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.


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.

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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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.

The unbelievable power of the Organizational culture

Suddenly bumped to an old lover… reading Liker’s “Toyota Way”. On page 299 he quotes Edgar Schein’s definition of the organizational culture. This is heavy, please meditate carefully.

Organizational culture is the pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that have worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

Originally in Edgar Schein, “Coming to a New Awareness of Organizational Culture” in Sloan Management Review 26 (winter 1984): 3-16. and in the book “Organizational Culture”.

Sadomasochistic organizational cultures

I have lately been interested in power, and remembered a very interesting point of view. I am sorry that I cannot give references, this is based on a memory of an article, written years ago by a researcher in a Finnish magazine “Aseman Lapset”.

Just knowing this pattern and being able to recognize it may reveal nonfunctional organizational (sub)cultures and bad leadership.

There are many organizations, whith two distinct classes of power users and targets:

  • hospitals: staff and patients
  • schools: teachers and students
  • prisons: guards and prisoners
  • army: leaders and soldiers

The phenomenon has been recognized first in the extreme settings, but is easily seen in normal companies when you know the pattern:

  • companies: work supervisors/bosses and workers
  • product development companies: business (decides) and designers (deliver promises)

One characteristic of these organizations is that the powerful class is causing pain to the targets. It may be forcing to work, physical pain, restricting fulfilment of different needs. This is painful for both parties, and people need mechanisms to relieve the pain.

One facet of the cultural solution may be a sadomasochistic interpreatation of pain and dominance as pleasant.

  • heavy use of humor, even harsh
    • pigs and chicken in Scrum?
  • seeing “us” better than “them”. Assuming the other class does not know or understand, is stupid or stubborn.
    • For example prisoners regard guards inferior to them.
  • communicating across the class boundary in a way that prevents emotional connection.
    • using alienating language

What is relevant in organizational setting is that this kind of situation constrains heavily the Organizational Conversation (Term as used in Complexity Theory in Organizations). It also reinforces the status quo, class boundaries and limited dialogue. This causes:

  • loss of talent, creativity and learning
  • loss of relevant feedback
  • not recognizing weak signals
  • loss of work satisfaction and commitment to work

Some cure, if you wish to move to more self-organizing, self-motivating direction. Please remember, that changing habits and culture is very hard!

  • open discussion and recognition of the specific situation
  • in bad cases competent facilitation needed
    • conflict resolution, debriefing and reconciliation
  • changing power settings
  • start to improve the concrete pain points 

Measuring and rewarding individuals

At the SOL conference some time ago I attended the workshop by the brain researcher Kiti Muller and happened to mention how harmful measuring and rewarding individuals is.

It rose huge interest, so here you have the reference – Robert D Austin: “Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations, Dorset House, 1996.

Just to brief some points of the book:

Measuring and rewarding individual performance, especially a knowledge worker, is always distorting the performance, and is potentially dysfunctional.

Dr Austin  acknowledges, that measuring organization is essential, and gives advice for constructive measurement too. Unfortunately it is difficult.

Here a brief of one critical flaw in rewarding based on individual performance:

To create value the knowledge worker does A, B and C. His/her knowledge of the detail enables balancing these.
The manager is able to:

  • know and measure A
  • know B
  • don’t even know  C

C is truly significant. There are a zillion small real decisions, that gradually make reality.

With all good intentions the manager measures only A. He might understand that this is only an indicator. Result:

  • People game. Even some that don’t game in the beginning, gradually will. A will get done in excess, even to dysfunctional extent. There are zillions of cases, even extreme. Like measuring volume of sales instead of profit. Just imagine the result.
  • The working relation narrows from co-operation to trading, degrading commitment.
  • This kind of power setting suggests, that the manager knows better, and the knowledge worker should NOT use judgement. Subtle, but very powerful and harmful, reinforcing the command and control culture.

Measuring is necessary, complex and dangerous. In principle, rewarding teams and organizations based on throughput time, customer loyalty and business is healthier. Mary Poppendieck has some advice in her books and webpage.

PS. Lively disussion at http://www.reddit.com/r/programming/comments/7sh4x/measuring_and_rewarding_individual_performance/

PPS. Check also Alfie Kohn: “Punished by Rewards, The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes”