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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Collective Sensemaking and Deliberately Developmental Conversations

Collective Sensemaking and Deliberately Developmental Conversations

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In this podcast recorded at Agile 2019, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Antoinette Coetzee and Jason Knight about  Collective Sensemaking and  Deliberately Developmental Conversations

Key Takeaways

  • We are generally unaware of our own developmental stage in building relationships
  • Raising awareness and exploring our own perceptions is possible and a powerful tool for building relationships with others
  • Psychological safety is a precondition for developmental conversations, and it needs to be paired with psychological challenge
  • You can't have psychological challenge without psychological safety and you won't have any growth unless there is psychological challenge as well
  • The participants have to be mutually committed to each other's development and to their own development in order to help each other grow in areas that they need

Show Notes

  • 00:00 Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm at Agile 2019 and I'm sitting down with Antoinette Coetzee and Jason Knight. Antoinette. Jason, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
  • 00:18 Antoinette: Thanks for asking us. It's a pleasure.
  • 00:20 Shane: Antoinette, you and I have known each other for a number of years and communicated for quite a long time, but it's nice to get you behind the microphone for change.
  • 00:29 Jason, this is the first time you and I have met, but I'm reasonably sure most of our audience have probably not come across either of you. Would you mind briefly introducing yourself, please?
  • 00:38 Jason: My name is Jason Knight. My life has consisted mainly of growing up in a small town in Oklahoma called Pryor Creek, going to school and college for computer science, becoming a software developer and then discovering one day scrum and agility and realizing that there was this larger system that I could care for and that I was quite good at doing so, and it was more fulfilling to do so. And so that pivot led me to meet many cool folks, some at Agile 2017 and before that, even I got to know Antoinette here through Evolve Agility and Michael Hamman and that group. And today I'm here with you talking about leadership, another subject of passion.
  • 01:18 Antoinette: I am a South African. I live in lovely Cape Town, but I love traveling. So, it was actually in South Africa that I came across agile. We were very fortunate in that some of the original manifesto signees were out in Cape town for a conference, and somehow we secured them to come and work with us.  And it changed my life forever.
  • 01:38 So after that, I went to the US thought everybody,  it's the big US versus the tiny little country at the bottom end of Africa, thought that in the US you know, I'm going to learn lots of stuff. And to my surprise, I introduced a lot of people that I worked within the US, it was kind of early 2000s, introduced them to this concept of, it wasn't even called agility at that point.
  • 02:01 And I realized after a couple of years that I enjoy that more than doing software development and became a coach and had the fortune of working with quite a few of the big names in the agile coaching world I'm the part of the ACI faculty and also through the work that we've done with Michael Hamman. Working with him as well. Bringing all of that, my passion is taking all of that back to South Africa and sharing it with people in South Africa.
  • 02:29 Shane: At the conference, the two of you gave a talk on collective sense-making. What does that mean?
  • 02:35 Jason: Well, specifically, it's this idea of a conversation where we together examine deliberately slowly and with the sort of meta skillfulness, our sensations, what we're telling ourselves about what we're sensing,  the sense that we're making so that, in a richer way, we decide what to do and we avoid the trap of doing that instinctively by rote. There's more to it, but that's a start.
  • 03:02 Antoinette: Yes. So the big advantage for us when we have these kinds of relationships with one another that make these conversations possible is the fact that we can examine, we can help examine one another's thinking, which very often stands in the way of real answers.
  • 03:18 So we are oblivious to our own thinking and our own developmental level that we access at the time that we try and make sense of stuff when there's more than one of us, when we create the right conditions in terms of relationship, psychological safety as well as psychological challenge, we can break through those boundaries, and not only does that provide us with better solutions, but it also enables us to grow one another.
  • 03:44 So that's where the deliberately developmental part of the whole conversation and way of interacting coming.
  • 03:50 Jason: Yes. And so it may be, we'll say, advantageous to think more deliberately about things, and to say, be much more aware of our own biases or limitations of our perspective. That's a pragmatic use to an organization.
  • 04:04 However, the thing that she just mentioned is the real thing that gets me excited about this. So the idea that you and I, in a certain kind of mutually beneficial relationship can develop one another. In ways that would be very difficult or even impossible to do if we were by ourselves.
  • 04:21 Shane: I heard a buzzwould, psychological safety. Every team needs psychological safety. Google's done it. Then the real deep work from Amy Edmondson and others that does show very clearly the value for that, but then you brought in something we don't hear often. Psychological challenge. Tell me more.
  • 04:43 Antoinette: The idea of psychological safety in its basic form is that we should be able to say whatever needs saying without fear, for any difference in the way people see us or regard us or any,
  • 04:56 Jason: any harm that might come to us.
  • 04:58 Antoinette: That's right. So that quickly creates a kind of, I want to say mealy-mouth, the kind of "meh" in a team unless there's some psychological challenge as well. So you know, if we are always just making it okay for everybody to say what needs to be said without challenging one another.  So, for instance, in our regular collective sense-making group, we give one another very strong feedback. We call one another on stuff. So very often we see Jason as the youngest member of the group, and very often when we call him on stuff, he gets a lovely beetroot color.
  • 05:34 Jason: I know you can't see this on the podcast, but it happens.
  • 05:38 Antoinette: The growth is not going to happen if we only provide psychological safety.
  • 05:43 They are equally important. You can't have psychological challenge without psychological safety and you won't have any growth unless the psychological challenge as well.
  • 05:51 Jason: A way that I think and talk about this is you've got a group of people and they are a high-performance sports car. Going faster on hairpin turns is not safe necessarily, and it's even more unsafe unless you have high-performance brakes.
  • 06:05 To me, I think of the psychological safety that is necessary inside of a group like those high carbon brakes, then you can really take your group and your team and push and find those really difficult conversations in the safety of knowing that if we need to slow down, we will. It won't be held against me if I say something that could be edgy.
  • 06:24 Antoinette: Our growth lies on the other side of our worldview. , of our current worldview,  growth happens when we cannot solve the problems that we currently are experiencing, given what our current worldview is. And it's your relational buddies in collective sense-making that will call out to you when you are staring yourself blind against that worldview.
  • 06:48 Jason: That's right. The word that we use, one of the conditions, says the topic of discussion and collective sense-making conversation, it's a word that most people don't use. I've found: disequilibrating something that has that quality of edginess or off-balance or causes you to challenge your deeply held belief, but that is necessary for you or the group to encounter, suss out the boundaries, the limits of it. It's very difficult to do that by yourself or in a group that you don't trust who might be out for themselves.
  • 07:19 Antoinette: Very often we see that showing up in conversations as well as when we are collectively making sense about something in one of our situations that when somebody proposes something to you that you've thought about a hundred times already, you know, and you've thought about this and realized, well,  this is not going to work, and somebody proposes to you. That,  it's a psychological challenge to really consider what they've just told you and see whether you can find any truth in it and maybe look for what is the 2% of truth that could be there.
  • 07:51 Shane: Collective sense-making, even sense-making. How do we make sense collectively? What's involved in making sense collectively in a safe, high performing team that has psychological safety and the ability for psychological challenge?
  • 08:13 Jason: What's involved? Well, at the very basic end of that is more than one person. The topic, for example, is interpersonal, not something that say you could take with you with some analysis and go into a room and simply see through yourself. So there's something that would take multiple minds, multiple perspectives, multiple ways of making meaning.
  • 08:37 We come together; we bring our multiple perspectives. We share them in a way where each of them can have, sort of, I wouldn't say equal consideration, but equal opportunity for consideration. We used the example in our talk yesterday of the ancient story of several blind men who encounter an elephant and each touches part of it and reports I found a tree or I found a spear or a rope or a boulder or you know, whatever they might think the ear is.
  • 09:06 Each one of them has encountered one aspect of reality or the situation. But this situation is big and it's multifaceted, and the collective aspect of this conversation is necessary if we are to get our hands around what's actually happening.
  • 09:24 Maybe in our organization there's this general feeling of disengagement or malaise and we don't know what it is or why it's here, that's an elephant. So the collective part would be us sitting down together and saying, what does that feel like? What are we sensing about that? And being very careful not to jump too quickly to make sense of it. We generate as much of that sense from different perspectives, like blind men feeling along the thing that they've encountered.
  • 09:55 Until finally someone says something about, you know, this makes me think of this, or the story I tell myself about this thing is this, and the next person does the same. And finally enough of that sort of coalesces until one person says, I bet you it's an elephant and it's named. And after that occurs, we decide this is the step we'll take now that we know that.
  • 10:20 Antoinette: Not only are we bringing multiple perspectives, multiple lenses, but we also,  there's what happens inside of us. So sensing is not only an observational thing, with our five external senses, it's also what happens on the inside. And beyond that, even from what basis of development are we thinking about something?
  • 10:40 So that's where we go into the adult developmental phases. We've specifically used the work of William Torbert and Suzanne Cook-Reuters later on called action logic, the action logic developmental stage model. So action logic is developed from when we're kids.
  • 10:57 So if we look at the expert action logic phase. That happens from when we were about six or when we're about 26 and it's in a lot of cases, leaders tend to go further than that. So if we look at leaders, 80% of them sit between expert and achiever logic, and that brings a certain flavor to conversations. Now, as we need different perspectives, we also need those different action logics to you really get to a, I want to say superior, I want to use it lightly, but to have a more collective solution of things. So part of what we do, just by being who we are, we bring different action logics into a conversation. And the other thing, like we said earlier, is the fact that as the observer, you can sense what action logic in that person is coming from and you can offer the perspective of a  later developmental stage to see what would that problem look like from there.
  • 11:53 Shane: You've mentioned expert action logic. What are the others? What does this framework look like, briefly?
  • 12:00 Antoinette: What we did for the talk because there are actually multiple books written about this, there's a deep amount of knowledge.
  • 12:06 What we looked at is we looked at the three different kinds of world views of different action logic. So if we just start with the opportunist and the diplomat, they tend to have a traditionalist world logic. So there's a truth, it’s generally provided by somebody outside of the individual.  There tends to be, in the traditionalist worldview, there tends to be us against them, or an I against you. Okay.
  • 12:32 The next two levels, are the expert and the achiever, and that's really where a large part of leaders sit, So that tends to be the modernist view. So, it's the scientific view.  So, this is, science tells us we can prove this we can...  it's not given to us. Truth is not given to us; the truth is something that's proven and we can logically work it out. And, a very strong aspect of that is that there is an answer.
  • 12:58 So, if we talk about the waterfall life cycle, for instance, the waterfall life cycle is based on predict and plan,  if we analyze enough, we can predict how things should happen, we can plan it and we can execute it. So that is very strongly tied to the modernist.
  • 13:12 The postmodernist is very strongly tied to complex problems, from Cynefin for instance, we can no longer predict and plan, the world's become too complex. We have to sense and respond, and unfortunately, there's a very small percentage of leaders that develop into the postmodernist worldview, and that's what we need right now, that's what we need in the world, we need leaders who realize that we can't analyze, predict, and plan. We actually need to do sense and respond, so which really ties in very nicely with our agile experimentation mind view, inspect and adapt, all of those good things.
  • 13:49 Shane: You make the point that not many leaders have this inspect and adapt, complex, responding to complex states. How do we help?
  • 14:00 Jason: I think it's important to point out that every individual has these different action logics in them, so to speak.  Accessing them, and we have a sort of center of gravity where we tend to hang out most times.
  • 14:16 And there are good tools for helping you, I think it's the Leadership Development Profile, which is a good tool for helping you understand where your sort of tendencies lie, but with awareness and with some skillfulness and discipline, you can learn to shift.
  • 14:31 This is the meta skill that we talked about before and helping people can look something like learning to have a deliberately developmental relationship with the person where you're committed to mutually pushing and pulling and developing one another. Maybe that's in a collective sense making conversation where we bring in the meta skill of what is it about our thinking that is causing us to think or assume that; what are the particular action logics that we may be using? Are those appropriate? And that's the point at which this awareness is brought into the group and we can say, you know what, I think maybe, this is simple enough that we can use the expert action logic. Let's start talking like that.
  • 15:14 Or we might say, I think this is too complex to be using the expert action logic. Let's try using this new vocabulary that's a little bit along this developmental scale. Maybe the individualist action logic would make sense, or perhaps the strategist as we move along. So it's becoming aware of our thinking, thinking about our thinking, which is a really powerful aspect of these things that we're describing.
  • 15:39 And I think that's what can help leaders, especially those for whom what they've been doing has not been working well.
  • 15:47 Antoinette: There's a saying that leadership cannot be taught, it can only be developed. Now, coaches are leaders too, and first of all, we need to develop ourselves. It's very hard if your center of gravity sits in the expert or the achiever to then work with a leader where their centre of gravity sits in the postmodernist,  so our first job , be the change that you want to see in the world. Our first job is to develop ourselves and, like we know, leadership development is individual development.
  • 16:19 So we all have to do that hard work to grow our own leadership capabilities.
  • 16:24 Certainly collective sense-making conversations, I mean, the reason in the first place why Jason and I decided to do this talk is because we wanted to plough back a little bit of the benefit that we got from doing collective  sense making, because in a really gentle, , we keep on talking about the fluidity of the sensemaking  conversations, and that fluidity has somehow changed something within me, , doing collective sense-making conversations has developed me. I now, when I'm in conversations with others, I realize how rigid the structures are that we generally use when we converse with one another, I realized how limited we are by, you know, doing, I want to say kind of yes, no conversations.
  • 17:08 Okay. So the pure act of being in a deliberately developmental relationship with somebody and having those types of conversations will help leaders evolve they own action logic and shift their center of gravity.
  • 17:23 Jason: I'd like to add that at one point for me, as she mentions what has been developing for her, I had this moment of thinking the way I act now is not necessarily the best that I can do. There's this idea of, maybe it's just me, that I'm always developing and I'm always developing for the better or to the right place, but what I realized was that a place I had come from the  "I know the right way. I have memorized the scrum guide. I could tell you exactly why it should be a daily scrum and not a standup". Was not working. And so I sort of moved away from that into something that we would call more of an individualist action logic, able to see many different perspectives and appreciate them and realize it's all part of the truth that can be put together to construct this collective reality.  Until I realized I was paralyzed and. Was afraid to act. 
  • 18:12 And there was a moment in a conversation, one Saturday morning at my parents' house when it became clear to me that I needed to act, either that was out of a sort of need to apply a strategy and catalyze a response in the people I was working with, or perhaps that was actually me needing to go backwards a bit into the achiever, and that word backwards is probably not the right one, along it, towards another direction. But I was not achieving the results that I felt were appropriate or that the team wanted. And so I realized I need to shift actively.
  • 18:46 Antoinette: Exactly what he's describing in terms of understanding that there is this kind of a pallet to paint from, just having that awareness is also something that can help leaders.  So generally, once we learn that there is a developmental path, I'm not doomed to be where I am forever because there's a natural progression that's available to me and that's accessible to me. It's also,  just that makes things possible for leaders.
  • 19:12 Shane: One of the things we were talking about earlier before we started the recording was this concept of crafting relationships and the conditions for the right relationship.  Tell us more.
  • 19:26 Antoinette: When we do collective sense-making, one of the things that's really important is blurting. It's a concept called blurting.
  • 19:33 So as we move up our developmental spectrum, there's a strong need to start incorporating things like intuition into our makeup. I want to call it that.  So blurting is when, , there's just  a couple of connections that come together in your brain and when you want to do it, it feels like people are gonna think, what on earth is she on about, that's not related to what we're talking about.  It doesn't get us any closer to solving the problem. . Yet, very often, that's kind of somebody being in tune enough with what's happening in the space between the individuals taking part in the conversation to be able to grasp onto something that's not yet expressed.
  • 20:17 Jason: I've heard that called an intermediate impossible. When you're going from one point where we are now to this other point that we either want to go or sort of playfully going towards. There are a lot of little steps that could be in between that are somehow related and positionally going that way, but not quite the thing.
  • 20:37 And the blurting can sometimes get you to the next step, and if you continue like an improvisational comedian, might you eventually get to that beautiful scene ending joke.
  • 20:47 But to get there blurting is a bit strange and it's a bit disconcerting to watch if you're not  ready to accept that the weirdness can come out, or if you can trust those around you with what you're about to blurt, which means that the relational system has to have a few qualities to bear that, and I've found them. So here we go:
  • 21:07 The participants have to be mutually committed to each other's development. And to their own development. So I must be ready with appropriate, sort of, restraint, stretch myself, and grow myself, and I expect that you want me to do the same.
  • 21:22 Beyond that, when you act in this relational system, you act with integrity. So with a sort of wholeness and consistency and truthfulness and honor, that sort of thing.
  • 21:33 You have to demonstrate respect for one another. That your ready and willing to give them and their beliefs, their traditions, their backgrounds, a full hearing without this sort of harsh, judgmental "that's wrong".
  • 21:47 Antoinette: For instance, in our group we have quite an interesting, I mean, we did deep work, and we've got quite an interesting spectrum of spiritual beliefs,  there's some devout Christians all the way through to new agey to Buddhist.  And there's an unconditional acceptance and a valuing of perspective that comes in regardless where it's grounded in.
  • 22:10 The other thing that's also there is a lot of playfulness,  I mean, I love Jason's way of saying  there are still rules,  if you play in the sand pit, you don't throw sand. it's a playfulness and an unconditional acceptance of whatever  somebody brings in a full scene.
  • 22:24 Shane: I don't have to agree with you, but I have to respect your opinion. 
  • 22:27 Antoinette: Yes.  And even if you come with an opinion based in something that I don't agree with what you're bringing to me, I will consider , I undertake to consider that I might have to translate it into what does that mean in my own spiritual beliefs, for instance.
  • 22:44 But I will consider the essence of what you are bringing and see what I can make. So it's very much, and Jason mentioned improv. It's very much a yes and conversation. It's always a yes. Let's build on what the previous person, build on the previous person, build on the previous person.
  • 23:01 Jason: A commitment to mutual growth and development to me is quite key. We mentioned how with psychological safety, there must also be psychological challenge. It's almost like if we go through the difficulty with reward and with challenge to build this relational system where we can trust each other and can say things that we otherwise might not, what do we do with it, but talk about the difficult things, the things that will stretch us and make us, our capacity to lead or to enact change in the world around us more possible.
  • 23:35 Shane: If I'm a team lead, architect, maybe in a technical team, somebody in the position of influence in a team. What concrete advice, how do I make it real for my team?
  • 23:47 Antoinette: Certainly, precondition for this is to have a real team, to be able to create spaces for people to have these kinds of conversations.  To have a space where anything goes and there's openness towards  whoever says what.  So there's work for you to do to build your real team.
  • 24:07 And we don't have to go into that today because there's more than enough work on that. So that's definitely a precondition. There need to be strong relationships,  there needs to be a real appreciation and seeing of one another and a real appreciation and respect for what each of us brings.
  • 24:22 Jason: Yes. I would say a sort of advice I might give to a team lead who had come to me with a problem and the problem might sound something like  my team-mates and I aren't working on the problems together. We're sort of off and we realize that's not working to solve the problems in our product. I would say something like, well, there needs to be a sort of cohesiveness and mutual reason to do this work together, and if so, now we're really getting into complex problems that are interpersonal. One of those aspects of the topics. So if the problem we need to work on needs to involve us all, then we need to start actually focusing on the quality of our relationships. Now, if you're off in your corner working on your own little project, and that's all fine, I would say that although this would be very good for interpersonal development, that team lead might not sense the immediate need to do this. 
  • 25:17 But it is when you're working on something as a focused group of people that you will encounter these topics that are salient to you and interpersonal and so on. And if you do, spending time to strengthen the relationships between the individuals is of the utmost importance.
  • 25:35 And then there are skills that we could talk about., about how to hold the actual conversations that are collectively sense-making.
  • 25:42 Antoinette: Somebody asked me yesterday afternoon after the talk, she came to me and she said, so I've got a group of people and everybody, they go, go, go.  People, they want to get stuff done,  and we just have all these unproductive meetings  where everybody has their own idea and they want to go from there, defend their own idea, et cetera.  There needs to be a need for a better way of doing things as well.   If you're in that position, there needs to be some kind of acknowledgement about the fact that we are all pulling into different directions and that that's not getting us anywhere.
  • 26:12 We're all so keen on getting somewhere and we're not getting anywhere. And that's a real good starting point to then introduce the concept of maybe we should look if we put all our heads together, instead of all our heads on our own and our own solutions, what would become possible for us
  • 26:29 Shane: Coming back to psychological safety and bring your whole self. That's gotta be a really important part of this invitation, isn't it? If we're asking people to maybe be a bit vulnerable, but also be able to challenge, how does that play out?
  • 26:45 Antoinette: It took us quite a while before we got to the point where we became adept at collective sense-making. So we spent quite a bit of time relationship building.  There's a very, very strong emergent part in all of this,  in terms of not making rules, in terms of not having preconditions, but seeing how the collective likes to work, what everybody requires, and also having somebody who is quiet, able to be an observer very, easily step out into the observer or them being part of the conversation. So there was a kind of a learning through doing phase, quite a lot.
  • 27:25 But for all of us, we kept on practicing, if I think about the very basic rule for us was the rule of respect, there was regard, there was unconditional positive regard always, , not only positive intent, but unconditional positive regard.
  • 27:41 And then, really practicing, practicing, practicing and calling one another out, you know, that psychological challenge. When we were breaking that...
  • 27:48 Jason: There was a point at which one of the members of our group said that we were being too nice, too polite. So it was maybe him sensing that while we did have that psychological safety, we also weren't bringing our full self to the conversation. We weren't saying what we might want to say, that should be provocative for the purpose of getting somewhere. I think particularly of one of our group members who had a really, really deep skillset that she wasn't bringing to the table because of this sort of over-regard for another member and then we experienced a failure because that skill wasn't present in the work being done, and then she realized, I'm not bringing my whole self to this for whatever reason. And then she decided I'm going to do it. And it was critical to the success of that particular action that she did. So bringing your whole self, I may not want to bring my whole self in this interview. I know a lot of really corny jokes that I love to tell.
  • 28:48 Antoinette: He does,
  • 28:50 Jason: And maybe it's for the better that I do, but if I feel a bit self conscious with you. I don't feel self conscious with Antoinette, she's heard a lot of them. I may not tell those, and perhaps that would have made this the best podcast ever if I had ended with a corny one liner
  • 29:09 Shane: And on that cheerful note, if the audience wants to continue the conversation, where do they find you?
  • 29:15 Jason: I live and work out of Tulsa. You can find me at my website, jasontknight.com or I write blog posts from time to time and there's contact information they can get to from there.
  • 29:26 Antoinette: My website in South Africa is justplainagile.co.za   so you are welcome to contact me there.
  • 29:33 we should also tell you that a lot of this work is described very well in Michael Hamman's book Evolve Agility. So if you want to read more about the conditions and et cetera, et cetera, that would be a good place to go to. The other book if you're interested in action logics, would be Action Inquiry by William Tolbert.
  • 29:51 Shane: 29:51 Thank you both so much.
  • 29:53 Antoinette: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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