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"Cope" Coplien

Jim ("Cope") Coplien is an old C++ shark who now integrates the technological and human sides of the software business as an author, coach, trainer, and executive consultant. He is one of the founders of the software pattern discipline, and his organizational patterns work is one of the foundations of both Scrum and XP. He currently works for Gertrud & Cope, is based in Denmark, and is a partner in the Scrum Foundation. He has authored or co-authored many books, including the Wiley title, Lean Architecture for Agile Software Development. When he grows up, he wants to be an anthropologist.

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The Myth of Individual Invention

The Swarming essay drew the interest and comments of many readers. Most of the retorts evoked deeply held fears of one’s individualism being threatened. Society has taught us that survival owes to our salary at our job, and that our job owes to our individual performance. Society has reinforced those notions with accolades of individual accomplishment: patents, promotions, and promises of favor. Culture needs and has always needed such rituals, and we shouldn’t minimize their contribution. It is, however, important to know that they work differently in different cultures, and that there is a much, much bigger picture.

If one looks beyond the cultural trappings of recognition, it has long been known that it is society, and not individuals, who invent. The anthropologist Kroeber, in his book Anthropology (1923, Harcourt, Brace and World), tells us that “as long as the matter [of the nature of genius] is viewed simply as one of persons, it remains rather meaningless.” Many people invent, but “[o]nly a fraction are ever found out, or allowed the rank by history.” He lists inventions discovered by multiple inventors thousands of miles apart within months of each other: the telephone, telescope, steamboat, phonograph, natural selection, and dozens more. How can an individual in good conscience claim ownership of a novel idea?

You can argue that even if this is true, that society demands recognition of accomplishment on the Pavlovian basis that people do what they are rewarded for. Rewards are important as cultural artefacts; but we know from Edward Deci’s Why We Do What We Do, from Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Truth about What Motivates Us, and dozens of other sources, it’s all about the intrinsic sense of accomplishment than any extrinsic motivator.

Social and technological progress are less about individuals than about groups and swarms. In his recent book Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation (Riverhead, 2011), Steven Johnson tells us that “Analyzing innovation on the scale of individuals and organizations—as the standard textbooks do—distorts our view. It creates a picture of innovation that overstates the role of proprietary research and ‘survival of the fittest’ competition.” Johnson’s conclusion is that “openness and connectivity may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms.” He offers case study after case study of how cross-fertilization of people and ideas led to good ideas.

In his book Finite and Infinite Games (Free Press, 1976) the theologian Carse describes the finite games that distinguish winners from losers: academic grades, promotion and, arguably, invention. He contrasts finite games with infinite games, whose goal is to continue playing the game. Intellectual process is obviously an infinite game. Over-attention to individual genius, and its rewards, reduces it to a finite game. Carse relates that playing an infinite game as though it were a finite game is the very definition of evil.

These are just five citations. They’re probably foreign to much of an engineering readership—a readership bent more on credit for inventing than acknowledging its place on the shoulders of the giants of history.

Of course, individuals matter, at least in so much as collective populations comprise individuals. At some level wars are fought and won by individuals. Yet one of the most highly celebrated soldiers in any war is the Unknown Soldier, whose tomb stands for the individual anonymity of the collective. From the long view of history, the inscriptions on the military cemetery crosses fade and blur into the big picture. The one universally remembered by name is the one with no name.

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Not of course individuals matter but they are the unit of thought, ideas and implimentations. While some types of "Invention" are the product of team effort, even within a team, the central ideas come from the thoughts and ideas of the individuals within that team. It is true that things can often be more than the sum of the parts, but it is also true that there is no sum without the parts.

To answer your comment about "how can the same invention happen in different places at the same time" well there is a natural progression of idea's from the ideas that have gone before. They call that a technology where the technology grows and extends, but it is individuals that do that extension. Not all individuals have the capability to make those extensions. There are people that have the skills and are focused on the problems that are usually the ones that make the breakthroughs.

Now it is true that the Agile methodologies relies on team effort to implement projects, and for Agile to be effective it may be that the team needs to be recognized over the individual, as it is with the Military and Sporting teams. (sometimes) as team structured entities. But I think the sales pitch to diminish that recognition of the contributions of individuals may be self serving and short sighted and those stellar individual thinkers may not have incentive to make those innovative leaps of idea if they are not reconized for their individual contributions.

Posted on 3/19/12 7:33 AM.

It seems to me that Jim Coplien's article doesn't rule out the role of the individual. Both of you are making good points. Here in Italy we are trying to encourage people both to work as teams and to support those that may have ideas that ought to be recognized and even further developed. It's something of an uphill battle in some areas but still many do fall into the spirit of the idea.

Posted on 3/19/12 10:48 AM in reply to John Putnam.

John Putnam, Thanks for your comments. But it seems almost as though you didn't read the article, which accords the very place to the individual that you suggest is appropriate. And while I appreciate your opinion, I really miss any concrete substantiation. It would be interesting if you could substantiate a single case where an individual with the sole ability to make an intellectual extension was in fact the one to achieve it. Documented counterexamples abound: the citations in the article, the double helix, Edison's 99% perspiration, and thousands more. In my experience, technology progresses by individual standing on the shoulders of giants rather than by divine revelation. And some of it is just stupid, short-sighted luck, like the myth of the discovery of penicillin (see another view at or of Becquerel's discovery of radiation from atomic decay.

If you were the blob of DNA that distilled the knowledge of the ages into a new combination of ideas worthy of passing the gauntlet of the patent system, well: good for you. Perhaps you deserve credit for being the first to race to the patent office—first-to-file as I believe the practice stands in your country—unknowing of whether others might have invented it first, and uncaring of whether others can join minds with you to make the idea even better. Maybe we should thank you, but probably no more than for the courtesy of giving a warm smile to someone else on the street.

As for this posture being self-serving, I also have the experience of being awarded several U.S. patents, one of which is the most densely cited software patent in history; of being the co-inventor of one of the most progressive ideas in object-oriented programming today; and am a frequently invited lecturer and frequently consulted expert. I have come to a point in my career where I graciously acknowledge those whose work I build on as the foundation of these steps forward, that others may also stand on them to themselves rise to the same niveau. For most of humanity, it is much more important that one believe something was his or her own idea than that one defer to the so-called "inventor," which much of history indicates does not follow the process you suggest—it would not produce such a constellation of coincidences. That is much of my job as a consultant and teacher: to not "steal the Aha!" And I'm not selling anything as you infer might be so.

By the way, what are you selling—in full disclosure?

Let's face it—most people making these arguments don't do so out of concern of giving worth and recognition to the inventor, as your words would have it above, but for a bank-like concern for profit. They sit on patents lying in portfolios until a trade can be worked out among a limited cabale of partners who agree to hoard and protect those ideas as a collective secret. That may be O.K., too, but it's a different issue and a different set of arguments on a much more vulgar level, related to economics rather than to career.

Most of humanity revels in the application of or concordance with one's innovative ideas, as much of the research I have cited above bountifully demonstrates. However, there is some segment of humanity that badly needs that recognition, and I want formally to recognize you for ably representing that constituency in articulating your accordant need.

I am, however, puzzled, that you failed to acknowledge the discoveries of the professionals in the field in anthropology, whose brilliance led them to the theories that describe what we empirically observe in simultaneous invention.

Posted on 3/20/12 1:46 AM in reply to John Putnam.

I wonder why you replied with such anger. The fact is that whoever invents something new they must have relied on whatever societal knowledge they absorbed before and then reprocessed it. Yet, the sheer fascination and focus needed for an invention does depend on an individual, especially when it takes away time and energy from other lucrative ventures. The character that is willing to do so needs a recognition or else his/her invention would be useless, and if it becomes useful to the society after recognition, why not reward the inventor?

I do not see where is the problem, therefore do not understand your anger.

Posted on 3/20/12 3:41 AM in reply to James Coplien.

I find it most curious that you read the tone as angry. I composed it in what I felt was an objective and dispassionate stance, applying rhetoric suitable to the forum and context. While I'll submit that online interactive communication channels are prone to misunderstanding, I'll also note that the Twitter responses to this post called it "eloquent."

That you find its tone angry may say more about you than either about I or the topic.

Don't confuse conviction, or even passion, with anger.

Posted on 3/20/12 10:39 AM in reply to Neven Dragojlovic.

James' comments sounded vehement, angry or otherwise. However, both he and John make good points. Most individuals need reward as motivation, whether that reward be simple acknowledgement or some monetary compensation, but to pretend that discovery occurs in a vacuum is sheer folly.

Don't know where I heard this, but I believe it was Einstein who once said, and I paraphrase here, "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."

Posted on 3/22/12 9:28 AM.

I think it really does depend on the character of the invention. Some things are "in the air" and so there is a phenomenon of more or less simultaneous discovery. Others are not like that and really, truly are genuinely individual discoveries. That is not to say that they could not have been discovered by somebody else - they just weren't. So, I think it is a stretch to say invention is definitely social (i.e. shared) and not individual. To put it differently, invention of all kinds is somewhat strained and difficult as a process. We have to remember that genuine innovations are often disruptive of the established order and so can meet with a hostile social reception. This fact alone would suggest that the "social" dimension of invention is really the "context" in which it happens. Sometimes society at large is conducive to adoption of good ideas quickly (presumably the wheel was one such idea that would have been discovered and re-discovered countless times). However, there are other cases (medical science seems to have many) where a single individual drove a discovery about the cause and/or cure of a malady or disease and was simply ignored for decades. The best recent example of that was the Heliobacter bacterium which causes stomach ulcers. The discoverers did eventually win the Nobel prize and change medical practise but they were ignored and ridiculed for years. Only when one of the researchers publicly administered a dose of Heliobacter culture to give himself a very severe stomach ulcer and then cured himself with antibiotics did the "society" of medical researchers accept that they had been deeply truly wrong about this condition for decades.

So, I for one am sceptical of claims that "society" discovers and not the individual. I think the social context matters, but contend that society itself is very often openly hostile to true invention.

Posted on 4/1/12 10:53 PM.

The more general phenomenon of society inventing is, to me, a substantiated fact of history; you can see that in the citations I give. But your question raises an ambiguity about the scope. Fascinating!

Is it society that is hostile to new invention, or is it just colleagues within the same paradigm who react negatively? I can see the latter; this is why true paradigm shifts take 13 - 20 years. Do you have any good examples of the former? My impression is that current "society" more embraces novelty, sensationalism, and fashion for its own sake than to follow the value lead of true invention.

Posted on 4/1/12 11:47 PM in reply to Kingsley R Jones.



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