gregrolan writes "Evans's Trousers Of Reality series attempts to understand the interplay between neurology, psychology, and sociology in the context of finding a better path through working life. I previously reviewed the first book in the series, Working Life a few years ago, and the second volume The Ingenious Engine Of Reality has now been published. While the first volume outlined the themes for the series and focused on work-life balance, this second volume digs deeper into the science behind knowledge, learning, and mental models.It then uses this background to explore the relationship between knowledge, behavior, and process in a software project setting." Keep reading for the rest of Greg's review.Although approached from the perspective of software development and project management, many of the series' concepts and insights can be applied to any walk of life. Evans is an independent consultant and a valued trainer/coach in agile development. I should disclose that I know Evans, having worked together for a short time almost 20 years ago and kept in touch throughout this time. I also acknowledge the feedback from my prior review and will try to make this one less "impenetrable" and, well, shorter.
The Ingenious Engine Of Reality is divided into three parts; the first, "Perpetually Becoming", is a short discussion about neuroplasticity. Rather than passively accept our consciousness as a final embodiment of 'who we are', Evans shows that we can use the natural adaptability of our brains to pro-actively change what we know and can do, how we learn, what we believe, and, ultimately how we behave. He explains the fallacy of the 'old dog/new tricks' nugget, outlines a personal program for change, and even describes work-related stress in this new context. This is huge topic, and the author only delves deep enough to lay the groundwork for the subsequent parts of the book, referring the reader to the extensive bibliography for a richer understanding of the science behind this section.
The second part entitled "The Nature of Knowledge" discusses how we model the world and deal with the knowledge that we obtain from it. It draws on insights from authors as diverse as Louis CK, Thoreau, and Von Neumann to weave together the threads of an argument that we can consciously control the way we interpret and construct this knowledge. This is not a sociological knowledge management discussion along the lines of Nonaka or Davenport but a deep, neuropsychological exploration. Evans describes how we can proactively use our subconscious to destroy or rework complex equivalences that may not have been serving us well. For example: business models that perpetuate a 'no-pain, no-gain' ethos or one that justifies poor behavior for professional/commercial success.
Section two also introduces the tools of filtering, intersecting, and connecting. In other words, in the face of the information barrage that we all experience, we need to learn how to appropriately filter what we take from the torrent. The word appropriately is important here: we need to be aware of our propensity to distort, delete generalize, extrapolate or approximate in order to support our cognitive biases. Evans links the activity of this filtering to that of finding commonality between concepts or experiences; to find intersections upon which to triangulate and determine the veracity of our knowledge. Finally, the section covers the making of connections to generate new or better knowledge than we had before. I found that the explicit description of these processes, while seemingly obvious, provided a personal framework for conscious reflection in the mode of Argyris and others (What have we learnt? Are we learning the right things? Are we learning the right things in the right way?).
To bring this back to a working-life perspective, Evans ends up drawing a parallel to an iterative and reflective working style (or project management methodology if you like). He argues that receptiveness to new ideas, being able to let go so as to be able to move on, and the deliberate construction of short feedback loops are all helpful techniques for the workplace – from the individual to the organization.
Finally, the third section, "The Art of Knowledge" describes the actual processes of modelling and feedback through which we manage knowledge (i.e. learn). Here Evans describes how to cultivate creativity and discern cause-and-effect relationships, using the culture at Pixar as an example. This then quickly turns into a practical discussion about management techniques, process design, feedback mechanisms, workplace productivity, and the use of metaphors as a modelling technique for problem solving.
In particular, Evans scrutinizes the way that project methodologies (or any corporate processes) come in to being and then dominate thinking even after the world has moved on from the original set of conditions from which they were developed. He suggests a technique, using what, why, and how questioning to understand the real process requirements and return the methodology to a state of subservience to the task/job/mission at hand (rather than the other way round). It is the mechanisms of finding balance and predictability within the chaos of working life – compounded by the interference of workplace 'bullies', politics, marketing, the media, and fashion – that is the real value of this section.
Evans is still brimming with ideas and eager to get them down on paper. Just as importantly, he's passionate about drawing links and inferring relationships between concepts, writing in a rambling, almost conversational style. While this certainly provides for an appealing accessibility, truth be told, his work could do with another editing go-round and tighter prose. Having said that, this series does belong on any IT practitioner's bookshelf, or for that matter, on that of anyone striving for creativity and sanity in a bureaucratic or process-driven environment.
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