Antimatter principle


I was about to name this post “Pillars of TOC”, but after second thoughts I believe these pillars are equally useful outside of their immediate Theory of Constraints context.

Do you need to be able to think more clearly? Or maybe you know someone who would benefit from clearer thinking?

Goldratt asserts the pillars described below as foundational to “clear thinking”:

  • Inherent Simplicity
  • Every Conflict Can Be Removed
  • People Are Good
  • Never Say I Know

Pillar: Inherent Simplicity

This first pillar is a choice. An intention to look at situations as if they were always inherently simple. As if the nature of reality itself is simple (and harmonious).

“Reality is simple and harmonious.”

If we choose to proceed as if this were true, then we will be less likely to get trapped in looking for sophisticated explanations and complicated solutions. We will be less likely to channel our attention towards just those things we allow ourselves to see.

“The first and most profound obstacle is that people believe that reality is complex, and therefore they are looking for sophisticated explanations for complicated solutions. Do you understand how devastating this is?”

~ Goldratt, Eliyahu M.. The Choice, Revised Edition (Kindle Locations 213-215).

For clear thinking, we must choose to proceed as if we accept the idea of Inherent Simplicity, as a practical way of viewing reality, any reality. We may even go so far as to choose this as our approach to life in general.

“The biggest obstacle is that people grasp reality as complex when actually it is surprisingly simple.”

~ Goldratt, Eliyahu M.. The Choice, Revised Edition (Kindle Locations 219-220).

So what exactly do we mean by Inherent Simplicity? In a nutshell, Inherent Simplicity is the cornerstone of all modern science, as stated by Newton: “Natura valde simplex est et sibi consona.” We may translate this as “nature is exceedingly simple and harmonious with itself”.

Note: Goldratt states that with the Theory of Constraints, he takes a “Hard Science” perspective in all situations.

In practice, this means examining the cause-effect relationships within a given situation. And, contrary to our intuition, where we would expect some form of combinatorial explosion of complexity to result, Inherent Simplicity (and Newton) tells us that the system will converge, and common causes will inevitably appear as we drill down. If we drill down deep enough, we’ll find just a very few, or maybe even just one, root cause. So the result of systematically examining the cause-effect relationships in a situation leads us not to enormous complexity, but to wonderful simplicity.

If you doubt this, take a look at this article explaining the relative simplicity of two systems.

Hint: If I’m a scientist or a manager, I’m not so much interested in how difficult the system is to describe, but more in the difficulty of controlling and predicting its behaviour, especially when changes are introduced. The scientist or manager’s definition of complexity is: “the more degrees of freedom the system has the more complex it is.”

We’re not claiming that reality is not overwhelmingly complex; we acknowledge it in full. But what we are claiming that we can see things more clearly, think more clearly, when we choose to proceed on the basis that reality is exceedingly simple.

Note: We may begin to see how this perspective renders the idea of “complex adaptive systems” irrelevant.

Pillar: Every Conflict Can Be Removed

Let’s come back to the earlier proposition about Inherent Simplicity, that “Reality is simple and harmonious (with itself).”

We may choose to interpret “harmonious with itself” to mean that there are no contradictions in nature. In the material world. In “reality”.

“There are no conflicts in reality.”

For example, if we measure the length of a rod, by two different methods, and get two different answers, we don’t compromise. We don’t say “let’s split the difference and use the average between the two methods”. The contradiction between the two methods signals us that somewhere along the line we have made an erroneous assumption of some kind. And so we’ll go looking for that flawed assumption, and never accept a compromise. Such is the strength of our belief that there can be no contradictions in nature.

But this pillar is about conflicts, not contradictions. A conflict can occur any time we have opposing requirements, such as the need for an aircraft wing to be both strong and light. All undesirable effects (in the cause-effect relationships within a given situation) stem from such conflicts.

So this pillar is about choosing to proceed such that we treat every conflict like a scientist treats a contradiction. Which means, examining the conflict to uncover the inherent erroneous assumption(s), and refusing compromise as a way out.

“Don’t accept conflict as a given.”

Note: All forms of optimising and optimisation fall into the category of “compromising”. Such a waste of everyone’s time and talents.

Pillar: People Are Good

With this pillar, we come back again to the idea of harmony. This time we’re interested in another obstacle to thinking clearly: blaming others.

“Blaming another person is not a solution.”

In fact, in many cases, blaming others points us in the wrong direction, away from a solution. Even if the person we blame were to be fired, in most cases the problem will remain. Blaming is a sure-fire way to undermine the harmony in our personal relationships.

And we need that harmony, so that we can collaborate effectively with other people (our peers, our suppliers, our customers) in finding the solutions we seek.

So, we choose to proceed with the deep conviction that harmony exists in any relationship between people (even though in most cases, by default, we don’t bother to find and implement it). We choose to proceed on the basis that

“Win-Win is always possible.”

This perspective allows us to think more clearly, and find solutions that work for all parties involved, not just one side. Yes, it’s more work, but it gives our solutions much more stickability.

And, incidentally, for effective harmonious relationships, we have to care about the people involved. We have to invest the time and effort into knowing them and their true needs (cf. The Antimatter Principle).

Pillar: Never Say I Know

When we choose to proceed on the basis that we know about a situation, we’re unlikely to seek improvements, to check for holes in our logic or understanding, or to believe that the situation can be improved.

So, let’s always proceed as if we DON’T know. This choice can help us think more clearly, examine the situation afresh, and discover different, more effective ways of doing the things that need doing.

“Every situation can be substantially improved.”


You may see the above pillars as largely philosophical, as a way of looking at the world. Personally, I choose to see them as pragmatic, as a way of interacting with the world. And, returning to the notion of harmony, we may begin to see how all these pillars complement each other, harmoniously.

Harmony: “the quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole.”

– Bob

Further Reading

The Choice ~ Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Efrat Goldratt-Ashlag


Antimatter Hiring

When we’re hiring, why not invite candidates to actively demonstrate the core capabilities that our organisation, group, or team, needs?

Asides: How often do hiring managers know what core capabilities the organisation, group or team needs? How often are they capable of recognising and assessing candidates on those capabilities? And how aware are they of the impact the prevailing system conditions (the way the work works) has on a candidate’s ability to apply their capabilities, should they be hired?

We Want to See Jugglers Juggle

When we’re hiring e.g. coders, we’ll generally ask to see them write some code. When we’re hiring analysts we may ask to see them analyse something. When we hire testers, we’ll likely ask to see them test something. Etc..

The Antimatter Principle proposes that the core capability in all collaborative knowledge work is the capability to attend to folks’ needs. Which, by the way, implies the capability to discuss and more-or-less clearly identify those needs, as well as the capability to subsequently find effective ways to address those needs.

Under this premise, the ideal candidate would open the interview conversation with

“Hi there, what would you like to have happen, here and now, today?”

Or more directly/explicitly (at the risk of alienating the uninitiated hiring manager),

“Hi there, what needs do you have of this interview, that I might be able to attend to, here and now, today?”

To which the cooperative hiring manager might reply,

“Well, as we’re hiring for [e.g.] coders at the moment, I need to understand how capable you would be in that role if you joined us. Can you suggest some ways in which you might be able to address that need, here and now, today?”

Prompting and Reframing

I guess you’d say that the preceding dialogue is, however, most unlikely. Most candidates will not be seeking to understand the hiring manager’s needs, nor will they know how acceptable – or unacceptable – such an opening gambit might be. Much more likely, they’ll play safe and let the hiring manager lead them through the interview conversation.

So, until the world changes and conversations of the kind I’ve illustrated become the norm, the hiring manager may have to prompt the candidate, and reframe the conversation at the beginning, to open the door, so to speak. Here’s a modified opening exploring this approach:

Hiring manager:

“We believe that attending to folks’ needs is a core capability we absolutely have to hire for in all our candidates. I’d like to experience you demonstrating your capability in that area.”

“As we’re hiring for [e.g.] coders at the moment, I have a need to understand how capable you would be in that role if you joined us. Can you suggest some ways in which you might be able help me understand your coding abilities, here and now, today?”


If we focus explicitly on the capability to attend to folks’ needs, we might improve our chances of actually making job offers to candidates that have this capability. Surely this is the outcome we seek?

Recap for New Readers

The Antimatter Principle is “the only principle we need for becoming wildly effective at collaborative knowledge work.”

Stated simply, the Antimatter Principle says:

“Attend to folks’ needs.”

Over the years, I’ve blogged about a wide variety of the deep implications, and impacts, stemming from the application of this principle.

– Bob

Further Reading

The Antimatter Principle ~ Think Different blog post

Wanna See Me Juggle? ~ Think Different blog post

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?


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 Concept Of Value

Many folks talk about value. I have a distinct suspicion that few have any clear idea of what they themselves mean by the term. And of those few, I suspect each might have a different meaning in mind. I myself attempted to define the term some years ago.

This post doesn’t try to define “value”, but it does suggest how we might broaden and bring about a more shared understanding of the term. Please do suggest how this particular quantification (see below) might be improved.

Quantification As A Means To Shared Understanding

Tom Gilb suggests that to better understand a thing, we might choose to quantify various characteristics of that thing.

Example: Quality


Quality is characterized by these traits:

  1. Quality describes ‘how well’ a function is done.
  2. Quality describes the partial effectiveness of a function (as do all other performance attributes).
  3. Quality is valued to some degree by some stakeholders of the system
  4. More quality is generally valued by stakeholders; especially if the increase is free, or lower cost, than the value of the increase.
  5. Quality attributes can be articulated independently of the particular means (designs) used for reaching a specific quality level –
    even though all quality levels depend on the particular designs used to achieve them.
  6. A particular quality can be a described in terms of a complex concept, consisting of multiple elementary quality concepts.
  7. Quality is variable (along a definable scale of measure: as are all scalar attributes).
  8. Quality levels are capable of being specified quantitatively (as are all scalar attributes).
  9. Quality levels can be measured in practice.
  10. Quality levels can be traded off to some degree; with other system attributes valued more by stakeholders.
  11. Quality can never be perfect (100%), in the real world.
  12. There are some levels of a particular quality that may be outside the state of the art; at a defined time and circumstance.
  13. When quality levels increase towards perfection, the resources needed to support thoselevels tend towards infinity.

The Concept Of Value

Value: the concept, the noun.

[Note: the Planguage/Competitive Engineering concepts glossary has an entry for Value (*269)]

A ‘value’ is

– A scalar attribute

– reflecting a need

– someone has

Value is characterized by these traits:

  1. Value implies the meeting of ‘a need’ someone has (generally, a someone that matters).
  2. Value is theoretical, at least until someone has something tangible in their hands and can try it out to see it it does, indeed, meet their proposed need, or not.
  3. Value is time-sensitive. What meets someone’s need on a given day may not meet their need a week before, or a week after.
  4. Value attributes (the characteristics of a given need) can be articulated independently of the particular means (designs) used for reaching a specific value level – even though the meeting of each need depends on the particular designs – or strategies – used.
  5. A particular value can be a described in terms of a complex concept, consisting of multiple elementary value concepts.
  6. Value is variable (along one or more definable scales of measure: as are all scalar attributes).
  7. Value levels are capable of being specified quantitatively (as are all scalar attributes).
  8. Value levels can be measured in practice.
  9. Value levels can be traded off to some degree; with other value levels.
  10. Value can never be perfect (100%), in the real world.
  11. There are some levels of a particular value that may be outside the state of the art; at a defined time and circumstance.
  12. When value levels increase towards perfection, the resources needed to support those levels tend increase geometrically.

Quantification Of The Concept Of Value

[TBD – Contributions and suggestions welcomed]

– Bob

The Twelfth Principle

There are four values and twelve principles connected with the Agile Manifesto. As the folks at 12thPrinciple say,

“the four values and eleven of the twelve Agile principles do not address the wider organization at all.”

This is one of the key reasons why so many Agile adoptions (circa 80%) fail to deliver on the Agile promise.

I have this weeks added my name to the list of signatories at  Not because I totally and wholeheartedly embrace the “Twelfth Principle” in its current form. But because I wish to lend support to the idea that it’s the wider organisational context that utterly determines whether any kind of progressive change effort or initiative succeeds or fails.

The Twelfth Principle (n.b. actually appearing fifth in the list of Principles behind the Agile Manifesto) reads:

“Build projects around motivated individuals.
Give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done.”

I see some basic flaws in this, but it does serve to highlight (at least, implicitly) the role of the wider organisation.

Here’s my take on these “flaws”:

  • Projects. I see little point in using projects to frame development efforts. Personally, I subscribe to #NoProjects, and FlowChain as a practical means to replace the whole idea of projects, in favour of product development flow.
  • Individuals. Yes, teams consist of individuals. But Man is a social animal, and collaborative knowledge work – such as software and product development requires society, not individuals. I get the idea that we’re really taking about a focus on people, here. As opposed to say structure, hierarchy, process, or what have you.
  • Give. Not so much give as in charity or largesse, but give as in make available, enable.
  • Them. Shades of them and us? Unfortunate choice of pronoun.

With a free hand, and the awesome benefit of hindsight, I might represent this principle thusly:

“We accept that collaborative knowledge-work proceeds best when we place people at the core of our focus.
We recognise that people do best within a supportive environment,
where needs are shared and attended to by all.”

How might you rephrase this principle?

– 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

A Second Open Letter to the Project Management Community

Since my first open letter to the Project Management community, some three years ago now, not much has changed. Not that I expected a single blog post to have much impact.

After Agile. What now?

The rising dissatisfaction with the Agile approach – even amongst the Agile community – and the rumblings around the question “After Agile. What now?”, leads me to update my earlier letter, and broaden its scope to address the Agile Community, too.

Dear All

Dear Project Managers and Agilists everywhere,

I hear you continue to have mixed views about the ongoing, er, “developments”, in the field of Software Development. I won’t call them “advances” as we may not be able to agree that they are, in fact, advancing anything. Incidentally, I share some of your likely skepticism on that front.

I am writing to you today to share some opinions and observations about the changes in train in the software development field, globally. Whilst patchy in their uptake, with many a mis-step, changes are afoot. I can relate to your professional concerns that we retain the best of what we have learned from decades of successful project management (this also, we have to admit, being very patchy, too).

Many who look to advance the field of software development also have concerns. Concerns that some of the received wisdom of project management professionals has been rendered redundant or even dysfunctional by recent advances in fields such as psychology, neuroscience, sociology and evidence-based management.

These bilateral concerns have lead to understandable, yet vexing, tensions and misunderstandings between the various communities. Nowhere have these been more evident, perhaps, than between ‘traditional’ project managers and the Agile crowd.

And now, a third faction has also entered the debate. I’ll call these the After Agilists.

I find it helpful to characterise this conflict as a clash of world-views. In a nutshell, a clash between what McGregor has called “Theory X” and “Theory Y”, compounded by the clash between those who believe Agile is all we need for success, and those who recognise the flaws in both “traditional” project management and “conventional Agile” and wish to move on, correcting them as we go

I hope I’m right in thinking that we all share a common objective – a desire to see better outcomes for everyone involved, to see the needs of all stakeholders much better met than has been the case to date. Oh, and maybe improving the levels effectiveness of the organisations within which we work, too (another need, for many).

Whilst it may appear the arguments and contentions arise from our different ways and means for achieving this objective, I’d like to suggest that the conflict – as a product of conflicting world-views – is more deep-seated, and all the more pernicious for that. We can hardly expect folks, of any persuasion, to change their world-views overnight, if at all. Nor blame them for that aspect of their humanity.

And given the fundamental differences between these various world-views, it seems overly optimistic to expect these world-views ever to coexist peacefully and productively.

All we might hope for is a little more understanding, a little less fractiousness, and a future where we can all at least agree to disagree.

More optimistically, we might also realise that everyone has much to learn – and unlearn – from each other. That, perhaps, is something we can all work on together.

Thanks for listening,

– Bob

Further Reading

Power And Love ~ Adam Kahane
Power and Love – RSA video

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