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To see self-similarity, we need mindfulness and curiosity. Once we can see it, we can use it to craft new agile practices.

In order for us to notice examples of self similarity, we need to observe, get out of our own heads, and be curious about what is going on around us. When we observe with curiosity we notice things that have probably been there all along, but we have missed because we were too busy thinking

Welcome to the Mindful Agility podcast. I’m your host, Dan Greening. And I’m joined today by Mirela Petalli.

Today we’re discussing self similarity

The Basics

Before we start today’s topic, we should mention what this podcast is about and why you should listen to it.

Our lives are full of projects. Whether we’re cleaning out the garage, starting a company or eliminating hunger, if we had done this project before, we would know what to do. It would require no insight and no innovation. But our projects are new, at least to us, so we need insight and innovation to get them done rapidly and well. But how do we get insight? How do we innovate?

For insight, we turn to mindfulness. Mindfulness got it start about 2,500 years ago in the form of the Buddhist religion. Today, especially in the West, many people embrace the secular elements of Buddhism, such as meditation, interdependence and compassion. This is sometimes called Secular Buddhism or just mindfulness. Hundreds of successful folks practice it, including Bill Gates, Ray Daleo and Oprah Winfrey.

Mirela Petalli is a trained mindfulness instructor and a neuro critical care nursing instructor. Mirela and I’ve studied mindfulness together for a few years.

For innovation, we turn to agility. Agility is a set of practices that improve success in projects. Agile practitioners sometimes limit their attention to software teams, because that’s where agility was first formalized. But agility should be practiced whenever you need to innovate. Agile techniques have iterative experimentation at their core. By that definition, there are published agile techniques for personal time management, for manufacturing, for teaching and many other fields. They might not use the term “agile,” but they are very similar, it turns out. We’ll be talking about those techniques in later episodes.

I am an enterprise agile coach. I led agile coaching at Skype and Citrix to help them improve their ability to innovate. I’ve completed a bunch of projects, big and small. I started a few companies myself. Between startup one and two, I got a computer science PhD. And after startup three, I cleaned the garage.

This podcast helps you tackle projects. If you want to get useful stuff done faster, this podcast is for you.

Each episode is a little experiment. We hypothesize that by discussing a topic we can help you gain a little more insight and a little more value a little faster.

Your feedback will tell us if we’re on the right track. You can like or share this episode, or subscribe to the podcast. You can send us comments or questions to [email protected], and that feedback will help guide future episodes. We aren’t sure where we’ll end up, but the journey should be fun, and we hope you’ll stick with us.


Let’s get to today’s topic, self similarity.

Self-similar patterns look roughly the same, whether we zoom in or out. For example, looking at our feet, small water rivulets joining on mud have a meandering pattern. From atop a hill, we can see a similar pattern in little creeks joining on soil. From a drone, we can see streams joining on land. And from the International Space Station, even the highly- managed Mississippi River is unmistakably similar to those tiny rivulets at our feet.

Once you get the self similarity concept and start looking, you’ll see it everywhere. On one species of tree, you see the same pattern in the trunk, branches, twigs, and leaves. On a different species of tree you see a different pattern.

Mirela, you had some ideas here.

I was thinking about the body as an example of self similarity. The human body is made up of organ systems. Organ systems are made up of organs and then they themselves are made up of tissues and tissues are made up of cells. Each one of those cells is born, exchanges nutrients and waste with the environment surrounding it, and then it dies.

If we think about a single cell organism, like an amoeba, for example, it is performing all of these functions and surviving, although it is made of only one cell.

Humans are complex organisms. They are made up of about 30 trillion cells. However, whatever is happening at the macro level, our whole bodies, is also happening at the cellular level.

It’s funny how our limited perspective obscures these patterns. Of course, we can easily see that humans are born, exchange nutrients and waste with their environment, and die. But to see an amoeba, we need a microscope. And most of our organs are covered with skin, so we wouldn’t even know about them without studying human physiology

Right. They share a lot of similar properties. And if we zoom in to look at a cell, for example, or zoom out and look at complex organisms like human bodies or animals, we will find that they function similarly.

Sometimes what looks like an independent organism really isn’t. Lately, there’s been a lot of rain in my neighborhood. I always notice ants at this time of year pushed out of their nests by flooding. When we think about self similarity and ants, things get weird. Individual ants in an ant colony are highly specialized. Many cannot reproduce. In other words, individual ants lack some functions we expect in an independent organism. And yet, the colony as a whole has all the characteristics of an independent organism. The colony. Scientists sometimes call ant colonies “super organisms.”

I think the key word in the experience you just described, Dan, is “noticed.” In order for us to notice examples of self similarity, we need to observe, get out of our own heads, and be curious about what is going on around us. When we observe with curiosity we notice things that have probably been there all along, but we have missed because we were too busy thinking

it’s interesting how thinking and experience get in the way of seeing things right in front of us. Even the words we use seem to limit us. Trunk, branch, twig, leaf veins, for example, are size- specific. People get uncomfortable if we talk about branches, when looking at twigs. And they get even more uncomfortable when looking at veins in a leaf.

We have an idea about what a label means from previous experiences we have accumulated. It is difficult for our brains to let go of fixed ideas about how things are and view them from a different perspective. What we learn in meditation is to observe with curiosity and open up to other possible interpretations of the world, within us and around us. These skills can be applied to everything else outside of meditation as well.

You mentioned skills. I hadn’t thought about it until recently, but skill is another size based word. We’ll soon be talking about how agility is self-similar. An agile individual has similar properties to an agile team and an agile organization. When we talk about agility skills in individuals, it sounds fine. But one of my pals got uncomfortable when I mentioned agility skills in teams and organizations. “Can’t you use capabilities for that?” he said.

Here’s my request to you. Give yourself the freedom to speak and think outside the box, even using words that don’t quite sound right. By doing this, I think you’ll open yourself up to discover properties that apply regardless of size.

Mirela, you’re a nursing instructor and nurses often work in teams. As individuals, meditation teaches us to pause when we are feeling reactive, when we are angry, or ecstatic, or just feel the need to express our emotions instantly. We take a deep breath and we think about our goal. We focus on the present moment and we make a decision.

What about teams? As a team, could we pause, think about our goal, and proceed?

Yes, absolutely. Nursing is highly collaborative and it depends both on individual performance as well as teamwork. So the same skills that can help individuals, can also help the team. And when we have leaders and team members that are aware and use those tools, the team is more likely to succeed.

An example that comes to mind is a code blue, which is what we call a life-threatening situation when somebody’s heart and breathing has stopped. If you look at it from the outside, there is a lot of chaos: many people in a room doing a lot of things all at once. The truth is that there is a certain order in that chaos, every member of the team has a task that they’re very focused on doing perfectly. And at the same time, they are collaborating and communicating clearly with each other. So a system that looks very chaotic is actually very organized, like the ant colony that you mentioned.

Let’s talk a little bit more about agility. Agility is the notion that we look at our surroundings. We gather data. We make a short-term plan with a hypothesis about the outcome. We execute on our plan. And we reflect on what we achieved and how we did it. Then we adapt our plan based on what we discovered and repeat. Pretty much what we’re doing in this podcast.

Have you seen this in medicine or in nursing, at all?

Yes . We use evidence-based practice to provide care to individual patients, as well as to groups of people. When we want to change or improve a practice, there are five steps that we follow. Asking a researchable question. Acquiring information. Appraising the search results. Applying the evidence we found, and then assess the results. While there are important differences in how we apply evidence-based practice for individuals and groups, the steps are the same for both processes

When you describe agility, it sounds like it takes a lot of mindfulness, awareness, curiosity, openness, focus, as well as going back and evaluating frequently. These qualities that we need to be agile remind me of what mindfulness meditation does. It helps us develop those skills.

I think meditation is a practice that can help us both narrow down our focus to single process that is happening, like our breath, or to a single object, like one part of our body. But it can also help us broaden our focus and widen our perspective.

I think that when we practice this way in meditation, zooming in and then zooming out repeatedly, we can strengthen our focus. We may find that focusing in general and switching between a narrow focus to a wider one is tricky.

When we switch our focus, we can get more insight by looking for anomalies. We might say, “Hey, I see self similarity. But there’s something funny about this self similarity in this broader or narrower focus. It’s not quite what I would expect. It’s not a perfectly self-similar thing.”

And then we might say. “Well, what’s causing that?” When I think about an ant colony as a super organism, I have to rethink my idea that an organism has an impervious boundary between itself and the outside world.

I think that meditation can actually help us develop those skills of curiosity, openness, and focus. By paying attention and choosing over and over where to focus our attention, we are able to notice details that would otherwise be filtered out by our brains.

Our minds get distracted and pulled in different directions all the time. There is a constant flow of stimuli that come at us from outside, everything that’s happening out there, as well as from inside, in the form of sensations, emotions, thoughts. The good news is: the more we practice, the more we’ll be able to establish and maintain focus. We learn to stabilize and move our attention from the detail to the big picture, and vice-versa.

Then we are able to use that strength and focus skill outside of meditation, during work or daily life.


In summary, many systems exhibit self similarity. If you zoom in or out, you keep seeing similar patterns. Recognizing self similarity can help us become more agile at different scales of our lives and work. We can discover new insights, even when our limited language and perspective get in the way.

Meditation is a big part of mindfulness. Marella is going to lead a 10 minute meditation to explore self similarity, and help us practice changing focus from narrow to broad and back.

Some listeners will have experienced a guided meditation and others not. Let me suggest that you find a quiet place where you’ll be undisturbed for 10 minutes. If you’re driving, riding a bike, or doing anything that requires your attention, meditating at the same time can be dangerous.

Pause now, if you want to situate yourself. But if you’re an experienced meditator and want to meditate in the midst of chaos, that’s okay, too.

Here we go.


Thank you for taking this time to meditate with us today. You will hear a bell at the beginning of the meditation and one at the end. The bell is an invitation to come back to the present moment.

First find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down. It’s going to be any position where you feel comfortable, but also alert. While we maintain an intention to be still, you can adjust your posture at any time if needed.

You can either close your eyes or keep them slightly open, focused downward in front of you. ?

Take a deep breath through your nose.

Fill your lungs with air.

Relax, your belly.

And then let the air out slowly through your nose.

Let’s take one more deep breath.

Now allow your breath to return to normal.

Bring your attention to your body. Notice your posture.

How are you sitting or lying down?

Where are your arms, your legs. Your hands. And your feet.

Now bring your attention to your forehead.

Is there any sensations there?

The temperature.

Any numbness or tingling?

It is okay. If there are no sensations.

See, if you can keep your attention in this area. Of the forehead for a little bit.

You can say to yourself,

soften the forehead.

Does anything change?

Do you feel your forehead more relaxed?

Now, bring your attention to your whole face.

Do you notice any difference? What sensations are there?

And say to yourself, Soften your face.

See, if you can relax your jaw a little bit. Let it drop.

Bring your attention to your eyes.

Let the eyelids drop, relax.

Loosen the muscles around the eyes a little bit.

What sensations are there?

Do you see anything behind closed eyes? Or if you have them open, what do you see in front of you?

Now, bring your attention to your whole head.

See, if you can soften the whole head.

Soften your neck, your throat.

Notice, if you can feel the air going in and out of your throat with every breath.

Bring your attention to your shoulders.

Are they tight or relaxed?

Say to yourself. Soften your shoulders.

Soften your arms.

Your wrists.

Your hands.

And fingers.

Now let’s narrow our focus to only our hands and fingers.

What do you sense there? What is the temperature? Do they feel warm? Cool?

Any vibrations? Or nothing at all?

If at any moment, Your attention.

Has been drawn to other things. And you are distracted. By sounds, other sensations in the body, emotions, or thoughts?

That is okay.

We will just notice. Where our attention has gone. And gently bring it back.

To the focus of meditation.

You might notice some emotions come up.

And that’s okay. We’re just going to notice what is there? Without getting carried away. And come back to the meditation gently.

Now notice the seat or the bed underneath you. Or the floor.

Allow the seat to hold you.

Allow gravity to hold you.

Soften your thighs.

Your knees. Your lower legs.

Your ankles.

Your feet.

And your toes.

Let us stay a little bit longer. With the feet.

What do you feel there?

Are they warm?

Any pain discomfort.

Numbness tingling.

Be curious and see if you can become aware of each one of your toes.

Is okay. If you don’t feel anything.

Just see if you can maintain the focus on your feet and toes for a little bit.

What other things do you notice? While you’re focusing on your feet.

Are there any sensations that are stronger in other parts of your body? That are getting your attention.

Now let’s broaden our focus. And include our whole body in our awareness.

Is your body feeling differently from the beginning of meditation?

Just notice with curiosity. The sensations.


Whether you’re having any thoughts.

How do you feel.

Is your body relaxed?

Are there any places that are still tight? Uncomfortable. Painful.

See, if you can soften them a little bit more.

And now we’re going to shift our attention to the environment.

What do you notice?

Become aware of the sounds around you. The temperature of the room.

You can slowly open your eyes. And look around.

You can start moving a little bit. Your fingers and your toes.

Thank you for taking the time to meditate with us today.

Thanks for joining us.


As you re-enter the world, look around you. Which projects depend on your work, and what other projects does your work depend on? Are there similarities or even self similarities? Do you see patterns your project could adopt or expoit? Practice awareness and curiosity, and you’ll find some.

In future episodes, we’ll be talking about how to use compassion to generate more value in your projects, how taking personal responsibility for everything can lead to a sense of calm, and lots more.

If you want more, like or share this episode, or subscribe to the podcast. You can send feedback to [email protected].

Many thanks to Erik Gibson. Dan Dickson and Divya Maez for their feedback on betas of this episode. Our meditation was guided by Mirela Petalli. I’m Dan Greening. See you next time.

Media Credit

A brief clip from Casonika’s 120 bpm loops with a Swing is the stinger in this podcast episode.


The Mindful Sprint: Weekly explorations to build insight and success.

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