A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?



A Crumpled Piece of Paper

Here it is

An art teacher is teaching drawing to an evening class. She asks her class to take a piece of paper and crumple it into a ball. She then asks them to draw the crumpled piece of paper, to draw every line, every crease, every detail of the piece of paper. She explains that this is a way of exhausting the left-brain – the logical side of the brain which deals with reason and symbolic manipulation. When the left-side of the brain is exhausted, this gives the right-brain a chance – the illogical, emotional, lateral thinking side.

A psychology lecturer who is one of the students remarks that the whole left-brain, right-brain concept is rubbish – and is not backed up by recent research.

Another one of the students imagines the room filling with crumpled pieces of paper of varying sizes, and the lights going out.

Let's Talk


What is there to talk about? I don't understand, there's nothing to talk about. What does what we do have to do with crumpled pieces of paper, or left brain, or right brain? If we're going to talk about it in those terms, project management is all “left-brain”. It's logical, it's clear, it's precise. That's what I'm looking for, clarity. Precision. I don't see how this Agile stuff makes any difference to that.

If I have clear requirements and a clear plan, then I can track progress of those requirements against that plan.


The teacher is interested by the objections of the psychology lecturer. She has come to understand. over the years that she has taught drawing to beginners. not to argue with them over their objections. She has also come to expect a flurry of objections from her students when they begin certain exercises. Fizzing and spitting, as if she were dropping water into hot oil. Very often, because she specialises in teaching adults rather than younger students, these objectsions are couched in the form of objections from a professional point of view. “As a lawyer, I can't see why...”, “I'm an accountant and if we were to approach our accounts like you approach drawing...”.

She has also learned not to let herself engage with the students' ideas of how they should be taught. She realises that this is actually the biggest favour she can do them as a teacher. Very often they come asking for clarity. When they struggling (often by ignoring her suggestions of how they should approach drawing) they tell her that they want to her to them exactly how to go about drawing, that they don't understand the point of the exercises that she's asking them to do.


Oh my God Anne, you are driving me totally crazy. Really? A clear plan? Don't you get the point of this story at all? The whole point of this story is that complexity is everywhere it simply can't be avoided. Or rather, we shouldn't avoid it, but we do. Rather than actually looking at the crumpled piece of paper and getting to grips with drawing it's lines and shadows and imperfections, we revolt – our “left brains” - whether they do or don't show up on the scans – our left brains revolt. They don't allow us to wallow in the complexity and then, having admitted how complex the problem is, maybe, coming up with some slightly more sophisticated solutions for dealing with it.

That student whose imagining the room filling with crumpled pieces of paper in the dark – I bet she's had some experience of software development.

What Else?

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards

Some Poetry

The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.

“The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats.

Look out for

Complexity deniers, they're everywhere.