Agile Explorations
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Agile Explorations

Agile Adventurers: Sir Richard Burton


For an overview of the A Matter of Survival publication, see the Introduction.

Of his many accomplishments — soldier, linguist, ethnologist, philanderer, translator of the Kama Sutra and the Arabian Nights, and vocal critic of Victorian morals — Sir Richard Burton is best remembered as the British explorer who led an expedition into the wilds of Tanzania which found the source of the Nile.

It was his third expedition. The first two (one into the Arabian Peninsula and one into Somalia) failed to accomplish many of their goals. The trek into Tanzania became famous for discovering the source of the Nile, but that wasn’t an objective of the expedition and Burton wasn’t the one to discover it. His co-adventurer, John Hanning Speke, went looking for it while Burton was in bed too sick to move. Furthermore, it took a separate expedition (led by Speke) to actually prove that it was the source.

Explorations are a messy business. At times, you’re not sure what you’re looking for. If you know what, you may not know where. Even if you know where, you probably don’t know all the obstacles you’ll encounter along the way. And sometimes, the most valuable discoveries jump out at you while you’re headed someplace else.

To navigate this mess, explorers must be a special breed. They are fiercely self-directed (making them, at times, difficult to manage). In order to get their projects done, they often have to convince others to invest — money, lives, reputations. They must have confidence in their ultimate success, while at the same time being mindful of the risks. And above all, they must be resilient — they must pick themselves up from failure and try again…and again…and again.

Richard Francis Burton had these qualities in spades. He abandoned college because it was irrelevant to his interests. He devised his own methods for learning languages, and applied these methods to master multiple languages (Arabic, Hindustani, Maratha, Sanskrit, Persian, Sindhi, Telegu, Toda, Somali, etc.). While in the service of the East India Company, he developed impressive skills at gathering information about the local people and geography — traveling, at times, as a native. He then leveraged that experience to become a world-class explorer, going out again…and again…and again.

In the upcoming posts, we’ll look closer at the life and times of Sir Richard Burton, comparing him to modern entrepreneurs. It turns out that entrepreneurs pursue their opportunities in a manner very similar to explorers.

  • Part 1: Entrepreneurs as Explorers
    Introduces the classic model for entrepreneurship from Howard H. Stevenson (the “godfather” of entrepreneurship studies at Harvard), and makes the connection between explorers, entrepreneurship, and Agile methodologies.
  • Part 2: The Making of An Explorer
    Being an entrepreneur means exploring new frontiers. Success on those frontiers requires an all-consuming focus to acquire the information and skills that the frontier demands. Burton “went native”, absorbing the language and culture of his frontiers until he was able to go out disguised as a local.
  • Part 3: The Making of An Opportunity
    Entrepreneurial opportunities abound, but you must be well-positioned in order to see them and to take advantage of them. For Burton, positioning himself to take advantage of exploration opportunities required self-promotion to develop a larger-than-life explorer persona and networking with the venture capitalists of Empire expansion.
  • Part 4: The Pilgrimage to Mecca; Or, Delivering What You Can
    Entrepreneurs often fail. It’s in the nature of traveling to new realms. Daniel Kahneman’s cognitive biases help us to better understand some of Burton’s failures, and why explorer types are especially prone to these biases.
  • Part 5: Serial Explorers in the Age of Exploration
    During times of rapid expansion in opportunities (e.g. the Digital Age and the Age of Exploration) there are armies of serial entrepreneurs seeking and pursuing opportunities. Kahneman’s Optimism Bias helps us to understand what prompts these hardy souls to take these risks.

Before we start this exploration, however, it’s important to say a word about some uncomfortable truths regarding Burton and his times. Burton explored for the British Empire, and his expeditions played a role in that empire’s expansion. Life under colonial rule was frequently brutal for those who were subjugated, and Burton had views on race, gender, and slavery that were shocking even to his contemporaries. This makes Burton a problematic hero. The racially, culturally, and gender diverse readers of these posts will rightfully have trouble with these aspects.

I won’t shy away from these things and I won’t defend them. But I also need to ensure that we don’t get lost in them. We have other goals. We have things to learn.

Next Up:

Sir Richard Burton, Part 1: Entrepreneurs as Explorers

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Human endeavors — whether developing software, offering financial services, fighting fires, etc. — are an effort at finding high ground on a dancing landscape while encased in a fog. Agile Explorations explores the mindset and practices needed to navigate these landscapes.

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Michael Kelly

A veteran of numerous software development adventures, delving the intersection of complexity theory and cognitive science in order to be a better Agilist.