Everyone has a limited Container

The Container Function is present in every interaction. Therapists and counsellors have recognized it’s importance since a long time. Too many leaders (and parents) are unaware of it, causing unnecessary waste and suffering.

An overflowing container has expensive consequenses.

An overflowing container has expensive consequenses.

Just acknowledging the phenomenon may already relieve emotional pain. Consciously processing things in your container is extremely valuable. I wonder if you have experienced this?

The principle of the container function is simple:

  1. Whenever in interaction you get a raw message having many levels: conceptual information, emotions, unconscious messages, body language.You take the full message into your container, including all conscious and unconscious stuff.
  2. Then you refine it, digest the emotions, analyze the concept, paint the roles and staging, guess intentions and needs.
  3. When the time is ripe, you return the refined message in a constructive 1) form, 2) timing and 3) dose. Something immediately, something later.

Usually the container is explained for the role of parent, leader, consultant, therapist or other authority. Using your container productively means that in that situation you take the responsibility of being a peer coach. If and when you succeed, gradually you will be given more credibility in that role.

The received message has conscious and unconscious levels. It may be difficult to understand or describe. Carrying the message in your container takes energy. Understanding different aspects of the message may take time. Working with needs, feelings and conflicting interests is often essential.

Finding a productive response may be very difficult. Sometimes the response is an action. Sometimes it is not answering to the question asked, sometimes it is answering literally to the question asked.

Examples

The classical example is the mother hearing her baby cry. She takes in the anxiety. Then she thinks “pants, hunger or sleep?” Then she returns the message in actions, first diapers, then breast, then sleep.

A consultant will see a lot of nonfunctional things quite soon after entering a company. It is a million dollar question, what, how and when to return the observations and analysis. There are many styles and no right answer. The response may be an assesment, practical advice or new vocabulary to the organization’s conversation.

A well functioning team or therapy group also exhibits a container. If the group is too loaded, the group level responses become less constructive. For example participation, norms, often repeated stories or standard explanations. Think of the successful early adopters in an Agile transformation. Have you seen frustration and anger channeling to cynicism? Also at group level? Good retrospectives help. The coach may explain the container.

In some cases the parent or consultant will have the opportunity to return the message fully only after many years, if ever. It is OK, because we are interested in what is most beneficial for the customer, not what is relieving ourselves most. Not unlike the parent’s role.

The container spills over…

The capacity of the mother is exceeded, causing helplessness, frustration, anger, bad decisions and negative side messages. You have seen frustrated parents nagging, yelling or being sarcastic.

The response comes too early (anger followed by frustration) or too late (procrastination because of fear). It comes in unskilful form (blaming, naming, cognitive biases, and so on). Or the dose is too big or too small.

A manager of a factory hears bad news in a meeting, stands up and broadcasts his anger to the full staff. Then he comes back to the meeting and asks: “Why didn’t anyone stop me?” This happened more than once.

Still another unfortunate crosstalk happens, when an overloaded leader goes home and responds in an unfair way to the close family members.

Help?

Accepting the fact gives patience. Understand that the container has an essential constructive function, that is valuable and hard work. Sometimes there is no solution, and you need to act as an emotional sink. It is valid basis for the leader’s salary.

Container skills give you more patience and understanding for people, whose container temporarily flows over. They are not necessarily bad nor stupid. You can even help them to clean and refine their container and to become productive again.

You need not to identify yourself with the content of your container. You have healthy means to process the container without unnecessary involvement.

You become conscious when your own container is coming full. Then you can be more careful in your actions and process your container.

I have found meditation very effective in working with my container.

Coaching, counseling and therapy are very effective for processing the container, and learning to work with it. Learn to do peer coaching with your colleagues. Welcome to process your container at Agile Finland Coaching Circle.

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Insights from the Listening Post

Listening Post?

I spent Monday at the Listening Post. There were about 35 professional psychodynamic consultants sharing what is going on in the world, right now. The same thing happens globally at dozens of countries and the consolidated report is published by OPUS.

We start with 1.5 hours of associative work, “Insight”. I really love this technique. All sitting in a spiral and freely sharing experiences, dreams, encounters, emotions. Next we were searching for emerging themes in smaller groups, one group talking and other groups listening. Finally trying to find a crystallized hypothesis.

It is always a wonderful to experience true dialogue in this size of a group. And to meet so many wise people.

A very common theme throughout years has been how the small individual will survive in the changing world. Very natural. Sometimes I hear a flavor of whining, but this is the right place for it.

Groups are no more

The main insight for me was, what it means for individuals, that there are less and less real groups to belong to.

It seems that people nowadays belong to networks rather than groups. Companies base their organization on virtual teams, virtual networks or multi-dimensional matrices. Professional global networks at work, Facebook at private life. These networks are vast, because of the modern communication, web 2.0. So globalization is personally true for most of us. At the same time organizations as well as these networks have become turbulent.

How do individuals react?

The membership of the network is very different from the membership of a group.

The group instincts are not satisfied in networks.

A group gives a lot of feedback to you. A limited number of people meet face to face and there is the non-verbal communication. You can track not only your relation to others, but other relations in the group. You get a lot of feedback about yourself and your position in the group, thus your social survival. You have a bi-directional relation to “the group”.

But networks are very different. You don’t get feedback from “the network”, or it is indirect and delayed. The network is truly open, you don’t know with whom you are competing for the status in the network. This concerns especially virtual networks, but also happens in real life virtual organizations.

You become uncertain about your survival. Fear and worry appear.

This competition is not only a game in Facebook or other virtual environments. It is real in labor market. Monster compares you with anyone on the globe. Companies dream about the “resource database”.

Competing by your personal identity

When you belong to a group, the group contributes to your identity. You are “a member of the Team”. When you belong to a network, especially a large and open, your position is based on your personal identity. In networks your compete by polishing your identity according to the norms of the network. Identity may include for example number of connections.

The uncertainty and the changed meaning of identity are both promoting a nowadays typical behavior. You are putting a lot of effort in refining your identity, even stretching the limits of realism. At work you are available 14/7. You never know what is enough.

Individual coping by looking for stable ground

During the Listening Post there were comments about downsizing, retreating to solitude or focusing to philanthropy. The connection to nature was brought up. Several referred to meditation or similar approaches to get the connection to one’s true self.

These may be means to get in connection to something that is felt greater than the unstable, faceless and unfair business world. This may be very empowering by reducing anxiety, giving more energy and freedom of choice.

Then what?

Since the very common virtual organizations are unsatisfactory and cause waste of energy, there must be a great potential in skillful use of groups in organizations.


Retrospective activity – Narratives from the timeline

Yesterday I had a wonderful experience leading a retrospective for 25 people.

I would like to share an activity we used to study the timeline. Going through every note is passive for most, and often reduces energy. Creating narratives of it is consolidating the mass of notes, and often adding new details. And narratives create meaning.

40 years of Company history.

We had unusually long timeline, starting from 1970. No-one of those who started the company was anymore present, but stories were remembered.

First we created a standard history timeline. People swarmed around it and talked. I overheard people telling fragments of stories, and decided to use that idea.

Next smallish groups brainstormed the question: “What is the story that I would like to hear about this history?” The groups provided themes like “Personnel policy”, “Organizational culture”, “Market development”, “Evolving of the production work” or “Evolving of the IT-system”. If there are too many themes, you can prioritize by for example dot voting. Please improvise as needed.

Next I let people to self-organize around their favorite theme. I prefer to let people use their full body in the selection process. We assigned a place for each theme and people physically walked to their preferred theme. If no-one goes around a title, there will not be a story. It is OK, and potential observation material.

I gave a quite loose assignment to create a few minutes story in about 20 minutes. The groups were free to adjust the title if needed. Each story plus discussion lasted about ten minutes.

The stories were appreciated in the reflection in the end of the retrospective.


Zen at work

I have done zen about 15 years, not monastic nor full-time, but rather serious lay practice. This is how i translate zen to the working life.

In principle there are two ways to do zen-meditation:

Intensive concentration is essential in breath practices and shikantaza (pure sitting). Just come back to the here and now, whenever your attention is lost. Gradually you are able keep your attention in the one thing you choose. Every now and then you enter samadhi, a state of pure concentration. The practice deepens, you learn, the samadhi happens more often. The quality of life improves.

The Great Question, Koan, is the second kind. Along the practice, or already earlier, a burning question arises. What is this, really? Who am I? What is real? What I do, really? You go on questioning, day and night. In meditation more intensively, otherwise as situation allows. Continuous “I don’t know.” Gradually you get insight to the question, even radical.

Facing fear, anxiety and loss – suffering

When you have strengthened the mind during good times, facing difficulties is easier.

The meditation returns the balance of the mind. A trained mind is more stable. Seeing the true nature of things helps to accept whatever happens. You make better choices.

The zen tradition supports in other ways too. The rituals, habits and mental images create safety for the subconscious. Likewise do the community, the meditation room and the presence of other practitioners. Sense making and the teacher’s advice is helpful.

Zen at work

When you return to the principal task, again and again, the concentration builds and the work proceeds. Gradually the skills and routines improve, there will be flow, more often. The work goes well.

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Empowerment and reflection – keys for success in a large cultural change program

Finally I got the energy to publish this project. Quite impressive even after 10 years: 1000 people, 4 years, 100+ coaches. Unfortunately we did not know Agile back then, adding the technology and process perspectives would have made it a revolution. I hope you find this as an encouraging example.

Reflection, Kaizen, Continuous learning, Retrospectives, Work Development, whatever.

Our approach:

  • Long term
  • Intensive co-work of the internal owner and the external consultant
  • Own your own change – tailor the approach in a core team
  • Work with individual, group and organizational levels
  • Empowerment – reflection and freedom of choice. And coahcing support.
  • A tailored training program for change agents
  • Experiential learning sticks
  • Adapt – work in the speed of the organization

Following is the abstract, 9 pages is downloadable at aritikka.com.

This report describes a large successful case of a goal oriented managed change, based on empowerment and reflection. The organizational culture and emergent nature of the change were respected by a continuously adaptive approach.

Significant improvement was reported in the atmosphere and work of teams, departments and leadership teams, and from personal perspectives.

Lately retrospectives have become popular as the reflective learning practice along the Agile SW development movement. I hope this report encourages to invest in a learning culture, let it be called Kaizen, learning organization or retrospectives.

The organization in question was Switching Platforms, Nokia Networks,about 1000 people in matrix organization, developing a distributed operating system for telecom switches. The change program was initiated bottom-up and sponsored by the strong management team of the SWP.

The program continuously adapted to the real conditions and capability. It was continuing to add value from 1998 to 2002 until ended with a radical organizational change. The following was achieved:

  • An adaptive organization-wide development process lasting for 4 years
  • A tailored approach, fit to the organization and situation, including tools, communication
  • material, coach pool and the structure to lead and develop the change.
  • A tailored training program for change agents/coaches. It was based on experiential learning, and eventually became a leadership training.
    • 11 groups of 12 participants in the basic training of 1+2+2+1 days. Value for oneself 5.6/6, value for own development project 5/6.
    • 3 groups of 8 people in the advanced training program of 1+2+1+2+1 days
  • 3 internal coaches of coaches consulted the managers, facilitated workshops and supported the team level local development projects
  • 150 recorded local projects, covering about 75% or the organization
  • Coach network with meetings, reading circle, peer consultation
  • Clear change in the culture, knowledge, personal growth, change resilience

CONTRIBUTORS:
Kati Vilkki main organizer and coach, Soile Aho consultant, Ari Tikka coach, Antti Heimonen, Seppo Taanila, Aila Laisi, Lauri Närhi, Leea afHeurlin, Kirsi Lagus, Jyrki Innanen, Sami Lilja, Raija Tamminen and dozens of other activists. Please notify me when you wish to have your name here.


Change resistance is a friend

The conversations about change resistance seems to be reopened regularly. Here is my contribution, practical perspectives to understand and to work with it.

Resistance may feel like swamp soccer.

Change resistance is a friend

  • Resistance has an important psychological function. It guards against things that cause too much fear or anxiety, that would otherwise undermine the ability to function.
  • Resistance prevents stupid things from happening. The more important thing is going to be changed, the more resistance.
  • Resistance buys time to learn and adapt.
  • As a leader, when I encounter resistance, I am able to work with it. No resistance – no work – no progress.

Change resistance is an everyday phenomenon. It is integral to all new; change, learning and doing my work now. You work with it when you wake up in the morning. Some people tend to resist more some less.

Many find resistance frustrating and would like just to get rid of it. That is like wishing for a physical world without friction. I sometimes hear about breaking the resistance by force. To me it sounds amusing – such an attempt would only make the resistance change shape.

The term resistance is easily taken as judgmental or offending. In reality it is a neutral defensive reaction, not targeted against anyone. When it happens in the organizational conversation, it effects different players’ interests and becomes subjectively good or bad.

In organizations you find change resistance especially when you touch personal and important things:

  • The power structures are threatened
  • People’s personal needs are threatened. Good guesses for the specific needs are autonomy, recognition, safety, rest, or connection.
  • There is more work coming. Learning, by the way, is really hard work, which is too often forgotten.

Conscious resistance is easy to work with – it is fair challenging. Be happy when you encounter it! Unconscious resistance is delusive, undermining resolution, draining energy, dizzying, distracting, causing emotions, manifesting in strange actions.

Possible manifestations of (unconscious) resistance:

  • Forgetting the basic task
  • Forgetting the targets
  • Strong feelings of lameness, stagnation, irrelevance or resistance
  • Postponing and delaying
  • Intellectual arguing about theory so that reality is blurred or forgotten
  • Staying away, busying oneself with other things
  • Delegating things away
  • Shunning, being late, staying away, forgetting,
  • Lack of commitment
  • Not keeping contracts
  • Not understanding and not asking – not caring
  • Neglecting or denying the value of the topic
  • Extended talking about irrelevant things

Obviously it is easier to work with the unconscious resistance, when you first recognize it. But how?

Human beings have delicate mechanisms to share mind states with each others (mirror neurons and so on). You can use yourself as an instrument: Whenever you feel strange, wake up and observe carefully!

Leading is working with resistance

Leadership constantly works with resistance, in oneself and others. The forms of resistance change and develop while the work progresses.

The guideline is to return to the principal task. Again and again. Just like meditation… finally leading to flow.

It is best to point out observations how the work is (not) progressing and ask how to continue. You may offer observations like “For the last 10 minutes we have talked about Y, while we agreed to talk about X.” Maybe there is resistance because X is too threatening. May be Y is actually more important. Or that we have not yet spotted the real roadblock Z.

When time is ripe, you may talk about the phenomenon of resistance, and let people themselves find out their own ways to resist. Usually it is wise to use a separate occasion for learning about the resistance phenomenon. Having the word in the organizations vocabulary makes a difference.

Resistance transfers from team to the leader. The leader needs to observe ones own resistance in order to be able to function. Ability to tolerate separation is very necessary for leaders.

Resistance is a very strong and contagious force. It is useful to prepare and have productive antidotes for the situation:

  • Understand your own role, interests and goals. Keep available a note about them for yourself.
  • Understand the principal task. Prepare with many ways to remind about it.
  • Plan the meeting in question.
  • Understand the phenomenon of resistance. Understanding group phenomenon and human interaction is beneficial.
  • Regularly check Your posture, physical balance and breathing.
  • Take a break. During a break talk with an ally or make contact with the most active resister.
  • Take a distance from the group. Mentally, or physically by walking away from the group.
  • Reflect the experience afterwards.

Why NOT retrospectives

donkey

How do yo pull this donkey's tail?

This is a report from the Open Space of #scanagile 2009 conference. The reports will be collected at the Agile Finland wiki. Please link or create yours!

If a donkey is not willing to drag the cart, you pull it’s tail. It will resist the pulling and start dragging the cart.

The suggestive question “Why retrospectives”, might create pressure to conform, or to give the right answer. I have used the controversial question successfully a few times. Asking the opposite:

  • Is actually the important question: “What is blocking you?”
  • Everyone is working for the same goal 🙂
  • Is often fun and creative
  • Breaks the expected or established roles and games. Makes people change their position or perspective, even for a moment.

Feel free to use for any topic.

At Scan Agile we got the following list of reasons why not. Some advice between the lines.

  • The value of retros is not perceived
  • No experience of the benefit
  • Actions are not done
  • Experience of superficial retros
  • Assumption that retros are “feeling stuff”, with no “real” benefit. People are not used to it
  • Teams are (feel) unempowered
  • Too many meetings even without retros
    Levels of control

    Where do your findings and actions hit?

  • Culture of conflict avoidance
  • Fear of blaming
  • Misunderstanding retrospectives
  • Cost of delay is a good argument for actions
  • Scrum does not resource retros explicitly

    Some advice to use 2% to formal retros. 1% (hour/2 weeks) for iterations, 1% (1 day/quarter) to full product.

  • lack of facilitation skill, person (with identity), role
  • some people just don’t like to talk
  • people have not learned to recognize their own feelings
  • we don’t have the time
  • boring, boring, boring (defense mechanism…)
  • feelings are disconnected from the work context and identity

    Technocrats may turn surprisingly talented in emotions. Just give them a thinking tool, a rational systems model, with which they can connect feelings with work. I have had success with Nonviolent Communication. Is frustration or anger a feeling? Significant? Is disappointment significant at work? Or joy of success?

The conclusion is, that we have not tried retrospectives, because we don’t have a positive experience. Kind of logical…

The advice would be to give it a try with good enough sponsoring and facilitation.

I use this opportunity to publish another list with the same theme… very similar findings.

Understanding why NOT retrospectives at the International Retrospective Facilitator Gathering UK 2007

Post-it’s by Ari (host), Eshter, Sandra, Sal, Gabby, Linda

  • Poor facilitation
    • Bad facilitator
    • Only the strong get their thoughts come through
    • Time zones / distributed team
    • Chaotic retrospective
    • We blame or action people not in the room
    • No or poor facilitator
    • Facilitator has favorites
  • Honesty
    • Everything is going well !
    • Threatens illusions that reduce anxiety
    • “they” are not doing their part (mgmnt team)
    • no honesty
    • too positive. Hard to be honest and burst bubble
    • no-one tells what really happened
    • everyone lies
    • problmes are too big
    • if we admit there’s a problem, we may have to d osomething about it
    • not seeing your own part in the problem
  • Empowerment
    • Im minority, so my contribution isn’t worth anything
    • Team does not take it seriously
    • (Fear of) losing control
    • We just bring up the same old things
    • Actions agreed upon does not come through
    • Ae can’t do anything about it
    • Uncover managemtn’s powerlessness
    • Our action plans will be over-ruled by management anyway
  • Cultures
    • Culturally inappropriate (taiwan vs china)
    • Too touchy feely
    • It”s whacky stuff
    • bringing personal issues to the job isn’t proefssional
    • short term ebefit culture – ony this project matters
    • you can’t express the benefit in hard numbers
    • gap between management and team; no real knowledge nor/or understanding of significance
    • power is elsewhere command & control
    • no meeting rooms available
    • developers can’t possibly understand what we (mgmnt) have to face
    • it has not worked earlier
    • sipmplistic retros that don’t uncover anything significant
    • cultural differences (no common language?)
    • I am leaving so I don’t care
  • Pointless
    • people feel powerless
    • I’m not creative
    • I have nothing to contribute
  • (Blank)
    • I am ADD
    • I have asberger syndrome
    • I already have another forum (“Honest talk time at japan)
    • Managers mistake system problems with individual problems
    • retrospectives may discover unconventional solutions, which can’t be supported by management without their safety net. “What others did”
    • 80% of problems are management problems… and they don’t want to deal with them…
  • Time
    • We’ll do it later
    • Doing my real work is more important thatn going to meetings
    • something more urgent came up
    • we don’t have time!
    • Takes too much time
    • takes time away from real work
  • Fear
    • Don’t want to look bad in front of..
    • It disempowers me as a manager
    • retrospectives may uncover bad (management) decisions
    • fear of being blamed
    • “what is my role” if they do decisions on their own.
    • fear of criticism
    • fear of conflict
    • fear of admitting problems
    • Im not comfortable expressing my feelings in a group
    • we have to change. That’s scary.