This is a transcript of episode 141 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Jeffrey is inspired by Jon Smart and the DOES Virtual conference to discuss homeostasis as a source of resistance to change, and Squirrel tells a client story about curiosity as a way to help a complex system adapt.

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Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: So I think Jeffrey, have you had any sleep at all?

Jeffrey: I have. I’ve had a couple hours of sleep. About five hours ago, I finished at a conference on the West Coast and I’m in London-

Squirrel: Except you weren’t on the West Coast so you have jetlag without the jet.

Jeffrey: That’s right. That’s right. I was attending this week the DevOps Enterprise Summit, Las Vegas Virtual. And I said, people on Twitter would have seen this, that I was super excited to attend such a good experience in London earlier this year, “London”.

Squirrel: Also virtual.

Jeffrey: Last week that I was looking forward to this, I think, more than any conference I’ve ever attended, apart from CITCON.

Squirrel: Wow. That’s quite a statement.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And I will say it really delivered and would have had me up until past 6:00 a.m. London time was not the conference persay, but rather the post conference happy hour organised by some of the attendees. So a shout out to the Finsters for keeping the conference conferring. We had that experience of meeting in the bar after the session was over and talking to the wee hours of the morning.

Squirrel: You didn’t have to go to the bar, excelent!

Jeffrey: Well, yeah, that was a great experience and a chance to really confer with people and share thoughts and excitement after a really great schedule and some really great interactions throughout the week. And it was one of those interactions I thought we might we might talk about.

Squirrel: That sounds fantastic. I’m sorry that I missed it. We got to give a talk there. But it was pre-recorded and I wasn’t able to time shift and jet lag in the way that you were so I’m keen and I’m sure listeners are to hear what you learnt, but you said something about complex adaptive systems, which is not the phrase I’ve heard of and listeners might have heard of a bit. And maybe some of them are experts, but I’m definitely not. Can you tell us more about what you learnt about that topic?

Jeffrey: Yeah, I will. And this is one of the elements about the conference that I like. I always enjoy the opportunity of interacting with other attendees, and that was built into this conference format. And it’s one of things that the DevOps Enterpise Summit has done very well, is to adapt to the remoteness and to exploit the remoteness and bring in new affordances. And one of the things they did is they had a networking time where they had Lean Coffees as one of the options and you and I did our talk on Tuesday. And then on Wednesday and Thursday, I hosted Lean Coffee sessions and both of the same theme about changing behaviour.

Jeffrey: And one of the topics we got into here, and I think it was Jon Smart who we can link to in the show notes.

Squirrel: He has an exciting looking book Coming Sooner, Safer, Happier, which is all about Agile transformations at large companies I think.

Jeffrey: That’s right. So I’m really excited about Jon’s book, and it was great to have him in the session. And one of the things we were talking about is the difficulty as you’d expect would come up on topics like changing behaviour. You get a group of people who are the kind of people who self-select to attend conferences. And these are people who are often looking to try to, as they say, ‘create change in their organisations’. And we got on this topic of the difficulty and the observation that it’s not that people resist change, they resist being changed. And, Jon, I think it was who made the connection to a complex adaptive system, which is what we build these organisations, we build the teams we build. They are naturally going to try to adapt and to keep a sense of stasis. So this is much like the human body with homeostasis. The way we try to keep our systems the same, we try to self regulate. And as the environment around us changes, we try to keep a constant temperature. We try to keep a constant pH in our bloodstream and things of that nature.

Squirrel: Fancy word for this is homeostasis, isn’t it, that you’re trying to maintain a consistent state and your body is adapted to sweat when it’s hot and to shiver when it’s cold and therefore keep your temperature the same?

Jeffrey: That’s right. Exactly. And what we’re showing is a property of resilience, which is that there’s the external perturbations and yet we maintain ourselves and the systems that we’re part of. Jon said, well, any time you have humans involved, you’re going to have a complex adaptive system, It’s going to have this emergent properties, and that will tend towards keeping itself consistent. So he says when we’re thinking about changing we need to recall that these systems we have, because they’re composed of humans, will be complex adaptive systems. And that led to real interesting sort of image in my head, because it’s not just that the human systems themselves are complex adaptive systems, but they’re composed of nodes, which is the people. Each individual person themselves are a complex adaptive system and this is where, you know, as individuals we resist being change. If someone tells us that we should change our behaviour, our initial reaction typically is not ‘Hey, that’s a good point. I should consider that.’ It tends to be well no and we have all the reasons to not change. And that’s a source of individual resistance. And I’m sure that’s something that you and I have experienced many times.

A Client Story

Listen to this section at 06:00

Squirrel: Oh, absolutely. So I have a client right now where I’m doing one of my patented tornado like transformations. I’ll change the whole organisation in the space of two months and really shift how they’re approaching things. And in this case, we’re using the Agile tools that the company already has in place to actually produce Agile results that they’ve taken many, many years to roll out new ideas. And we’re doing one in a week.

Squirrel: So this is going to upset a lot of apple carts. And the method I’m using there, I’m interested Jeffrey and how this theory applies to this particular situation. The method I’m using is to go ahead and do it without asking anyone’s permission and then flush out all the folks who are discomforted by this. So there’s going to be a lot of people trying to get back to homeostasis. ‘This is how we used to do things. And it used to be that I could wait for six months before something new came from technology, if not six years. And now all of a sudden you’ve got it in six days. And this is completely different and new. And please take it away. Please stop, because I want to go back to how it was.’.

Squirrel: And the goal is to flush those folks out and then not to go and tell them this is the new way and here’s how we’re going to do it. And it’s all changing and tough luck. We’ll do that if we have to. But the goal is not to do that. What I’m training the folks who are driving this change, kind of driving it from the back stage rather than the front of the stage, the folks at the front, I’m training them in how to ask questions and their first mission is to go find all these people who we flushed out who are producing the friction, who are aiming to get back to homeostasis, back to their previous state and ask them a lot of questions. And that curiosity, I think, is going to help us to, first of all, discover where the homeostasis is useful, because there’s probably some areas in which this kind of rapid change is not appropriate. And it would sure be good to know about those before we implement it across the whole technology organisation and then to include them in the process rather than imposing it on them. So I think that matches up well with what you were talking about with Jon and the others about complex adaptive systems. Am I right or am I confused?

Jeffrey: It does. And one thing, I’ll say and I’m curious to see how our listeners feel, having heard what you just described, because I think it’s an interesting example where people might hear the same thing but come to different conclusions. So you said, you know, we want to flush them out of the system and some people might have the image of sort of flushing a toilet.

Squirrel: Oh no! No, sorry.

Jeffrey: You want to make them surface, right?

Squirrel: No, no, no. Yes. Very good point. Thank you for clarifying. This is a term. I think it’s from hunting. Yes, that’s right. It doesn’t mean we’re going to shoot anybody, but it’s the idea that there are some entities hiding someplace and you’d like to flush them out of cover. They’re kind of hiding and you can’t see them. And so you take some action, typically make a big, loud noise and suddenly the pheasants fly up. That’s when you can know that they’re there. And if you’re hunting pheasants, you might be shooting at them. But that’s not what we want to do here. We just want to find out who they are in an organisation of several hundred people. And once we find out where the pockets of possibly correct resistance are, instead of shooting at them, we’re going to invite them to first tell us what the difficulties are for them and add their information to ours and then to be part of coming up with solutions using the tools that we’re discovering the team already have for rapid delivery. So, yes, very good points has nothing to do with flushing toilets, everything to do with flushing out of cover.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And the reason you want to do it is because you’re interested in learning, which is something you focussed on and it can be sort of mutual learning. You know, you would like to have the conversation so that they might learn what you’re hoping to achieve. At the same time, you’re hoping to learn from them-

Squirrel: Absolutely.

Jeffrey: To make sure that you don’t break anything important.

Squirrel: And this is very important in this particular example, because the company, as with many companies, are is having a delicate time. Right.

Squirrel: And no company is doing well right at the moment in the middle of the pandemic. Everybody’s been challenged in one way or another and this company particularly. And so it would be very bad if we went into some huge profit centre and suddenly introduced a huge drop in revenue because we tried to disrupt their business hugely and that suddenly had a massive impact on the bottom line. So we want to look for those kinds of things, this group and I. And I’m teaching them how to go and find that information out. And that’s the point of creating the environment change so that they will be evident and then including them in the discussion as we make the change. So it’s not imposed on them.

Resisting Change

Listen to this section at 10:40

Jeffrey: Yeah, and I like this because I have a couple of thoughts about this. And one is if we go back that quote, I started with it, “People don’t resist change. they resist being changed.” Jon brought it up. But he also properly attributed to Peter Senge, who, of course, talks about learning organisations. And what you’re doing is you’re trying to make sure that you don’t miss the opportunity to learn from these people and as you said, make them part of the process and as opposed to being victims and having change imposed, which is so often where the resistance come from. And that idea of people resisting being changed goes back to something we’ve talked to on the podcast before many times about Dr. David Burns and his Feeling Good podcast. And he talks to something in his team therapy and he talks about a process of the T.E.A.M. Acronym. The ‘A’ stands for agenda setting and he talks about paradoxical agenda setting. And he says it’s important to have agenda setting with the patient because the number one source of failure of therapy is it fails because of resistance engendered by the therapist trying to change the patient. And just as Senge you would predict people resist that. So even though they’ve come for help, when they feel that someone’s trying to change them, they naturally resist. And we were talking about at an individual level and this was described in this Lean Coffee session and I don’t recall who said it. There was another quote that someone put in there they said “the harder you push against the system, the harder the system pushes back.” And there’s a nice sort of nested nature here of the entire network that the organisation as a complex adaptive system, pushing back against the attempt to impose change.

Squirrel: Which makes sense if you think about homeostasis. Right? If I turn up the temperature, turn up the heat, you’re going to start sweating. Your body is going to try to get back to the state it was in before.

Jeffrey: That’s right. And so the similar thing happens with individuals, even a therapy session, even in a therapy session where someone has come to get help. And what I like about David Burns system and the way he gets around this is he essentially accepts it and he says, ‘OK, I can’t change people and so I shouldn’t be doing that’. And in fact, we’ll go further and say, maybe you shouldn’t change. And he calls this ‘sitting with open hands’, you know, and he goes even a bit further. He’ll say, you know, you are doing these things that you’re doing for very good reasons. In fact, maybe you come here saying that you’re a bit anxious and he’ll say, ‘I’m not sure we want to change that.’

Squirrel: This anxiety is helping you.

Jeffrey: Exactly.

Squirrel: It’s a really good signal that there’s something to be anxious about.

Jeffrey: Yeah!

Squirrel: Maybe we should stick with that and you should go home and not do anything different. What do you think about that?

Jeffrey: And he goes further. Let’s make a list. Let’s make a list of all the ways that anxiety could be helpful, not only helpful, but that it says something good and positive about you.

Squirrel: You’re you’re anxious about your child who’s away in the military, for example. You’re showing that you care deeply about your child and that you’re concerned and you want your child to live and have a happy life. And this child is off participating in a war somewhere. Well, that’s naturally concerning to you. And it shows that you’re a good mother. These are all very good things. Why would you want to change that?

Jeffrey: Exactly. And so it’s a conversation with the person where it’s going to be the decision to change or not, it’s going to be on them. They need to embrace it. And with the insight that if they don’t embrace it, then in fact, then they’re not going to change. And you can save a lot of time and heartache by having that conversation. And you can make people more open to change when they realise that they have that choice. And so what often happens is people say, ‘well, yes, it’s true, these are good traits’. But in fact, he goes a bit further and says, let’s talk about the downsides if you did change and you weren’t anxious. So he kind of pulls out all their reasons to not change and makes that part of the conversation. And part of that then allows them to see and weigh the options. Yes, there are those benefits. But at the same time, there are changes. There’s elements of change that I would value and it becomes a choice. So that idea of getting past, allowing the patient to get past their own inner resistance as part of the agenda setting reminds me a bit of this, what technique you’re looking to do, where you are having a real conversation around the value of what people are currently doing. And because you genuinely say you believe coming in that people are hard doing things for a reason, that these systems and behaviours and processes that they have, that they’ve been enacting, that there was some reason for it, there was some value for it. And if you if you want to improve the situation, if you want the team to be able to move to something better, you really have to start with valuing the good parts of what they’ve actually been doing and recognising that there was value in it.

Squirrel: And finding out what it is because, for example, the folks that I’m working with who want to make these changes, one way they could make them is by just railroading the changes through and just saying, great, we’re going to drop everything on a road map. We’re now going to be very experimental, tough everybody.

Squirrel: And that would be disastrous because there’s areas of the organisation where that would really not work and would cause real trading problems for this company when it’s a delicate time for trading, a delicate time when they need to be very cautious about insuring their bottom line remains healthy so the goal is not. And this is something that’s easy for people to hear. They kind of go into a there’s a natural tendency to think in manipulative terms in what we call model one thinking and to think, oh, yes, this is where I pretend to listen and I make sure that I understand all the arguments the other person has. And then what I do is I make sure I come up with really good arguments to why they’re wrong. And this is the opposite of the mindset that you’re after, because Dr. Burns really does discover sometimes the patient doesn’t want help and that it really would be helpful to remain anxious. And he says, ‘thanks, go home, we’re done’.

Jeffrey: Is there anything else I can help you with?

Squirrel: Exactly. And that’s the mindset that you want to have, because as these folks go off in a kind of preparing myself for for training them next week as they go off to have these discussions, I want them to come back saying, ‘hey, you know, we were going to do X and boy X would be a terrible thing to do. We’ve got to do Y instead, because I discovered this very useful thing from this part of the business’. That’s the outcome that I’m looking for. And that’s the mindset that you want to have, because almost certainly there’s something that’s driving the resistance that is useful. There’s some reason that the person you’re talking to is. Trying to get back to a previous state and if you can value that and make them part of informing you and then coming up with a better solution, you’re likely to have a much more successful change. So that’s what we’re going to be doing.

Jeffrey: Yep. This is the one element - well, there’s many things I was excited about from the conference but is here just a few hours after the end, that’s one thing that I had very much on my mind. This idea of the human organisations as complex adaptive systems composed of complex adaptive systems, which are the people themselves and the value of conversations as a way of influencing the complex adaptive system and learning from it, and especially like this focus on learning, because we end up, ideally we end up having this conversation with mutual learning. And one of the outcomes that the system itself adapts in a more positive way. It starts to value the learning element and you end up with different dynamics. And that ability to change the dynamics of the whole system through changing the individual nodes through conversations is the image I had in my head, which I wanted to share with the audience.

Squirrel: Fantastic. And you’ve done that very well, despite having had almost no sleep. So I think we should let you go to sleep. But thank you, Jeffrey, for bringing us some cool ideas from DevOps Enterprise Summit. And if people are interested in more cool ideas from there, I’m sure eventually you’ll be able to watch the talks and so on.

Squirrel: I don’t know quite how it works, but we’ll include the link so that you can find out more about that. And if you want to talk to us about Agile transformations and change and if you disagree with us and think maybe paradoxical agenda setting is not such a good idea, any of those things, we’re always glad to hear from our listeners. You can get in touch using the links and so on at, Twitter, email. There’s videos of us and all kinds of other fun things there. So please visit. And of course, we also like it when you hit the subscribe button in whatever you’re using to listen to us, because we’re here every week, but mostly having had more sleep. And we’re ready to talk to you about more things from the realm of troubleshooting. Agile.

Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey. Take care.

Jeffrey: Thanks Squirrel.