Sailing – Complex or Complicated?

I was lucky enough to meet Dr Alistair Cockburn at the first Agile Development Conference in 2003. He “rebooted” my brain in a bar. The next morning I asked him what book I should read. Without hesitating he recommended “Situated Learning” by Lave and Wenger. I read it a year or so later. A heavy book but brilliant. It introduces the concept of legitimate peripheral participation which is similar to an apprenticeship.

I’m currently on holiday with my boys and they are learning to sail. They wanted me to teach them. The first day we listened to the refresher course being given to those who had lessons on previous years. The training was on the beach in a mock up dinghy without a sale. They were learning how to tack (turning by going into the wind) with one of the students simulating the wind by moving the boom. The key skill seemed to be getting the right hand grip so that the sailor could easily pass the main sheet from one hand to the other when they tacked. On previous holidays I have always seen a blackboard with arrow representing the wind to explain the different points of sail. The instructor was great and helped me pick out a boat that I could easily control with both of the boys in it. Safety is obviously the first priority, and we took it out for a spin.

The first skill they had to learn was balancing the boat. Where to move when the wind changed. The next obvious thing to learn was how to spot a gust of wind (a dark patch on the water) or a lull (smoother water), so that they could get ready to move. I taught them to steer using the main sheet* and the centre board. They had a go at steering with the main and they are constantly adjusting the centre board at my command. When the wind blew up I was able to instantly take over the main as I had a hand on it at all times. It struck me that learning to sail this way is a classic example of legitimate peripheral participation. Their balancing of the boat by leaning out, and the raising and lowering / raising of the centre board are real work. They are also learning craft like spotting gusts and lulls. They are also close to the other tasks like steering, and they are learning what is involved in tacking and gybing. This is Legitimate peripheral participation and I realised it is a fantastic approach when context dominates the practice. The three days we have been out, the wind conditions have been different and changing, and we have used two different classes of boat.

By contrast the shore based learning stripped away context entirely. White boards showing wind models and forces. Grounded craft with people simulating wind. Complicated learning strips away context. It shows you skills that are needed with certainty. One thing is certain, the hand grip I use is nothing like theirs and it doesn’t seem to matter.

I think this explains why Real Options and Feature Injection are not as popular as other techniques. Both are complex tools for resolving uncertainty, and the problem with uncertainty is that it is uncertain. They do not lend themselves to classroom training where the context is stripped away. In fact, the problem is that they are tools for managing context. If you want to learn how to do real options, the best approach is probably legitimate peripheral participation.

It also shows the dangers of trying to learn using the wrong approach. Whilst classroom training will appeal because it ensures coverage, it may cover the wrong skills. You run the risk of learning the wrong things. As a result, you will have a false sense of competency. You will know how to hold the sheet in your hand but you wont be able to spot a strong gust of wind. Ask yourself this. How many times have you been on a training course and applied almost none of what you learnt on the course? You were probably attending a course to learn the complicated things and not the complex ones. Complex skills are best learnt on the job from practitioners rather than in a classroom from thought leaders.

So is there a role for classroom training for complex subjects? The answer is a resounding yes. Classroom training is good for helping you achieve a state of conscious incompetence in a complex subject. You know a skill or tool is available and you understand its value. The transition from conscious incompetence to conscious competence is probably best learnt using legitimate peripheral participation.

*The main sheet is the rope that pulls the sail in.

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About theitriskmanager

A IT programme manager specialising in delivering trading and risk management systems in Investment Banks. I achieve this by focusing on risk rather than cost. A focus on costs can lead to increased costs. View all posts by theitriskmanager

3 responses to “Sailing – Complex or Complicated?

  • Jennifer S. Jepsen

    Agreed. And in a “classroom training” in Agile ways of working (or any other for that matter), it makes more sense, at least to me, to present a buffet of ideas to choose from — according to what provides the most value to the participant. Formal training followed by on-the-job training (going out for that sail) works incredibly well!

    And, because I love sailing, here’s my Agile sailing story: When Ole and I go for a long sail, we usually have a destination in mind. However, once out AND when I’m steering, I love to go where the wind is, even though it may be “off course.” Ole says I’m constantly following the value…

    • theitriskmanager

      Hi Jenni

      Great to hear from you. I hope the keynote went well at ALE.

      I agree. Its all about the value. I find that cruising and racing are very different disciplines. When cruising, you can go for that optimal in the moment experience. When racing, its all about execution to achieve the goal and the delight when you get something right.

  • Joshua J. Arnold (@joshuajames)

    Great story. I think there are some activities, like sailing or riding a bike, for which tacit knowledge dominates. It’s also the case that with saling the setting makes it possible to learn through very fast Kolb cycles, while still limiting the potential downside risk.

    To add to your sailing story, compare this with learning to skydive, where communication and proximity to an expert is difficult. In that case you want reduced the risks by learning skills and knowledge that may be critical to survival either in a class room or a mocked up setting. As you say, it’s about learning that a skill or tool is available and achieving a state of “conscious incompetence”. The key is to go and put it into practice as soon as possible.

    I definitely agree that the idea you can achieve competence in a complex domain from a couple of days in a classroom is highly questionable. Classroom training is often “necessary, but not sufficient”.

    Thanks for sharing!

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