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Agile Disruptive GTD

Meet The Life Hackers

Wired Magazine's Gary Wolf has an extensive profile of Getting Things Done author David Allen in the October 2007 issue.

Allen's GTD system is a heuristic for time and workflow management popular in Fortune 500 companies and Silicon Valley firms.  GTD gained visibility after The Atlantic Monthly's James Fallow profiled Allen in its July/August 2004 issue.  New York Times columnist Clive Thompson also mentioned Allen and GTD in an influential article on the "life hacking" movement, which includes sites such as Lifehacker and Merlin Mann's 43 Folders.  Allen has parlayed this exposure into the coaching firm David Allen & Co. and its subscription online community GTD ConnectLockheed, Microsoft Research and O'Reilly Media have all applied or debated Allen's GTD in their research environments.
Discovering GTD: A Research Journey

I had discovered Allen and GTD in 2006 whilst working on a Smart Internet CRC research project which evaluated Harvard professor Clayton Christensen's work on disruptive innovation.  I soon discovered that IT analysts had misinterpreted Christensen's research data in his book The Innovator's Dilemma (Harvard Business School Press, Boston MA, 1997) as supporting a technological determinist view of disruptive technology.  The IT analysts had missed a post-publication debate between Christensen and Andrew S. Grove, then Intel's chief executive officer, in which Grove successfully challenged Christensen on the conceptual limits of technology-driven change to explain his hypothesis (see a 2003 speech and Q&A by Grove at Stanford's Graduate School of Business).  Analysts also overlooked Christensen's later work that moved away from industry and macroeconomic-based modelling to consider the misalignment of communication, innovation and project management systems in firms, and the vital role of intrapraneurs as sources of internal change.

Christensen's trajectory raised an important question: How do you translate the strategic dimensions of disruptive innovation into a firm's tactical and operational systems?  

The Agile movement in software engineering provided one answer as espoused in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development.  Like Allen, many of its exemplars would create methodologies from reflecting on their own  practices and project experiences, such as Kent Beck's Extreme Programming or Alistair Cockburn's Crystal method.  Several authors notably Sanjiv Augustine, Michael L. George and Rob Thomsett would also make explicit links between agile practices, disruptive innovation, lean initiatives for cost innovation, and six sigma approaches to operations.  Thus, IT management seemed to be moving to a confluence of robust good practices for business environments which answered Christensen's trajectory.

The Futuristics group of alumni bloggers from Swinburne University's Strategic Foresight program provided independent validation outside the Smart Internet CRC and filled in some gaps.  Josh Floyd provided insight on how individuals could develop resilience to deal with disruptive uncertainties through his work on enactive cognitionJose M. Ramos pointed me to the original sources of many Agile practices such as action learning and appreciative inquiry, and his valuable work on anticipatory innovation.  Stephen McGrail and Chris Stewart each gave reflections on their project management experiences.

Which is where David Allen's Getting Things Done comes in.

GTD: The Natural Planning Model

Essentially, Allen's GTD methodology which he calls the Natural Planning Model distills 25 years of reflections, practices, strategies and simple rules to deal with one problem: the "interrupt culture" that fragments our attention and creates a data glut.  

Other researchers including management guru Peter Drucker in his classic The Effective Executive (Harper & Row, New York, 1967), Bill McKibben in Age of Missing Information (Random House, New York, 2006), Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Rider & Co., New York, 2002), and John Beck & Thomas Davenport's The Attention Economy (Harvard Business School Press, Boston MA, 2001) have reached similar conclusions.

The GTD discussion below is my personal interpretation and is meant to illustrate what one individual repertoire --- David Allen's in this case --- might be.  I do not regard Allen's GTD or any of the models and practitioners discussed here as cure-all silver bullets.

GTD's definitions and practices include:

Open Loops are "internal commitments" made that are broken or unfinished: "anything pulling at your attention, that doesn't belong the way it is, where it is." (Allen, GTD, p. 12).

Next Actions are "the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion." (Allen, GTD, p. 34).

• A Collections cycle to gather Open Loops materials to be processed.

• Heuristics for the Collections cycle such as the Mind-Sweep for assessing information and the Two-Minute Rule for dealing with immediate items that free up attention.

• A Processing cycle to evaluate, prioritise and action material to reduce cognitive load.

• Heuristics for the Processing cycle  such as a Triggers List for brainstorming (Allen also uses Mindjet's MindManager software); Next Action Lists that are organised by project, context and actionable/non-actionable data (e.g. lists for "agenda", "next actions", "waiting for", "someday maybe"), and then evaluated using a "front-end thought process".

• A Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Actions in the Moment based on evaluative judgment of context, time available, energy available and priority (Allen, GTD, p. 49).

• Allen's good practices on calendar management, email workflow, filing systems, organising your office, procrastination, emotional self-management and decision-making.

The heuristics are practices that support the Processing cycle and remove the common obstacles that Allen and his coaching team have encountered.

• A Reflective cycle implemented as the Weekly Review practice (Allen, GTD, pp. 45-46).

• A Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work: a framework to situate actions and decisions within.  Allen offers six levels: 50,000+ feet (Life); 40,000+ feet (3-to-5 year vision); 30,000 feet (1-to-2 year goals); 20,000 feet (areas of responsibility); 10,000 feet (current projects); and Runway (current actions) (Allen, GTD, pp. 51-53).

The above summary represents what I perceive as the "core" of Allen's GTD or Natural Planning Model.

Agile Disruptive GTD

Synthesised, the research work described above suggests a tentative answer on how to translate Christensen's strategic view into tactical and operational contexts.  Individuals, small teams and organisations face the need for accelerated decision-making in disruptive, hazardous and uncertain conditions.  A repertoire of individual and small team practices might provide the foundation to build organisational resilience.  Agile Disruptive GTD might be the marketing label for this research synthesis.

But there's a deeper level.

For individuals, the embodied practices can be found in the contemplative traditions, energetic movements and martial arts.  It won't generally be found in Western corporate strategy or military thinking that misperceives disruption as coercive power or a challenger-incumbent polarisation that can be resolved by brutal force.  David Allen, Kent Beck, Alistair Cockburn and other practitioners have instead looked to the Hindu and Taoist epistemologies, or ways of knowing, in aikido, ba gua, karate, tai chi, kundalini yoga and qigong for subtler understandings.  Experiential work, practice-based research and meta-reflection offer several ways forward.

Those who do should thus discard the Agile Disruptive GTD label for the pseudo-trendy acronym that it is.  Attaching yourself to Agile Disruptive GTD, Tim O'Reilly's Web 2.0 or whatever other model that is currently the Digerati's favourite misses the point.  As Bruce Lee observed when defending his Jeet Kun Do martial art against traditionalists, those who do might become trapped by "dead forms": patterns of attachment, rigidity and repetition that are often based on an individual's adherence to cultural assumptions and others' models.

Instead, Lee counselled the Taoist injunctive of a "form that has no form" as the ultimate strategy to overcome disruptive conditions: mastery through self-transcendence and disciplined execution that discards "dead forms" to always remain aware, open and free to change.


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