The Organisational Psychotherapy Approach To Agile Coaching


What’s the point of an Agile Coach? I guess the most common answer would be “to make development teams more productive”. After all, Agile Coaches cost money, and they don’t do much in the way of development work themselves. If they’re not a “force multiplier” for one or more dev teams, then where’s the cost-benefit justification?

Personally, I’d suggest the most common reason, although rarely articulated as such, is “to raise the pace of improvement”. Or, worst case, to reduce the pace of degradation of performance (given that things are always changing, and some teams may not be able to even keep abreast of change).

There are two essential problems with seeing the appointment of an Agile Coach as a means to improve a development team’s productivity: The Motivation Fallacy and the Local Optimisation Fallacy.

The Motivation Fallacy

Many development teams have little to no manifest interest in improving, nor therefore in the pace of any improvement. This is often compounded or aggravated by the appointment (a.k.a. imposition) of a coach to “encourage” them. An iron first of coercion, even in a velvet glove of a smiling, happy coach, often offends. And rarely is the agenda for improvement part of any joined-up initiative. Much more often it occurs at the behest of one or two people looking to secure their personal bonus or make a name for themselves as innovative go-getters. Such personal agendas also serves to alienate people further, both the folks in the development teams and those folks up-stream and downstream on whose cooperation any joined-up approach would depend.

The Local Optimisation Fallacy

Unless the development team is the current constraint limiting the throughput of the whole organisation, improving the team’s productivity has little to zero effect on the productivity of the whole organisation. Some authorities on the subject go further and suggest that in these (non-bottleneck) cases, improving the team’s productivity will actually make the performance of the organisation as a whole worse. (Cf. Ackoff)

Even when the development team IS the current bottleneck, improving it soon moves that bottleneck elsewhere in the organisation. Agile Coaches and other folks in the development function rarely have the remit or authority to follow that moving constraint. And so rarely if ever does the improvement initiative continue in the newly-constraining area of the business.

Where Organisational Psychotherapy Comes In

Both of the aforementioned fallacies arise in organisations with low levels of congruence. Such organisations have a gulf between how they perceive themselves (self-image), their ideal self, and how they actually experience life. To paraphrase Carl Rogers:

“Organisations behave as they do because of the way they perceive themselves and their situation.”

Where an organisation’s self-image and actual experience are consistent or very similar, a state of congruence exists. Rarely, if ever, does a total state of congruence exist; all organisations experience a certain amount of incongruence.

Organisational therapy serves to help willing organisations reduce the gulf between their self-image and their actual experience. In other words, to improve congruence. Agile Coaches could do this, given the brief (remit) and skills – and some of the more effective ones likely do already. Albeit intuitively rather than with an explicit understand of what’s happening. Oh so rarely is this remit conferred, or sought, however.

The practical side to Roger’s Theory of Self states that being in a condition of incongruence is uncomfortable; therefore each organisation seeks to become more congruent. When the distance between the self-image and actual experience becomes too great, the organisation is more likely to exhibit both distress and anxiety. Likewise the people within it.

Thus organisational therapy helps to:

  • Increase congruence.
  • Reduce stress and anxiety levels.
  • Broadly improve cognitive function (through e.g. lower levels of stress and anxiety).
  • Indirectly, address a wide range of pathogenic beliefs, which in turn may lead to…
    • Improved motivation.
    • Increased collaboration across silos.
    • More joined-up initiatives (fewer local optimisations).

The Therapist’s Stance

All the above is predicated on the Agile Coach – if indeed it is he or she who becomes the agent in this kind of intervention – adopting more of a therapist’s stance:


– Bob


Seven Research-Based Principles for Making Organisations Work

In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, written with Nan Silver, renowned clinical psychologist and marriage researcher John Gottman, Ph.D, reveals what successful relationships look like and features valuable activities to help couples strengthen their relationships.

Gottman’s principles are research-based. He and his colleagues studied hundreds of couples (including newlyweds and long-term couples); interviewed couples and videotaped their interactions; even measured their stress levels by checking their heart rate, sweat flow, blood pressure and immune function; and followed couples annually to see how their relationships fared.

He also found that nine months after attending his workshops, 640 couples had relapse rates of 20 percent, while standard marital therapy has a relapse rate of 30 to 50 percent. In the beginning of these workshops, 27 percent of couples were at high risk for divorce. Three months later, 6.7 percent were at risk. Six months later, it was 0 percent.

Below are his seven principles, adapted to organisations, along with a few organisational-health-strengthening activities to try.

1. Enhancing “Love Maps”

Love is in the details. That is, flourishing organisations are very much familiar with their folks’ worlds, and needs. Such companies have “a richly detailed love map” — an informal map interweaving all the relevant information about folks and their lives. People in these companies know many things about each other – everything from their favourite movies to what’s currently stressing them out, from what their needs are to some of their life’s dreams.

2. Nurture Fondness And Admiration

In flourishing organisations people respect each other and have a general positive view of each other. Gottman says that fondness and admiration are two of the most important elements in satisfying and long-term relationships. If these elements are completely missing, relationships degenerate into something purely transactional (and “engagement” goes out the window).

Gottman includes a helpful activity to connect people with the humanity of their colleagues. He calls this “I appreciate”. He suggests folks list three or more of a colleague’s positive characteristics along with an incident that illustrates each quality. Then share these lists with others – including the subjects.

3. Turn Toward Each Other Instead Of Away

Working with others isn’t about a few amazing moments. Rather, positive connections live and thrive in the everyday, little things. Channelling Gottman, “[positive regard] is kept alive each time you let a colleague know he or she is valued during the grind of everyday life.”

For instance, positive regard is leaving an encouraging message for a colleague when you know she’s having a bad day. Or we can signal positive regard when we’re really busy but still take a few minutes to listen to a colleague’s anxiety and arrange to discuss it later (instead of dismissing it with something like “I don’t have time”).

This might seem humdrum, but turning toward each other in these ways is the basis for connection and positive regard. Organisations where colleagues turn toward each other have more in their “emotional bank accounts”.  This positive balance distinguishes flourishing from miserable ones. Flourishing organisations have more goodwill and positivity stored in their bank accounts, so when rough times hit, their emotional savings cushion conflicts and stressors.

4. Invite Colleagues To Influence You

Flourishing organisations are places where people consider each other’s perspective and feelings. Folks make decisions together and search out common ground. Letting your colleagues and co-workers influence you isn’t about having someone hold your reins; it’s about honoring and respecting each other.

5. Solve solvable problems

Gottman says that there are two types of problems: conflicts that can be resolved, and perpetual problems that can’t. It’s important for people to determine which ones are which.

Sometimes, though, telling the difference can be tricky. “One way to identify solvable problems is that they seem less painful, gut-wrenching, or intense than perpetual, gridlocked ones.” Solvable problems are situational, and there’s no underlying conflict.

Gottman devised a five-step model for resolving these conflicts:

  1. Soften your startup, which simply means starting the conversation without criticism or contempt.
  2. Make and receive “repair attempts” – any action or statement that deescalates tension.
  3. Soothe yourself and then each other. When you feel yourself getting heated during a conversation, let other folks know that you’re overwhelmed and take a 20-minute break. (That’s how long it takes for your body to calm down.) Then you might try closing your eyes, taking slow, deep breaths, relaxing your muscles and visualising a calm place. After you’ve calmed down, you might help soothe your colleagues. Ask each other what’s most comforting and do that.
  4. Compromise. The above steps prime people for compromise because they create positivity. When conflicts arise, it’s important to take each other’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. Here, Gottman includes a valuable exercise to help people find common ground. He suggests that each person draw two circles: a smaller one inside a larger one. In the smaller circle, people make a list of their nonnegotiable points. In the bigger one, make a list of what you can compromise on. Share these drawing with each other and look for common ground. Consider what you agree on, what your common goals and feelings are and how you can accomplish these goals.
  5. Remember to be tolerant of one other’s faults. Compromise is impossible until you can accept everyone’s flaws and get over the “if onlies.” (You know the ones: “If only he was this” “If only she was that.”)

6. Overcome Gridlock

The goal with perpetual problems is for people to “move from gridlock to dialogue.” What usually underlies gridlock is unfulfilled needs. “Gridlock is a sign that you have [needs] in your life that aren’t being addressed or respected by each other”. Flourishing organisations believe in the importance of everyone – the organisation included – helping each other attend to their needs.

So the first step in overcoming gridlock is to determine the need or need that are causing a conflict. The next steps include talking to each other about your needs (never easy), taking a break (since some of these talks can get stressful),  airing (and thereby making peace with) the problem, and ultimately sharing a (refusable) request aimed at addressing the need.

“The goal is to ‘declaw’ the issue, to try to remove the hurt [and negative feelings] so the problem stops being a source of great pain,” Gottman writes.

7. Create Shared Meaning

Working together isn’t just about projects, deadlines, cakes and and getting drunk together. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together — a culture rich with rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you, that lead you to understand what it means to be a part of the community you have become.

And that’s what it means to develop shared meaning. Flourishing organisations create a community culture that attends to everyone’s needs. In being open to each other’s perspectives and opinions, flourishing organisations naturally thrive.

– Bob

Further Reading

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being ~ Martin Seligman
7 Research-Based Principles for Making Marriage Work ~ Margarita Tartakovsky

I Lied


Earlier today I tweeted a lie. I knew I was doing it, and went ahead and tweeted anyway. And I’m not ashamed of it.

Let’s set aside the question of why we feel outraged, disappointed, or betrayed when we catch someone – including, often, ourselves – in a lie.

Down To Brass Tacks

The tweet in question read:

Where’s the lie? Where’s the harm?

The lie is twofold: in the phrase “ideal environment” and in the phrase “optimal knowledge work”. I’ll try to explain the potential harm as we go…

Lie One: Idealism

In psychotherapy, many therapists guard against holding up some ‘ideal” image of a “mentally healthy and well adjusted person”  to their client.

“Clients would be better helped if they were encouraged to focus on their current subjective understanding rather than on some unconscious motive or someone else’s interpretation of the situation.”

In other words, striving for some imagined “ideal” often introduces incongruence, which carries its own pathogenic risks.

“Some clients may feel that their personal problems mean that they fall short of the ‘ideal’. They may need to feel reassured that they will be accepted for the person that they are and not face rejection or disapproval.”

I have observed a similar psychopathology at work in those organisations image, or that attempt to define, an “ideal state”.

Organisational Psychopathology

In a fully congruent organisation, realising its potential is not at the expense of experiencing positive regard. It is able to lead a life that is authentic and genuine. Incongruent organisations, in their pursuit of positive regard, lead lives that include falseness and not realising their potential. Conditions they impose on themselves make it necessary for such organisations to forgo their genuine, authentic lives to meet with approval. They operate from a place incongruent with their true nature.

The incongruent organisation, always on the defensive and closed to many experiences, finds itself ill at ease with its own self. It works hard at maintaining/protecting its self-concept. Because its way of being lacks authenticity, this work is difficult and such organisations can feel under constant threat. Distortion and denial arise to help in defending its self-concept. Distortion occurs when the organisation perceives a threat to its self-concept. The organisation distorts their perception until the (distorted) perception fits their self-concept.

Such defensive behaviour reduces the consciousness of the threat but not the threat itself. And so, as the threats mount, the work of protecting the self-concept becomes more difficult and the organisation becomes more defensive and rigid. If the incongruence is immoderate this process may lead the organisation to a state could be described as neurotic. Its functioning becomes impaired. If the situation worsens it is possible that the defenses cease to function altogether and the organisation becomes aware of its incongruence. Its manifest being may become disorganised and bizarre; irrational behavior, associated with earlier denied aspects of self, may erupt uncontrollably.

Lie Two: Optimality

Many organisations espouse optimality, yet few indeed have a theory-in-use congruent with this.

 “Effectiveness results from developing congruence between Theory-in-use and Espoused theory.”

~ Chris Argyris

So, yes, speaking to “optimality” is speaking to – and congruent with – most organisations’ espoused theories. Thus it may receive more favourable attention than something that speaks to their (unseen) theories-in-use. But in truth, the therapist guards against the client’s espousal of optimality. From the clients theory-in-use perspective, “somewhat better” is likely much more realistic. A key aspect of therapy is providing the opportunity for the client to become aware of, and thereby, maybe, reduce its incongruence.

I suspect expressing the tweet in question in a way that connects with people and organisations might take some doing. Here’s the weaker(?) but more honest version:

Organisational therapy is about creating environments, conditions and workplaces that support more effective knowledge work and cognitive function.

– Bob

Further Reading

All Marketers Are Liars ~ Seth Godin


Ten Tips for Organisational Therapists

There are many different schools of psychotherapy, and many of those transferrable to organisational psychotherapy. I have a great fondness for the approach of Carl Rogers (person-centred, or client-centred therapy). From that perspective, here’s ten top tips:

  1. Set clear boundaries. For example, regarding confidentiality, voluntary participation, etc. . You may also want to explicitly rule out or rule in certain topics of conversation.
  2. The client knows best. The client organisation is the expert on its own difficulties. It’s better to let the client explain what is wrong. Never fall into the trap of telling them what their problem is or how they should solve it.
  3. Act as a sounding board. One useful technique is to listen carefully to what the client organisation is saying and then try to explain what you think the organisation is telling you, in your own words. This can not only help you clarify the client’s point of view, it can also help the client understand its collective self (its feelings, etc.) better and begin to look for a constructive way forward.
  4. Don’t be judgmental. Often, organisations may feel that their specific problems mean that they fall short of the ‘ideal’. They may need to feel reassured that they will be accepted by you for how they are and won’t face your rejection or disapproval.
  5. Don’t make decisions for them. Remember, advice is a dangerous gift. Also, some clients will not want to take responsibility for making their own decisions. They may need to be reminded that nobody else can or should be allowed to choose for them. Of course you can still help them explore the consequences of the options open to them.
  6. Concentrate on what they are really saying. Sometimes this will not be clear at the outset. Often an organisation will not reveal what is really bothering it until it feels sure of you. Listen carefully – the problem you are initially presented with may not be the real problem at all.
  7. Be genuine. If you simply present yourself in your official role the client organisation is unlikely to want to reveal intimate details about itself. This may mean disclosing things about yourself – not necessarily facts, but feelings as well. Don’t be afraid to do this – bearing in mind that you are under no obligation to disclose anything you do not want to.
  8. Accept negative emotions. Client organisations may have negative feelings about themselves, their customers or even you. Try to work through their aggression without taking offence, but do not tolerate personal abuse.
  9. How you speak can be more important than what you say. It is possible to convey a great deal through your tone of voice the implications behind the words you choose. Often it may be helpful to slow down the pace of the conversation or engagement. Short pauses where those involved (including you) have time to reflect on the direction of the conversation or engagement can also be useful.
  10. I may not be the best person to help. Knowing yourself and your own limitations can be just as important as understanding the client’s point of view. No client-centred counsellor succeeds all the time. Sometimes you will be able to help but you will never know. Remember the purpose of counselling is not to make you feel good about yourself.

– Bob

Taking Wings

In line with my previously announced intention, our fledgling Organisational Psychotherapy community is moving to a new site at noon today (Monday 16 November 2015).

It’s open to read-only access for anyone. For those who would like editing access, you’ll need a) a WordPress login and b) to drop me a line or post a comment to that effect, with your WordPress id.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those fellows who provided advice regarding this move.

I’d also like to thank my regular blog readers for their forbearance over the past few weeks. This blog’s editorial will now resume to something approaching normal. Please do drop in to our new site from time to time and catch up on our progress if you have any interest in the emergence of a self-organising community of principle.

– Bob


An Intention Announced

In line with the advice process, I’m posting here my intention to set up a new site to provide us with a dedicated online space for our interactions and archives. This will provide us with a shared home, replacing the use of my blog for this purpose, and is both in response to and anticipation of requests from our fledgling community of principle for such a facility. How long this facility will prove useful before we choose to move on again, I can’t say. I suspect somewhere between several weeks and a year or more.

I intend using the P2 theme on this site.

Would you be willing to provide some advice before I act on this intent? I intend to act on this intention circa: Monday 16 Nov 2015, Noon GMT.

– Bob


Why The Future of Humanity Depends On Organisational Psychotherapy


The future of work is collaborative knowledge work. Most, if not all, brawn (pink muscle) will be supplied by machines, robots and other mechanical automation, augmented by software to control the mechanical parts.

Increasingly, software will also subsume the work of individual specialists, experts and other single knowledge workers.

Only collaborative knowledge work – non-repetitive brain (grey muscle) work done by groups or teams of people – remains the domain of the human. Even this may be subsumed by software in time, but that day yet remains at least a good few decades off.

Software development itself is an example of such collaborative knowledge work.

And if collaborative knowledge work is the future of work, then it’s no stretch to say that the future of Humanity depends on collaborative knowledge work. Both for the employment – in the broadest sense – it provides, and for its outputs (innovation and advancements – e.g. technological, scientific, medical and social).

Yet we as a species are woefully ill-prepared to tackle the challenges of effective collaborative knowledge work. Our education system prepares us but poorly. Our institutions and structures are ill-suited. And our present collective mindsets – predominantly rooted in Theory-X and the Myth of Redemptive Violence as they are – oppose effective collaborative knowledge work at every turn. Only our innate capabilities as highly social animals offer any positive hope. Yet it often seems we do everything we can, especially in business and other forms or organisations, to suppress those innate capabilities and to deny our nature as emotional, social beings.

When will we embrace the challenges of effective collaborative knowledge work? What disciplines might help us in that? I suggest anthropology, sociology, psychiatry, psychology, philosophy, group dynamic, and neuroscience each have a role to play. But above all, I see therapy as the key discipline. In particular, group – or organisational – therapy. And dealing as it does with the collective psyche, I prefer to call it Organisational Psychotherapy.

If you know of any other discipline as suited to tackling the challenges of effective collaborative knowledge work as Organisational Psychotherapy, I’d love to hear about it. Until then, my money’s on Org. Psych..

– Bob


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