“It is no nonviolence if we merely love those who love us. It is nonviolence only when we love those who hate us.”
~Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers
We’re Still Working in the Dark Ages
Medievalism is a system of beliefs and practices inspired by the Middle Ages of Europe, or by devotion to elements of that period. Closely related to and encompassing Feudalism, and the Manorial system.
Despite many legal and social changes since the Middle Ages, from the perspective of folks working in organisations there’s not much difference between serfdom then and employment today. Employees are hired and remain employed at the whim of the Lords of the organisation, and dismissed with as little thought – or maybe even less thought – than serfs.
The relationship between employer and employees remains predominantly one of power-over. And although a relationship, it’s hardly ever a humane relationship. And thus hardly ever a positive contributor to organisational effectiveness.
Whilst any kind of universal solution remains a long way off, and dependent on widespread social change, individual organisations can address the issue and consequences through deploying ideas like nonviolence, the Antimatter Principle, and redefining the collection of The Folks That Matter. Above all, though, progress depends on us recognising the medievalism implicit in the way our work works, and our relationships with that, and each other. Are you bovvered?
Kahane, A. (2010). Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Where Are All the Helpees?
Amongst my needs, maybe even my most compelling need, is to help people. That’s one reason I blog. Tragically, then, I need helpees – folks that actually need some kind of help.
Aside: I have a very specific definition of “help” (v) here:
“To give aid or support, as requested; be of service.”
I don’t see taking partial or complete responsibility for someone else’s problem or issue as any kind of “help”, whether invited or no. Nor doing I regard the providing of advice, solicited or unsolicited, as ever being helpful.
I define helpees as folks that actually need some kind of help. Folks that are actively engaged in try to get something done, but are, by their own admission, less than entirely able to make as much progress as they need, less than entirely able to see that thing through (for a multitude of reasons) at the speed they need.
Would you be willing to help me find more helpees?
How Much Do You Care?
In recent times I have noted an upswing in the frequency of conversations about the ethical dimension of software development. Although still early days, many aspects of the social implications of software are beginning to receive more attention.
Effective Software Development
The dog’s breakfast that is Agile in the real world today exemplifies, for me, a key aspect of these ethical questions. Not that ethical questions are at all limited to the software industry.
What am I talking about? I’m talking about how people with a clear understanding of e.g. Agile software development (yes, there are some) tolerate, even support, a pallid, ineffective version in their workplace because their jobs and livelihoods depend on not rocking the boat. I’m talking about how folks go along with an ineffective and crippled approach for an easy life. Although how easy is it to stand by and watch project after project fail or limp along, with the consequent frustration and angst for all concerned?
With the oft-reported woefully low levels of employee engagement in most organisations, it’s hardly surprising that people just let such things slide by with little or no comment, complaint or action.
We might take a leaf out of Gandhi’s nonviolent campaign playbook. He placed the idea of satyagraha at the heart of his toolkit of civil resistance. What is satyagraha? Online references describe it as “truth-force” or “the force that is generated through adherence to truth”.
Note: In this context, I choose to regard “truth” as referring to ethical imperatives such as justice, fairness and righteousness, and not simply factual truth. And yes, everyone has their own “truths” a.k.a. assumptions and beliefs. As do groups, such as organisations.
At the core of satyagraha is the willingness to suffer for the truth. Spiritual, emotional and physical suffering, borne in public, serves to emphasise the degree to which the satyagrahi care about the issue upon which they are campaigning.
Do You Care Enough to Suffer?
In the case of Agile, as with other aspects of how organisations run themselves today, it’s fair for folks to ask:
“Is it any of my concern? Don’t senior people with much higher pay grades than me hold the responsibility for these things?”
How is this any different from the old defence “I was only following orders?”
Do you care? Do you care enough to start to say “No.”? In a civil and polite way, of course.
Are you prepared to suffer to see things become better for all concerned?
How hard to eschew violence when everyone is baying for blood?
“Instead of playing the game ‘Making Life Wonderful’, we often play the game called ‘Who’s Right’. Do you know that game? It’s a game where everybody loses.”
~ Marshall B. Rosenberg
Oh, if only we had politicians (and business leaders) who understood the power of nonviolence.
What is “A Decent Conversation”?
Decent conversations have been front of mind for me for many years. Mainly due to my need for them, and for their conspicuous absence in most cases. Sure I get to have many interactions with people, but are those conversations? And moreover, are they “decent”?
In my most recent quickie I borrowed the term “decent” from the headline of the linked article.
Admittedly it’s a little vague. Let’s see if we can’t disambiguate a little.
For openers, a circular definition: For me, a decent conversation is one that meets my needs.
Which of course begs the question “What are my needs of a decent conversation?”. (Please prefix all the below with an implicit “For me…”).
A conversation is more that just two (or more) parties talking to each other. Or more often, at each other.
Conversations or exchanges involving simple assertions – for example “dogs are so cute” – fall short of “decent” conversations. Ditto for expression of opinion – for example, statements beginning “I think…”. I need interactions that involve supportive and mutual sense-making, not just airing of opinions.
While the word ‘sensemaking’ may have an informal, poetic flavour, that should not mask the fact that it is literally just what it says it is.
~ Karl Weick, 1995
Decent conversations must involve skilful listening, on the part of all participants. Expressly, listening for what’s “going on” with each other. Marshall Rosenberg describes this as “focussing on what’s alive, right now, in those participating”.
How often do you feel people are listening to you? That they’re interested in how you’re feeling and what you have to say? That by listening they’re connecting with you as a person? How often do you listen well enough that others feel that same way about you?
More than Listening
Decent conversations involve more than (NVC) listening. They involve empathy, compassion, and a desire to help participants evolve their understanding. To come together in reaching a deeper or more nuanced shared understanding. I sometime refer to this as “shared mutual exploration”.
Yes, that’s a high bar. But with practice and motivation – and yes, support – one that most people are capable of clearing.
Is there value in decent conversations? For me, absolutely. For others? Maybe we can have a decent conversation about that.
Rosenberg, M.B. (2015). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Puddledancer Press.
Kline, N. (2010). More Time to Think: A Way of Being in the World. Fisher King Publishing.
http://www.skillsyouneed.com. (n.d.). Active Listening | SkillsYouNeed. [online] Available at: http://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/active-listening.html [Accessed 7 Aug. 2021].
http://www.psychologytoday.com. (2013). It’s Not Enough to Listen | Psychology Today. [online] Available at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/encountering-america/201303/its-not-enough-listen [Accessed 7 Aug. 2021].
Cordes, R. (2020). Making Sense of Sensemaking: What it is and what it Means for Pandemic Research. [online] Atlantic Council. Available at: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/geotech-cues/making-sense-of-sensemaking-what-it-is-and-what-it-means-for-pandemic-research/ [Accessed 7 Aug. 2021].
Trzeciak, S., Booker, C., Mazzarelli, A. (2019). Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence That Caring Makes a Difference. Studer Group.
Bohm, D. (2014). On dialogue. London: Routledge.
Rodriguez, C. (2013). “On Dialogue” David Bohm. [online] Carmen Rodríguez A. Available at: https://carmenrodrigueza.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/on-dialogue-david-bohm/ [Accessed 7 Aug. 2021].
That’s a Great Idea But…
We’ve all experienced it. Someone comes up with a great idea for doing something different, and better. Everyone agrees it’s a great idea, and better. And yet nothing happens. Nada. Zip.
How to explain this near-universal phenomenon?
I choose to looks at the phenomenon in terms of loss aversion (and its kissing cousin, the status quo bias).
We human beings have an outrageous number of cognitive biases. One of the most powerful of these biases is loss aversion.
Loss Aversion and the Status Quo
“In a nutshell, loss aversion is an important aspect of everyday life. The idea suggests that people have a tendency to stick with what they have unless there is a good reason to switch. Loss aversion is a reflection of a general bias in human psychology (status quo bias) that make people resistant to change. So when we think about change we focus more on what we might lose rather than on what we might get.”
~ Shahram Heshmat Ph.D., Psychology Today
The notion that losses loom larger than gains, originally formalised by Kahneman and Tversky (1979; Tversky & Kahneman, 1991; cf. Markowitz, 1952, p. 155), has proven to have tremendous explanatory power.
In addition to basic examples, loss aversion can help to explain a wide range of phenomena, including the sunk cost fallacy, the attraction effect, the compromise effect, anticipated and experienced regret, and the status quo bias.
Needs and Relatively Ineffective Strategies
In my work as an Organisational Psychotherapist, I see, daily, folks’ reluctance to give up on their “established” strategies for getting their needs met in favour of new strategies offering more effective means for seeing those needs met. Often, MUCH more effective means.
Where does loss aversion come into it? Loss aversion explains the hold these “established” strategies have over people. The promising new strategy may look attractive, but the fear of not getting their needs met (in case the new strategy doesn’t pan out) hugely outweighs the promise of the uplift in effectiveness from the new strategy, if adopted.
“One implication of loss aversion is that individuals have a strong tendency to remain at the status quo, because the disadvantages of leaving it loom larger than advantages.”
~ Daniel Kahneman (Kahneman 1991)
We fallible humans cling to our established strategies for seeing our needs met for fear of losing out if we choose a different strategy, almost no matter how attractive that new strategy may be.
For me, this goes a long way to explain “resistance to change” – which may more usefully be called “attachment to the status quo”.
Psychology and neuroscience offers some suggestions how to remediate loss aversion and status quo bias. I may explore these suggestions in a future post (given demand).
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus And Giroux.
Rick, S. (2011). Losses, Gains, and Brains: Neuroeconomics can help to answer open questions about loss aversion. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 21(4), 453–463. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2010.04.004
Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1991). Anomalies: The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5(1), 193–206. https://doi.org/10.1257/jep.5.1.193
Rosenberg, M. B. (2015). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Puddledancer Press.
Why We’re All So Angry All The Time
In his book “The Surprising Purpose of Anger” Marshall Rosenberg tells us that anger stems from situations where our needs are not being met. When a need is unmet, we’re likely to feel frustrated and react aggressively (see: Blair, “Considering Anger from a Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective” . And, being human, we’re also likely to look for other people to blame for our needs going unmet.
That may be so. Indeed, Rosenberg’s perspective is a key element informing the Antimatter Principle.
But I have another theory. Or at least, a complementary theory. What if we’re so angry all the time – at a whole host of different things – because we have a need to feel angry? What if we find some real joy, delight – or at least catharsis – in feeling angry?
The theory: We’re all so angry all the time because we like it that way. We delight in the rush of adrenaline and flow of blood to the amygdala – and related parts of the brain – that accompanies our feelings of anger.
This might help explain some of the behaviours I see time and again in work and life. And note in myself, too.
“There’s something delicious about finding fault with something, Especially when our egos are involved (which is nearly always the case), we may protect our anger. We justify it and even feed it.”
~ Perma Chodron
We see lots of self-help articles about moderating or dealing with our anger. I suspect an underlying moral imperative along the lines of “anger is bad”. I don’t subscribe. Anger, like any other emotion, strikes me as neither bad nor good – it just IS. Of course, emotion-led responses borne of anger can lead to unfortunate outcomes – such as deterioration in our relationships with others. Which we probably would find useful to avoid, not least in the context of the workplace.
Some research suggests that when we attempt to tackle our emotional state head-on, it only makes things worse:
“…when experimental subjects are told of an unhappy event, but then instructed to try not to feel sad about it, they end up feeling worse than people who are informed of the event, but given no instructions about how to feel. In another study, when patients who were suffering from panic disorders listened to relaxation tapes, their hearts beat faster than patients who listened to audiobooks with no explicitly ‘relaxing’ content. Bereaved people who make the most effort to avoid feeling grief, research suggests, take the longest to recover from their loss.”
~ Oliver Burkman
In conclusion, may I suggest we recognise and acknowledge the feeling, embrace the delicious joy of anger, use it as fuel for our spirit, and don’t get caught up in moralistic judgments of ourself or the emotion. And remember, we don’t have to ACT on our anger.
Considering Anger from a Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective ~ R. J. R. Blair
The Surprising Purpose of Anger: Beyond Anger Management: Finding the Gift ~ Marshall Rosenberg
Anger And Domination Systems ~ Marshall Rosenberg
How To Get Rid Of Anger: 3 New Secrets From Neuroscience ~ Eric Barker
Buddhism’s Solutions for Anger ~ Barbara O’Brien
The Power of Humane Relationships ~ Think Different blog post
The Relevance of Giants – 2. O Sensei (Morihei Ueshiba)
On most every occasion when I’m speaking in public – at conferences, workshops, and the like – I tend to mention one or more of my “Giants” of Rightshifting. Men and women who, through their lives and work have contributed significantly to my understanding of work, and in particular to my understanding of effective collaborative knowledge work.
Many folks express interest in these Giants, but I do wonder if they appreciate the relevance of the ideas and experiences of these Giants to their own daily lives at work.
I mean, what relevance does, say, O Sensei have to developers, testers, operations staff and the like? Which aspects of any of these Giants’ work could be useful or helpful or simply comforting to these folks?
In this occasional series of posts I’ll be exploring some of the Giants’ relevance to folks other than theorists, managers, consultants and the like. I’ll be sharing some insights into their work, and specifically, the likely relevance.
With these posts I hope to pique your curiosity just a little. Let’s continue, with this second post in the series, with O Sensei.
I’m not going to dwell on his early life and experiences in the Japanese Army, his adventures in Mongolia, nor his experiences in Manchuria and Japan during the time of World War 2.
I suggest the primary relevance of O Sensei to most folks working in the field of software development (and production operations) is Aikido – the martial art he developed. Excepting it’s less a martial art, and more a philosophy for life, and for harmonising with others.
Unlike many other martial arts, Aikido is focussed on caring for others, as emphasised by the translation of the three kanji: ai-ki-do as the Way of Unifying Spirit or the Way of Spiritual Harmony. O Sensei envisioned Aikido as an expression of his personal philosophy of universal peace and reconciliation. O Sensei’s goal was to create an art that practitioners could use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.
“Blending“, one of the core techniques of Aikido, invites us to look at conflicts from the perspectives of the other person – or people – involved. For me, this has a direct connection with empathy – as promoted by e.g. Marshall Rosenberg and others of the nonviolent community.
“Life is growth. If we stop growing, technically and spiritually, we are as good as dead.”
~ Morihei Ueshiba
Where’s the Relevance?
How do we make it more likely that we’re all spending our time on stuff that matters? How do we go about attending to folks’ real needs? I find blending a great asset in identifying with the needs of others. As I blend, I see their perspective, and their needs, more clearly. And in turn, they can feel more listened-to. And choose to reveal other things, crucial things, that means we get to understand more about what matters to us all. With this knowledge – and goodwill – we have a better chance of focusing on what matters, and of reducing the chance of wasting some or all of our time on the inconsequential, on detours, and on dead ends.
You might like to join an Aikido dojo, to practice the physical forms of the techniques. And to discuss the philosophy with like-minded people wha have already started the journey. Beware, though, of those dojos and sensei that emphasise the physical forms at the expense of Aikido philosophy.
The Antimatter Opening Question
In Clean Language, a conversation with a client often opens with the question “What would you like to have happen…?”
This has bugged me for a long time, for two reasons:
- Maybe the client doesn’t like for anything to happen (therefore it’s not truly a Clean question).
- In the Antimatter frame, it matters little what the client might like (or want) to have happen. It matters a whole lot more what they might need to have happen.
So, I generally open with “What might you need to have happen…” (the Antimatter frame).
As I make no pretence to use Clean Language (excepting on the rare occasion), reason 1, above, is rendered moot. And reason 2 dissolves as we expressly ask what the client might need. I’ll just point out that this is a much harder question to answer, not least because folks may be able to quickly state what they’d like, but generally have much more difficulty identifying their needs. For me, this is another point in favour of the Antimatter frame – we can directly begin to explore the question of what they might need to have happen. And for this, I generally opt for the NVC (nonviolent communication) four step approach.
Before this turns into a mini-series, I’d just like to add one observation to my previous two posts.
Setting aside the outcomes sought by the people that matter, outcomes related to the business and its needs, there’s the not inconsequential matter of the unexpressed outcomes sought by these folks with respect to their own personal needs. Often, these needs are not discussed, shared or even registered at a conscious level by the individuals concerned. And often, then, explicit outcomes have yet to be identified – both by them and by us.
There’s not much point addressing the needs of the organisation (see my previous post) without also attempting, at least, to address the needs of the individual people that matter. This asks of us more effort, because we’re likely to be starting “further back”, before these folks have even expressed their personal sought outcomes. And because they may be reluctant to get into these kinds of conversations, being unusual in a workplace context. And then there’s the difficulty involved in “speaking to power” or at least empathising with people in positions of power.
Some examples may help clarify this observation.
Senior managers and executives, in articulating the sought outcomes listed previously, may also want to control the solutions chosen, hence their providing solutions in the form of wants. Often there’s an underlying need to feel “in control”, driven by some need, such as their need for order, or personal safety, or kudos.
Similarly, articulating their sought outcomes may, in part, derive from their need for tangible progress, or a need to be seen as the driver of that progress.
Entering into, and sharing the exploration of these often intensely personal topics is certainly difficult. But that difficulty can ease when we have the right conditions – such as trust, friendship, skill, and safety. And without such conversations, we’re that much more likely to spend much time and effort on delivering outcomes that no one really needs, or worse – that actively work against folks’ needs.
Crucial Conversations ~ Patterson & Grenny
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most ~ Patton, Stone, Heen & Fisher
Discussing the Undiscussable ~ Bill Noonan
Feelings Inventory ~ List at the Centre For Nonviolent Communication
Needs Inventory ~ List at the Centre For Nonviolent Communication
Testbash Dublin and Organisational Psychotherapy
As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m just back from presenting an interactive session on Organisational Psychotherapy at Testbash Dublin. Some folks seemed confused as to the relevance of Organisational Psychotherapy to testers and the world of testing, so I’m happy to explain the connection as I see it. (And please note that many of my previous posts on Organisational Psychotherapy may also help to illuminate this connection.)
I’ll start by riffing on something Rob Meaney said during his presentation:
“Significant quality improvements [aren’t] driven by testing. They [are] driven by building relationships and influencing the right people at the right time.” ~ @RobMeaney #TestBash
Quality (and other) improvements come from improved relationships. This has been a theme on this blog for some years now. For example see: The Power of Humane Relationships.
I asked a key (for me) question during my session (several times):
“If we accept that (as per the Marshall Model) it’s the collective mindset of the organisation that determines its relative effectiveness, how do we propose to support the organisation if and when it choses to do something about its mindset?”
Unsurprisingly perhaps, I heard no answers, excepting my own proposal for a means to that end: Organisational Psychotherapy.
I wonder how many folks involved with testing ask themselves and their peers the question “How can our organisation become more effective at testing?”. Or, using the #NoTesting frame, “How can our organisation become more effective at delivering quality products and services?”
Organisational Psychotherapy is not just about improving product quality, however. Through improved relationships, and a shift in how the organisation relates to its people (i.e. from Theory-X to Theory-Y), the quality of life at work also improves. Put another way, we all have more fun, more job satisfaction, and get to realise more of our potential at work. Further, for all the folks that matter, their several needs get better met. And, as a bonus for the organisation itself, it gets to see its people more productive and engaged. What’s not to like?
I’ve also written elsewhere about using the Antimatter Principle in practical ways during software development. For example, during development we eschew requirements gathering in favour of incrementally elaborating hypotheses about the needs of all the folks that matter, and then conducting experiments to explore those needs. I can envisage teams that still need testers adopting a needs-focused approach to driving testing. For example, putting into place various means by which to answer the question “how well does our product meet the needs of the people that matter to us?”.
On a related note, some folks asked me about practical applications of Organisational Psychotherapy in their day-to-day work as testers. Here’s just a few applications which immediately come to mind:
- Improving communication with the people that matter (i.e. developers, fellow testers, management, stakeholders, customers, etc.). I find NVC (nonviolent communication) skills and practice particularly useful in this context.
- Clarifying what works and thus what to do more of (Cf Solutions Focus). This can improve team retrospectives.
- Helping the people that matter (including ourselves) feel better about what we’re doing (Cf. Positive Psychology).
- Understanding each other’s strengths, with a view to having the right people in the right seats on the bus (Cf. StrengthsFinder).
- Eliciting requirements (if you still do that) (Cf Clean Language).
- Building a community (such as a Testing CoP or a multi-skilled self-organising product team) (Cf Satir Family Therapy).
- Improved cooperation with higher-ups (empathy, Transactional Analysis, etc.).
- Dealing with blockers to changing/improving the way the work works.
I’d love to hear if this post has helped put my recent Testbash session in context.
I’m just back from presenting an interactive session at Testbash Dublin. I enjoyed conversations on the topic of the session – Organisational Psychotherapy – as well as conversations around e.g. #NoTesting. Indeed, I noted a common theme running through many of the sessions from the more seasoned testers presenting: a grumbling low-key disaffection with the notion of testing as a path to quality.
A number of folks engaged me in trying to better understand what I might mean by #NoTesting. Such conversations generally start out with “What do you mean by ‘testing’?”. My time in Dublin has allowed me to see through my discomfort in avoiding this question (yes, I generally choose to avoid it). I’m loath to get into semantic arguments from the get-go. I find they rarely lead to productive mutual exploration of such topics.
The bottom-line, is: It doesn’t matter one iota what I mean by “testing”. Whatever YOU mean by “testing”, that’s what I’m talking about when I mention #NoTesting. It’s an invitation for YOU to pause awhile to consider how life would be different if you stopped doing “testing” (whatever YOU choose to understand by that term) and did something else to address the same ends.
Ends Over Means
There’s an idea from therapy which might help you understand this perspective. In eg Nonviolent Communication (and some other therapies), human motivation is assumed to stem from attempts to get our needs met. That is, our behaviours and actions result from the strategies (means) we choose in order to meet our needs (ends). Any particular strategy affords us a limited palette of behaviours and actions. Aside: Often, we have little or no conscious awareness of either our ends or our chosen means.
“Testing” (whatever YOU choose to understand by that term) is a strategy you (or someone else) has chosen – almost always, implicitly – for getting your or their needs met. And other folks’ needs, too, in the general case.
There are always other strategies (means, options) for meeting folks’ needs. Yet rarely do these other strategies receive any consideration. Maybe some of these other options offer a way to better meet folks’ needs. How would we ever discover that, without considering them, becoming aware of them, exploring them?
So that’s what I’m talking about with #NoTesting (amongst a raft of #No hashtags) – an invitation and reminder to actively consider whether your default means (strategy) are best serving your ends (needs), whether your first and automatic choice of strategy is the most effective way to attend to your – and other folks’ – needs.
Do Nothing That Is Not Play
If we think about it calmly for but a moment, one logical outcome of nonviolence is folks not working for a living, but playing for a living.
Many companies seem desperate for “innovation”. Is innovation more like to come about through folks doing what they’re told (“working”) or through playing with things, as they see fit? I posit the latter is far more likely.
And no, this is not some flight of fancy. Do we really embrace wholeheartedly the set of assumptions labelled by Douglas McGregor as Theory-Y?
Theory-Y assumptions are: (1) physical and mental effort are natural and most people (depending on the work environment) find work to be a source of satisfaction, (2) they generally, on their own motivation, exercise self-control, self-direction, creativity, and ingenuity in pursuit of individual and collective (company) goals, (3) they either seek responsibility or learn to accept it willingly, and that (4) their full potential is not tapped in most organisations.
Could it be that folks’ “full potential is not tapped in most organisations” because they are obliged to “work” rather than play?
Could it be that engagement (and productivity) would take an amazing leap forwards if we invited folks to “play” rather than “work”?
Could you have the courage to experiment to find out for yourself?
Or are we all so in thrall to what Walter Wink calls The Domination System that play as an alternative to work is undiscussable?
Serious Play ~ Michael Schrage
The Importance of Play (A Valentine for Marshall Rosenberg, part 2) ~ John Kinyon
What If #7 – No Work ~ Think Different
The Human Side of Enterprise ~ Douglas McGregor
Theories of Motivation ~ Think Different
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.
We chose the Advice process as a means to devolving and distributing decision-making. We like its potential for quicker – and more impactful – decisions, raised levels of trust, improved communication, and higher levels of involvement and engagement. This list describes this potential, 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.
In practice, we have not yet seen full realisation of this potential. Overall, we attribute this to poor implementation of the Advice Process, which we’re now intent (sic) on fixing – whilst not undermining its original intent (see above).
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).
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.
Decision Making ~ ReinventingOrganisations Wiki
The Advice Process – Definition and Usage Tips ~ Daniel Tenner
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 can create 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.
- I feel our relationship has really sucked lately. I’ve noticed us disagreeing a lot more than usual these last few weeks.
- I need some order and tidiness in our office, it looks like a bomb went off. I see a lot of stuff lying about.
- 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’m 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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, assumptions 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 need 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 one or two observable behaviour 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
It can help to 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.
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.
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.
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
What If #7 – No Work
One of my “giants” is the amazing Richard Buckminster Fuller. As it happens, the “Synergistic” mindset, the third of the four mindsets in the Marshall Model, is named for him and his work in Synergetics.
“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist…
The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”
~ R. Buckminster Fuller
Others, including e.g. Bertrand Russell, and Henry David Thoreau, have also remarked on the essential folly of working for a living. Indeed, some progressive municipalities are beginning to discuss, consider, even experiment with providing their citizens a stipend, sufficient to allow them to live and pursue their individual callings.
What if the whole notion of work, and the civic duty to work so beloved of the conservative right, is just a fiction conceived and maintained to hold us in thrall?
“The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.”
~ Bertrand Russell
Alternatives, might we but consider them, abound.
I myself am fond of the idea of play:
“Do nothing that is not play.”
~ Marshall Rosenberg
Marshall Rosenberg defines play as all those things we truly choose to do – actions we take for their own sake, and not because we are afraid of the consequences or hoping for some kind of reward.
What if we encouraged folks to “play”, rather than “work”? To do those things in which they find intrinsic joy and delight, rather than those things they “have” to do (to please the boss, to get paid, because they feel obligated, etc.).
What effect would that have on motivation? On joy? On engagement? On innovation? On delight, for everyone concerned?
Maybe you believe that folks, free from the violence of coercion, would just slack off? What might that say about your Theory-X vs Theory-Y orientation? About your assumptions regarding people and human nature?
How do you feel about the notion of replacing work with play? How far is it from e.g. Drucker’s widely-accepted perspective?:
“Accept the fact that we have to treat almost anybody as a volunteer.”
~ Peter Drucker
Henry Hikes To Fitchburg ~ D.B. Johnson
The Importance of Play (A Valentine for Marshall Rosenberg, part 2) ~ John Kinyon
Other Posts In This Occasional Series
What If #1 – No Management
What If #2 – No Process
What If #3 – No Telling
What If #4 – No Answers
What If #5 – Continuous Improvement Is Useless
What If #6 ~ Agile Nirvana
What If #8 – Agile Never Happened