8. No contention: No disappointment

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It flows in the places that people dislike.
Therefore it is similar to the Tao.

In residing, stay close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In dealing with others, be fair and generous.
In solving, don't force solutions.
In work, be competent.
In action, determine the proper time.

Be content with yourself.
No contention: No disappointment.

This is one of the wonderful passages that can be applied to many things, but I think the biggest discussion to have here is one we haven’t had so far – Customer Interaction (and a little bit of project management).

The relation to water that opens this passage is excellent, and it’s a metaphor we’ll see repeated.

it nourishes all things without trying to

Projects, especially ones with a lot of customer interaction, love to chase the hot topic. Something bad happens and there’s a mad scramble, there’s tons of effort expended and strangely, despite all the effort, things end up going un-nourished. The effort of trying to nourish one issue means things go un-nourished, often creating the next failure. If we don’t try, we’ll find we nourish all things. Firefighting breeds fires.

it flows in places people dislike

Not firefighting does not mean not addressing problems.

As a project interacts with a customer, the project learns what topics cause what responses in the customer. Therefore it becomes very tempting to avoid topics that are known to cause negative reactions. Projects that begin to avoid these discussions often find themselves digging their own grave.

Unpopular topics are topics that quite obviously need nourishment. They need attention and interaction to transform them into acceptable topics. It’s important to “go there” with your customer in order to find the problems and fix them – hiding the problems will only make them worse. Hiding the problems is not nourishing all things.

In residing, stay close to the ground.

Place of residence is someone’s default mode, it’s where they exist. Lao Tzu isn’t really concerned about our physical residence here, but rather our starting and ending point with the customer. The concepts and mental state you begin with and return to when interacting with the customer should be well grounded. This will help eliminate confusion, keep reference points in the story, and most importantly help pull the discussion closer to the center.

In thinking, keep to the simple.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. -Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The customer does not care about your over-engineered solution. They need something simple and transparent.

In dealing with others, be fair and generous.

Attempting to be unfair when dealing with others (including the customer) prolongs the conversation (and therefore blocks work).Trying to gain a business advantage usually has the reverse effect.

If you’re generous with the customer, give them the time, attention and problem solving abilities the project has, the interaction can only be positive. It may be that by working with them a half hour longer you identify requirements that would have been missed, or it could be that by being readily accessible new problems to fix are presented to the program.

Allow the customer to determine the trade off between interaction time and current-issue productive time – they intuitively know which is more important.

In solving, don’t force solutions.

Direct callback to Chapter 3 – solutions should design themselves. If the design does not come easily, there’s a constraint you’ve imposed that you should change or remove. Allow the tao to work. The value you add is clearing the confusion and blockers.

In work, be competent.

The work you do should be done well. Work that’s done poorly will need to be redone, and doing the same thing over again is anti-tao. Rework is also infuriating to the customer.

As discussed in Chapter 7, you may leverage many different tools over your career. You don’t have to be a master at using all of the tools you’ll use – but you do need to take the time to be competent discussing them with the customer, and knowing what tools or patterns to apply where.

Sometimes work is learning, and that’s okay – but keep in mind that when you speak, the customer expects that you are speaking from a level of expertise. If you don’t have that level of expertise, say so, and find a path to find competency.

In action, determine the proper time.

How many times have you had the right solution, but pushed it at the wrong time?

Water nourishes all things. If implementing your solution now means that things would go unnourished, it may not be the right time.

Be content with yourself.

Many of the issues above manifest in projects (and individuals) who are trying to be, or at least seem to be, more than they are. Projects hide issues from customers because they are trying to look like they are more competent projects, individuals discuss tools and methods they’ve never used because they are trying to look like more competent individuals. All this trying means that things are going unnourished, and therefore real problems persist.

Accept your project (and yourself) as it is – because all of the above applies within the project (or self) also. The only way to address internal problems is to stop trying, and instead nourish all things. Focusing entirely on addressing the need of the moment creates new needs later.

No contention: No disappointment

Now Lao Tzu hits us with four words that sum up everything to this point.

Contention is caused by pushing against the flow- forcing a complex design, acting at the wrong time, using tools without learning them, all the things listed above and more. When the project fights the tao (creating contention), it may realize some short term “successes” – but eventually the project and the customer will end up disappointed, and worse off than when they started.

You are the proxy, so you need to understand the tao and the named manifestations that make up the project. The reason why you need to know both is to reduce contention between the two. Reducing contention will reduce disappointment – bring the tao to the project, and the project will improve.


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  1. Pingback: 10. – tao te dev

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