Naive Subject/Object Dualism

Gerald Midgley, one of our systems scholars, has written extensively about what he calls "naive subject/object dualism." He feels that it is the basis of our problems with mechanical thinking and with reductionism in science and all of life.

Let's say we have an Agile coach who just coaches; doesn't have an active, participative role on the team. And we have an Agile team. And let's say that the Agile coach is performing an "assessment" on the team. "How Agile are you?" (In case you haven't figured it out yet, we don't endorse any part of this situation.)

In this situation, the Agile coach is the subject. He is performing the assessment, doing the observing. The Agile team is the object. They are being observed. They are the topic of the assessment, they will get the grade or whatever coming out of the assessment.

When Midgley adds "naive" to the label of subject/object dualism, he is saying that many reductionists make certain assumptions that they will find are not true. These assumptions, in our case, are that:

  • The Agile coach can observe the team without changing them
  • The observation goes only one way (from the coach to the team)
  • The coach will be able to make more correct observations than the team themselves possible could (he has more experience


These assumptions are naive. The minute anyone finds themselves being assessed, or even casually observed, they act differently. Sit up straighter. Don't pick your nose. And, most importantly, do the thing that you think the observer wants you to do. Not what you think is right, but whatever will please that observer.

So, there's a show going on. The team puts on a great show for the observer. The coach is not seeing "something real," he is just seeing the show. There's not much help here.

Secondly, political maneuvering will quickly come into play. The most politically savvy team members will move to gain favor with the assessor, and will try to guide his assessment to more closely follow their own assessment (i.e. I'm the greatest and these other people are twits).

So, here's a quotable quote for you:

          There is no observation. There is only intervention.

In our own experience, we've seen coaches or managers who try to "objectively observe" a team and who think they are getting a real picture. But everyone on the team knows they are not. They are being fooled. They are naive.

In scientific studies, particularly social science, the scientists take great pains to ensure that they are being "truly objective," much more than anyone does in the workplace. And still, there is a crisis in social science. The studies cannot be replicated. If these studies were really valid, they should be reproducible time after time. And yet, the second and third sets of studies cannot verify what was claimed in the first.

So, we should not be naive about what we "think" we see in teams. We should not assume that we can observe without intervening. We should be very humble about trying to assess teams. In fact, self-assessment is probably the best answer. Let the teams figure out how they are doing, and let them come up with some answers as to how to fix the problems. Outsiders, of any kind, probably won't get the "real picture."


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