Sturgeon’s Biases

How communities of practice lie to themselves & everybody else

There are a couple of biases I see around how folk inside and outside communities of practice perceive each other. Something I’ve seen often enough that there is probably a name for it.

But I don’t know what that name is.

Some smart social psychologist, anthropologist or sociologist probably wrote about this seventy years ago. So I’m just going to ramble about it here for a bit, and hope that somebody smarter than I am can point me to that paper. So I know what to call it.

Let’s start with the people inside a community of practice. They can be managers, user researchers, developers, product managers, lawyers — it doesn’t matter.

Now in any community of practice some people are going to be awesome practitioners and some folk are going to be terrible — along with everything in-between. For the sake of simplicity let’s use Sturgeon’s Revelation usually stated as “ninety percent of everything is crap”.

If I look around at other people in my role in a company there are going to be some folk who are better and some folk who are worse.

The problem is that this picture is a lie.

Because the distribution of people in a community of practice isn’t random. Good people in a field tend to seek out other good people. They tend to hire other good people. They tend to talk more to other good people.

They cluster.

They also tend to either raise up the folk near them through influence and education, or push them away if they can’t / don’t want to.

Which means that the best practitioners in a community of practice get a really, really inaccurate view of the general level of ability. They see this:

Whereas most people see this:

The best people in a community experience it as 90% awesome, when the reality is 10% awesome.

But it’s worse than that. Way worse.

All the voices in a community of practice are not equally prominent. Who speaks at the conferences? Who writes the articles? Who works on the most exciting and influential projects? We hear the voices of the high performers much more frequently. They have much, much more visibility than everybody else.

The external presentation of a community is 90% awesome, when the reality is 10% awesome.

So — clever readers — now’s the time for y’all to point me towards that paper from the 1950s where this kind of thing has been given a nice snappy title.

For now, I’m going to call them Sturgeon’s Biases.

  1. The best people in a community experience it as 90% awesome, when the reality is 10% awesome.
  2. The external presentation of a community is 90% awesome, when the reality is 10% awesome.

The above is, of course, a massive simplification.

  • People don’t neatly fall into two categories of awesome or inept — skills can’t be divided into two buckets.
  • The percentage of good practice is higher than 10% in most communities of practice.
  • The ability for members of a community of practice to progress and learn is not fixed — and is often, usually even, constrained by factors outside their control.
  • When communities of practice get popular they attract new people who are trying to get in on a good thing, which often lowers the average level of expertise.
  • People inside a community of practice draw the lines of membership in different ways from people outside the community of practice.
  • etc.

Despite all of that I see these kinds of biases again and again when different communities of practice interact.

  • Somebody dismissing Agile as never working is seen as an idiot by people who see it working all the time.
  • The new user researcher being ignored by the product manager, because every other user researcher they have worked with has given them useless unactionable reports.
  • A company expecting product managers to just turn client requests into user stories, because that’s all they’ve experienced from other people with that job title.
  • All the press and PR about Design Thinking is seen as snake-oil, because people have personally experienced nothing but post-it note theatre under that title.

The list goes on and on. It’s really easy for a good UX person to only experience bad development teams. Or a good developer to have only worked with bad product people. Or a great product manager to have only worked with a bad development team. Or a great developer only to have worked on bad “agile” organisations.

Each of these people builds generalisations based on their experiences. Creating coping mechanisms for those generalisations that start being counterproductive when they do work with good folk.

For example, I went years before I was fortunate enough to work with a decent tester. Somebody who intelligently tried to break things and improve the process, rather than acting as a checklist following robot. It took a surprising amount of effort for me to figure out that he was a “normal” tester by professional tester standards, and that the folk I had worked with previously were not.

So the next time you sigh at somebody dismissing your field, or at somebody enthusing about an area of practice that you’ve never seen work, think about Sturgeon’s Biases — and maybe ask some questions instead.


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