Negative Capability - Agile Australia 2015

Earlier in the year, I read about a concept that intrigued me and felt applicable to my every day worklife. Based on that moment of inspiration, I delivered the following brief lightning talk at Agile Australia 2015. As an aside, prepping for a 5 minute talk is taxing, and I found my CTO Summit talk in December 2014 far less difficult, despite being many times longer – it turns out trying to have a single message clearly articulated in a specific timeframe (i.e. not much shorter than five minutes, but definitely not longer) is a challenging task!

The brilliant young 19th century romantic poet John Keats coined the term “Negative Capability” in 1817 at just 22 years of age. His idea was in reaction to Samuel Coleridge’s reductionist approach, which sought out definitive answers, and left no room for doubt. In contrast, Negative Capability is, to quote Keats:

“… when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Fast forward 200 years, and the most useful wisdom I’ve read all year is to “embrace your discomfort” - when you’re uncomfortable, don’t become restless, stop and accept the discomfort, because you can probably learn something if you are okay with being outside your comfort zone.

Uncertainty and discomfort are not foreign ideas for the Agile world, after all, a key catch cry for us is to “embrace change”. On the other hand, we use 5-whys and root cause analysis reflexively - when faced with uncertainty, we ask ourselves, “why?”, over and over again.

For example:

  • Why can’t we get all our teams to agree to use the one toolset?
  • Why can’t the marketing team give us more notice for their next million-dollar promotion?
  • Why do customers keep changing their minds?
  • Why do executives give us mixed messages?

There may be answers to our questions… but they may take a long time to find out. And in the end, the answers may just be stories that we tell ourselves.

But don’t think Negative Capability is an idea against enquiry. As Dave Snowden (who keynoted here a couple of years ago) has written, Negative Capability is not against fact and reason, but recognition of its limits. So even while we work to bring order to disorder, just being in the state of chaos requires a certain mindset. To quote Dave again: “embracing uncertainty requires discipline”. Being strong in Negative Capability means being able to be confident with ambiguity.

Along those lines, Colin Powell once famously said: “I can make a decision with 30% of the information, anything more than 80% is too much.” – now there’s a man who is comfortable with uncertainty.

General Stanley McChrystal outlines in his book, “Team of Teams”, how his Special Forces teams in Iraq would win every battle, yet were losing the war. In his assessment, they were very capable, but they lacked the resilience to deal with changing circumstances.

I like the resilience shown in the story of Barbara McClintock, a geneticist who stopped publishing in the 1950s because her peers were sceptical of her controversial work. Her approach was based on, in her words, “the time to look, the patience to ‘hear what the material has to say to you,’ and to have ‘a feeling for the organism’”. She was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1983. Barbara had clearly developed a strong Negative Capability – it would have been unsettling to have your work doubted for so long, but she was able to be comfortable enough to persist with the uncertainty of this for decades.

A great example of the practical use of this idea comes from earlier in my career. A young member of one of my teams was thrust into a leadership position, where he started doing great things, just as I’d expected. But it was also clear that the ambiguity of leadership and management was causing a great deal of stress for him. Over the course of three or four months and despite a lot of coaching, it became clear that he was being caused so much angst by the uncertainty of the position he was in, that he was unable to provide the leadership required, and while I’m confident that in time he will be better able to handle these situations, it also highlights to me how useful a developed sense of Negative Capability would have been to him. I knew he was missing this internal resilience, but I didn’t have a term for it at the time. Negative Capability is the term, and just knowing the concept has made me capable of seeing where it is lacking, and being able to work towards addressing that deficiency.

Some of you might recognize uncertain situations that you deal with in your organizations:

  • Perhaps the company’s budgeting process asks you to project things in a way that makes you uncomfortable
  • When you manage people, you are guaranteed to be dealing with uncertainty on a daily basis
  • Maybe you deal with erratic third parties where your organization has little influence
  • And I’m sure you can think of many more examples

How we initially process and react to uncertain situations is perhaps even more important than how we bring order to them. If we don’t have the ability and discipline to use our Negative Capability, then we may not even get the opportunity to use our sense-making tools and frameworks.

Thank you.