Some surprising truths about admitting to our mistakes

Is playing the blame game really necessary?

It takes courage and humility to admit when we are wrong or that we have been the cause of some upset.  So is it a lack of courage or personal pride that keeps leaders from admitting they were wrong or made a mistake?  Argyris, in his book overcoming organisational defenses (1990), suggests that what is really going on with leaders is that they are engaged in a game of saving face or to put it another way avoiding embarrassment.  This behaviour is extremely dysfunctional on so many levels.

Firstly, if the reasons for the failure are not attributable to ourselves and we engage in a witch-hunt to find the “culprit”; this activity distracts us away from discovering and subsequently solving the root cause of the problem.  As a result we may become more concerned with dishing out justice rather than engaging in an activity of learning.

Secondly, if we go about looking for the “culprit” we are subconsciously saying that the problem was out of our control.  A recent example of this can be found in the banking crisis where the fault was identified as “too many people defaulting on their mortgage payments” rather than accept the responsibility that maybe is was risky lending practices that was the true root cause.  This is damaging because what we are saying to our stakeholders (shareholders, employees or otherwise) is that we are not in control.  This has a knock on effect of damaging the trust that is placed in an organisation’s leadership.  It may also indicate to our stakeholders that we lack capability, which is quite ironic because the reason for looking for a scapegoat is to demonstrate that we are capable and “… if it wasn’t for so-and-so this wouldn’t have happened.”

If we don’t play the blame game – then what?

The blame game is really quite a pointless activity on so many levels because if we truly understand the root causes of our organisational failures we would quickly discover that rarely is one individual or department solely to blame for a mistake.  The failures tend to be systemic ones rather than truly simplistic cause and effect relationships.

So what is the solution instead of seeking out the culprit?  In my opinion it’s about looking within; either within ourselves or within our own department to understand how we might have contributed to the mistake.  If we were to make this the first part of the learning process it has all sorts of implicit and explicit benefits:

The benefits of admitting our mistakes

It demonstrates courage: Who doesn’t want to follow a brave and courageous leader? Admitting our mistakes and taking responsibility as a leader takes extraordinary courage.  It also demonstrates humility and sets us apart from mediocre leadership where ego, looking good and believing in our infallibility are more important that the benefits we will accrue from learning from our mistakes.

It demonstrates our humanity: People are people so the cliché goes and as people we anticipate or expect people will make mistakes from time to time.  Admitting our own mistakes qualifies us as a member of the human race and it turn allows other people to step forward when they have made a mistake.

It sets an example for our followers: leading on from the previous point as leaders we need to be aware of the example that we are setting because our followers will in turn follow our example.  There is little stock placed in a leader who says one thing “we need to learn from our mistakes” and proceeds to cover up their mistakes maybe giving the message that they are either perfect (mistakes, what mistakes?) or that “the rules don’t count for me”.  If integrity, truth and honour are values of your organisation, then leading by example should be a behaviour that demonstrates that we are living our values not just espousing values that sound good.

It garners greater respect:  I am often amazed at the apparent lack of humility that leaders demonstrate.  Some organisational cultures value a more macho or machismo approach, but in the long run this does little to engender the respect and loyalty of the followers in that organisation.  Leaders who demonstrate humility and a willingness to accept responsibility as opposed to giving a bollocking to “wrong-doers” only serves to make people hide or cover-up their mistakes.  This also has an impact in that leaders are then unable to make a decision call to limit the damage or fall-out from unintentional mistakes often resulting in even greater damage being caused.  Admitting mistakes and learning from them separates extraordinary leaders from mediocre ones and earns the respect of our colleagues, families, friends and stakeholders.

It engenders more trusting relationships:  The traditional style of leadership may have perceived that it was a sign of weakness to admit our mistakes or shortcomings; instead it is now often seen as a sign of emotional maturity in our leaders when they hold themselves accountable rather than “passing the buck”.  This trust will in turn strengthen our relationships as our stakeholders will translate these actions into somebody who is honest and is worthy of our trust and loyalty.

It creates greater organisational value:  If shareholder value is of greater importance than say personal or organisational learning then the research carried out by Lee et al (2004) may be of interest to you.  The research carried out over a 20 year period indicates that investors and shareholders place a greater value on organisations that look to rectify their mistakes from within as opposed to blaming external factors.  Investors, unsurprisingly, place a greater value on leadership that assumes responsibility and control.


An Agile leader is a continually growing leader and one that continues to inspire their followers so if we are interested in creating an Agile organisation, one that holds continuous improvement and learning as a value, then admitting our mistakes is a key behaviour to promote growth.  It may not be easy at first as it will take courage and determination to overcome our defensive behaviours, but in the long run I believe the benefits are worth it.  Don’t you agree?


Argyris, C. (1990), Overcoming Organisational Defences. Prentice Hall.

Lee, F. et al (2004), Mea Culpa: Predicting Stock Prices From Organizational Attributions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin December 2004 vol. 30 no. 12 1636-1649.

Agile Mindset – Changing Mindset and Emotions, A Model


This tool that I want to share with you is one that I use with my clients when their stress levels rise.  It is a model taken specifically from the area of psychology called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and has been also been applied to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). It is called the ABC model and I use it to help my clients understand the true causes of most of their problems doesn’t lie with their environment, the people in their lives or external events.  Very often the cause of much stress and pressure that they put themselves under comes from their own thinking.

An Example

Consider the following real life example.  John’s boss asks him when is the report that he been working on going to be ready.  John immediately starts to feel under pressure and rather than snap at his boss he grumbles to himself “Why is he always doing this to me? Doesn’t he know I’m working as fast as I can? Who does he think he is? It’s not fair he always picks on me”.  John now feels a few familiar emotions that he might package up and call stress.  These emotions may be anger, resentment, feelings of injustice or sadness to name a few. If we were to sit down and talk with John what do you think he would consider to be the source of his “negative” emotions? More than likely he would see his boss as the problem.

The ABC Model

Now let’s look at this from a different perspective while describing the ABC model.  The ABC model comes from the work of an American psychologist Dr Albert Ellis and is described in greater detail in most books on CBT.

The “A” stands for activating event  and in this case it is when the boss asks John when the report would be ready, a perfectly reasonable request if delivered appropriately.

The “B” stands for the beliefs or thoughts that John has immediately after the request. Why is he always doing this to me?

The “C” is then the consequent emotion which practitioners and researchers of CBT belief arise as a result of the thoughts that John tells himself.

So the chain of events is that A is followed by B is followed by C.  Now often the thoughts may happen very quickly, so quickly in fact that they may go unnoticed and John is left thinking that the cause of his “negative” emotions were his boss.  This line of thought is also a trap for John because the more he thinks like this the more “negative” emotions will be created which leads to more unresourceful beliefs.  This is what can be termed a vicious cycle of events that can quickly spiral out of control.  Research has demonstrated that our emotions can be controlled by our thinking, so what we need to do is to think differently in order to experience different emotions.  If we can stop then reverse the vicious cycle we can end up with a virtuous cycle instead that will lead to clearer and more resourceful thinking. To do this we add “D” and “E” to the ABC model.

The Change

“D” is about disputing or questioning your unresourceful thinking and “E” stands for the effective result that arises from taking the time for the internal discussion.  In the example above John has the belief that his boss is always doing that to him.  The word always is a generalisation so John could start disputing whether this is actually always the case and is his boss actually picking on him?  If John continues to believe that he is a victim his behaviours and emotions will be that of a victim and this will only perpetuate the cycle for John if other potential bullies or persecutors identify John as an easy target or a whipping boy

An Exercise to Change Your Life and then Your Team

This exercise can be life changing for you and that is no overstatement.  Once you begin to change your thinking and feeling, your behaviours will naturally and automatically start to change.  This is the secret that underlies most successful behaviour change.  So, start to identify for yourself what emotions you experience on a daily basis that you may like to start feeling less.  People may call these “negative” emotions and that is why I have highlighted the work negative.  To me the emotion really isn’t negative – it’s just an emotion, neither negative nor positive, but often we want to feel these negative emotions less often than the positive ones. For instance you may find yourself being angry, sad, depressed, anxious, stressed, resentful or whatever;  Ask yourself are these emotions really useful or resourceful for you?  If not then start to become better at spotting the thinking that precedes them and the events that started the thinking process.  Maybe you could start an ABC diary that can capture the events, the beliefs or thinking and the emotions that follow.  Once you have started to identify the ABC then start to dispute and question your thinking that leads the “negative” emotions, you may then start to have new and more resourceful thoughts that can lead to “positive” emotions.

Once you have started to master this change for yourself, if your team hasn’t already started to change because of your changes, then you can start to coach them to become better at identifying and changing their thinking and subsequently their emotions.


The Agile Mindset – Perceptions around Failure

If I used the word failure to you – what does it bring up for you?  What sort of feelings, images or thoughts does it conjure up?  Failure is an evocative word that sends shivers down the spines of the most macho of males.  It is a dirty word in many organisations with a traditional or fixed mindset as failure perceived as “bad”, or “wrong” or “negative”.

An Agile mindset, however, regards failure differently. In the Agile community we have an expression:  Fail often; fail early.

There is no failure; only feedback

Failure is a necessary step in the process of learning.  One method through which behaviour change happens is by carrying out behavioural experiments.  Not all experiments “succeed”, but they all give us results.  This is why I personally like the expression which I learned on my NLP Master-practitioner training which embrace  this learning perspective “there is no failure; only feedback”.  However this viewpoint is often scorned and shouted down by managers and leaders who have little tolerance for failure and see it as a “cop-out” by “losers”.  These prehistoric managers and leaders are all about the “bottom-line” or the impossible schedules that they inflict upon people. I often hear the expressions “failure is not an option”, or “we don’t do failure” from these type of people who see little value in learning, let alone gaining any learning from mistakes.

But let’s put aside for one moment those managers and leaders who choose not to change or who are so defended against any criticism, because for these type of managers Agile is seen as a way of doing more with less or getting more out of their people than they are already giving.  This in my opinion is not the true purpose of meaning of Agile and I suspect that type of manager had already quit reading this article two paragraphs ago.

An Agile mindset reframes the experience of failure

So Agile embraces the notion of failure. Well, let’s be clear on this.  It’s not like we are saying that failure is “good” and that we shouldn’t care about our results or outcomes.   The Agile mindset, however, perceives failure differently.  Traditional perspectives of failure are strongly associated with the notion of losing; if we fail we lose.  We may perceive that we lose face or that others will lose faith in us as a result of our failure.  The Agile mindset reframes failure; failure is a result, not a verb.  We as individuals don’t fail and we are not failures if we fail more than we succeed, but our experiments might not give the results we desired or expected.  Thomas Edison was interviewed after his success with the invention of the incandescent light; “So Mr Edison, how did it feel to fail 10,000 times?” He replied with “I didn’t fail – I found 9999 ways that didn’t work”.  This is a healthier attitude towards failure don’t you think, otherwise we might still be sitting around in candle or gas light waiting for the light bulb to be invented.

An Agile mantra: fail often; fail early

From an Agile perspective we do embrace spotting and acting on our failures sooner rather than later.  Take for example the business case.  This document is written in part as a means of keeping checks and balances on a project to ensure that business benefit will accrue at some point once the solution has been deployed.  But how many project managers or business leaders continually check progress against the business case to ensure they are still on target.  From my experience not many! Circumstances may have more than likely changed from the first day the business case was accepted and signed off.  If may well be that shortly after starting the project that it may not deliver on business need, so maybe the sensible thing to do is to abort the project.  But what happens when people have checked and discover that the business benefits of delivering the project will never be realised? All too often people are more concerned with the personal and group psychology surrounding sunk costs and/or  saving face.  Is this because they will be perceived as having failed or worse yet be failures?  In this instance how could it even be considered that someone has failed as a result of the business context or environment changing, but yet that’s how Agile thinking or an Agile mindset gets sabotaged; through flawed and unchecked subconscious thinking processes and the repetition of self-defeating behaviour.  It takes great discipline and courage but often it is wise to cut our losses, fail early and learn from the experience.

Failure as an inevitable part of learning

All of us of us were children at one time and except for an unfortunate few, most of us learned how to walk.  I wonder how your parents treated you as you learned to walk.  Were they critical and abusive to you every time you stumbled and fell over?  Did they shout “get up you idiot, come on you loser – start walking!”  I hope not.  But this might seem amusing to think of somebody treating a mere baby in this way, but yet this is a strategy that many leaders and managers use to varying degrees on themselves and sometimes on their people.  They condition their people to “not fail” because if they do the consequences will be unpleasant, who wants to be bawled at in the middle of the office?  This attitude and accompanying behaviours are restrictive to the learning process and will limit the creativity that is so desperately required in many under-performing organisations.  (Notice I did not say failing organisations 🙂 .)  What many people have forgotten is that failure is an inevitable part of learning and that most often we fail our way to success.

If failure is learning; why does it feel so bad?

Failure is uncomfortable because of the meaning that we assign to it and the beliefs that we have about it.  I have provided some explorative questions below to help you reflect on failure and its meaning to you.  In many of the people that I have coached the root causes of failure are found in childhood where failure resulted in some punishment either in the form or verbal abuse or loss of love or acceptance in some way from our care-givers or people in authority.  Failure often translates into “I’m bad” or “I’m not worthy” or “I’m not good enough”. The ABC model used in cognitive behaviour therapy helps us to understand that it is not the activating event (the “A” in the ABC model) that causes us us stress, anxiety, frustration or whatever (the “C” in the ABC model); instead it is our beliefs, thinking, assumptions (the “B” in the ABC model) that causes our grief.  So by changing our thinking we can change our responses to ones that are more appropriate to learning from our failure rather than beating ourselves up or looking for people to blame for it.

Change your mind …

So to acquire more of an Agile mindset we need to change our minds about what failure means to us and I’m wondering what sort of reframes or re-decisions you can make about its meaning to you.  I would love to hear some of your thoughts so please post your replies below.  I’ll give you a few to get started:

Without failure there is no learning; There is no failure; only feedback

Explorations and Reflections

Here are some personal reflections that I encourage my clients to explore as we make the journey to acquiring a more Agile mindset.

  • What does failure mean to you?
  • What does it say about you if you were to fail?
  • How do you react when you fail? Do you accept responsibility or do you look for the scapegoat?
  • What about others who fail?  How do you perceive them?
  • What is your personal reflection on “there is no failure; only feedback”? Is there a truth in there?
  • What do you observe about how other people respond to failure?

If you would like more insight and support into changing your thinking …

If you would like to learn more about how you can take control of your thinking as a way of improving your performance or that of your team then take a look at the inner coach process.  It may be the last time you will ever need to use a coach! Click here to find out more.

Acquiring an Agile Mindset – Part 2 of The 12 Dysfunctions

In the previous part of this two part article I identified the 12 dysfunctions of thinking and provided some description of the first 5 dysfunctions.  Here is a reminder of the 12 dysfunctions and here is a link to the first part of this article.

  1. All or nothing thinking
  2. Magnification or minimisation
  3. Personalisation
  4. Emotional reasoning
  5. Mind-reading
  6. Labelling
  7. Discounting the positive
  8. Shoulds and musts
  9. Mental filter
  10. Catastrophising
  11. Over-generalisation
  12. Fortune-telling

So continuing from where we left of in the last article …


This is where someone will assign a label to themselves based on some behaviour they have previously carried out.  For instance if I ended up breaking the latest build of our code I might call myself an idiot for being so stupid.  I would be labelling myself in full as being an idiot just because I broke the build whereas I am not seeing the actual behaviour that led to the mistake in the first place.  So in this instance it is better for me to stick with the evidence “I broke the build” which focuses on my behaviour rather than “I’m an idiot”.  Ensuring that we label the behaviour rather than ourselves allows us to focus on fixing the behaviour and improving; but if I continually tell myself I’m an idiot and if I believe this, how will I ever learn or improve

Discounting the positive

This is a dysfunction that many people can relate to especially when we have been given a compliment. Often when receiving praise someone may immediately think “they are just saying that to be nice”.  Now I believe that it is important to have humility, but sometimes this can go too far and rather than be a virtue if becomes a dysfunction when we continually focus on the negatives.  Humility is still having the ability to accept the positive and not discount it, so a simple thank you to the person delivering the compliment and taking time to reflect on the positives does bring about some feel-good feelings.  Continually discounting the positive has a very wearing and draining effect on our psyches and may result in an attitude of why bother so it is wise to have a balanced view of seeing both the positive and the negative aspects of ourselves and our outputs.

Shoulds and musts

I often joke with my coachees that they are too much into S&M and I tend to get a shocked look.  I quickly explain that if our conversations contain lots of Shoulds and Musts these are a sign to me of a judgemental and rigid mindset.  When using these words we need to be aware that we are placing very rigid rules on ourselves or other people to behave or think in a certain way.  Breaking these rules often results in condemnation of self or others, which leads to much bad feeling.  S&Ms are the complete antithesis of the Agile way of thinking which at its core should embrace flexibility. (I’m sure that the more astute of you reading this spotted my deliberate placing of the should in the last sentence.  🙂 )

Mental filter

This is when we might have a tendency to focus exclusively on one negative aspect of a situation and as a result judge the whole situation in accordance with that aspect.  For instance if one Timebox didn’t deliver everything that it should have done, this doesn’t make the whole increment or project a failure.  What needs to happen is for people to stand back and take a wider perspective so that learnings can be taken from the mistakes made that caused the Timebox to not deliver according to expectations.  Applying a generalising filter does little to aid the learning process and in fact will damage morale and confidence in teams.


Is when we always assume the worst in a situation with only a little evidence to support one possible outcome out of many probable ones.  This is what we refer to “making mountains out of molehills”.  This is what we might call an overly negative mindset that can see only failure looming in the future.  Whilst it is healthy to see potential pitfalls in what we are about to embark on, it is when this mindset continually locks into the negative doom-and-gloom thinking where it becomes a problem.


This is where we might make broad sweeping conclusions about a situation with little regard to how this situation may be different to others in the past.  It is the persons ability to filter for sameness and their inability to spot difference.  When we over-generalise we are in effect deleting large chunks of information that allow us to come to simple conclusions, thus simplifying our decision making processes.


This where we believe that we have the ability to predict the future with a high degree of certainty.  Like the pattern of over-generalising, this doesn’t take into account any nuances or differences that might open us up to the possibilities of other outcomes.  Fortune-Telling happens a lot in organisations especially around change initiatives where people can, with maybe some past experience or evidence, accurately predict that this change effort, like the rest will fail.  Of course they will be using their logic to support their assertions, but what most people miss is the fact that they will act in accordance with their prediction and with their actions and attitudes will set the wheels in motion for the demise of project.  They can then bask in the glow of “I told you so”.

So what about you and your organisation …

So how many of these patterns of thinking do you spot in your organisation?  More importantly how many do you spot in yourself?  If you would like to share any of your experiences then please feel free to fill out the reply box below.  I would love to hear from you.

If you would like more insight and support into changing your thinking …

If you would like to learn more about how you can take control of your thinking as a way of improving your performance or that of your team then take a look at the inner coach process.  It may be the last time you will ever need to use a coach! Click here to find out more.

Acquiring an Agile Mindset – The 12 Dysfunctional Patterns of Thinking

I have been asked by a number of you to write a little more on the subject of Agile mindset and thinking, so here is the first in a series of articles that will target thinking and Agile mindset.  In this article I will firstly identify what I refer to as 12 dysfunctional patterns of thinking.  This is a two part article where I will cover the first 5 in this part and the remaining 7 in the next part.

So what are the 12 dysfunctional patterns of thinking?

My definition of an Agile mindset is one where learning and continuous improvement of ourselves is at the core of everything that we do.  However we are often thwarted in our efforts to improve by our limitations in our thinking processes. The area of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) identifies 12 different ways in which people’s thinking can often be distorted.  In times of great stress people may adopt one or more of these ways of thinking and this can cause additional problems to the ones they are already experiencing.  As a coach I encourage leaders and managers to first start to become aware of their own patterns of limiting thinking as these patterns will then become easier to spot in other people.  A word of caution though: the purpose in spotting these thinking patterns is not so that you can set out to change or fix them in other people, this is an area best left to professionals who with the appropriate level of tact and skill can help people overcome these limitations.

So let’s start by giving you the list of the 12 dysfunctional patterns of thinking:

  1. All or nothing thinking
  2. Magnification or minimisation
  3. Personalisation
  4. Emotional reasoning
  5. Mind-reading
  6. Labelling
  7. Discounting the positive
  8. Shoulds and musts
  9. Mental filter
  10. Catastrophising
  11. Over-generalisation
  12. Fortune-telling

All or nothing thinking

This was one of my favourite ways of distorting my own thinking.  When under pressure I would often see things in very extreme ways, everything is either black or white with no shades of grey in between.  The problem with this sort of thinking is that people may often fail to find solutions to their problems if they tend to focus on the extremes.  Solving complex problems requires for us to have flexible thinking and the ability to not only identify with opposite ends of the spectrum but with the infinite possibilities that often lie between the extremes.

Magnification or minimisation

This type of thinking is where a person will amplify the “bad” or negative aspects of a situation while attenuating the positive.  Of course some people might do the complete opposite.  This way of thinking has the effect of distorting reality and may result in more stress for the thinker as they perceive some event or person as being more negative or positive than in reality.


Some people have a tendency to make external events or situations all about them.  They may blame themselves or take on too much responsibility for the actions of other people or for circumstances that were outside of their control.  An example of this would be where you may logically decide that the reason for the failure of the programme was because you failed to deliver your project within budget.  Now it may be true that you may have had some part to play in that, but a blanket statement of  “its all my fault” is rarely the truth.

Emotional reasoning

Feelings are very powerful as anyone who has watched a rugby match can understand.  The strength of our emotions can often muddy the water of our thinking processes. Coming to conclusions or reaching decisions as a result of our feelings may often lead to poor decision making especially in times of duress.  To this end it is important to examine the evidence available in an unemotive way in order to come to an accurate assessment of the situation.  It is worth mentioning that emotional reasoning is not the same as using our intuitive abilities, but that is a subject for another day.


Just as it says on the tin, this dysfunction is about believing we can read the minds of other people.  We may tell ourselves things like “my colleagues think I’m an idiot”.  Because we are thinking something we can have the tendency to believe that the other person is thinking the same thing.  We need to check our assumptions and gather evidence before we start to act on our misplaced thinking, so in this example I can ask my colleagues if they do think I’m are an idiot and they may reassure me by telling me no, but do I believe them?  If I don’t then I would contend that I have gone back to mind reading again.

In the next article I will provide a description of the other 7 dysfunctions of thinking.  Here is a link to that article.

Building and Strengthening Relationships — An Exercise

The first Agile value stated in the Agile Manifesto is “Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools”.  Our everyday interactions with our colleagues, whether on Agile projects or not, are the ingredients that comprise our relationships.  And as everybody knows, maybe with the exception of the people on Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, poor ingredients lead to less than appetising dishes. Often our time as leaders is overly concerned with the workaday pressures of building business, fighting fires and just plain getting the job done. As a result our relationships may often be neglected or worse still may even be ruptured as a result of careless or “negatively” emotional interactions.  I encourage any leader reading this to explore and reflect on their business relationships, especially those that have hit a “rocky patch”.  To that end I have provided the following exercise, one that finds it origins in Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), as it will help to guide your reflections on the most meaningful relationships to you. Allow yourself some quality time to carry out the exercise properly and it can reveal all manner of insights for you as a leader.  Please feel free to share any insights in the reply box below.

Perceptual Positions Exercise

This exercise will take approximately 15-20 minutes.

Find a location where you won’t be disturbed and turn your phone off.

Take a moment to think of a relationship that you consider to be a bit “rocky”.  Think now of a specific incident where you and the other had difficulty in communicating your points to each other.

Take a moment to get into what NLP practitioners call the first position. Sit yourself comfortably in a chair, close your and take a few deep breaths so that you can begin to relax. In this position you will see everything for your perspective exactly as it happened.  What was it you were seeing at that time?  Do you remember what the other was wearing, how they were sitting, the expressions on their face.  Remember as much as you can to really bring the scene back to life. What were you hearing at the time?  How was your tone of voice? What about their tome and pitch of voice?  Was there emphasis on any particular words?  Now what about the feelings at the time, what were you feeling?  Can you remember the feelings in particular parts of your body?  Do you also remember what you were thinking at that time?  What was the other saying that evoked different thoughts or feelings? Take your time to remember the scene as accurately as you can.

Once you have done this take a moment to break that state.  You can break your state by standing up and clapping your hands together, walk around the room, shake your hands and feet or whatever.

In the other’s shoes …

Now return to your seat and relax again by taking a few breaths and when you are ready close your eyes.  You are now going to go into what we call the second position, this is where you step into the scene from the position of the other.  Take on their physiology, their body language, see things how they would see them.  See how they would be seeing you, how they would see your gestures and expressions.  Hear how they would hear your words, your tone of voice and so on.  This may feel odd as you step into that other person and as you take on their perspectives.  You can take this one stage further now by talking as if you were them.  Use the word “I” as if you were them speaking.  You may be very surprised as to how easy the words will flow and how you are able to construct a meaningful perspective from their viewpoint.

Spend a few more moment in second position and until you have gained some extra perspectives. Take a moment to absorb the essence of the other and take on board any meaningful learnings and insights from this position.  When you are ready break your state again as you did previously.

Being the “fly on the wall”

Return to your seat now and again relax, take a few deep breaths and when you’re ready close your eyes.  Now you are going to go into third position, what you might call the fly on the wall.  The difference between you and the fly however is that you are more engaged and concerned about the outcome in this relationship.  Take a moment to observe the person that looks like you in the first position.  As you see the person who looks like you what is it that you need more of to help you achieve your goal or intention with the other?  What do you need less of?  What advice would you give this person as a result of any insights that you have gained from being in the second position.  You may also from this position observe the nature and dynamic of the relationship and the interactions.  As an engaged observer allow yourself to see what else might be needed to nurture and cultivate that particular relationship.  What other advice would you then offer to the person who looks like you?

When you are ready and you have taken some meaningful insight form the positions take a moment to break you state again and return to yourself in the here and now.

For reflection:

Did this exercise provide you with any meaningful data that you can act on?

How would you be able to act on that information?

Is this an exercise that you can utilise again in the future?

Further Notes:

Some people are very good at either first, second or third position.  You may find yourself more comfortable with one in particular.  Be careful that if you are very comfortable with second position that you ensure that you are not overly biased towards this persons viewpoint.  People who don’t have a strong sense of self are more likely to bias their thoughts and feelings towards the other and as a result maybe lose sight of their own needs in the relationship.

Would you like help with your interactions and relationships?

Building and nurturing effective relationships are the core of any successful business.  You might like to chat to me about how you can improve your ability to grow you relationships.  If so give me a call today or contact me using our contact form and book a 30 minute no obligation coaching session to help you become a more relational leader.

The Abilene Paradox – Saying Yes When We Really Mean No

Have you ever sat in a meeting or some other gathering where a decision is being made that you don’t particularly agree with.  You maybe heard one of your inner voices say “wait a minute – that doesn’t feel right”.  The group consensus appears to be saying “yes”, but then you maybe start to feel uncomfortable about being the sole voice who says “no”.

This is quite a common occurrence and is referred to as the Abilene Paradox, named by Dr Jerry Harvey.  Abilene is small town in Texas in the USA and is used as a metaphor to describe a destination to where all members of a family verbally agreed to travel, but internally they all have misgivings about going there.  The point is that as individuals we tend to mistakenly believe that our opinion is in the minority and as such we might not want to voice our opinion for fear that we might “rock the boat”.

Why bother?

Think about it for a moment, who wants to be the party pooper, the kill-joy being accused of not being a team player just because they have a different opinion.  It’s part of our human condition to want to be part of the group as Maslow identified in his hierarchy of needs, so why go to the bother of isolating ourselves when maybe if we kept our mouths shut  maybe things will work out OK in the end.

Of course this is not always the case because there are a few individuals in every organisation who have the courage of their convictions and do speak out.  However these Lightning Rods, as I refer to them because they take on the wrath of God or the leaders, tend to get a bit of a name for themselves and end up with limited career options.

Managing Agreement over Managing Conflict

Many management theorists talk about this particular problem as that of Managing Agreement over Managing Conflict.  The great thing about conflict is its visibility.  If we can see the conflict we can help to resolve or manage it.  But what about the false agreements that are made in organisations every day that may have widespread and long-lasting impacts.  People may mutter and grumble about “that’s the way things are around here” and may become very cynical about their ability to change opinions or reverse decisions.  This is why the Agile value of courage is most important in organisations, people do need to have the courage of their convictions to voice their opinions.

What’s the Solution?

Ultimately however, my belief is that the solution to this particular problem is a leadership one.  Leaders need to become more aware of the power of group dynamics and the effects that it has on the individuals in an organisation.  If leaders can find a way to allow true  dialogue in their organisation that encourages a spirit of inquiry in their teams and groups, this would allows differences of opinion to emerge and who knows how this may benefit everyone concerned.

Many leaders may be unaware of how they surround themselves with “yes -people” or how the power of their personality may overwhelm people to the point that others cannot provide the diversity opinions that may be needed for an organisation to break out of a slump or to make a meaningful difference in the marketplace.  All too often I have seen leaders become consumed with their own importance and lose sense of reality.  They may say that they value other peoples opinions but they may be quite shocked to discover that they have unwittingly given a covert message that disagreement will not be tolerated.  When that happens, very soon the organisation will suffer and so will its people.

Leaders – Be the Change

So if you are a leader reading this and you have decided to embrace an Agile culture in your organisation, please know that there will most likely be changes needed with you and other leaders in the organisation and not just the delivery teams and people in the front-line.  An Agile organisation requires a different form and style of leadership than a bureaucratic one.  As Gandhi famously said “Be the change”.

Goal Setting — Are Your Goals SMART PURE and CLEAR

SMART Goals – a Reminder

Most managers, leaders and coaches have heard of SMART goals so here is a reminder of what that acronym stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Agreed (others say attainable or achievable – but to me that is realistic – see below)
  • Realistic
  • Time Bounded

A quick google search will reveal thousands of articles on SMART goals, however the not very often quoted acronyms of PURE and CLEAR I will give some detail on, as there is little written on them.  Incidentally, I first discovered these some years back in Sir John Whitmore’s most excellent book Performance Coaching, so I cant take the credit for these inventions.

PURE Goals

Let’s start with PURE goals.  The abbreviation stands for:

  • Positively Stated
  • Understood
  • Relevant
  • Ethical

Positively stated finds its origins in the world of NLP.  It is important that you express what it is you are trying to achieve in the positive.  Let me give you some examples.  ” I will  be 14 stone and 2 pounds by June 19th” as opposed to “I don’t want to be fat” or “I want to stop gaining weight”.  Another one might be “I am becoming more punctual” rather than ” I must stop being late”, I’m sure you get the idea.  But look at these goals for a moment – what is your attention on as you set that goal? I won’t go into how this works on a subconscious level, but suffice to say it is important because we programme ourselves for success – that is what the “P” in NLP stands for – Programming.  We feed instructions to our subconscious mind in our every waking minute.  The subconscious doesn’t know how to NOT do something, but yet many of my clients come to me with what I call “Stopping Goals”.  So my first task is to always get them to express their goals in the positive.  ‘Nuff said.

It is important that our goals are understood especially if you as a leader or manager are setting goals for your direct reports.  What assumptions are being made about the goal, do we understand the wider implications of the goal?  This to my mind this is why many change efforts fail because people don’t really understand the goals they have been asked to achieve. Lack of understanding may imply confusion and this will lead to poor or little follow through on the goal.

When we talk about our goals being relevant what I am meaning here are the wider implications of the goal.  Agile leaders and managers focus on fewer priorities and achieve them with a greater rate of success than their counterparts who have many more priorities.  If we focus on one or two priorities in any given time frame we go ahead and set the goals that are relevant to the wider goals or vision.

Ethical is an interesting one because this can be very subjective in that what might be seen as ethical for one person is not so for another.  So we need to align ourselves with what is important to us and with what we feel are just and worthy goals.  I know of sales people who just don’t believe in what they are selling and as such their sense of ethics are challenged.  This does have a serious impact on their performance and their ability to achieve their goals.


So what are CLEAR goals?  CLEAR stands for:

  • Challenging
  • Legal
  • Environmentally sound
  • Appropriate
  • Recorded

To my mind I find the most effective goals are the most challenging goals.  These are the goals that make us jump out of bed in the morning and push us to greater levels of achievement.  When we lose the challenge in our work we tend to switch off and many of our capabilities lie dormant. Being challenged pushes us to bring all of ourselves to the game and engenders a deeper level of excitement and adventure.  There is so much more I can say about this one attribute, but I’m sure your understand the point.

Legal: Do I need to say anything about this, it does relate to ethical but is not the same.  We can argue about the ethics of casino’s and prostitution, but these may be legal or illegal depending on which side of a state or country border you are standing on. Ethics are personal, legality is the law.

Relating again to ethics, environmentally sound is a very personal perspective and may require some thought by the individual as to the appropriateness of the goal.  Many organisations have made commitments that are highly commendable from an environmental perspective.  But how many organisations would cease to exist if they set inappropriate goals.  The responsibility of the board of directors (or their equivalent) is for the well being of the organisation, so setting inappropriate goals would be at odds with their remit.  It isn’t always easy for a leader who is facing a personal crisis because their ethics are challenged, much soul searching, exploration and clarification are needed to resolve these deep values conflicts.  But staying with this unease and working through it builds stronger and more resilient leaders.

Goals that are recorded have a much greater chance of being completed and successful and I seem to remember reading somewhere that this has been scientifically proven.  Are your goals written down?  I’m not referring to a dot on a chart that predicts where we will be in the future.  No, our goals do need to be written down and visible.   Committing our goals to paper does help us to programme ourselves to achieve them and keeps if in the forefront of our mind.  Much inner magic will start to work when you write your goals down as your subconscious mind sets to work on solving this problem for you.

The 3 Cs of User Stories

In our consulting work we often refer to the three C’s of user stories, here is what we mean.  The C’s are abbreviations for the:

  • Card
  • Conversation
  • Confirmation

The card contains little information and is often written in the form “As A <<Role Name>> I want <<a feature>> so that <<some value delivered>>”.  There are many different forms that this can take, but what is most important is that what is written, is meaningful to the team delivering the feature and the customer (or product owner) requesting it. Developers cannot write software from the card alone and to that end they need the next part … the conversation.

The conversation is the essence of the requirement and conversations can spawn many outputs or artefacts such as models, notes, story maps or even good old fashioned code!  I like to think of the conversation as the most important part of the story because this is where the learning is achieved.

For years as a systems or business analyst I used to write requirements specifications that could sink a small boat and then lob these over the partition to my design colleagues (god I hated conversations with designers – they asked way too many questions ;0) ).  But seriously, minimising the written word to specify requirements is important, but you maybe can’t get away with eliminating it altogether.

Conversations, and more importantly evolving conversations, allow the developer/designer to hold the concepts of the requirement in their head while the design and code become the output of a requirements conversation rather than some weighty tome.  This minimises ambiguity and uncertainty as the analyst, or better yet customer, can see their thoughts become manifest as a result of a few insightful conversations.  Changes can then be made directly as the feedback is received rather than going through some lengthy change management process which will result in a document being changed giving the risk of more ambiguity.

The confirmation (often written on the back of the story card) gives us the high-level criteria against which the resulting feature will be tested against.  I like the idea of specifying the system by examples of what the system will do both when it functions correctly or incorrectly.  This is a better way of creating a specification as opposed to my boat sinking documentation of yore. Alternatively simple closed questions such as “does the screen go black?” may well suffice for acceptance criteria.  But these in themselves will not be the complete set of acceptance tests but only a high level set of tests to give the customer or product owner confidence that the feature that has been created fulfils their criteria of a working feature.

The Agile Culture — A Definition

I would like to start a conversation here on Agile culture so I do hope that you as a reader you will become a contributor, I encourage it so please do leave your comments.

If I was to define Agile in one sentence and in as few words as possible I would have to say that:

Agile is a culture.

More specifically Agile is a culture where:

  • People are respected and valued
  • Diversity and difference are appreciated and accepted
  • People work together rather than against each other
  • Learning and continuous improvement are the focus of its people
  • Learning is regarded as investment and contributes to business value
  • The customer is central to all that we do and create
  • Authentic adult conversations are the means by which change emerges and evolves
  • There are no right answers or solutions
  • Passion and creativity replace obedience and compliance
  • Leadership exists at all levels of the organisation rather than just at the top
  • People love to come to work and love their work
  • People are proud to be part of their organisation and team
  • Employee turnover is low
  • Employee engagement is high
  • We anticipate and work with change

Now imagine for a moment that all of the above need to be in place for your organisation to consider itself to be an Agile organisation.  To my thinking it is little wonder that the organisational culture becomes one of the key and limiting impediments to the wholesale adoption and transformation to an Agile culture.  How may of these elements are true in your organisation?

So, my question to you if my assertion is true, that Agile is a culture, what would you say are the key elements, measures or dimensions of that culture?  I would love to hear more from you and I will add to above list as the conversation emerges.