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.


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.


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.


Knowledge waste in organizations

Why do people and organizations do what they do? What is the wisdom in the stupidity? Making sense of this helps to find primary questions, root causes or basic assumptions. Knowing those helps to make synthesis and applicable new solutions. And it helps to be merciful towards oneself and others. I will be blogging about models that I have found useful.

First I want to present two jewels of organizational thinking, real diamonds. They point out sources of knowledge waste in product development organizations. Originally they were presented in the book Ward, A., 2006. Lean Product and Process Development, Lean Enterprise Institute. The book contains really careful and valuable thinking. It is mandatory reading for anyone working with organizations.


1. Sources of knowledge waste are:

  • Wishful thinking
  • Scatter
  • Handover

2. In relation to Scatter Ward explicitly mentions:

  • Whenever you separate Knowledge, Responsibility, Action and Feedback, there will be knowledge waste.

These are easy to keep in mind – you will see them everywhere.

Wishful Thinking is of course wasting knowledge, resources and money in huge lumps. It also makes you to choose organizational models, that cause Scatter. Scatter in time and space is causing Handover, which is the massive observable source of knowledge waste. And Scatter makes you loose the ability to decide – real power is always elsewhere.

Obviously wishful thinking comes from ignorance, complacency and fear; not knowing or not admitting, increased by loss of knowledge. A vicious circle.

From this perspective, doesn’t it seem obvious that learning together is the medicine? Seek wisdom, go and see. Having yet another strong management role, separate, does not solve the problem. Power lies with the knowledge!

Please check how Vasco Duarte’s blog PMI and the meta-planning process looks from this perspective.

Just to give some food for thought I list the specific knowledge wastes under the three major ones (italics my brainstorming).

  • Wishful Thinking
    • Discarded knowledge
    • Testing to specification. (Interesting explicit mention by Ward!)
  • Scatter
    • Physical, social and skill Barriers

      • Distance, time differences, data formats
      • Culture, language and organizational culture
      • Busying oneself
      • High power differences – “classes”
      • Continuous organizational change
      • Overspecialization – narrow roles and competencies
    • Poor tools and processes

      • Mechanical or narrow information channels
      • Manual duplication
      • Poor communication tools
  • Handover
    • Useless information

      • Extraneous documentation and communication, Lost knowledge, False information
      • Relearning
    • Waiting

      • Milestone, investment decision, technical decision, …
      • Meeting scheduling, resources, …
      • Plans, specs, information, comments, permission …
      • Test results, bug fixes, dependent components, integration, service from tool provider/IT, …