Mechanics and Alchemists

Today is the first day of Lean Agile KC 2019, and the opening keynote was from Esther Derby. Her talk was about change, and how it works in an organization as opposed to how it is often treated like a machine.

Her talk conjured a metaphor for me that I want to explore further here. The metaphor is between a machinist and an alchemist.

The machinist looks at the gears, valves, shafts, operation, and engine as an interlocking set of pieces. They can come in, and remove, replace, and re-tool bits of it to preserve its original operation, or with a bit of extra work and design create something new. One gear turns, and another gear turns in response. The machinist knows this, and the torque ratios, and through well-developed math and planning create a machine that performs its function for years to come.

The alchemist, on the other hand, believes in certain principles of the natural world, but those principles allow for vast experimentation of what is possible. They thought they could transmute a lead into gold. They used a disciplined approach to do what many would consider magic.

In change, we often default to being machinists. We see the gear turning, exerting a mathematically predictable force on another component. We believe we can swap or change that gear and get a new result. There is no calculus for this action, even if we believe in the act. The problem is that we aren’t working on machines, or at least, we rarely are.

Instead, we are alchemists, who prefer a discipline and operate within principles to create something that never existed from materials that do. Not that we calculate and assemble, but transmute one into another. When it comes to change, this is more akin to what is possible and how we may need to see things. We need to see the materials around us and their use. We need to see a different future, and begin to nudge, move, jiggle, transmute, soften, and harden those materials to allow something new to exist.

Acting as an alchemist can feel odd, we crave the certainty and predictability that the machinist has. Yet, we know quite well that a machinist is bound quite tightly to the physics and specification of operation. The adoption of an alchemist approach requires working with principals, disciplines, and a certain willingness to experiment boldly.

I once worked with a Quality Assurance department, and after my duties as a mechanic were complete, I turned to my alchemical self. I saw the components around me and proposed an experiment. My components were an email, a sharpie, and a piece of paper. I was going to create a new possibility. We executed our experiment, and even though we were all skeptical that it could ever work, our experiment had the desirable results.

Before, the department was operating with more than one person’s available hours consumed with interruptions. An email, sharpie, and piece of paper returned that time, allowed the department to catch up on work, and turn to think about their future. That small bit of magic, though disciplined and principled in approach, led to what seemed impossible on the onset. We turned lead into gold.

So, while this post is abstract, consider what it would mean to be an alchemist, working with discipline, principles, and components elements to transmute lead into gold. Momentarily eschew the mind of a mechanic who replaces, maintains, and operates to specification. Believe that radical change is possible.