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.


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.


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.


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.

Why NOT retrospectives


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.

Work with the right questions

At work people strive for a goal. This is often called the principal task, the value-adding work. It is the expressed intention at the levels of individual, group or organization. Related to this people solve problems with e.g. process, resourcing, business or technology. (It is always valuable to ask, what the principal task really is.)

People are, however, people. Especially when many. They have other questions at the same time, related to e.g. human needs, group dynamics or the organizational integrity. These other questions:

  • Take attention, time and energy
  • Do matter, have potentially significant consequences
  • Have second order consequences – build the culture, learning and so on
  • Block working with the principal task for shorter or longer time

In order to optimally promote the principal task, you need to recognize the right question and work with it. Forcing a solution to the wrong question does not really help. Have you ever heard: “Does not concern us, because we are rational adults.” Or “We can skip those, because we don’t have time.”

Conscious questions are the obvious normal stuff, technical and social things that people have learned to handle. Sources of questions

Pre-conscious questions are recognizable, especially when you try. You can observe and talk about them, and they become somewhat conscious. Examples:

  • Suppressed topics, taboos, cultural issues
  • Human needs: e.g. autonomy, safety, recognition, being heard…
  • Questions of trust, power, status
  • Question of leadership and dependency
  • Group dynamics
  • Should I invest the effort
  • Envy and competition – a sensitive topic
  • Games people play
  • Constantly ongoing inclusion and exclusion
  • Resistance, individual and group defense mechanisms e.g. groupthink
  • And some special cases

  • Scapegoat syndrome, tends to repeat
  • Pathological narcissism, difficult and dangerous

Oops. The list grows so easily! I will come back to these!

Unconscious is not observable. It can be considered the creative source where the other stuff emerges. You can not predict how the unconscious will respond to your actions.

Most of the times, things go naturally with no major roadblocks, just some very frustrating or insensible moments. People work with the preconscious questions unconsciously, and solutions emerges. This baseline is not the full potential – working consciously with the questions probably leads to a better solution. The group/team development is a good example.

It saves time and energy, if someone experienced can recognize the present questions and help to handle them consciously. Often just making the correct guess, giving a name to the question, makes it dissolve quickly, and the work can continue. Sometimes the interpretation is too much, and the group does not accept it. The proper timing, dose and form matters.

Sometimes, the unrecognized questions really block or deteriorate the work, and external help is beneficial.

A good situational leader, may it be boss, coach or scrum master:

  • Knows this preconscious people stuff. Actually it is not complicated, but needs some practise.
  • Has courage and social permission to work with all kinds of questions
  • Is able to use oneself as an instrument. For example when you feel strange, what is really going on? Are these feelings mine or what?

This is also called emotional intelligence. Surprisingly, it can be learned and practiced. I have coached many technically oriented people, who have turned to be emotionally talented – once they got the permission. The organizational culture and narrow identities sometimes really block people from using their full capability.

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


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.