The Organisational Psychotherapy Approach To Agile Coaching

The Organisational Psychotherapy Approach To Agile Coaching

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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:

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– Bob

 

2 comments
  1. Hi Bob,

    Often, the organizational development projects I do start with conflict workshops with teams. Sometimes there is personal work to be done with team members, who may need someone to help them to reflect on their situation and consider reactions and behaviors they are having, and which they might want personally to change.

    More often the solution lies in changing the organization in which the team is embedded. Working with the team provides an analysis of the bottle-necks, and what needs to be initiated, as the team often knows very well why it is suffering and where the organization is blocking it.

    I rarely see agile coaches able to help with problem, as they are tasked with supporting the team rather than changing the organization, and have neither the status with management nor the self-understanding as organizational developers to be able to get the traction needed.

    If organizational change is what the management team is looking for, then the path is open to bringing both congruence and innovation to the organization, by supporting the organization to align itself with the reality it is dealing with through the needs and insights of the people in the teams themselves.. Effectively, this is modern strategy consulting, which starts bottom-up, and later adds a top-down character when the system as a whole begins to shift through management initiatives.

    • Hi Tom,

      Thanks for taking the time to pen a comment of considerable length, and for sharing some of your experiences.

      Unfortunately, I don’t know what to do with the information you provide. Do you need something from me, or is there anything actionable that readers might take away and apply?

      – Bob

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