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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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.


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.

Three Interests causing alienation and a leadership vacuum

In the previous post I studied a local organizational Gap. This time I look at the whole business. From theoretical point of view these phenomena are just obvious, I found their significance by observing real organizations. This model has been helpful for understanding the product manager’s world.

I have seen this in many organizations, also in small companies. It hints, that healthy and close human interaction in an organization is a significant competitive advantage. Secondly, change is free, actually profitable – just Go and See and there will be many opportunities.

Three conflicting Interests

ThreeInterests

Every organization has three stakeholders that each have a significant Interests. There are high stakes, energy and passion. (interest with a capital I refers to the specific Interests)

The investors are playing in the capital market. They wish for a reasonable ROI and fear for losing their investment.

The customers and end users wish for a functional product for a reasonable price, and fear e.g. for bad quality and difficulties in the support.

The value adding workers wish e.g. for satisfactory working condition, a reasonable compensation and a safe future.
All three stakeholders need the organization, wishing it to stay alive and productive. All stakeholders have both long and short term interests.
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The Gap between the R&D and the product management

While looking around in any organization, you most probably recognize the Gap between the product management/PO and the R&D/Teams/designers. It is significant in surprisingly small organizations.

This becomes obvious when starting Scrum. The Gap has always been there. Why? What have been the workarounds earlier? Why is it important to understand the root cause? Actually there are more gaps on the value stream…

The Gap

the Gap between R&D and Product management

Drawing the Gap on a flipboard often stops the blame war.

Have you ever heard the following, when taking Scrum into use:

Team: Scrum says Give us the prioritized backlog.
Product manager: Yes, but we don’t know about tech, you do. Here You have the 5-liner. Just start working.
Team: Yes, but we need to know where to start.
PM: Yes, but we can’t prioritize technical items, you have always done it.
Team: But we can not work if we don’t know the priorities for the next sprint.
PM: What’s wrong with you?
And so on…

The Gap means simply that there is too little knowledge power, too few people who would understand both technology and business. I have many many times experienced how drawing this picture on a flipboard will stop the blame war in the room, when people realize that it is the system, not us.
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Focusing on projects ruins your business

I have seen product development projects used as tool to extract results from the organization. It has been chosen to solve an organizational problem. It worked in certain conditions, but when the organization grew and outside competition became harder yesterday’s solution became today’s problem.

I try to explain my point with a lifecycle of an imaginary organization. My real life example companies vary from 15 people to thousands.

Startup phase

Once upon a day a group of engineers started to develop a product. In the beginning everyone knew each other and there was fluent informal communication. The techno-cultural foundation was laid. The business started to grow.

Growth and the first coordination crisis

Money comes in and the organization grows. There is more coordination work, so some developers become managers. The organization develops “naturally”, creating specialized roles and competences. There are more customers and releases. Ownership of the product gradually becomes scattered. There are bottleneck resources.

At some point the “professional project management” steps in. It is solving the coordination problem, one project at a time. The project manager has permission (by role) to demand results. She becomes powerful member of the organization, getting credit for creating order and bringing money in. Often the personality of the project managers support this specialization. Portfolio management still works or is less important. Business does well.

This is a critical bifurcation point, a leadership crisis of unrealized significance . There is still an opportunity to start a Lean evolution. My example goes to the mainstream way. From the psychological perspective this is the easiest solution. It requires least personal change from the most of the people.

Gradual Scattering of the organization

Eventually there are several parallel and sequential programs going on at the same time. Each project is re-built and re-learned every time, because they surprisingly are different from the previous one. The projects becomes a separate powerful dimension of the organization.

The projects become a kind of device extracting money out of the complex and uncontrollable organization. The business management alienates from the R&D, because the real value seems to come from the project device – the development can be replaced, off-shored, outsourced. Long term development of the R&D is seen risky and difficult. Frustration and distrust grows at both sides.

You may recognize one or more of the following characteristics:

Short term rules. Quick fix. Avoid conflict. Nonproductive feedback. Gap between business, customer and development. Continuous reorg. Exploit development. Specialization and separation of responsibility. Cling to nonfunctional ERP. Clear social classes within the organization. Big power differences. Command and control. Waiting. Big plans. Wish for predictability. Slow and vague feedback. Learning and improvement don’t work. Projects compete of resources. Cost management. Number management. Measure hours. Maximize resource utilization. Knowledge and power seems always to be elsewhere.

Market saturation and the productivity crisis

Now the product (family) is growing old. And there is competition. The business management is facing a situation where the portfolio management is very difficult because of the complicated product and organization; lack of transparency and flexibility.

Even in this situation, I have seen the management to grab the tool that used to work, trying desperately to improve the project management. This is very painful for the project managers.

My point here is, that in product development you may do excellent “conventional” projects, and fail. Even fail because the projects have been successful.

My vote for the one word root cause would be overspecialization.

Please comment and share experiences, I have not emptied this subject.