Are you patient enough to teach self-control? That will unify the project. Can you allow ideas to become supple as a newborn child? That will give them future. By removing prejudices, solutions can be without flaws. By focusing on the project, one can lead while being unknown. Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course? Can you step away from all things, and thus understand all things? Produce and nourish, have without possessing, act with no expectations, lead without trying: this is the supreme virtue.
We have strong references here to previous chapters, and once again, restate things in a slightly different light.
Are you patient enough to teach self control? is a perfect summary of Chapter 9, which talks about retention. The twist is that self-control will unify the project; which, while that impact isn’t called out anywhere, makes sense. A project that has self-control will lack the confusion and aimlessness that plagues many projects, and therefore unify it. People will know what’s going on. Unfortunately it takes a long time for this self-control to take hold at project-scale. Therefore the engineer needs to be patient and persistent enough to see the transformation though.
Allowing ideas to be supple is a new twist on allowing things to transform which we’ve discussed before, except now applied to ideas in their initial state. Many projects push for ideas to be fully-formed before even “wasting time” considering them. A fully formed idea has a lot fewer possibilities in front of it when compared to an idea which will be allowed to grow and learn as it needs to.
In order to allow ideas to transform, we need to remove prejudice. We talked about this earlier also, such as removing the differentiation between good and bad. It’s re-mentioned here as a way to support the concept of ideas being supple – if ideas are dependent on prejudices, a flawed solution will eventually be produced.
Way back in chapter 2 we learned that the wise engineer advocates without advocating, here we’ve extended that to leading while being unknown. It’s not just technologies the engineer puts in place, but ideas, solutions, and methods of getting from zero to 1.
If the engineer can advocate without advocating, the engineer can also lead a project to where it needs to go without even trying to, and in many cases without that leadership even being noticed. That lack of noticing is a good thing – we’ve discussed what happens when we start acquiring fame.
Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course?
I love this. There’s so many different, excellent, ways to read it.
It sounds contradictory on the surface, which is a technique Lao Tzu uses to get us to think about our software development practices – we’ll see plenty of other contradictory statements.
Projects love to get “in front of” issues before they happen, and as such they tend to spend a lot of time focusing on things that may or may not happen, simply because they are big risks. Fact is, if a big risk gets triggered, the best course of action is almost never whatever solution your project came up with three months ago. The best course of action is often to simply let the events take their course, and allow the correct path to become clear. This is just a restatement of making sure you do things at the proper time.
I would actually venture to say this situation, which Lao Tzu told us about centuries ago, is why agile exists today. Our industry has spent gobs of effort attempting to estimate and plan for contingencies, only to have the vast majority of them fail. Agile methodologies focus on allowing the events to take their course and acting when the path becomes clear, and that’s been shown to be more effective than the up-front (and quickly irrelevant) planning found in traditional waterfall projects.
Next we have a nod to chapter 5, reminding us we can step away from the chaos (towards the center) and gain understanding. That’s a really great way to begin to wrap up this passage, as all the things above it require the ability to step away and see things as they really are.
Lao Tzu then finishes the passage with a summary of the tao and what we’ve learned so far – the supreme virtue we should personally embody in order to bring the tao to the project.