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Q&A on the Book Evolvagility: Growing an Agile Leadership Culture from the inside out

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Key Takeaways

  • Our capacity for delivery agility, for business agility, and for organizational agility --outer agility-- ultimately rests on our capacity for inner agility.
  • Inner agility refers to the sensemaking, communication, and relationship intelligence of an organization’s people.
  • Sense-and-Respond leadership is the capacity of individuals, in relationship with others, to sense acutely, in the midst of complexity and ambiguity, and to respond gracefully, within that same complexity and ambiguity, in ways which catalyze the realization of outcomes that are important. It is born out through our capacity for a richer, more complex inner sensemaking. As such, it is a form of inner agility.
  • Evolvagility is the name given to a body of practices and distinctions, drawn from the fields of developmental psychology, executive coaching and relationship systems coaching, by which we can deliberately and decisively grow the complexity of our inner sensemaking and our capacity for Sense-and-Respond leadership. It is to inner agility what practice frameworks like Scrum, Kanban, and Lean Startup are to outer agility.
  • The resulting capacity for a deliberate sensemaking is the base practice by which we can grow a deep and sustained organizational agility.

The book Evolvagility: Growing an Agile Leadership Culture from the Inside Out by Michael Hamman explains how focusing on inner-agility through sensemaking, communication, and relationship intelligence can increase the outer agility of organizations. It describes Sense-and-Respond leadership, an approach to catalyzing the creation of outcomes by sensing acutely, responding gracefully, and sensing deliberately.

InfoQ readers can download an extract from the book Evolvagility.  

InfoQ interviewed Hamman about inner agility and outer agility, sense-and-respond leadership, what we can do to enable and facilitate development within ourselves and in others, management by indirection and self-management, and what makes psychological support so important to make change happening in organizations.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Michael Hamman: There were at least three factors here. First, I came into the agile world from the world of professional coaching, organization development, and developmental psychology (in particular, the work of Robert Kegan, Michael Basseches and Clare Graves). As such, my focus from the beginning was to help people gain greater awareness of their own ways of inner sensemaking and how it might be impacting their actions and their perceptions of the situations around them. This awareness grew into one of the foundational tenets of the book, which is that in order to grow sustainable agility, it has to be grown from the inside out--that is, it has to start with a focus on people’s inner sensemaking--their consciousness, if you will.

The other factor came about more gradually. Throughout the years, I had been working a lot with managers and leaders to help them grow within themselves what we often call an “agile mindset”. Over time, however, I started to see an irony in this: that while people on the ground were waiting for senior leadership to “get it”, already “enlightened” senior leaders were waiting for all of those people on the ground to “get it”.

At some point it dawned on me: in today’s volatile, uncertain and complex world, leadership agility can’t be something which we focus on developing only at the top. Rather, leadership agility is necessarily an everywhere phenomenon; and, as such, we need to have a way to grow the capacity for leadership agility everywhere, regardless of role, position, or title.

As I began to seriously pursue this kind of “everywhere” leadership, what I started to see was that individual leadership seemed to best emerge in group settings, as opposed to the usual one-on-one coaching context that I had been accustomed to. But even more than that, I started to see that when groups (whether intact teams or ad hoc groups) could develop their capacity to effectively “coach” each other, the lasting impact was even deeper and was, ultimately, that much more transferable to others.  

At some point, I started to feel that the notion of leadership agility this all was pointing to needed to be clearly articulated, in a way that would leverage and apply the significant body of research and practice on human development of which I had been a long-time student. That was the inception of the book. 

InfoQ: For whom is it intended?

Hamman: This book is for anyone who finds themselves being called upon to show up as a leader, but who faces challenges which leave them feeling in some way “in over their heads.”

  • This could be a Scrum master who wants to learn how to be a better “catalyst” for her team as they navigate their own path toward high performance.
  • It could be an Agile coach who wishes to bring about greater capability and competence in their ability to impact ever-larger and more complex communities and stakeholder collectives.
  • It could be a change agent who is looking to gain deeper insight, and develop greater skillfulness, in helping to bring about deep and sustained shifts in organizational culture.
  • It could be a manager or senior executive who is looking for some deeper insights and a solid methodology for transforming organizational culture.

The book is written for anyone who already sees themselves as a leader by virtue of the fact that they are already being called upon to lead, whether the moment of calling is small or big. I call them “leaders” in that….

  • They are willing to take responsibility for their world and able to influence others in creating that world
  • They are guided by a deep inner compass founded upon a profound sense of purpose
  • They are willing to recognize and evolve beyond the limitations of their current ways of seeing the world, of seeing others, and of seeing themselves

InfoQ: What's the difference between inner agility and outer agility?

Hamman: For the most part, when we think of “agility” what comes to mind are agile processes and frameworks such as Scrum, Kanban, XP, Less and SAFe. And even in the broader context (such as with Business Agility), we typically are talking about organizational structures, processes, and systems.

It is this more commonly-held notion of agility I am calling “outer” agility.

As seasoned agilists are finding, however, the biggest challenges with agility revolve not so much around its outer aspects—its processes, practices, deliverables, and business outcomes—but around the sensemaking, communication, and relationship intelligence of an organization’s people: its inner aspects. This is where we find the characteristically human problems of resistance, conflict, communication breakdowns, broken promises, people going through the motions with little passion or conviction, deteriorating product quality, managers micromanaging. The world, that is, of mindset and culture.

This is what I am referring to as the world of inner agility.

InfoQ: What is sense-and-respond leadership?

Hamman: Sense-and-Respond leadership is the capacity of individuals, in relationship with others—and manifested throughout an organization—to sense acutely, in the midst of complexity and ambiguity, and to respond gracefully, within that same complexity and ambiguity, in ways which catalyze the creation of outcomes that are most important to us.

The word “catalyze” is key here. What we’re talking about is a leadership not so much of acting and doing, or of directing and telling, but of sensemaking and relating. A leadership which rests on our ability—whether individually or collectively—to take complex and ambiguous situations which surprise and confuse us, and make sense of them in ways which help us, and others, navigate that complexity, ambiguity, and confusion. And, just as importantly, it is a leadership that rests on our ability to forge relationships and relational activity in which similar sensemaking capacity gets generated collectively.

In this sense, Sense-and-Respond leadership is explicitly an inner capability (inner sensemaking) at least as much as it is an outer (behavior) one.

I’ve said it before, but I want to re-emphasize that Sense-and-Respond leadership is not just an individual capability. It is, necessarily, a systemic capability which comes to life both within individuals and within the relationship systems (teams, partners, ad hoc groups) that form the fundamental fabric of any organization. It is, as I mentioned above, an everywhere phenomenon—an aspect of an organization’s cultural “DNA.”

It’s also important to understand that such a manner of leadership is an emergent systemic condition that cannot be directed or strategically managed from above. Its emergence can only happen through the ongoing design of minimal rules, structures, roles, and orienting ideas which act at once as systemic attractors and stimulators to the emerging organization. This points to the role of management and leadership, which we’ll come to in a moment.

InfoQ: What problems does sense-and-respond leadership try to solve?

Hamman: Many of the problems we face in organizations point, at least indirectly, to the sensemaking, communication, and relationship intelligence of an organization’s people—that is, they point to the level of inner agility. These problems include unresolved interpersonal (and even institutional) conflict; lack of clear alignment, shared understanding, and shared commitment; and the myriad relationship issues which routinely plague our work environments. These kinds of problems and issues have a big impact on our capacity for sustained outer agility, as most people who have been around agile long enough can attest to.

I would argue that much of the source of these problems arise not just from a lack of skillfulness in the arenas in which these problems arise. Rather, they arise from the deeper sensemaking capacity which underlie and determine how people relate to those problems, cognitively and emotionally, and which determine our effective use of those skills. Again, inner agility.

Sense-and-Respond leadership is a term I give to the capacity within individuals and relationship systems to deliberately grow that inner agility, within themselves and in others. From the perspective given by this term, you could say that the skills we have (in resolving interpersonal and institutional conflict, lack of clear alignment, and so on) are the “apps” we run—they are the things are able to do in the world. Meanwhile, the underlying sensemaking points to the underlying “operating system” on which those apps are to run.

What we are facing in today’s complex world is a need for new and better apps. However, in order to run these new kinds of apps, we need to have an “upgrade” to the inner operating system on which those apps are to run. We might be able to learn those new apps (better relationship skills, better communication and collaboration skills, greater skills in creating shared alignment and commitment, and so on). But when it comes to actually exercising them, in real-world situations, our skillfulness in doing so inevitably falls short. Unless and until we upgrade the inner operating system—our inner assumptions, beliefs, mental models and emotional triggers—on top of which those new skills run, and by which our proficiency in their practice is determined.

We therefore need an inner operating system “upgrade”—a shift in the inner operating principles which determine how we see the world, how we sense and how we respond—from one that is rests predominantly on a Predict-and-Plan premise to one that carries within it a Sense-and-Respond capability. We need to shift our inner assumptions, beliefs, mental models and emotional triggers such that we find ourselves better able to meet the challenges we face in the world—the very challenges which ostensibly agile is intended to help us address in the first place—within the very constitution of our thinking, our acting, our sensemaking.

With such an inner operating system upgrade, our ability to naturally and organically adopt new skillful means grows by itself.

InfoQ:  How does the internal “meaning-making” that people hold drive their actions?

Hamman: The term “meaning-making” is a somewhat technical term used in the developmental psychology world. It refers to the same kind of inner territory to which I’ve been referring with the term “sensemaking.” It defines the inner mental structures according to which our thoughts and experiences are organized. It determines the way people make sense of their world, how they relate with others, the actions they are able to take, the skills they are able to develop, and the depth of emotional intelligence they are able to bring to bear in any given moment.

To get a sense of how this works, consider the example of an agile delivery software team you are managing. For the third sprint in a row, this team has not delivered what they committed to, and it is causing headaches for business stakeholders. Your actions will, I would argue, be a product of the patterned inner meaning-making grammar with which you are making sense of the situation.

One grammar that might be determining your inner meaning-making is a concern for attaining near-term results. Coming from such a place, it might seem perfectly reasonable, for instance, to push the team to work faster, perhaps even asking them to work evenings and weekends in order to meet their commitments. After all, the internal logic might be saying, they’re the ones who made the commitment to those goals and, being well-paid professionals, they need to take responsibility and do whatever it takes to meet their commitments.

If, by contrast, the meaning-making structure that determines how you make sense of the situation tends to see events as part of a longer-term unfolding in which learning inevitably happens, and in which team learning is a key longer-term goal—then you will more likely be predisposed to help the team find their own solutions; standing back, posing questions, providing feedback on the impact of their failure to deliver on other stakeholders. All of which is intended to help the team awaken their own sense of responsibility and commitment—to self-organize, that is.

In this example, it would not seem logical to the person holding the first inner meaning-making grammar (focused on near term results as opposed to the longer-term learning for the team) to approach the situation by standing back and posing reflective questions to the team. In fact, such a mode of action would, coming from such a meaning-making orientation, be regarded as nonsense. 

InfoQ: What can we do to enable and facilitate development within ourselves and in others?

Hamman: First, we need to be willing to embrace the fact that humans are, first and foremost, psychological, emotional, and even spiritual beings. From such a premise, there are a myriad of practices, distinctions, and methodologies from the fields of executive leadership coaching, developmental psychology, transformational learning, and relationship systems coaching which we can adopt and fashion in ways that are highly practical and readily applicable. 

Those practices and distinctions are deliberately designed to help us develop a heightened awareness of, and an increased ability to grow, the complexity of our individual meaning-making. That greater complexity enables specific skills, particularly in the areas of communication, collaboration, systemic thinking (so necessary in today’s complex world), and leadership impact.

Relationships and relationship “systems” are key to this developmental process. As I make clear in the book, individual development—especially within the organizational setting—happens in relationship with others, and in particular through very specific kinds of conversations. These are conversations that are deliberately designed to facilitate the growth—in complexity—of both individual and shared sensemaking capability.

These deliberately-designed conversations (similar to, but different than, professional coaching conversations) help us examine the assumptions, beliefs and mental models which subconsciously shape our view of the world, and which determine what we are able to sense and in what ways we are able to respond to events and situations.

More importantly, those conversations help us upgrade the quality and complexity of those assumptions, beliefs and mental models so that they can yield a richer, more complex, more skillful way of working in the world.

The book traces in great detail what these practices, distinctions and methodologies can look like, and how they can be adopted by individuals, teams, partners and ad hoc groups in ways that congrue with, and complement, what they are already doing.

InfoQ: How can having an accountability partner help to grow and develop ourselves?

Hamman: As is reiterated throughout the book, inner development is an individual phenomenon—it occurs within individual minds. And yet, as I have said, individual minds don't exist individually; they arise within the context of human relationships. The thoughts we have, the feelings we experience, the aspirations we hold—all have a social basis in relationships, and in the feelings, language, and discourse through which those relationships are sustained and leveraged in any number of shared pursuits.

It is with this understanding of the context of relationship that we want to think about the notion of the accountability partner. The accountability partner is someone with whom we engage in specific practices by which each person grows both themselves and each other’s capacity for more complex inner meaning-making. In the process, each person in the partnership deepens their skillfulness in the very arena of relationship in which that partnership grows and is nurtured.

The promises made within the context of an accountability partnership, as I define it, are not just about accomplishing specific goals or outcomes; it is ultimately about making promises which, in seriously pursuing, have the effect of catalyzing some kind of inner development for the individual making the promise.

InfoQ: How does shared sensemaking work and what outcomes can it generate?

Hamman: A Shared sensemaking conversation happens when two or more people have a conversation around something that is important, typically something related to a work situation.
What makes this kind of conversation different from an ordinary one is that the focus of shared sensemaking is on deepening the quality of our shared understanding, not just of the situation at hand, but of the ways in which our assumptions, beliefs and mental models—both individually held and shared among us—limit and/or benefit how we perceive and talk about that situation.
Simplifying things somewhat, a shared sensemaking conversations can be said to focus on:

  • The situation; the “topic” of the conversation. The topic needs to be something that people genuinely care about—something they are actually even committed to—and it needs to be a topic that is in some way challenging, or difficult for people.
  • The nature of the meaning-making—that is, the shared assumptions, beliefs, and mental models—that determines how we think about, and relate to, the situation.
  • Our process as a relationship system; the patterns of interaction and communication that define the quality of our shared sensemaking.

Given this focus, the shared sensemaking conversation has a particular protocol which has roughly the following shape:

  1. What is it that we “know” about this situation? That is, what are we sensing?
  2. What might be the unconsciously-held assumptions, beliefs and mental models which shape how we make sense of this situation, both as individuals and together as a collective? How might these be constraining what we could otherwise sense and how might these be constraining how we might respond?
  3. In what ways might the very process of our interactions be limiting or enabling our capacity as a collective in the face of this situation? What might we need to adjust?
  4. What might we do to effect a change, either in our own collective sensemaking or more directly related to the situation to move something forward?

As teams and groups learn and develop a regular practice of shared sensemaking conversations, they become able to observe the shared assumptions, beliefs and mental models which otherwise go unnoticed, but which in many ways determine—and often limit—how they work together as teams and groups.

This greater awareness translates into far greater skillfulness: 

  • in creating alignment; 
  • in building high levels of relational trust; 
  • in working together in a highly collaborative manner; 
  • in holding one another accountable for the sake of one another’s high performance; 
  • in surfacing and overcoming the toxic effects of conflict in order to leverage real differences toward greater creativity and innovation.

All of this, of course, translates to far greater levels of overall effectiveness, particularly as it relates to the team and group practices related to, and in support of, a greater outer agility. 

InfoQ: What is management by indirection and how does it facilitate self-management?

Hamman: Within the context of the above practices we have been discussing, which promote the growth of people’s inner agility capabilities, the job of organizational management and leadership shifts radically. Rather than directing and telling—the job of traditional management—managers and leaders shift their energy to catalyzing; to bringing about the emergence of environmental conditions and structures that enable the growth and mastery of practices by which we all might grow the complexity of our inner meaning-making. That is, the focus is on creating conditions which favor the emergence of an everywhere Sense-and-Respond leadership.

I call this radically different management approach “managing by indirection“ (borrowed from the work of management theorist Robert Chia).

The term “indirection” refers to a form of management in which the manager “manages” by effectively taking him or herself out of the middle of things, and steps back in order to be better able to pay attention to the greater unfolding. From this place of remove from the hurly-burly of organizational goings-on, management happens, not through direct control, but through the indirect introduction of small adjustments, catalyzing ideas, vocabularies, or through the design of organizational structures—all of which have the effect of altering some aspect of the organizational environment in which people are working.

The resulting organizational arrangement is one that exhibits a kind of Yin/Yang of organizational management. On the one hand, we introduce specific practices, conditions, and vocabularies which enable people at all levels of the organization to upgrade their inner sensemaking operating system, whether at the level of individuals or social collectives, in order to grow their capacity for “small-l” Sense-and-Respond leadership. On the other hand, and in a similar fashion, we introduce specific practices, conditions, and vocabularies which enable those in a management role to step back and design the environments necessary for people to deliberately and continuously upgrade the skills and capabilities of their inner agility.

With such a balance, conditions arise that support the emergence of a truly self-managing organization, a true “learning” organization. 

InfoQ: What makes psychological support so important to make change happening in organizations?

Hamman: I’d like to address this question within the context of a larger idea, one that is a key idea in the book, and that idea is the notion of what developmental psychologists call the “Holding Environment.”

Simply put, a holding environment is a social and structural setting deliberately designed to foster developmental growth; a structure that is defined by specific kinds of relationships, by individually held developmental goals (around which there is usually a supportive accountability relationship), and by events and arrangements (such as recurring coaching conversations, collaborative work projects, and so on).

Three conditions must be met for a holding environment to support inner development.

The first is that there must exist a condition of psychological challenge—a kind of challenge that has a deliberately developmental edge. Typically, these are situations or circumstances that present problems whose solutions require inner capabilities that are just slightly beyond one’s current center of gravity. (Problems whose solutions require inner capabilities that are too far beyond one’s current center of gravity are both needlessly stressful and developmentally ineffective.) Examples include a promotion that brings on new role-related challenges, or a project whose complexity forces the person to “think outside the box” in some genuinely new and somewhat personally challenging manner.

Stepping out into developmentally challenging situations requires support structures. This is where the second condition of a holding environment comes in, and that is a condition of psychological support. Such support has the effect of emotionally bolstering where a person is already at; encouragement for taking those (perhaps tentative) steps toward what might be next, developmentally, and reassurance that whatever mistakes they may make along the way are okay. This is where relationships become significant, developmentally.

The third necessary condition of a holding environment is the existence and propagation of specific learning tools, ones which are deliberately designed to help people advance developmentally, both in terms of their inner development and in terms of the resulting skills and competencies which that inner development make realizable. These tools can be in the form of new distinctions and practices, or training in new skills or techniques, all of which help people accomplish work-related tasks in ways that introduce greater capability, nuance, and complexity of impact. That is, they help people bring to bear more complex inner meaning-making schemas. 

About the Book Author

MICHAEL HAMMAN coaches organizations, teams, and leaders toward greater holistic team and enterprise-level agility, primarily through growing their inner capacity for leadership agility in the face of the complexity, volatility, and ambiguity that is 21st Century life and business. His book Evolvagility: Growing an Agile Leadership Culture from the Inside Out is available in print and on Kindle.

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