(Note: This will be the first in a multi-part post).

I took the 25th Anniversary Edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), by Robert M. Pirsig, on a recent vacation – courtesy of my Kindle.  I think this was my 4th or 5th reading over the last 36 years or so!  When it was first published in 1974, I picked the book up several times with a view to buying it, usually in airport bookshops (I did a lot more travel back then!) But after flipping through a few pages, I’d put it back on the shelf.  Although I’d heard the positive buzz about the book, it just did not do it for me.  I think I eventually broke down (poor choice of words intentional – Pirsig had a mental breakdown, and poorly maintained motorcycles are prone to physical breakdown!) and bought the book in 1976.

ZAMM was among the few books I’ve ever read that changed my worldview and actually shaped my behaviors.  On the most recent reading, I had the added bonus of Pirsig’s clarifications on the original edition.  With the Kindle edition, I also had the ability to easily bookmark and make my own notes (and to see what other Kindle readers had highlighted).  This series of posts is a result of the latest reading, with the benefits of my bookmarks and highlights.

A Search for the Meaning of Quality

For those that have not read the book, Wikipedia describes ZAMM as follows:

The book describes, in first person, a 17-day journey on his motorcycle from Minnesota to California by the author (though he is not identified in the book) and his son Chris, joined for the first nine days by close friends John and Sylvia Sutherland. The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions, referred to as Chautauquas by the author, on topics including epistemology, ethical emotivism and the philosophy of science.

Many of these discussions are tied together by the story of the narrator’s own past self, who is referred to in the third person as Phaedrus (after Plato’s dialogue). Phaedrus, a teacher of creative and technical writing at a small college, became engrossed in the question of what defines good writing, and what in general defines good, or “quality”. His philosophical investigations eventually drove him insane, and he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy which permanently changed his personality.

Towards the end of the book, Phaedrus’s personality begins to re-emerge and the narrator is reconciled with his past.”

Largely autobiographical, ZAMM is by no means great writing and certainly not a great story (though quite readable!)  If you’re looking for an exciting tale of a 17-day motorcycle odyssey, you will be disappointed – the trip is simply a back story to the author’s reflections on quality and philosophy.  Nor is ZAMM only for motorcycle buffs.  But if you’re interested in philosophy, or have struggled with the notion of quality, ZAMM provides a truly profound and illuminating read!

Classic vs. Romantic – Implications for IT Professionals

In ZAMM, among many other philosophical issues, Pirsig addresses the concepts of “classic” and “romantic” worldviews.  As a University Professor, it was his struggle to reconcile these competing perspectives that literally drove him insane.

Pirsig describes a classic approach as rational, analytical and ordered – one which attempts to be objective rather than subjective. He describes the romantic approach as focused on feelings, emotions, and sensations –  a view that is subjective and personal rather than objective.

From my experience from 40 years in IT, people who gravitate towards the IT profession tend towards a “classic” attitude to the world around them.  Meanwhile, extracting value from the use of IT demands an approach that balances the classic and romantic – what John Naisbitt, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Megatrends referred to as “high tech/high touch.”

Given that so few of us are equally adept with both classic and romantic approaches, we have to ensure that both disciplines are brought to the table.  This can be achieved either through exceptional talent that naturally brings this balance (rare indeed!) or more typically through cross-functional (or more importantly, cross-discipline) teams.  This is, I believe, why roles such as business relationship manager are so crucial to the business-IT interface.  This role, in its own way, emphasizes the romantic view, and represents an important counterbalance to the classic disciplines needed to run and maintain computer systems.  I think this romantic bias common to business relationship managers also sheds light on why people in this role often feel like outsiders in their own IT organizations.

ZAMM and ‘Design Thinking’

I’d also observe that this classic-romantic balanced approach is embodied in the “design thinking” movement, popularized by Tim Brown and Ideo and exemplified by companies as diverse as Apple, Proctor & Gamble, Herman Miller and GE.

I will pick up the connections between ZAMM and Design Thinking in a subsequent post.

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