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. I attended the DevOps Enterprise Summit, Las Vegas Virtual. What thrilled me about this was the post conference happy hour organised by some of the attendees. 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. It was one of those interactions I thought we might we might talk about.

Squirrel: That sounds fantastic. You said something about ‘complex adaptive systems,’ which is not the phrase I’ve heard. Can you tell us more about that?

Jeffrey: At the confrence there was a networking time where they had Lean Coffees as one of the options. On Wednesday and Thursday, I hosted Lean Coffee sessions with the theme of changing behaviour, and Jon Smart attended.

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

Jeffrey: I’m really excited about Jon’s book, and it was great to have him in the session. One of the things we were talking about was the difficulties that arise when changing behaviour. The group of people who self-select to attend conferences are people who are often looking to try to ‘create change in their organisations’. We got on this topic of the difficulty and the observation that it’s not that people resist change, they resist being changed. Jon made the connection to a complex adaptive system, which is what we build in these organisations. The teams we build are naturally going to try to adapt and to keep a sense of stasis, like the human body with homeostasis.

Squirrel: 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: Exactly. What we’re showing is a property of resilience. There’s external perturbations and yet we maintain ourselves and the systems that we’re part of. Jon said any time you have humans involved, you’re going to have a complex adaptive system. It’s going to have these emergent properties, and 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. It’s not just that the 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 as individuals, we resist being changed. 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 ‘no,’ and we have reasons to not change. That’s a source of individual resistance I’m sure you have experienced many times.

A Client Story

Listen to this section at 06:00

Squirrel: Oh, absolutely. I have a client right now where I’m doing a tornado-like transformation. I’ll change the whole organisation in the space of two months and really shift how they’re approaching things. In this case we’re using the Agile tools that the company already has in place to actually produce Agile results that they’ve historically taken many, many years to roll out. We’re doing one a week. So this is going to upset a lot of apple carts. The method I’m using is to go ahead and do it without asking anyone’s permission, to then flush out of hiding all the folks who are discomforted by this. There’s going to be a lot of people trying to get back to homeostasis. The goal is to flush those folks out, not to tell them this is the new way and tough luck. I’m training the folks who are driving this change how to ask questions. Their first mission is to go find all these people who we flushed out who are producing the friction, and ask them a lot of questions. That curiosity is going to help us 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. This also means we include them in the process rather than imposing it on them. That matches up well with what you were talking about with Jon and the others about complex adaptive systems.

Jeffrey: It does. The reason you want to do that is because you’re interested in learning, which is something you focussed on and it can be sort of mutual learning. 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 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, is having a delicate time. 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. It would be very bad if we went into some profit centre and suddenly introduced a huge drop in revenue because we tried to disrupt their business. So we want to look for those kinds of things, this group and I. I’m teaching them how to go and find that information out. That’s the point of creating the environment of change so that people with concerns will be evident, and then including them in the discussion as we make the change. It’s not imposed on them.

Resisting Change

Listen to this section at 10:40

Jeffrey: Jon brought up that quote “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed,” and he properly attributed it to Peter Senge, who of course talks about learning organisations. You’re trying to make sure that you don’t miss the opportunity to learn from these people. As you said, make them part of the process as opposed to being victims and having change imposed, which is so often where the resistance come from. People resisting being changed goes back to Dr. David Burns and his Feeling Good podcast. He says the number one source of failure in therapy is it fails because of resistance engendered by the therapist trying to change the patient. Even though they’ve come for help, when they feel that someone’s trying to change them, they naturally resist. This was described in this Lean Coffee session as “the harder you push against the system, the harder the system pushes back.” The organisation is a complex adaptive system, pushing back against the attempt to impose change.

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

Jeffrey: A similar thing happens with individuals, even in a therapy session where someone has come to get help. What I like about David Burns’s system and the way he gets around this is he accepts it and says, ‘OK, I can’t change people and so I shouldn’t be doing that’. In fact he’ll say maybe you shouldn’t change. He calls this ‘sitting with open hands.’ He’ll say you are doing these things for very good reasons. 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. It’s a really good signal that there’s something to be anxious about. Maybe we should stick with that and you should go home and not do anything different. What do you think about that?

Jeffrey: Let’s make a list of all the ways that anxiety could be helpful, or 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: The decision to change or not is going to be on them. They need to embrace it. If they don’t embrace it, then in fact, they’re not going to change. You can save a lot of time and heartache by having that conversation. You can make people more open to change when they realise that they have that choice. But in fact, he goes a bit further still and says, let’s talk about the downsides if you did change and you weren’t anxious. So he pulls out all their reasons to not change and makes that part of the conversation. That then allows them to see and weigh the options. That idea of allowing the patient to get past their own inner resistance as part of the agenda setting reminds me a bit of this, the technique you’re looking to do, where you are having a real conversation around the value of what people are currently doing. You genuinely believe coming in that people are doing things for a reason. If you want to improve the situation, 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: Just railroading the changes through would be disastrous. 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. They need to be very cautious about ensuring their bottom line remains healthy. There’s a natural tendency to think in manipulative terms in what we call model one thinking. To think, ‘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.’ 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:

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

Squirrel: Exactly. As these folks 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. That’s the mindset that you want to have, because almost certainly there’s something 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. If you can value that and make them part of informing you and 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: This idea of the human organisations as complex adaptive systems composed of people, themselves complex adaptive systems, highlights the value of conversations as a way of influencing the system and learning from it. Ideally we end up having this conversation with mutual learning. One of the outcomes is that the system itself adapts in a more positive way. It starts to value the learning element and you end up with different dynamics. That ability to change the dynamics of the whole system through changing the individual nodes through conversations is the image I wanted to share.

Squirrel: Fantastic. Thanks, Jeffrey. Take care.

Jeffrey: Thanks Squirrel.