Promote Awareness: a Message to Agile Coaches

It's been a long time since I have published anything in english. If you are one of my regular readers, you probably will think this kind of unusual.

What happened was that I've received an invitation from Manoel Pimentel to make a small contribution for his new book: The Agile Coaching DNA. I felt really glad and honoured to participate. This article is basically what I wrote for him.

The process was simple. He asked me a question and I answered. The answer went into the book.

Here is the question:

Considering awareness is an essential element to catalyse improvements, what is your favourite practice to help individuals, teams, or entire organisations to become more aware of problems, gaps, needs, emotions, options, actions involved in some change/improvement? Why is it your favourite practice/approach to increase awareness? Could you briefly describe how Agile Coaches can use this practice/approach?

I will answer these questions in two parts. First, I’m going to address the systemic problem behind the idea of "awareness" and, then, I will try to articulate a psychological analysis over the same topic.

The systemic aspect

In order to understand the importance of awareness, first, it's necessary to notice that we, individuals, teams and organisations are systems embedded in a higher system. So, as such, we struggle to interact in a proper way that will help it to fulfil its purpose. A system is not the sum of its parts, but the product of its interactions. If we understand that premise, awareness becomes a fundamental element in our model for change and improve knowledge work systems.

In a system, interactions are not based on actions of limited and controlled effect. A specific action or decision can reverberate (and probably will) much further from its scope and time.

For example, a change in the way or frequency a development team delivers can affect quality assurance or deploy capabilities downstream; or an unilateral decision made by a team to pursue a specific way of work can harm the capacity of the whole organisation to meet customer expectations. In a system composed by interdependent elements, every action (including improvement initiatives) is an interaction that can act, potentially, against the purpose of the higher system which these elements are embedded to. So, then comes awareness to remediate the problem.

By expanding the awareness of the system about the decisions of its own elements, you minimize unintended consequences of one’s act. More than that, you enhance the capacity of the system to orient and align the set of efforts towards a common goal.

This doesn’t mean that everyone should know everything about everything. It’s not about control; it is about the harmony of the individual goals (subsystem’s goals) with the purpose of the higher system. The awareness of decisions are bounded by several factors, like technical particularities and responsibilities.

So, the question is: “How can we be more careful about the effect of our actions?”. The answer lies on systemic thinking. First, be sure that your improvement serves better the system you are embedded in. This should be valid in the short and the long term; and in multiple dimensions (individual, group and organizational). Second, be sure that it does not change the parameters of the service you provide, and, if it does, make sure that your customer and other areas involved be aware of the rational and expected benefits of the change.

So far I gave you a systemic answer. An answer that it is useful for change agents whose main concern is the harmony of the system where he or she is acting as a whole. Now I need to address the psychological aspect.

The psychological aspect

It is well known already that encouraging the involvement of people in the reasons and nature of change since the beginning is paramount. They need to be the constructors of their future, not the recipient of it.

You don’t create a future and give it to people for free. They will reject it, simply because there is always downsides as well for any idealised future — and those downsides will be remembered as “givens”, and not as part of all the trade offs involved during the creation process.

Psychologically speaking, people are more afraid of what they loose, than excited about what they will gain when change is on the horizon. Agile coaches, specially, focus a lot more on the change as such and in what people or the organisation will gain with it. That’s a mistake. It is important to identify those objections and coach people out of the fear of losing what they have now, which is frequently intangible and emotional. Could be comfort, safety, position, status, identity and so on — both psychological and sociological.

It is also important to consider that it is natural to experience fear in front of change once it implies going to unexplored territory. In such state, you need to be more alert and the body responds with anxiety; you need to break old habits and build new ones. That is why you need to assure that changes are small and incremental.

The point is: in regard to change, it is more important to locate and deal with the negative emotions (fear, anxiety, disbelief) than trust that the positive ones (excitement, hope, optimism) will support the change effort. Only early adopters stereotypes go through change with those positive emotions, and they are the minority.

As a coach, knowing that it is inevitable that the person or group will indeed lose something, then you need to make this transition as clear as possible and help them find the way by themselves.

In this regard I think Agile Coaches need to develop more a way of thinking and acting — which I tried to describe on this answer — than using specific practices. That are tons of practices and tools available. I believe practices are pulled by necessity that emerges as the circumstances unfold. However, I will not let you down by not suggesting a specific practice to help on these situations.

I really like and recommend the work of the psychologist Kurt Lewin. In his book, Resolving Social Conflict, he talks about the self-regulation of forces that maintains the present state of affairs. Be aware of theses forces has a huge impact on people perceptions about the current situation and the factor involved in change it. So, a force field analysis could be a good way to go in such cases. So, that is a good coaching practice tool to have in your toolbox in order to bring awareness of the change and its meaning for an individual, group or organisation.

As I final word, I should say that people should also be inspired to assume responsibility and go to unexplored territory and make of it a better world that we all can live. In other words, get out of comfort zones and do what it is necessary to do in order to make things better. It should not be a game of what you win or loose when in front of change. It should be a game of keeping building a new and better future.

That’s our ultimate duty as human beings.