Archive for the ‘Organizational Change’ category

Listening for Metaphors in Interviews

April 12, 2017

Here’s what I listen for when I interview: metaphors.  I use metaphor-listening to draw some tentative conclusions about a person’s thinking. I do this out of habit from the skills I’ve developed as a Clean Language coach.

Here are some metaphors used by a recruiter in a recent interview:

‘raw shootout’ to describe the competitive coaches market,   

                      literal meaning of shootout: “a decisive gun battle”

‘running you through the gauntlet’ to describe the customer interview process 

literal meaning:  “a former punishment, chiefly military, in which the offender was made to run between two rows of men who struck at him with switches or weapons as he passed”  

‘put in a pipeline’ to describe what happens to me next

literal meaning of pipeline: “a long pipe, typically underground, for conveying oil, gas, etc., over long distances” 

I soon developed an image of a big filter entering the ground, where I and other ‘resources’ who had survived duking it out, and harsh interrogations would be dumped into the delivery mechanism to fuel that Big Agile industrial complex.

These metaphors do not align with my values.  The interviewer was clearly not aware of his own metaphors.  There were no other metaphors that described an alternate reality or an alternate mental model in that interview. I do not judge, but I do notice how I feel and react. 

I am learning the realities of big placement companies with big revenue numbers that lack focus on what really matters:  the connections that people make with each other to gain trust, build alliances, create great products, and instill humanity back in the work force.

Agility is harder than you might think without this.  Connections do matter. And so do contractual relationships which need to be built on a foundation of trust, transparency, and a healthy does of shared values.

What do you listen for in interviews?
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If you are interested in forging stronger bonds, safety, trust, engagement, authenticity at work, do check out my upcoming one day (very small) retreat on the weekend of May 6th.  Accepting up to 6 people on a pay-as-you-can basis.

Agile Assessments as a Burdensome Weight or a Guiding Enabler

January 28, 2017

A few years back when I was a coach in an enterprise wide agile adoption program, I had my first head-on collision with a mandated agile assessment program.  At that time, I decided to get all my thoughts into a drawing which I’ll show you here, unaltered from that time.   You can see my view that assessments can be seen as either a burden imposed from above or as a supportive tool for the evolution of the team’s capability. You don’t have to read the text of the drawing, as I’ll cover each item below.

assessments-in-agileLet’s parse the Burden Side. This is where the two folks holding up the assessment say: ‘Feel awful we’re not good enough, and we’re not sure how to get there’

Hard to support in its entirety – a huge questionnaire may point out so many gaps in maturity and it leaves a team with the sense of overwhelm. We know that change does not happen all at once. It can’t.  If unpaired with dialogue and a strategy for improvement, the assessment is of no use.

Not outcome oriented – an assessment is devaluing  the business value/metric of what was delivered  by examining predominantly the process/methodology by which that increment is delivered. That seems backwards.  The delivery should be in support of the business outcomes – which is what should be measured.

Not Context Sensitive – one size evaluation fits all. Usually these types of assessments are not combined with narratives or qualitative interviews, and so we are assuming that we could be comparing like things via this numeric approach.  We know large organizations host systems that are so wildly different from one another that forcing a like evaluation should never produce a side-by-side comparison. Yet, these assessments are used for just that, in many cases.

Misses mindset –  the human element of change – the mindset shift that is so critical in causing an organization to change its way of working – is not elevated.  Assessments will always miss mindset – there’s no way to codify that other than through storytelling, the vibe, the cooler talk, the openness and engagement that manifests in a healthy organization

Cognitive Overload – an assessment with a huge number of prompts will be immediately forgotten by those to whom it is administered.

Misunderstood as a Rating – even if the issuer of the assessment believes in their own positive intent, the teams having to take the assessment see it as a measurement.  Measurements provoke a ranking system which is almost always seen as judgmental, evaluative, and unrelated to the needs that those in the improvement program have to actually improve

Appears as a Mandate – well no need to explain this one. It wouldn’t be a burden if the team had self-selected to take its own assessment, by choice!

Without Conversation, May Cause Misunderstanding – my head was in the sand when I wrote this- in fact I should have written ‘May’ as ‘Will’.  There is nothing easy about working in an agile manner at first without support, leadership, love, hope, and belief in the people doing the work.  Leaders and executives mandating assessments without having conversations and opening up channels of communication with those they are assessing are burying themselves in the myth of big data.

Let’s parse the Guiding Enabler Side – this is the side where the two folks standing on the strength of the assessment are saying ‘Now we know where we are heading’.

Supportive – we see the breadth and depth of what’s possible in an agile project and can use the ideas to self reflect on what improvement to make next.

Foundational – we can use the assessment framework to fully vest in the whole enchilada over time such that we don’t forget areas of improvement we might not initially consider.  Without a foundation, each person may have their own pet improvement projects, but we need to vet all options and agree on the way forward together

Provides Focus Points – we don’t have to do everything at once. We pick a few related items to work on before we move to the next.  

Used As a Launch Pad for Conversations – this means that we can take one assessment prompt and talk about what it will be like when we have that, what it will take to get us there, why kind of support we can ask for from each other and from management. We never shelve an assessment, we have conversations using it.

Agnostic As to How Assessed, by whom, when, with whom, for whom – it isn’t mandated. The team uses it voluntarily whenever they decide to use it.  With great coaching and willing learners, and opt-in view, this can’t go wrong or be gamed

Understood as an Improvement Baseline – this means that we can track our progress over time if we choose to continue to look at the assessment as a means of self-reflection

Views Follow-up Support For Learning as Critical – everyone acknowledges that assessments are not the point, the learning that happens in-between is.  Therefore, the surrounding organization should be happy to provide whatever is needed to help the team reach the next level

Can be Tailored-Narrowed to Context – we can choose to not focus on or even to not fill parts of the survey depending on where we want to focus energy.   We want to eliminate waste, and that includes eliminating survey elements which don’t apply at a given time.  They are there, but we don’t use them, for now.

Launches New Practices – for learners who love to create great products that meet client needs, the assessment is a way of reminding the team that we can do more, that we have a never ending supply of ideas, practices and experiments to address in our agile journey. The assessment can help launch those.  That could be an exciting prospect.

What would you add to either side of this analysis?

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I am VERY LUCKY to be an Agendashift partner, with an amazing Slack community where the challenges of coaching well are discussed very openly with a lot of mutual support.

Mike Burrows has developed the most wonderful Agendashift assessment tool that is used in exactly the way I describe above – it is supportive of generative discussions on how best to create a change strategy that is context sensitive.  [If you are interested, let me know and I can help you get this launched in your organization]

In the Agendashift community of coaches, we teach coaches how to use Clean Language questions to explore the assessment prompts and what people would most like to work on next.  It is a generative approach that builds on the energy already latent in the organization.

These assessments are not used to compare teams, or to provide executives a hands-off data driven view of their agile adoption progress.

This is an amazing community trying to shift the way agile transformations are initiated so that they may be truly transformative.  It takes courage to stand up for what you believe when you are in an organization that wants to go in the other direction.

Thank you Mike, Suzanne, Jussi, Olivier, and Thorbjørn for your support last week!   I am glad I remembered my old drawing!

The Limits to Treating Only ‘the Parts’

November 15, 2016

Often the symptom shows up in one place but is caused in reality by a different part of the system.  

Question: What domain am I talking about?  

If you are a consultant or coach, or even a PM reading this blog, and you have read something about systems thinking, you’ll realize I am talking about projects or teams that run up against systemic or organizational impediments that affect their work

If you are my chiropractor, you’ll know I am talking about the body.

Why do I like this metaphor?

I have spent over $1000 this year treating myself to frequent sessions with a very good chiropractor and to excellent massages with his associated massage therapist.  I initially went to this doctor complaining about my right foot.  He discovered very soon, that treating the right foot would not resolve the issue.  He noticed that on that same side, the quad muscles were too short.  They were pulling at my back (which also had pain, but is now gone), and causing me to walk a little funny.

While the foot isn’t yet 100%, I do feel treating the whole system (body) is leading to better results. [I thought of this post while lightly jogging on the treadmill – proof of my better state]

Another thing I learned is that the way I had used chiropractors in the past was incorrect. I had gone a few times for a specific issue, and then stopped going when the local issue went away. I did not have the foresight or knowledge to understand that ongoing maintenance could be incredibly beneficial.  That means regular visits – whether every two weeks, or once a month. I prefer every two weeks.  His sessions last a full hour with a mixture of electric stimulation, ultrasound (full body), adjustments, and massage.

The analogy to the workplace and using a consultant is this: when you have had a coach help you set up a relatively stable agile way of working, with an established cadence or planning, working, demos and retrospectives, you still need to have the coach come in every now and then to help you redirect your attention to other parts of the system .  A coach helps you see the parts that you are biased in some way to overlook.  So does the chiropractor.

 What things are you working on that might benefit from a more global view?

Different balls, different games – metaphors for communication

July 5, 2015

AlistairGolf Cockburn has written that developing software is like a cooperative game.  Whether cooperation needs to occur between IT and business, program management and teams, architects and programmers – I do not often see the flow of ideas,  solutions and decision-making happening collaboratively. Coaches can not solve communication problems unless there is both the awareness and the willingness to have those kinds of problems solved.  It is a bit of a chicken and an egg issue.

I’ve recently come up with a few sports metaphors for the way the interactions go, or could go, if only deliberate learning would take place around communication excellence.  I’ll use an example to illustrate this. 

The backdrop for this setting is a large agile transformation. It has a fairly lightweight governance process but the leadership must report monthly to the business side whether the IT side is on track for the target deployment. The delivery date was set 2 years earlier and is now months away.  The pressure on IT to paint a rosy picture is high.  The program manager must update the governance reports.  Because the Program Management Office personnel who normally pull that data are on vacation, the program manager asks a coach to fill in last month’s data – using a chart the coach has not seen before. The program manager provides her only a paper copy. There are no calculations, queries or information on where the earlier data came from or exactly what it represents.

The coach  asks a lot of questions about the data behind the graph, but her questions are given short shrift by the program manager – who really can’t adequately answer the specific questions. The coach does as close to what the program manager requested as possible and provides the data – though with some discomfort.

The baseball metaphor

The coach has recreated the graph using a new sheet, augmenting it using her own ‘queried’ information for the current month in question. The coach delivers this to the program manager: “I worry when we present data that may be misleading, especially when the data I have provided is mixed with data from other queries or sources and overall I think the story it tells is different from reality. When I pulled all the data that I think represents the current state, I see a different picture.”

The program manager immediately shoots back: “The data from the tool is just that, data from a tool. It will never be accurate or up to date.” [she looks annoyed and wants to move on to her next issue of the moment. She shuffles other papers and looks back at her email.] The coach does not think that pressing the point will be helpful at this point. 

This interaction is not atypical in the IT and/or business world.  The coach (batter) has pitched a ball.  The program manager (hitter) hits it strong; the ball soars over and out of the stadium and there is nothing left to discuss. Batter wins. 

The golfing metaphor

Here’s another way this could have gone – using one of my favorite listening and inquiry tools: Clean Language.

It starts in a similar way: Coach to a program manager: “I worry when we present data that may be misleading, especially when the data I have provided is mixed with data from other queries or sources and overall I think the story it tells is different from reality. When I pulled all the data that I think represents the current state, I see a different picture.”

The program manager listens and then asks one or more of these clean questions – first repeating a portion of what she heard – clearly showing she was listening  ‘and you worry when data is used that may be misleading… ‘

     and what kind of misleading is that? [asking for more attributes]

     and what kind of worry is that?’ [asking more about state of the coach’s feeling]

     and  is there anything else about that data? ‘  [opening space for more observations]

     and where could ‘misleading’ come from? [getting at the source]

     and when misleading, then what happens? [getting at significance, if nothing happens]

Clean questions let you stay with the thinking of the person who is talking to you, rather than reacting right away.  To me, this interaction is like a golfer hitting the ball into the hole.  The coach has found a sweet spot with the program manager – a ‘time/place/space’ where the concern is heard and embraced. The environment is one in which the program manager assumes the coach has a valuable intention as well.  I imagine in this scenario, the two explore further mutual needs and resolve the discrepancy so both parties are happy and more importantly so that the program governance body gets an accurate picture – with all the consequences that might entail. 

The first conversation is frustrating because the coach wanted to ‘do the right thing’ – and perhaps was a bit fearful that not fulfilling the request for the data would be unprofessional.  She provided the data and did not argue past her initial observations and reflections to the program manager.  The program manager’s response and overall sense of urgency seemed to drown out her ability to stay present and listen.

Whether using Clean Questions or other types of listening and inquiry models, the type of attention given in the second example is rare … especially in stressful situations when it is MOST needed.  I do not accept ‘urgency’ or ‘time-pressures’  as excuses for not taking the time to listen and to investigate. It is precisely in the slowing down that in fact you can speed up with confidence. Yet it takes some training and intention to create an environment and culture where this can happen well.

The mindset shift that comes along with knowing how to use Clean Language can help projects, companies, and relationships thrive; it can create more vibrant classrooms, happier employees, better students, thriving business results. I’ve got many examples of this in my book of interviews of people who use Clean Language in their work.

If you want to learn more about Clean Language, please let me know by contacting me at andrea.chiou@santeon.com

Metaphors at work, an interview

October 1, 2014

I recently interviewed another IT coach about metaphors because I wanted a better way of speaking about the relationship between business and IT.

I am looking to kill the notion and reality of ‘silos’ in the organizations I work in. I believe that a change in the language we use and specifically, the metaphors we use, can change the mood of a conversation to that end.  There are some really useful thoughts in here about the role of conversation and dialogue, practicing when it is easy, etc.  Have a read and let me know what you think.
Here is the interview: (more…)

Book Review – From Contempt To Curiosity

April 6, 2014

Caitlin Walker has written a brilliant book recounting her own 15 year journey with Clean Language as applied to groups – a compilation of stories illustrating the models that she developed along the way which she now groups together and calls Systemic Modelling. This work builds on the work of others as well – the originator of Clean Language, David Grove, and his original modellers, Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, with whom Caitlin trained and learned. She acknowledges these and many others who assisted her in her consulting practice, Training Attention, along the way. There is a nifty appendix of the major influencing works at the back. (more…)

Building Bridges through Curiosity

February 20, 2014

This blog post is inspired by two case studies, one using ethnography and one using Clean Language – both to improve company resilience and success over time.

An international company (Tesco) recently used an innovative ‘ethnography’ approach to help turn around poor financial results. Their goal was to infuse diversity of thinking by having managers at international locations become ethnographic observers outside their own country at other Tesco locations.  This would help the observers and observed become more aware of their own local cultures by exposure. It spread ideas that worked and helped to meld the culture. You can read about it here.

That Tesco project posited that positive change can come from these steps: perceive what happens in another other work environment, uncover restrictive assumptions through questions, and explore both the new and home environments in new ways. The primary questions used were: What’s familiar? What’s surprising? What do I want to learn more about?  Training folks to be curious by enlivening their senses, taking them out of their environment and teaching them questioning skills can indeed be useful in building bridges.

While reading this story, I made immediate associations with the Clean Language group work that Caitlin Walker and Nancy Doyle, from Training Attention, have undertaken to improve interpersonal understanding in teams and groups. I recommend you read about this adaptation of Clean Language for organizations here.  Similar to the ethnography study, Clean Language and Systemic Modeling for organizations use questions to surface the way people operate and think of their life/work/environment. The Tesco experiment involved moving people to new environments to stimulate new thinking. The Clean Language work more simply involves only exposing internal thought processes and intentions to one another within a team or organizational structure. In both cases, the goal is to help folks learn how to reveal information which isn’t readily available or in their field of awareness. This increases the communication bandwidth for mutual understanding and reduces conflict.  In addition, with Clean Language Systemic Modeling the goal is that peers co-coach each other and fold Clean Questions into everyday work, conversations and meetings. Long term, there is no dependence on the Clean Language trainer. The process promotes new relationships and emergent knowledge within the organization.

That sounds great in theory, right? But where has it actually worked? I learned recently about a case study of a small software development company that Caitlin trained 10 years ago. This company provides tablet solutions to pharma labs to track their lab/research work. For ten years, this company has required its employees to learn and use Clean Language and Systemic Modeling. You can learn more about it here. It has had stellar results in bridging all kinds of communication gaps. Communication between marketing and developers is vastly improved. The marketing staff, now widely using Clean Language questions, make sense (inquire more deeply) about a complex and changing market and learn much more about their potential customers before ever proposing solutions. These bridges have in turn enabled the company to rise above its competitors in what was then a crowded field, all while keeping a relatively small corporate footprint.  There are many other domains in which Caitlin and others  applied Clean Language and Systemic Modeling, including: Police, Health Care, University students, troubled youth, to name a few.

Does this spark your curiosity?

Clean Language and Systemic modeling build understanding and rapport via respectful listening and inquiry. Clean questions are particularly good at focusing attention on the words and thoughts of the person being questioned. This is because the questions do not promote advice or content on the part of the questioner. They are ‘clean’ in that sense. Here are a few of the basic questions:

  • What would you like to have happen? (intention)
  • What else is there about X? (probing for more info)
  • What kind of X? (probing for metaphors)
  • X (or that)  is like what? (probing for metaphors)

In these questions, X is the exact word or phrase used by your interlocutor. There are an additional 6 questions that inquire about location and time/space.  Extending this into organizational work, the Systemic Modeling techniques involve selective use of what Caitlin calls ‘Clean Setup’ , ‘Clean Feedback’, ‘Modeling Time’, ‘Diversity of Perception’, ‘Modeling Positive (or Negative) States’ among others. While I won’t go into detail here, these Systemic Modeling questioning tools are used in conjunction with Clean Language in groups.

As someone posted in one of the Clean Language groups I participate in, Clean Language is  also ‘simple’, ‘accessible’ and ‘sustainable’. If you want to read books, or other blogs about Clean Language and Systemic Modeling, you can learn about them via resources (books, blogs, DVDs) that I have collated here.

Why did the case study about Clean Language affect me viscerally? The case study caused me to reflect on my own past, in particular a collective team failure (losing a contract re-compete). For years, we had had our heads buried in our ‘own’ analysis, our narrow context and our problem solving work for our customer.  We did good work, not excellent work. But looking back, I see that we were all missing a sense of curiosity about ourselves and about the way the environment evolved (or stagnated) both internally and in the competitor/customer ecosystem. Knowledge work is not just a reflection of the work processes and structures we put in place – this can lull us into a sense of ‘having things covered’. Knowledge work is deeply rooted in and affected by the way people think and how broadly they think and enquire about the world around them. To change from status quo or to ensure survival, we may need to become aware of how it is that we think first. We need to pull from what may be subconscious current thought processes, make them explicit (exposing assumptions and contradictions), ask for new outcomes and then re-structure our models based on what we want (our intent). This can be done – internally and sustainably – with the help of Clean Language questioning and modeling via coaching and training.

Promoting a culture of inquiry as a way to ensure long term corporate resilience is nothing new. But Clean Language and Systemic Modelling as a tool is very new and quite intriguing.

Finally, curiosity and questions that work well are driven by a fair amount of ‘intentionality’. Here are some examples of intentionality that I have developed:

1) I have an intention to learn; therefore I may request that someone  ask me ‘cleanly’ about what I am like when I am learning at my best. And as they help me develop my conceptual landscape using Clean Language questions, they will help me increase my self awareness while also learning what works for me.

2.) I have intention to support the work done by my team; therefore if someone disagrees on some matter, they have some information that I don’t, and I want to find out  what else there is about that view that I may be missing. I then ask them ‘clean questions’ to reveal their thinking.  This enables them to be heard and understood and contrasts with normal arguments and discussions that might ensue when I reassert my own views. Instead, I learn (my intention is to learn after all) an alternate view, which then may help expand my own thinking.

3.) I have the intention to be aware about things evolving outside of my immediate work and home life – to stay curious; therefore I will inquire and ask more outside my normal channels using clean questions. This might be markets, customers, peers at other companies, former colleagues, neighbors, chance encounters in public places.

The nice thing is that no matter where I would like to exhibit this curiosity, the same Clean Language questions and Symbollic Modelling techniques can be used. In brief, these techniques are few and simple, though not easy.  Learning to use them, honing your listening, being aware of your intent and  faithful to your curiosity take time and practice. The reward is in the discovery of new landscapes of possibilities! For organizations, the reward is growth, awareness, and better flow of communication.