Negative Drift

I was recently exposed to an interesting concept called “negative drift”. This is a term used by Arctic Explorers to describe a phenomenon unique to polar expeditions to the North Pole. Journeys to the south pole do not experience negative drift, as there is a landmass under the ice pack on the south pole (Antarctica). But, at the north pole, the only thing under the ice pack is the Artic Ocean.

Arctic Expeditions (to the North Pole) are orders of magnitude harder than Polar expeditions to the South Pole . One primary reason is when headed north, the ice is actually moving south. A team may setup camp after a long, arduous day of trekking. They have gone 10 hard miles north, marked their location with GPS and gone to sleep. When they wake up the next morning they find that they have drifted further away from their goal. Sometimes, they drift further than they trekked the day before! Imagine the pain of working so hard for over 10 grueling miles, and waking up further away than you started the day before. This is Negative Drift — or the Polar Treadmill.

I believe this relates incredibly well to cultural journeys toward agile / lean principles in one important way:

There is no such thing as status quo.

In my experience, the work required to build an agile and lean culture is constant effort, and it never really stops. You are either advancing, improving, and changing…or you are stagnating, calcifying, or decaying.

This happens for numerous reasons, including the unholy drive of managers/leaders to standardize and control. If something looks a little messy, managers are under immense pressure to contain the mess. If higher level leaders were to see the process, they would infer chaos. And that is nearly the kiss of death for middle managers, especially in larger organizations. So, they convince themselves “the culture works”. Let’s stop here, setup camp and regain control. Let me show the world how professional our culture can look. And in the meantime, let’s get some rest. Only to wake up one day, look around, and realize how far they have drifted in the wrong direction.

I will describe ideas/options to neutralize and improve this situation in a future post. For now, awareness is your friend, and knowing that you are either advancing or receding.

This is no time to rest.

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