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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Olaf Lewitz on De-Scaling Your Organization and Using Temenos

Olaf Lewitz on De-Scaling Your Organization and Using Temenos


1. Hello, everybody, my name is Todd Charron, I’m an agile editor here at InfoQ and we are here at Agile 2014 and today I am joined by Olaf Lewitz. Good to see you. To get us started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Good to see you too, Todd. I’ve been consulting companies and organizations on change for quite a few years after being a software developer and then accidentally being pushed into a management role, which was kind of surprising and, well, I wasn’t 30 yet and made boss over a company, I didn’t say no, something I have a hard time with anyway, as most of us, and it was a scary experience because being the boss I had no idea what to do and the only thing I assumed to know about that position was that I was not supposed to ask and it was scary. Afterwards, in my next job I was pushed into a consulting role, I was quite introvert at the time, typical software developer, rather communicating with the machines than to human beings and I needed to go out and talk in front of people and it was scary and it was also very interesting because I saw that there were different work places, different cultures, that there were people actually changing the way they were working and it was something that I had only done once before.

So I've always been agile, I could probably call myself an agile native, I’ve never written software to a specification. I started discovering XP in ‘99 and my colleagues and I were oh, finally somebody is writing down how software development actually works, and that was good. In the consulting role I did more and more agile stuff, I wasn't really in touch with the community at the time, so we did some Scrum, some XP, some other stuff, lots of large scale processes too, like RUP, V-Model, waterfall-y kinds of things, in all kinds of organizations and then in 2010 I decided I wanted to focus on agile, I had discovered the community, for the first time in my life I had this feeling of actually belonging to a tribe, which was awesome, connected to lots and lots of people and I joined agile42 to become an agile coach and last year I became independent because I saw a fundamental struggle, dissonance between my own need to explore my options, explore what I can do and the company’s need for coherence, which was very understandable, I supported it, but I found out that I needed to do my own thing.

And having done all these change initiatives, been through all these short term, long term engagements where at the beginning always everybody is very enthusiastic something new, also the external people present, plus the management is spending money, so everybody is paying a little attention and then after a while things kind of bore down and I've read stuff by Michael Sahota for instance, who says that cultures eats your strategy for breakfast, you’re hitting this invisible wall and I wanted to focus on working with people and find out what is it that makes us so afraid and then becoming independent was also, ok, how do I position myself, what is it that I can do that people actually need, and the thing I found was trust, most organizations I’ve worked with lack trust, most individuals like myself lack trust in themselves and I’ve discovered that I kind of have a knack of helping people trust themselves, helping people trust each other, trust me, by being vulnerable, by sharing stories like the one I told earlier about becoming a manager and not fitting in.

I’ve been doing this for a year and I label myself as a trust artist because I read a book by Seth Godin that said that artists connect to people in a way that gives them an option to transform, and I loved that. So, I focus on culture and fixing the things that are broken in the organization before we try changing process, before we try to discover better structures.


2. That’s interesting as that leads us towards the topic of your session which in a conference full of sessions that are all about scaling agile and what framework you can use to scale agile, your session is about de-scaling your organization. So, maybe tell us a little bit about that and what that means.

Well, basically descaling is what you do to a coffee machine when the water doesn’t flow anymore, right? And I like this concept because what I see in organizations is that because of this need to fit in we have a very strong habit as individuals, and that adds up more and more in large organizations, of not fully being honest, of not fully showing up, of talking in ways that we think is maybe acceptable, this is the start at the individual level and then at organizational level we have reporting, we have time recording, we have lots of pretending going on. You know how this project reporting works, right? Someone in the team says it’s red and the project manager says oh, we might be able to fix it, and then it’s yellow and then the department head says oh, no, it’s green, right, things always get better, so we’re optimistic. So, we have this strong culture of telling lies and agile works when people have honest communication.

On a team level we are well able to create a container of trust where people can let go of the process, can let go of the roles and actually find out how they can collaborate better. My overall impression of all the roles and processes I’ve put in place in organizations were, there are mainly two reasons, the need for roles comes from needing someone to blame, it’s not my fault, it’s not my racy thing, I thought by-the-way for a while that racy is where racist comes from, but that’s a side track, and the other thing is if I am the one to be blamed because it was my responsibility then I need to have followed a process, so I have done the right thing.

And that brings me to the human aspect, our society, our own thinking and the way we construct organizations is full of judgment, we are talking about good and bad, right and wrong, better- worse, we are constantly comparing things to one another and that doesn’t help us be more successful, it doesn’t help us bring everybody’s potential into the product, it doesn’t help us better connect to the customer, it doesn’t help us better understand each other, and what I mean by de-scaling is identifying these non-helpful elements in our organizations and in small baby steps start trusting each other a little more, like you trust your child at some point when they need to navigate traffic on their own, you hold them fast by the hand, you teach them how the red and green lights work and at some point you need to let go, you need to trust them that they can try work, you still stay close, you do it in a safe environment so that they don’t get hurt, but you need to invest in the trust. And when people are trusted they have more choices, so first step is trust a little bit, second step is invite people to make choices and then you can let go of a little bit of your structure.

So if people feel they are invited to make a choice instead of made to change, which leads to resistance as we have experienced lots of times, then they are able to find out something new that needs less structure and less structure again leads to more trust, so you have a virtuous cycle instead of the vicious cycle we normally put in place in organizations which is like me in that management role you are afraid, you feel ashamed because you are afraid, you don’t talk about it, being ashamed you judge people even more, so they are afraid of the judgment, they are ashamed, that is the vicious cycle that I think it’s the multi-generational pattern of our society that has trained us to view the world in this way and to view ourselves in this way, not be kind to ourselves. So by being kind to ourselves, trusting ourselves a little more, trusting others a little more, trying to inspire people to follow this more virtuous cycle. This is what I would call de-scaling, trust, invite, and then let go of a little structure.


3. You mentioned some challenges in terms of either judgment and shame, but isn’t this how often a lot of people approach get the behavior you want; for example, you mentioned in your session the tribes how they would chain people, so why not acting this way, what are the drawbacks of acting this way?

Olaf: You mean the drawbacks of acting in a judgmental way?

Todd: Yes. What happens when you shame somebody or when you judge somebody?

Olaf: The main thing that happens is that you feel bad. We can learn a lot from Buddhism here, suffering is a choice, pain is inevitable. The reason why we suffer is that we constantly think the world should be different from how it is. I think we all have a desire to be good, to be helpful, to be nice, to be kind, to be helpful to people, we know from research that helping people actually makes people feel happy, not the people that are helped, but the people who do help. So every time we inflict pain on another human being, it hurts us a little bit more, the greatest way to put this has been Rowling’s Harry Potter, the Horcrux idea, when Voldemort kills somebody and he splits his soul so that he gets hurt even more and that in the end where may or may not know the story but this is a concept I really like, inflicting pain on another human being is actually hurting us more.

So this is where the self-kindness comes into play, ok, this is how I behave I've learned this pattern, if you are a manager you’ve been afraid, like I was, being afraid you will act in ways that will hurt people because you will be judgmental, you are afraid that your targets are not being met so you would push people etc. etc. And you are feeling more bad and more afraid because you know you want to do good things, you want to be helpful to your people, but you don’t know how and you don’t dare to ask them. So, the first thing for any individual is being kind to yourself and just accept that this is how I am, this is how I have learned to be successful in this world and I may now be sufficiently aware that I have an option to change that, I may be sufficiently aware to see that this is not actually helping me be successful, so this is another interesting thing that is covered, change sounds such a hard word and I hear every second talk somebody says change is hard, change is hard, I don’t believe that, it’s a frame that we chose and this is directly limiting our ability to change.

Change is three things, building awareness, then identifying options and then making a choice, making the choice is very easy once you are sufficiently aware of your options. There is a lot on InfoQ about real options with Chris Matts and Olav Maassen have publicized and published a commitment book about, if you want to know more read that book, it’s brilliant, but they are building the awareness and identifying the options where we can help people and ourselves with and then making the choice is easy. Look at Neo in the Matrix, the important thing is not that he is able to take the pill, the important thing is not that Morpheus is offering him the red and the blue pill, the choice is easy that is a real quick thing, but the large amount of time and effort that went into this situation to be able to happen was that Neo was aware there was something wrong with this world and he was trying to find out what that was and Morpheus was constantly working on helping people like Neo become aware, and get this connection and know there is this Morpheus, mythical, he didn’t even believe that guy existed. And then when they actually meet they have sufficient awareness and the identification of options.

So this is how I view change that we help ourselves or other people build awareness, identify the options and make the choices.


4. So, when we talk about judgment, shame, those things hurt other people, how do we move away from that and what do we move to?

What worked for me, and I’m sure that’s not the only way, is clean your language. A friend of mine has been constantly reminding me every time I said “I have to do this”, she’d ask me “really? What happens if you don’t?”, “oh, I chose to, I need to do this, I think it’s really important that I do this now, that’s why I choose to do this”.

To become aware that we have choices, this is the real options training that I have done with myself, really identify all the obligations that we have in our language and questioning them, relentlessly and you kind of build an options muscle when you do that, I do that now with change, you saw me in the talk I was hitting myself every time when I accidentally used the word change and I went through maybe a year very similar thing with I must, I should, I have to and I now do that to other people, every time I hear somebody say “I should”, “who is making you, do you have a choice?”, “no, I have to”, “really? who would die if you didn’t do this?”, so being aware of the reasons why we do the things we do and that we are the beings who are in charge of making the choice, I think this is the most important thing that brings you the awareness of your own options and then enables you to help other people see it.

And while you are identifying all these patterns in yourself where you think I should, I would, etc., you build another muscle which is very, very important for you and for organizations you work in, which is forgiveness because, first you are constantly blaming yourself, “oh, I did it again” and I say oh, wonderful, I have another opportunity to learn and you get to naturally accepting more positive attitude towards yourself and that helps you forgiving others and not being perfect etc.


5. Speaking of language, one of the things you covered was the metaphors that we use and the impact that those have on us. Tell us a little bit about that as well.

That used to be something I was really dogmatic about, I started a series on my blog years ago which was called Thoughts on Words and I started with a post on the word project and how project is really not helpful, at the time I said it was bad, now I would say it’s not helpful, and I have been thinking that this part of the talk was inspired by Nusco Paolo Perrotta from Italy, he’s been doing a really popular talk at a Ruby conference Deconstructing the Metaphors of Software Engineering, very beautiful, if you google that, it’s been very inspiring to me. The metaphors of software engineering was coined when I was born in 1970 because they stated then that software development was in a crisis, a crisis that has not stopped, which makes it not a crisis, I think it’s a wrong frame of perception and that leads me to these metaphors.

Most of the metaphors we use, specifically architecture and engineering come from physical disciplines, disciplines where what you can do is limited by physical law, by physical boundaries, like gravity in architecture, you have to build a fundament first, you have to have an idea how big your house is going to be before you start building it, all of that is not true in software. Software systems could be as dynamic and as complex and as emergent as human systems are, this is Conway’s law framed positively.

I am just realizing that now, Conway’s law has a positive side, we usually frame it as "a system is as messed up as the organization that created it" or "as painful to use as the developers were when they wrote it" or whatever, but there is also another side, software could be as beautiful and complex and ambiguous and delighting as the human system can be and I would really like to see software with emergent features and with dynamics going on and I think that because we didn’t only take the good practices out of engineering, these are really, really important, I am not talking against technical practices in software, we definitely still need way more of that and I am also all for picking from architecture and all other engineering disciplines what we need to get better at building better software, but the overall metaphor is seriously limiting our options because we think we need to follow a process for instance, software doesn’t need any process.

It’s helpful for alignment in big organizations, etc., but the writing of the code doesn’t need a process, that is just the creative act of human beings and the better they connect, the more interesting and delightful the result will be, it’s my belief. This is pure thought, because I have never seen, well, never is not entirely true, but I have not seen this being done at any scale or frequently enough to say that this is the right thing to do. But I would be really curious to see more people trying that.


6. So you offered a possible replacement for architecture.

That was actually not my idea, that was presented by Russ Miles at the ACE Conference in Krakow a few weeks ago, who said the main reason we need architecture is that we have a common language to talk about our system and that we are in agreement on how we think about the system and the system of thinking about something is called philosophy, so he said let’s use the word system philosophy, our system of how we think about our system, let’s use that as replacement for the word system architecture and I really liked that.

And as an alternative to engineering I would, the thing that Tom DeMarco suggested was experimentation when he wrote in 2009 that software engineering is dead, or something to that end, but there is also growth, gardening, I think we have lots of available metaphors that are more helpful to understand the potential of software development than engineering is.


7. It might also be interesting to try something out and see what opportunities are.

One thing that I find immediately helpful and that I have actually done with teams is not only model what we know, but also add some mystery to what we don’t know, human beings are story telling apes, this machine in our head does two things really well, remembering stories and recognizing patterns, and creating stories that have some kind of messy coherence and give us insight to what we don’t know yet, that’s mystery, instead of modeling what we know which gives us this false sense of certainty which we so desperately want because human beings want to be safe, that’s why we need the trust. In a trusted community there is less need for structure that makes us safe, a community can make us safe too, then we can more courageously explore the boundaries of what we know, we can more generously accept the ambiguity of our opinions and of the options.

One thing that I find really important in today's economics is that an organization builds the muscle of passionately pursuing contradicting goals knowing that only some of these experiments will actually be validated by the market and that some of these experiments will fail and be stopped and what we need as an organization is that everybody in the organization will follow all of these directions which are contradicting and ambiguous with passion. And the only way I see us reaching that, and I have seen teams reaching that level of dealing with ambiguity is going through a process of understanding each other on a human level so that I can accept that your biography has lead you to see the world the way you do, my biography has lead me to see the way I see the world, these are not the same, these are sometimes contradicting and that’s ok.

That’s how we are, that’s a real benefit to the team if we can start leveraging that instead of having discussions in retrospectives about “no, this really happened, no, this really happened, no, it was like this”, which is a kind of conversation that many teams spend many hours on and human beings have individual realities and it’s good to learn how to operate using that instead of trying to fight that and that’s something that is really important to survive in today’s market and have a really resilient organization.


8. One of the things that you talked about in your talk in relation to that was Temenos.

Yes. Temenos is one possible process to get people into a room and share these kind of stories, to explore your past, basically reflect which influences in my life have given me the habits, the attitude, the expectations I have of the work place, the assumptions I have about expectations of the others, they expect me not to ask what to do because I am the boss, that kind of thing, and sharing the stories creates a very high level of trust and this understanding that I have just talked about, better dealing with ambiguity and with contradicting opinions and then when you are in the next stage look at the present, now that you have this increased understanding of each other and a very high level of trust in the team, you look at the present and ask yourself how do I fail my team and how does my team fail me.

That can be applied to other contexts but in the team that would be the question we talk about, so that my assumption, that you expect I do x is actually wrong and maybe all of us expect that we all need to do x to be accepted by the others and everybody is bothered by that, but we never talk about it, so you can clean the slate and get these things off the table and then start into the future identifying for each of us having identified that kind of baggage that we have brought from our past, identified in the clean slate which of that makes us actually successful and which is rather sabotaging our success then we can decide what we want, which muscle do I want to build, which habit do I want to let go and we can help each other.

And there is nothing more performant or stronger than a team where everybody knows what they want, they all know what each other wants and they have agreements in place on how they want to help them achieve it. And that’s a strong culture, a strong vision, a strong purpose in the team and they will be able to achieve anything.


9. You also shared an exercise about the company persona, tell us a little bit about what exercise is.

That was fun. When I was in Washington two years ago with Michael Sahota, we went to a meet-up, Washington Agile or something and I don’t know how this was inspired but we created this exercise, we called it Kris map, because the first persona we created was called Kris, it was a nice reference to Chris Matts, whom we owe a lot of learning to. You basically ask people in the room if the organization we want to work in, which could be our organization in the future, if people belong to the same organization, if she were a person how would she be like, what would she be like, brave, courageous, helpful, caring, whatever, mother of two kids, like a persona, and you gather all these post-its and then you let people bubble to the top what they think is essential, bubble down what they think is not so important and you have them distill the most important five to seven attributes of that person, they give her a name and then you ask them a few sneaky questions.

You ask if you’d like to meet such a person, would you like to date such a person, would you like to be such a person and when they have built more emotional bonding to what they’ve put on the wall, then you turn it around and you ask them is there anything on this wall for which you couldn’t find evidence in the current organization and then they go “oh, no, we’re not courageous, oh, wait, actually somebody was courageous”, check and this usually goes on for a few moments and they usually don’t find anything and the beauty of this is you can then say ok, everything you want is already in your DNA.

Jim McCarthy phrased this very nicely, he said “A Want is a baby Have”, we want something desperately because we have a small part of it already and then people can start collecting stories, so invite people to be aware of this and to look out for courageous behavior, for curious behavior, for helpful behavior, whatever, and you reconvene at this wall maybe a month later and ask people to share stories, did you see anybody acting courageous, etc.

And usually when people look out for courageous behavior they tend to be more courageous then they were before. So, this is an interesting way to make culture conscious and to deliberately work towards the culture you want and it’s a very simple, lightweight exercise, no education required, it’s documented.


10. So, if an organization were looking to de-scale, how would they get started with that?

I would talk to senior management first, as senior as I can get to, and ask them how they perceive their own performance, in terms of how well they communicate, how well they are aligned, how do they deal with conflict, etc., all the kinds of things we’ve gone through. We could, for instance, do a Kris map and ask them how they would like their team to be, that would be a quick way to get that conversation started, they could rate from a scale from 1 to 10, from the Kris on the wall to you, if Kris is a 10, where are you, and if you want the organization to be like that, where is the organization, and then ask them a very simple question, do you think the organization can be better than you are, so what do we want to work on, do we want to work on making the teams faster, producing our stuff faster out the door or whatever, making the wrong stuff righter, as John Seddon phrased it, or do you want to work on the root cause, do you want to clear up your communication first, and then I would suggest something like Temenos.

Temenos can be done in an hour, so people can get a small insight, usually after an hour they would say “wow, we started after ten minutes to talk about stuff we had never talked about before” and that relieves a lot of tension and people let go of their personas and they start seeing each other as human beings again.

The LeanKit executive team went to Temenos twice and I think Chris Hefley told me they have this habit when they get into a struggle with their roles, like CEO talking to CFO and they have some kind of fight, they do this and say let’s talk as founders, because they did the thing when they founded the company, and then they totally immediately switched the communication and resolved the conflict in a minute that can’t be resolved while they are acting as CEO- CFO. This is a beautiful example of what Temenos can do to a leadership team. And my experience is when the communication of the people at the top who are leading the organization and who are probably role models in their habits that other people in the organization have that ripples down into the organization, so you can invite other people.

Martin Kearns presented his concept of 'The Lens' at this conference which totally blew me away, it’s a room where people come in and everybody in the organization is continually invited in to see and they collect ideas, understating, sense making data visually on the wall about who we are now, who we are tomorrow, how we succeed today, how do we achieve things tomorrow and it’s this low fidelity representation on the walls that invites people to make changes and leads to buy-in from all the people, it’s all inviting, so this kind of thing is probably a good idea to when you have a leadership team who know they want to do something different they can use this to invite people to actually collaborate with them building the new culture, the new organization they want, and then when you found out what you want then you can decide what kind of agile you need or what kind of organizational restructuring you actually need.


11. Ok. What’s coming up next for you?

A little bit of breathing time, because I’ve been to a lot of conferences lately, a little bit of finding work, there is not much lined up now, so lots of options, I’m glad I was invited, yesterday was announced that I would be speaking at the Toronto Agile Conference in November, so we will meet again there, I am really looking forward to that, I need to make up my mind regarding what I want to talk about, by the time you will have published the interview this will be done, and I am still in the mode of building my own business and exploring options. I’ve offered this interesting thing of boss-pairing, going into a company with a boss like I was who wants to change but doesn’t really know what to do and actually pairing with them for a day or two or a week and reflecting on communication patterns that I see reflecting on other patterns that they have evolved and that might not be what they actually want.

I do more mentoring, individual mentoring, especially of agile coaches or people who want to become agile coaches, this is something that I really want to do more of, which is rewarding and really interesting because you get leverage into other organizations by helping the influencers to learn and that’s cool.


12. So, if people wanted to learn more either about de-scaling organizations or Temenos or about yourself or get in touch with you, how would they do that?

The easiest way is to probably find me on Twitter if you want to get into a conversation or to get on my website where you will find stuff about Temenos, other things I am doing and very soon you will also find material that went into the de-scaling talk and I am going to publish that today.

Excellent. Well, thank you very much for joining us.

Olaf: Thank you for inviting me. It’s been a pleasure.

Oct 26, 2014