Gaining Discipline

Gaining Discipline

I’ve heard numerous folks in development roles express discomfort and concern with the idea that discipline has a positive role to play in development work. Similarly, I have heard numerous managers express frustration and concern that their development teams “lack discipline”.

Learning the value of discipline is the key thing that – to some extent at least – justifies the time, effort and relatively limited effectiveness that organisations spend in the Analytic mindset. In a nutshell, Ad-hoc minded organisations see little or no value in discipline; Analytic, Synergistic and Chaordic-minded organisations take discipline as a given.

The Term “Discipline” Can Confuse

Just in case you’re wondering what I mean by “discipline”, I wrote last year a post explaining the term. In that post I contrasted the two different types of discipline (extrinsic vs intrinsic). I suspect that the concern – and polar opposite attitudes – folks have towards “discipline” – stems from a confusion between these two types of discipline.

“Confusing extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is bad enough, but the fatal mistake is using extrinsic motivation (disciplining, using punishment-and-reward) and expecting it to foster intrinsic motivation or self-discipline. Unfortunately, that’s exactly backwards: extrinsic motivation corrodes intrinsic motivation.”

~ Gordon Shipley

I’m not going to rehash my aforementioned post here. Rather, I’d like to explore a question I’m often asked: “can organisations skip the Analytic mindset?” After all, save its role in illustrating the value of discipline (mostly extrinsic, in the case of the Analytic mindset), there seems little attraction in spending any time at all in the Analytic mindset, let alone the years or decades that some organisations languish therein.

So, I’m wondering if there’s a way in which organisations can progress to the Synergistic mindset, with a viable appreciation of the value of discipline, yet not learn that lesson through building a regime of extrinsic discipline and all the police-state paraphernalia that goes with that?

Would it be feasible to learn the value of discipline, from the get-go, through a focus on intrinsic discipline, and evolve from that position instead? In that way, could we avoid the cost and effort of setting up elaborate frameworks of coercion, with rafts of policies, procedures, contracts, standards, reporting hierarchies, and so on? Could we avoid the unpleasantnesses of coercion (aka violence)? And might we be able to avoid the costs and distress of eventually tearing down those same frameworks later, i.e. with the uptake of Synergistic thinking?

The challenge, as I see it, is to not get ahead of ourselves and attempt to put into place the whole Synergistic memeplex, as we work on fostering intrinsic discipline.

Is it possible to foster intrinsic discipline in place of extrinsic discipline – whilst still in a command-and-control, hierarchical management, siloed organisation?

Personally, I believe the answer is a cautious “yes”.

The Foundations of Intrinsic Discipline

First, a plea for balance:

“What does it say about our society that ‘the idea of self-control is generally praised’ even though it may sometimes be maladaptive and spoil the experience and savorings of life’?”

~ Alfie Kohn

Here’s some things I might do to foster intrinsic discipline:

  • Start a dialogue across the organisation about the value – and risks – of discipline and the distinctions between the two types of discipline.
  • Explore the purpose of the organisation, from the stakeholders’ perspectives, and the role of discipline in meeting that purpose.
  • Invite folks to consider the connections between intrinsic discipline and intrinsic motivation.
  • Question the nature and understanding of “intrinsic discipline” – it is like having an internal policeman, or more like something that helps everyone to explore and fulfil their own personal values, and needs?

As I’ve been writing this post, it’s been dawning on me that perhaps the idea of transitioning from extrinsic discipline to intrinsic discipline – as part of the wider Analytic-Synergistic transition – is somewhat misleading. Perhaps the transition is more about a change from joylessness to joyfulness (by degrees). We might also see this as a change from a focus on discipline (of either kind) to a focus on (intrinsic) motivation.

“In fact, though, there are different types of motivation, and the type matters more than the amount. Intrinsic motivation consists of wanting to do something for its own sake – to read, for example, just because it’s exciting to lose oneself in a story. Extrinsic motivation exists when the task isn’t really the point; one might read in order to get a prize or someone’s approval. Not only are these two kinds of motivation different — they tend to be inversely related. Scores of studies have shown that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they’re apt to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Researchers keep finding that offering children “positive reinforcement” for being helpful and generous ends up undermining those very qualities, and encouraging students to improve their grades results in their becoming less interested in learning.”

~ Alfie Kohn

I’d love to hear how you feel about all this.

– Bob

Further Reading

Why Self-discipline is Overrated ~ Alfie Kohn
Discipline Defined: Understanding Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation ~ Gordon Shipley
Balancing Agility and Discipline ~ Barry Boehm, Richard Turner

  1. Hi Bob, interesting.

    I’m pro discipline myself. One possible explanation of its lack: working in your own little bubble is (for most people anyway) the easier option; it takes a degree of discipline to seek to work effectively with other people so it’s no wonder that it’s in short supply in organisations that don’t nurture it.

    I have suggested three disciplines (I’ve called them “leadership disciplines”, perhaps you’d prefer “organisational disciplines”) that might support the evolution you seek. A compact that insists that all change will be:
    1) based on *understanding* – no more “tampering” (Deming) or unsafe “bravado” (Collins)
    2) implemented (if that’s the right word) with *agreement* (as opposed to the coercion you describe) in a collaborative process
    3) conceived and conducted with *respect*

    More here:


    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      I’m not sure discipline is something to be unconditionally pro – or anti. I see it more like a tool; maybe useful in certain situations. And I’m not sure I’d use the word “discipline” to describe what it takes to “work effectively with other people”, although (self-)discipline may sometimes serve as a useful tool in that case, also.

      Regarding your three disciplines:
      1) Is this the same as or similar to e.g. Vanguard’s “get knowledge” idea?
      2) I baulk at the ides of agreement, a.k.a. consensus, not least because of the dysfunctions that can arise from seeking and maintaining consensus unskilfully. I prefer the idea of informed consent, as understood in the context of eg Sociocracy. See also:
      3) I have issues with the notion of respect, too. Although I’d accept that “respect” is better than much of what we see in organisations today. See e.g.:

      Ultimately, I find myself much in agreement with Alfie Kohn’s position on self-discipline. (See: Further Reading link)

      – Bob

      • Thanks Bob.

        > And I’m not sure I’d use the word “discipline” to describe what it takes to “work effectively with other people”, although (self-)discipline may sometimes serve as a useful tool in that case, also.

        You’re right, I was in too much of a hurry to separate a multiplicity of issues. I do believe however that we shouldn’t underestimate how hard it is for people (some people anyway) to work effectively with other people.

        Re my 3:

        1) Yes, much along Vanguard lines. I get “understanding” from Kanban’s “Start with what you do now” and the Systems Thinking approach we teach with that.
        2) I too baulk at “consensus”. I understand “agreement” very similarly to how you understand “informed consent”. Unfortunately, neither of us control how these terms are heard 😉
        3i) Comparing “respect” and “compassion”, I may set myself the standard of “clothing myself in compassion” (after Colossians 3:12) but almost by definition I must do it unconditionally and I don’t know that I could or should require it of anyone else.
        3ii) If “respect” has a problem of “judgement” (not sure that I accept that, but let’s go with that for a moment), doesn’t “compassion” stray into “pity”? Doesn’t that risk setting one person above another just as easily?

        And the perspective: I’m asking that we agree that within a defined “bubble”, change will be conducted with understanding, agreement, and respect. A cultural experiment, a reasonably well-defined and practical one I think.

      • Thanks, Mike.

        Ah, people working effectively together! That’s the trick, eh? (With the emphasis on *effectively*). I share your view on how hard it is, and how widespread the failure to do so. Hence my ideas around #fellowship and #humanerelations, amongst other things.

        And re: compassion. A concept in my “declining features” list. Pretty much superseded these days with “empathy” and/or “Unconditional Positive Regard”.

        I love the notion of an agreed “bubble”. William Isaacs (cf “Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together”) uses the key term “crucible” in much the same vein.

        – Bob

  2. > I love the notion of an agreed “bubble”. William Isaacs (cf “Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together”) uses the key term “crucible” in much the same vein.

    Cool. I got “bubble” from Michael Sahota (there’s a link in my article). Thanks for the “crucible” reference – I will investigate.

  3. There is a deeper issue in the notion of intrinsic discipline which I find gets missed in the distinction between the extrinsic and the intrinsic as opposites in some discussions. Self-discipline is a developmental achievement in the psyche of individuals. To hone it to levels which allow for high performance, people need to learn as children how to control their impulses, delay gratification, set healthy boundaries, and focus their attention at the expense of other interests, to name just a few of the achievements of our personal learning processes. But… as children cannot regulate their own nervous systems completely until late adolescence, they need structure, support and guidance, not to mention authority, limits and healthy conflict to foster their development to adulthood from outside. It effects of insufficient extrinsic “containment” support are often tragic.

    By analogy, the people that make up an organization need to learn the capacity for self-directed performance as well, but now in groups. Even as adults, we need the feeling that what is demanded of us in takes place in a context of rules, relationships, and authority which provide the “containment” needed to allow us to test ourselves out, develop and grow. (And as individuals, too, we often need the extrinsic support to develop what we may have missed as children.)

    The distinction, I think, needs to be between extrinsic discipline which creates the conditions under which we can learn and flourish (until we have internalized it to the point where we no longer need it), and extrinsic discipline which diminishes us. Likewise, we could distinguish between the intrinsic discipline of a mature and experienced person who is able to manage whatever challenges he faces, and the intrinsic discipline which has been learned to compensate for failures in development and which hinders us in our flourishing.

    Applied to organizations, immature teams, e.g. need rules, guidance, support and often extrinsic discipline. Mature teams have internalized the “containment” function and need the hierarchy only for strategic decisions. Given that few human groups go through deep developmental processes–especially in the superficial performance environment of most companies–it is a first priority to provide the extrinsic “containment” functions that groups need to get started. Without it, intrinsic flow will have little chance of emerging. The problem is that almost no organization understands the healthy function of extrinsic authority and structures, or what their purpose is.

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