Primate dispersal as a metaphor for change

The Constant Reader is surely aware I have a childish resentment of the dominance, in software coaching, of theories that change-is-managing-a-crisis-imposed-from-the-outside. It’s not that I deny the existence of such situations; it’s that I hate the ubiquity of the theory. That’s especially so because humans are so reflexive: our theories about our behavior affect our behavior, reinforcing our theories. If the only model you have for change is crisis, then every change is seen as a crisis, and there is less room for inner-motivated change.

Over the years, I’ve convinced… oh, I’d say, about… no one of my point. So perhaps it’s time to bring out the big guns and fight metaphor with metaphor. The dominant metaphor of change is drawn from family therapy and analogizes the group in change to the family in crisis. My new metaphor of change analogizes change to the adolescent primate leaving its group.

Oops, I’ve just oversimplified:

It is no longer accurate to state that one or the other sex disperses at sexual maturity; dispersal in primates is much more complicated than that. — Katherine M. Jack, Lynn A. Isbell

Nevertheless, it’s the case that our closest animal relatives do follow patterns where the (mostly) young leave one group and, despite considerable risk, join another. The typical explanation is something deterministic like incest avoidance. The summary link above claims that explanation, too, is an oversimplification. The behavior of social primates is complex and, to my layman’s eyes, often defies simple linear “Because of X, the animal does Y” explanations.

Although it’s probably dangerous to anthropomorphize even close relatives like chimpanzees, I’ve read articles (none of which I can dig up) that tell stories of ape dispersals that invite us to attribute emotions other than fear to this huge life change. The young ape is curious about another group, finds them tantalizing. It sneaks around watching them, hesitantly getting closer and closer, scampering back to the safety of the home group if threatened, but gets increasingly brave over time. At some point, it makes a commitment and joins the group, despite a typically unfriendly early reception and often ending up as the lowest status animal.

Change here is desirable and motivated internally. Rather than a move forced out of desperation, it’s one important enough to “save up for”:

Instead, female emigration was predicted by dietary quality, suggesting that females wait to have sufficient energy reserves to buffer the high costs of dispersal. — A summary of a longer article.

I think that makes a good metaphor for the kind of change that we can seek, not avoid, in software development: change that is risky, yes, but change that we are impelled to try, because of our nature.


Are you saving up for the next change that’ll tantalize you, that you just have to try? What? You’re not expecting one? You haven’t been tantalized by the possibility of big change since you-can’t-remember-when? You are violating your primate heritage. Perhaps you should align with the Porifera.

2 Responses to “Primate dispersal as a metaphor for change”

  1. Jamie Dobson Says:

    I am not over Satir but am over the way ideas are recycled. I think you are being much too hard on yourself by calling your resistance ‘childish resentment’. The industry is rammed with people who don’t know what they are doing - I call them process parasites - and it does get tiring listening to charlatans, people with not an ounce of creativity in their bones.

    The other thing, I reckon, is those that can, don’t coach. Suggest you read opening of The Atheist Manifesto to remind yourself of this.


  2. rachelclairedavies Says:

    I like the idea of change being a positive thing part of growing and evolving.
    I agree with Jamie that there are a lot of people out in the industry who don’t know what they’re doing. I hear Satir’s work mischaracterised a lot because people learn about it from derived sources. Jerry Weinberg drew on Satir’s work in “Quality Software Management : Vol. 4 : Anticipating Change” and subsequently many people started to put “Satir Change Curves” in their slide decks to explain how change normally reduces performance before any improvement transpires.

    I strongly encourage you to watch this short video of Virginia Satir ( you can see that she talked about “Learning is Change” acquiring a new skill or losing an old habit (not just crisis).

    I think the model of change as managing-a-crisis is a niche for consultants because companies are only prepared to pay big bucks for consultants once they’re in trouble. So it’s very easy for consultants to see lots of situations where a change program is a response to a crisis. It’s important for consultants to articulate the crisis because “selling the problem” can motivate people to follow their advice.

    Coaching is about supporting people through a change, it is help from-the-outside but the aim is to help people unleash their intrinsic desire to make things better. Often people are weighed down by restricting process and I see my job as helping teams strip away those chains so they can work productively and enjoy their work. Clearly people can do this without outside help but sadly people often put up with terrible working conditions and in my experience an outside person helps give them courage to make the first few steps.

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