The Birth, Death, and Rebirth of Ideas

Watching the waxing and waning of software development methodologies made me think about the lifecycle of ideas. Throughout the ages, humans have come up with ideas. Some ideas never become more than a thought. Others spread globally, affecting people for a long time. The life of ideas seems to be an eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

Watching the waxing and waning of software development methodologies made me think about the lifecycle of ideas. Throughout the ages, humans have come up with ideas. Some ideas never become more than a thought. Others spread globally, affecting people for a long time. The life of ideas seems to be an eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

The Spark

Who can tell where ideas come from? Suddenly they appear. Sometimes we can trace their origin, backtracking through threads of thoughts and experiences. Sometimes, they seem to materialize out of thin air. At times, we can clearly see how an idea grew on top of another. At other times, the idea seems to be radically, even inexplicably, groundbreaking. We can be sure of two things: as long as humans exist, ideas will keep coming, and as long as humans exist, we will often look with suspicion at new ideas – or be strangely attracted to them.

Disciples Arrive

While others are still suspicious, some are intuitively and emotionally attracted to a certain new idea. They may not be able to say why, but something draws them in. Maybe the idea seems to be a solution to the challenges they currently have. Maybe the idea just sounds right. Whatever it is, it is drawing some people in more strongly than others. Some of these first comers become disciples – students of the originator of the idea.

Conversations

In the beginning, there is no written curriculum, no rulebook to follow. The originator and the disciples gather and talk. The idea is still fresh and pliable. As the conversations go on, the idea evolves. Provoked by new insights from both originator and disciples, it mutates from its original form into something new. Because this happens in conversation in the group, the idea is the shared property of those who participate, and there seems to be unity around what the idea is – even though it cannot always be described exactly.

Spreading the Word

The lack of clear rules doesn’t deter the disciples. Eager to let more people see the brilliance of the new idea, they get to work on spreading it. More conversations ensue – in slowly widening circles. Some of the new people who learn about the idea decide to take part in spreading it further.

Growth

The new idea has taken root. It now seems to be spreading almost by itself. The originator and the disciples are no longer in control of the spreading. They are happy that the idea is catching on, but a few of them also worry. Some new people seem to misunderstand the idea. Even worse: there are now people who claim that they understand the idea, yet misrepresent it entirely when teaching it. Some of the disciples say that things are spiraling out of control.

A System is Born

Realizing that they are loosing grip of the idea, the originator and the disciples gather to discuss a solution. They that the idea needs to be more clearly described, so that new students can be steered in the right direction. Gradually, some things are clarified. But some things also seem to be lost in the process. Some of the disciples consider this a price worth paying – after all, they all want the idea to spread. Others quietly wonder if the frenzy to specify what the idea is about is making the idea itself disappear.

Rules and Robes

A system of clarifying rules is now in place, but maintaining it is no easy task. To make sure the rules are followed, new roles, ceremonies and symbols are introduced. Those assigned a role in the system play a part that is very different from the disciples. Instead of focusing on the original idea, the perspective of these role-players is that of learning and spreading the rules of the system.

As time passes, the players become further and further removed from the idea itself, and more and more attached to the growing set of rules. As the rule set grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to learn for those who cannot spend all their time studying it. This gives the maintainers of the rule set a clear advantage: they can now claim supreme insight – and their deep knowledge of the rules seems to prove it. They are given a title to carry, maybe with some symbolic item (possibly clothing), that make it clear that they and no one else are the keepers of the truth.

These interpreters of the message now make up a formidable layer between the original idea and newcomers. Ask us, they say, because we have the answers. Thinking for yourself will only lead you astray – it is too hard for you. Even dangerous.

Rewards and Punishment

Now far removed from its original form, the original idea is no longer a spark of inspiration. It has mutated into a stagnant rulebook, maintained by those who have made it their task to uphold the rules, whatever the costs may be. As both the number of rules and number of followers keep increasing, the likelihood of rule violations is also bound to grow. To maintain respect for the system, the maintainers devise systems of rewards and punishment and assign themselves the right to dole them out. Many of the new followers appreciate this – after all, they didn’t come for the idea, they came because they were attracted by the structure and order of the rule system.

Splits and Branches

As the burden of what is now a strict system of compliance increases, some followers can no longer accept the situation. They decide to form their own branch of the system, giving them room to adapt the rules to their liking – and to put more deserving people into positions of power. Soon, multiple schools exists, and relations are not friendly between them. There seem to be no limit to the amount of energy and time that can be spent on debating which rules are the best. Some find this entirely satisfactory; debating their adversaries has become their new mission. After all (they say) the One Truth must be defended, or it may become tainted.

Heresy: a New Spark

With multiple schools of thought and multiple rulebooks in play, the system has become all-encompassing. Its controls seem to reach all, but that is only an illusion. As its grip has widened, it has also loosened. Below the surface of polite compliance, free thoughts of resistance are bubbling, provoked into existence by the very system that sought to keep them out. One day, a new idea stands out so powerfully that some people find it irresistible, even given the risk of dire consequences for those who choose to speak about it. A small and still secret group of heretics gathers to talk about the idea. The life of the idea is over, and immediately starts all over again.

Author: Tobias Fors

I'm a software management consultant. I help other people succeed with software development. In my work, I help teams and organizations be more effective and ship software.

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