The Advice Process – Flaws and Fixes

“The advice process is a tool that helps decision-making via collective intelligence. Much depends on the spirit in which people approach it. When the advice process is introduced, it might be worthwhile to train colleagues not only in the mechanics but also on the mindset underlying effective use.”

We’ve been using the Advice Process for several months now. Whilst we’re still very much committed to its use, and wish to see the changes it promotes, all has not been going smoothly with its uptake.

Promises

We chose the Advice process as a means to devolving and distributing decision-making. We like its promise of quicker – and better! – decisions, raised levels of trust, improved communication, and higher levels of involvement and engagement. This list describes the promises, as described by its early promoter, Dennis Bakke of AES, in more detail:

  • Community: it draws people, whose advice is sought into the question at hand. They learn about the issue. The sharing of information reinforces the feeling of community. The person whose advice is sought feels honored and needed
  • Humility: asking for advice is an act of humility, which is one of the most important characteristics of a fun workplace. The act alone says, “I need you“. The decision maker and the adviser are pushed into a closer relationship. This makes it nearly impossible for the decision-maker to ignore the advice.
  • Learning: making decisions is on-the-job education. Advice comes from people who have an understanding of the situation and care about the outcome. No other form of education or training can match this real-time experience.
  • Better decisions: chances of reaching the best decision are greater than under conventional top-down approaches. The decision maker has the advantage of being closer to the issue and has to live with responsibility for the consequences of the decision. Advice provides diverse input, uncovering important issues and new perspectives.
  • Fun: the process is just plain fun for the decision-maker, because it mirrors the joy found in playing team sports. The advice process stimulates initiative and creativity, which are enhanced by the wisdom from knowledgeable people elsewhere in the organization.

Practice

In practice, we have not yet seen full realisation of the promises. Overall, we attribute this to poor implementation of the Advice Process, which we’re now intent (sic) on fixing – whilst not undermining its original promises (see above).

Flaws

Some of the implementation flaws we have experienced include:

  • Permission-seeking. Some folks have not yet overcome their established reflex of seeking permission. The Advice Process as conceived rejects permission-seeking, placing implicit responsibility for outcomes on the individual or team with the intent, not on the permission-giver. This shift (i.e. from authoritarianism to co-creation) requires a degree of courage from all parties.
  • Trust. Some advisors have found it challenging to trust the intentions or competence of those seeking advice.
  • Belief. Some with intentions have found it challenging to believe that they now have the power/authority to make key decisions.
  • Misunderstanding/clashing frames of reference. Sometimes, advice sought and then given has been received/interpreted as denial of permission.
  • Impatience. The delay between announcing intent and receiving advice has proved a source of friction, leading on occasions to proceeding without waiting to receive considered advice from advisors who may hold key pieces of the puzzle (often, these are the busiest of people).
  • Criticality. Some people have voiced concerns that key business decisions with serious negative commercial or reputational risks could proceed to action, even when some key risks go unappreciated or unaddressed (due to advice being sought from the wrong quarters, ignored, or not understood).

Fixes

We’re intending to experiment with addressing the above concerns through a couple of refinements:

  • Shared responsibility. The onus of communication will rest equally with those communicating intent and those from whom for advice is sought. Those announcing an intent are requested to actively pursue advisors to confirm their intent has been heard and understood by all the necessary parties; those from whom advice is sought are requested to respond promptly and with due consideration of the significance of their role and advice.
  • Time-outs. In those cases where someone believes there is a problem – maybe they feel the Advice Process has not been followed correctly or not used when it should have been – that someone may call a Time-out. The intention or action in question – which may already be in train – will then be suspended, pending a go-around (i.e. another taking of soundings, general proposal of intent, seeking of advice, confirmation that the intent has been understood, and consideration of advice received). Note: This does not imply that the intention itself has been denied or overruled. Rather, some party to a particular instance of the Advice Process believes the Advice Process has not been followed or used appropriately, and that the risks implicit in the intention or action are likely not being duly considered or attended-to.
  • Arbitration. We’ll see if we need to introduce some arbitration or conflict-resolution mechanism to handle repeated time-outs being called against a given intention or action, or to handle occasions where parties disagree on whether the Advice Process has indeed been followed correctly or not.

I’ll keep you posted on how our experiment is going.

– Bob

Further Reading

Decision Making ~ ReinventingOrganisations Wiki

The Advice Process – Definition and Usage Tips ~ Daniel Tenner

Advice Process for Effective Organizational Decision-Making ~ Agilitrix

Learn Through Delivering

In my previous post I talked a little about the role of language and vocabulary in shifting focus – from being busy, to attending to folks’ needs. The word ‘deliverable’ emphasises, unsurprisingly, delivery. But what does it mean to “deliver” in the context of i.e. software development?

Inspect and Adapt

For me, delivery is the opportunity to close the feedback loop. To gain some insight into whether what we’ve been working on has been useful to our stakeholders. And to adjust our sights – and ways of doing things – in the light of that information.  So the defining aspect of any and all “deliverables” is that deliverables, by this definition, must be delivered to stakeholders and they must be able to try them out in as near as possible to real-world situations so as to provide meaningful feedback.

Cadence

Just how often might we deliver something for our stakeholders to provide feedback on? That depends on how short we want our feedback loops to be. Myself, I prefer a maximum feedback loop length of two to three days. Whether your teams are in a position to dance to this rhythm, or something slower, kind of depends on your stakeholders and how quickly they can look at, and respond to, each delivery. Keeping deliveries small can help here, by keeping what they have to look at, and their responses, small too.

Artefacts

Of course, there will be things we create, produce – things for our own consumption, like documents, design artefacts, intermediate transformations leading to deliverables, and so on. I choose to call these non-deliverables “artefacts” (or even “non-deliverables”) – to distinguish them from the deliverables on which we intend to seek feedback.

May I invite you to trial a change of perspective – from learning through doing, to learning through delivering – as soon as you have the opportunity?

– Bob

 

Tasks – or Deliverables

In most every development shop I’ve seen, folks’ planning vocabulary has been founded on the task as the unit of work. Long ago, at Familiar, we discovered that a different vocabulary offers some key advantages. Ever since then I’ve found that a planning vocabulary when deliverables are the default unit of work suit me much better.

Some Key Advantages

  • Planning in tasks encourages (subconsciously for the most part) busywork (a focus on activity).
  • Planning in deliverables encourages a focus on outputs (ands thus, closer to outcomes).
  • Deliverables are closer to what stakeholders seek (i.e. having their needs attend-to, or even met).
  • Tasks are generally one stage further removed from needs than are deliverables.
  • Deliverables are, to a degree, ends in themselves – tasks are means to ends (and hence more disconnected from outcomes).
  • I find it easier and more useful to quantify aspects of deliverables than aspects of tasks. YMMV.

Mayhap a focus on outcomes directly would be a further step in the right direction, but for most of the development groups I’ve seen, a single leap from tasks to outcomes might have proven infeasible.

May I invite you to trial a change of vocabulary, and of focus, next time you have the opportunity?

– Bob

 

Organisational Psychotherapy In the Field

Preliminary Results

We in Organisational Psychotherapy propose OP as a means for improving the “health” and social dynamic of an organisation. An improvement which translates to real bottom-line benefits through i.e. an uplift in performance (a.k.a. effectiveness, productivity, throughput).

One of the reasons I’ve dedicated my time largely to a single client (Moogsoft) for the past 9 months is the opportunity to gather data in an attempt to illuminate this proposition. Not that data convinces many in the world of business. We humans are far too irrational (predictably so) for things like facts to hold much sway. If we believe that “process” is the path to improvement, then data on the effectiveness of another path will likely trigger the backfire effect, increasing our misperceptions about the value of our cherished belief in the efficacy of “process”. Likewise for those of us who choose to hold a belief in the efficacy of “leadership”, or “management”.

Social Dynamic

In Organisational Psychotherapy we use the term “social dynamic” to refer to the quality of the human relationships within an organisation (and, by extension, with its customers and suppliers, too). We propose that the quality of these relationships are in large part the consequence of how people in the organisation, collectively, see the world of work. And the consequence of all the assumptions we collectively hold about how best to relate to each other, regard each other, and interact – up, down and across the organisation. And we propose that the quality of these relationships have a massive, yet subtle influence of the performance (effectiveness, productivity, throughput) of an organisation. Especially for knowledge-work organisations.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
~ Variously attributed

The Data Is In

All that being said, some of my readers have expressed a keen interest in Organisational Psychotherapy. Setting aside the myriad potential biases that might be involved, here’s the data from a six month period. During September 2016 through February 2017, throughput of the Software Engineering organisation within Moogsoft has increased by 80%. Projected forward, this implies an annualised improvement, year on year, of something like 160%. I.E. More than a doubling of productivity over a year. N.B. This data comes from the story point (actuals) collected via Jira tickets for all development work (new features) in this period.

So, can we even begin to claim that it was Organisational Psychotherapy that had a part to play in this increased throughput? Anecdotal evidence (observations from the Engineering folks) aligns with the data in terms of “things improving significantly” during the period. Whence this improvement? Could it have been due to factors other than Organisational Psychotherapy? I’d have to admit of the possibility. Even though its difficult for me to point specifically to other factors which may have contributed. And the data itself, derived as it is from story points, also has some questions marks.

What the Client has to Say

“We observed that we were asking for a revolution in productivity but letting our process hold back the revolutionaries. Our experiment in Organisational Psychotherapy feels like we have unleashed a pent up vigor in the team, and, if we gain nothing else (and I fully believe much more is to come) the smiles alone would have warranted the experiment. Happiness = Productivity, perhaps that is the clue?” ~ Phil Tee, CEO Moogsoft

“To become a world-leading Engineering group is a fantastic, though daunting, challenge. Many of us were both hopeful and sceptical of Organisational Psychotherapy, especially when we discovered we had to work to find our own answers. But now, our learning is opening our eyes and minds. We’re on a path to becoming the world-class development organisation we’ve long wanted to be – and we’re all relishing the challenge.”
~ Anneke Panman, Director of Engineering, Moogsoft

Conclusion

So there you have it. Irritatingly vague. Yet there may just be something in it. I leave it to you, dear reader, to consider whether the evidence, such as it is, warrants your conducting your own experiments into the merits of Organisational Psychotherapy.
I’ll continue to update you periodically as to progress as Moogsoft, where I have recently transitioned from an Organisational Psychotherapy role to that of VP, Engineering. And as for the reasons behind that, I’ll defer my exposition to a future post.

– Bob

Further Reading

Predictably Irrational ~ Dan Ariely

How to Communicate Your Needs At Work

When people come to understand the disadvantages of ordering others about, some can over-compensate by avoiding all forms of telling. This can lead to frustration, inaction and disconnection. One of the things these awakening folks can struggle with is communicating their needs to others. Because they shy away from conflict, and don’t want to trouble or inconvenience or coerce others, they might favour avoiding expressing their own needs in case it might become a “burden”, or lead others to feel obligated or compelled to do something. So these folks find it difficult to share their personal goals and desires. Instead, they might opt for a reliance on “mind-reading,” believing their colleagues and peers should intuitively know what they need without them having to say anything.

Relying on mind-reading to get your needs fulfilled creates feelings of frustration, maybe even anger and contempt towards colleagues, feelings which will almost invariably lead to the atrophy, even deterioration, of your working relationships. To keep working relationships positive and flourishing, it’s up to you to make your needs clearly known. Nobody is in a better position to understand your needs than you are:

“You have a right to ask for the things you need in a relationship. In fact, you have a responsibility to yourself and your co-workers to be clear about your needs. You are the expert on yourself. No one else, not even your best friends, can read your mind and know what you need in the way of support, connection, time alone, order, independence, play, joy, financial security, and so on.”

So if articulating your needs isn’t something you’ve felt comfortable doing, how do you start going about it? And how do you do it in a way that doesn’t create obligations, defensiveness or anger, and offers the best chance of your colleagues being willing to listen and fulfill that need?

Script

Here’s a sample “needs script” to follow when initiating this kind of conversation. Obviously, it’s not a word-for-word script – what you say will vary greatly according to your relationships and personal situation. Instead, it offers a very simple template for communicating your needs in a healthy and productive way. However, if expressing your needs is something you really struggle with, you may actually find it helpful to write out your “script” beforehand. You don’t need to read it to your colleagues, but putting down your thoughts on paper can help you prepare. That way, in the heat of the moment, you don’t fall into old traps of passiveness or aggressiveness and can instead navigate the healthy middle path of assertiveness and clarity.

The Needs Script

Situation (specific, objective description of facts). Start off the conversation by offering a straightforward description of the situation you want to address. Leave out analysis, interpretation, and inflammatory or accusatory language – try to make it as specific, impersonal, and objective as possible.

  • Our relationship has really sucked lately. We’ve been disagreeing a lot more than usual these last few weeks.
  • Our office looks like a bomb went off. There’s a lot of stuff lying about.
  • Your spending is out of control. We’re $3000 over our budget this month.
  • I’m going crazy in at the lack of progress here. We haven’t accomplished much in two months.
  • I’m always stuck in the office and never get to meet customers or partners. I’s loosing what little touch I had with our customers’ needs.

Feelings (non-blaming “I” statements). When you tell your colleagues what you’re feeling, you need to be careful to not vent or explode in a vague, accusatory way (“I’m angry/stressed/upset and you’re to blame!”) which may feel cathartic, but isn’t actually productive. In order to keep the conversation as a problem-solving discussion rather than a heated argument, you want to accurately convey the nature, intensity, and cause of your feelings. So before you begin the conversation, you’ll want to have honed in as much as possible to the specifics of what you’ve been feeling. Once you’ve identified the broad feeling that first comes to mind (angry, upset, hurt, etc.), You might like to use a Feelings Inventory to help narrowing down its nature and focus, or use these these modifiers:

  1. Definition. First, make your broad feeling more specific by adding some synonyms. When you say angry, do you mean angry and stressed, or angry and irritated? Or are you really more confused or disappointed than mad? When you say you’re upset, are you upset and disappointed, or upset and depressed? The more specific descriptors you can use to describe how you’re feeling, the better.
  2. Intensity. Add modifiers that accurately convey the intensity of your feelings. Have you been feeling a little resentful or a lot? Slightly discouraged or majorly depressed? Be honest here.
  3. Duration. How long have you been feeling this way? Have you been stressed since your latest vacation, since your role changed, or ever since you started working here? Have you felt irritated for months, for weeks or for days?
  4. Cause and Context. You want to avoid naming your colleagues as the cause of your feelings, no matter how tempting, and even if their actions really have been the catalyst. Blame begets defensiveness, not communication. What will result is a fight that doesn’t end up addressing the real problem whatsoever. Instead, try to communicate the cause of your feelings in the form of their impersonal context, and describe your own feelings rather than those of the other person. You can accomplish this by using “I” statements rather than “you” accusations.

Request (for behavior change). Ask for a change in behavior only. This is a very important rule. Don’t expect your colleagues to change their values, attitudes, desires, motivations, or feelings. These characteristics are very hard to change. It’s like asking someone to be taller or more intelligent. People feel personally threatened if you ask them to change intangibles that are seen as part of their very nature and beyond their conscious control. For example, what does it mean to ask someone to be ‘more loving’ or ‘less critical’ or ‘neater’? These kinds of requests are heard as attacks, and little real change is likely to result.

Instead of going after someone’s “core” attributes, and having them react defensively, stick with making a request that they modify a specific, observable behavior.

  • I need a neater environment around me. Would you be willing to keep some of this stuff in the drawers and shelves?
  • I want you to be less critical of me. I would appreciate it if you didn’t make jokes about me in front of the management.
  • I need to see more action. It would mean a lot to me if we could work together on how to make things happen more quickly round here.

When you make your request, only tackle one situation and 1 or 2 observable behavior changes at a time. You don’t want to overwhelm your colleagues – they’ll likely just shut down. Pick small changes that might make them feel like, “Okay, that’s reasonable. I can do that.” See if your colleagues follow through on your requests. If they do, then bring up something else to work on down the line.

 

Other Things to Keep in Mind

Keep your tone as calm and level as possible. Don’t let anger or annoyance creep into your voice – using even a slightly heated, annoyed, accusatory, or patronizing tone can escalate things into an unproductive argument.

Pick a time when your colleagues can give you their full attention. Don’t start the conversation in the middle of a meeting or when they’re in the middle of something important. You don’t want their annoyance about the circumstances to color how they receive your request. Select a time when they’re in a good mood and ready to listen.

Start out by expressing a small need, rather than a large, contentious one, especially if your relationship has been struggling. Once you start meeting each other’s needs successfully, you’ll be in a better position to tackle more polarizing problems.

Sometimes, empathising with them and their situation may be necessary to “earn” their trust and the right to bring up your needs.

Don’t feel like having to ask for something makes it less valuable. It’s easy to fall into the trap of waiting for your colleagues to come to you and should know what you need without you having to say anything – that if they really cared about you and knew you, or weren’t so busy or engrossed, they would just naturally do it. You might then feel that a change in their behaviour is somehow less “real” or valuable because you had to ask for it. “You’re just doing it because I told you I needed it, not because you really want to.”

But people, even those in the closest of relationships, think and see the world differently. Something may seem obvious to you, but simply not occur to them – not because of some character defect or lack of interest — but because they are simply a different person with a different brain – and heart – than you. Instead of seeing their inability to anticipate your needs on their own as a flaw, accept your differences. And instead of seeing behaviour changes you directly asked for as less valuable, appreciate the way they’re willing to meet that need, even if it doesn’t come naturally. It’s just as worthy as a gesture of interest and commitment, if not more so.

Communicating needs is not a one-way street. Hopefully this is obvious, but asking someone to meet your needs is not a unilateral process. Encourage your colleagues to make their needs known as well, and do your best to listen to, understand, and try to meet those needs when you can. In a healthy relationships, all parties are eager to try to do what they can to make the other person flourish.

If you’re on the receiving end of a needs request, one of the most important things to do is to try to accept the other person’s “quirks.” You may not understand why they like things done in a certain way, or how something that can seem so trivial to you can be so important to them, but you have quirks, too, that they find equally hard to grasp. The more you can compromise and accommodate everyone’s unique, but not-so-onerous needs, even without necessarily understanding them, the happier you’ll be.

You have a right to ask, but that doesn’t mean your needs will always be met. Your colleagues have needs too, and their needs may conflict with yours. Making your needs known is not about issuing an ultimatum, but about open communication, compromise, and cooperation. Even if you don’t achieve the exact solution you had hoped for, being open about your needs will make you a happier, less angry colleague, co-worker or employee.

If your colleagues are unwilling to compromise or cooperate with you in any way, you have a choice in how to proceed. You can:

  • Try to put this one refusal in perspective with all the good things they do offer and bring to the table. Is the issue such a big deal in the big picture? If not, you express your disappointment and work to understand why you can’t meet on this issue, but ultimately accept their position. Ask if you can re-open the discussion at another time.
  • Utilise a self-care alternative. You might choose to have “self-care alternative” in mind (a Plan B) when possible in case your colleagues can’t or won’t meet your needs. While it doesn’t hurt to ask, in the end, it’s not other people who are ultimately responsible for meeting your needs.
  • If an issue is too important to you to simply accept a “No,” and/or if this refusal to meet your needs is a consistent pattern, in which you’re always being walked over while giving a lot in return, you may need to remove yourself from the situation permanently, or even end the relationship.

– Bob

The Heart of Organisational Psychotherapy

My organisational psychotherapy practice draws inspiration from a number of individual psychotherapy schools and traditions. But none more so than Carl Rogers and Client Centred Therapy – more recently also known as Person Centred Therapy.

At the heart of my approach, drawing on Rogers, is seeing the focus of Organisational Therapy as creating a facilitative, empathic environment wherein the client organisation, collectively, can discover its answers for itself.

Answers

Actually, “answers” is just a bit misleading, given that clients may not be seeking answers, per se. Recent experiences in my current assignment lead me to choose a slightly different perspective. My current focus is on creating, or more accurately contributing to, an environment wherein the client organisation can come to know itself better.

“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”

~ Lao Tzu

Self-knowledge

The title of Tom Shadyac’s movie “I Am” is drawn from the rhetorical question “What’s wrong with this world we live in?” (And what can we do to make it better?) He concludes that the best thing we can do to make the world a better place is to know ourselves better (and thereby each make ourself a better person).

”We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.”

~ Carl Rogers

I believe this sentiment holds as true for organisations and their collective psyche, as for Rogers’ individual clients.

– Bob

Further Reading

A Therapists’s Guide to Heart Centred Therapy ~ William P Ryan PhD (video)

Nonjudgmental Feedback

People are not dogs

People are not like dogs. How often have you seen someone recommending the giving of praise as a way of raising morale, increasing engagement, making folks happier, and so on? The thing is, giving praise has a significant downside.

Eschew Praise and Compliments

“Compliments are often judgements – however positive – of others.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Rosenberg regards compliment and expressions of appreciation and praise as life-alienating communication. I share that viewpoint. Instead, he suggests we include three components in the expression of appreciation:

  • The actions that have contributed to our well-being
  • The particular needs of ours that have been fulfilled
  • The pleasureful feelings (joy, delight, togetherness, w.h.y) engendered by the fulfilment of those needs

In other words, providing nonjudgmental feedback (in the positive case) consists of sharing:

  • This is what you did
  • This is how I feel about it
  • This is the need of mine that was met

And in the negative case, sharing:

  • This is what you did
  • This is how I feel about it
  • This is the need of mine that was NOT met
  • (Optional) a refusable request seeking to get the unmet need met.

Judgment

I’ve written previously about What’s Wrong With Judgment. This applies just as much to the judgments implicit in praise, and in other forms of judgmental feedback.

“the most salient feature of a positive judgment [e.g. praise] is not that it’s positive but that it’s a judgment; it’s more about controlling than encouraging. Moreover, praise communicates that our acceptance…comes with strings attached: Our approval is conditional.”

~ Alfie Kohn

Even warm and fulsome praise is likely to be received, albeit subliminally, as controlling and conditional. More useful then, might be non-evaluative (i.e. nonjudgmental) feedback. Researchers have found that just such a response – information about how someone has done, without any judgment attached – is preferable to any sort of praise.

– Bob

Further Reading

Punished By Rewards ~ Alfie Kohn
Feedback Without Criticism ~ Miki Kashtan (Online article)
NVC Feedback – The Executive Advisory
Non-violent Communication: A Language of Life ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg
The Core Protocols ~ Jim and Michele McCarthy

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