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Leaps and Boundary Objects

Brian Marick recently launched a new podcast, Oddly Influenced. I said this about it on Twitter:

Boundary Objects, the first episode of @marick's podcast, is thought-provoking and densely-packed with some lovely turns of phrase. I played it twice in a row.

Very roughly, boundary objects are things or concepts that help different interest groups to collaborate by being ambiguous enough to be meaningful and motivational to all parties.

Wikipedia elaborates, somewhat formally: 

[boundary objects are] both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites ... The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds.

The podcast talks about boundary objects in general and then applies the idea to software development specifically, casting acceptance tests as a boundary object between collaborating groups (product owner, developer, and tester) with a shared aim but distinct needs and focuses.

I hadn't come across boundary objects before but I have read about the related concepts of trading zones in Harry Collins' work and recall the leap in understanding that came with hearing James Evans saying this on the Rationally Speaking podcast: 

Really important work often ends up being important because it has many interpretations and fuels debates for generations to come ... It certainly appears that there is an integrating benefit of some level of ambiguity.

Note the possibility of asynchronicity where ideas can persist, be rediscovered, and be repurposed across times and contexts. This makes it a more general concept than boundary objects themselves which are relevant to the facilitation of direct interactions between active groups.

Early in my career I tended to want to squash ambiguity on projects but I learned to pick my fights (I think more in terms of establishing constraints now) and Evans' words, particularly that final sentence, put into words the way my actions had evolved.

I'm hoping boundary objects will be another leap forward. In future I wonder whether, rather than look to negotiate some kind of ad hoc shared understanding, I can begin to look for concepts to anchor sufficient ambiguity to.

PS. I see as I write this that a second episode is now available.
Image: https://unsplash.com/photos/0W734ZoL9oE

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