Many great ideas are lost!
Sure there are plenty of great ideas published. For every great idea tens, hundreds or even thousands of others have been considered and discarded. They didn’t work at that time for that problem in that context. Only the single great idea survived, the rest is discarded.
As time passes, the landscape changes. As this happens, those ideas that came second or even twenty second suddenly become the front runner… but only if they are in the race.
Start meme wombling today and save these ideas that have a life of their own!
“History is written by the victor.” This is especially the case when we are talking about memes. Memes are those “ideas that have a life of their own”. Originally coined by Richard Dawkins and Roger Penrose, more recently Julian Everret has been doing some important work with creating an entire meme concept. Julian draws heavily on his background in evolutionary biology to map genes to memes. He introduces the idea of a “landscape ” and how a meme expresses itself and behaves differently in different landscapes.
Thomas Edison is famous for saying: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.“. He had researched more than ten thousand materials for the light bulb filament before he settled on Tungsten. What happened to the other ten thousand? What were the materials that almost won but were beaten close to the finish line by Tungsten. That’s a lot of knowledge lost, all we know is the name of the winning meme in the light bulb filament landscape given the context at that time.
Wombling is about finding the memes that are lost. The ugly memes that a field of study is ashamed of, and as a result does not promote. Meme wombling is where we hunt down a meme that had little value in one landscape and transfer it to a different landscape where its new behavior helps us address a need.
Meme wombling is very much like going through the waste paper bin of a field of study. Thanks to Dan North for creating the term “wombling”. The Wombles were characters in a British children’s TV show. They went through the bins looking for valuable stuff that ordinary folk leave behind. They found value in other people’s waste.
Agile Meme Wombling
The Agile community is full of super smart people. I know that if I have an idea, chances are that someone else has already had the same idea. If I think studying kitchens will help me better understand software project management, you can guarantee someone already beat me to it and presented an experience report many years ago. If it were a good idea, someone would already be promoting it.
Normally when we want to learn about a subject like kitchens, we would find someone we know who works in the industry, or read a book about it. The person or book would normally tell us the techniques that successfully accomplish the task at hand. Sometimes we are lucky and can bootstrap our learning. Other times we find that our landscape is different in some crucial manner. In that case these ideas don’t survive the transition. They fail. The victor outperforms them and the vanquished idea is cast to the waste paper bin.
As time passes, the landscape changes. As this happens, those ideas that came second or even twenty second can suddenly become the front runner… but only if they are in the race.
Recent Agile Meme Wombling
You may have very well been a witness of this in the recent history of agile. The agile community is full of bright people and we are constantly learning and adapting. Let’s look at two recent examples: Kanban and the system metaphor.
Many things we now value as being agile are inspired by lean thinking. These are the ideas that survived the transition. Other ideas borrowed from lean manufacturing didnÂÂ´t survive the transition from physical productie to knowledge work. One of these ideas is working with a kanban system. Initially it was tried and it didnÂÂ´t work at that time so it was discarded as unfit for knowledge work.
With some significant tweaks David Anderson was able to make Kanban work for knowledge teams. These ideas met with a great deal of scepticism initially as it had been tried and deemed a failure. David and many others who have applied Kanban with these tweaks proved that it is a good way of working. If David wouldnÂÂ´t have gone through the discard bin of Lean one of the newer methodologies would have been lost to us.
The other example of the result of meme wombling is the new use of the system metaphor. The system metaphor was one of the initial XP practices and later got less and less attention. Nowadays there are not many teams that use the system metaphor as a way of designing a system.
At XP2010 Joshua Kerievsky presented a session where he described how he had used a metaphor to shape how his company thinks about their learning solution. They choose a particular metaphor for their business and applied this theme to everything.That metaphore is not only part of the architecture but also of the whole application up to and including the user interface.
How to start meme wombling
Here’s how to start solving problems using meme wombling.
Assume that anything you can think of someone has already thought of looking for a solution in that domain already.
Avoid reading books for ideas, especially the popular ones.
Read books to identify practitioners in the community of interest.
Network into that community.
When you find that practitioner go through the (mental) waste paper bin to discover those memes that came “second place”.
Another strategy is to peruse out of print books for ideas that are no longer considered relevant. Second hand bookshops are best for this, although www.abebooks.com is great if you know the author or book title.
Seek out those who have an experience you do not understand, experiences that do not fit in your model of understanding.
Experiment. Try out little ideas all the while and see how they work.