Some people have invested a lot of time and expertise to develop Scrum. Lean has been the product of about thirty years of cultural development at Toyota. There is nothing wrong with trying to abbreviate this process. It is called learning from each other. The question is how it is done. A child may learn not to touch a hot stove by burning their fingers once. Most children instead learn it from their parents. But in this process, a pragmatic experience – touching the stove produces pain, therefore it is useful to be avoided – is replaced by a normative statement: Mummy has told me not to touch the stove, and I trust her. Or worse: Mummy has told me not to touch the stove, and if I disobey Mummy I get scolded. So I avoid touching the stove in order not to get scolded. I avoid saying the wrong thing about Six Sigma in order not to be scorned by my Black Belt colleagues. 

And so maybe because we don’t understand Scrum, or Lean, as well as we understand the screwdriver, or even more because we don’t understand adaptability problems, or improvement problems, as well as we understand screwdriver problems, we turn to our workplace surrogate Mum – the expert, the consultant, the book. And what should be pragmatic becomes normative. 

If this is correct, then the key to a more pragmatic future is in better understanding the nature of our problems. 

Subscribe here to get more posts like this

  • What We Do

    Palladio Trusted Advisers are a small group of professionals dedicated to developing organisations and their leaders in complex and dynamic environments.


  • Contact

    Trusted Advisers
    Bachlettenstrasse 66
    4054 Basel

    +41 78 783 72 44

©2020 Bernhard Sterchi, Palladio Trusted Advisers AG.
All right reserved.