Category Archives: Workplace Systems

Getting the Finger Pointing Right. How to fix tech problems under pressure.

These ideas and suggestions are from my experience with IT incidents solving problems with complicated and interdependent systems. In most cases accurate, timely and safe finger pointing was the key to getting the problem sorted. There are a few thing that need to be in place before this can happen. I’ll cover what I’ve learned fixing issues with colleagues.

I’ll cover

  • some ideas for solutions to the problems we have working together
  • issues with experts and non experts
  •  a framework for a team to solve problems under pressure
  • a way to share and collaborate across knowledge silos

 

IT problems with complicated Systems

Hard to fix problems are usually the ones no-one expected. Problems we expect have planned and tested responses. Often we design them out. The problems that are left have fell down the gaps in our shared knowledge.

The way we build things

The way we build things can make them hard to fix.

For example, if there are three specialist teams building your application, you’ll get an application with three parts. You may design it this way, or you may get a mirror of whatever your organization structure is. This Conway’s Law in Action.

Due to Conway’s Law, the architecture of your IT system may be decided by the division of work between teams, due to knowledge silos or desire for clarity of management structure, rather than optimizing running the finished system.

Solutions to problems are often where two knowledge silos meet and the silo locations were there before any code was written.

Hey! We need silos!

We can say that knowledge silos are bad. We need to get rid of them. The frustration with some forms of silo behaviour is understandable. For complicated systems, knowledge silos are inevitable. No one can know how everything works. Unfortunately Fixing Silos by bridging them, or breaking them down them creates more problems. The bridges and new structures become the new problem sites. It’s inevitable we’re going to have silos where deep technical expertise is required. The best we can do choose where these silos are, why they exist and how we manage the boundaries.

Who is in the room

Things have gone wrong, and people are in a room looking for a solution. Some are Subject Matter Experts, others may be responsible for teams involved, for communication or as customer advocates. There is likely to be senior management who is being asked by the CIO how long until it’s fixed.

To fix the problem quickly, the composition of people in the room is vital. You need the people who designed the system, configured it, wrote the tests and those who run it. There may be knowledge silos across teams here.

You also need someone who understands the big picture but not the details. This role is vital to ask fresh and simple question that experts may not see.

You also need someone to get extra resources you’ll need, book rooms, write communications, and document the decisions that were made, and approve changes that are made to mitigate and investigate the problem.

More Silo Dangers

In a high pressure situation, a lack of psychological safety makes people avoid suggesting diagnosis if they risk their opinion and their past work being judged.

Even where safety exists in a team, it may not exist between silos.
It may be career limiting in an organization to be seen to be the cause of an issue where learning is not valued.

Under pressure people gravitate to general, rather than technical skills (http://bit.ly/AllspawThesis), and under pressure we may defend our silo territory before looking to solve the issue.

Group Problem Solving Anti Pattern #1 Beginner > Expert

from @swardley

The more you know about something, the more you know you don’t know. Simon Wardley joked about this and seemed to hit on some visceral truth. There seems to be more than a shred of truth in this, as beginners are often more certain than experts.
People like to save face. Without work, cross silo meetings are not a safe spaces, being wrong is bad, being responsible for the system at fault may be worse.

Group Problem Soling Anti Patterns #2 – Hippos

Perhaps someone senior (the Hippo, Highest Paid Person in the rOom) has heard about X. That’s what they heard broke last time. They’d really like you check that right now. Maybe the person responsible for X puts forward a strong case why it definitely isn’t X. The defense works but the barriers are now up, and there is a round of finger pointing until someone risks losing an eye.
Worse, someone technical, knowledgeable and dilligent may reply “well I suppose it could be X” (see Anti Pattern 1). And a group goes off to look at X. (Pro tip : It’s probably not X).

Group Problem Solving Anti Pattern #3 Experts are also not enough

A Bongard Problem. What is the difference between all the images on the left, and all the images on the right? This sort of problem has all the information you need. You’re looking for patterns.

Experts are rarely enough if the incident was caused by something unexpected. Experts know what to expect and what they have seen before. The problems of being an expert in an open system, where something new has gone wrong has been covered in my post about Bongard Problems. These problems, where you have two sets of information – before and after – are very similar to IT problems. You’ve got two situations, and you’re looking for the difference that makes a difference. If you’re pattern matching things you’ve seen before, and you’re the expert so you’re not expected to be wrong, new problems can be hard to find.

Someone is required who can ask questions and doesn’t let what they already think they know get in the way. Someone who doesn’t have expert knowledge will find this easiest.

We need a facilitated solution

Someone in the room needs to step up and facilitate the group. It may be that everyone takes one step back and you end up being in charge.

Whoever facilitates need to make sure there is

An Incident framework to follow

What should we do, who should do it, what we do next. This is what goes in the ITIL service management box ‘fix the broken thing’. Ideally there is someone who books room, arranges test areas and gets any hardware or software required for the team fixing the problem.

A example P1 incident process to follow. This can be improved.

A overall End to End systems map

Very Simple Mind Map of a Client Server Application. The detail is hidden, and would go left to right. Top to bottom goes from the client to datacenter, and into the components.

This is not the architecture model, or a solution design. Those won’t do what we want.
The purpose of this map is to help solve problems, so it’s different from the documents produced in architecture and design. It’s owned by the DevOps or IT Operations & Development teams. It is a map of how all the bits fit together in a journey to get your users needs met. You can point at it, and everyone one in the room knows what your talking about. It allows fora shared mental model.

The key to the map, is that everyone agrees that it is correct, and it’s changed to reflect any new information with information being added to the map in the correct place. When people talk about the problem they can point to the map to show the area they are talking about. This can save a load of time and misunderstanding. It also mean that large areas can be ruled out, meaning that Anti Pattern #2 can be avoided.

We can then ask better questions, and make better decisions as we’re talking about the same thing.

We’re pointing at this map, not at each other! We ask questions about the map, everyone has a shared model of the system. We make better decisions.

This map was used to pinpoint a very hard to find problem that would occur for users about once every few day of constant use – and would “fix itself” after less than 5 mins.

 

Observe, Orient, Decide, Act

“What we do next” to find the solution can be answered by John Boyd. OODA, the US Military Engagement Strategy for complex fast changing situations is also great for approaching IT problems.

For other problem solving methodologies see Brendan Greggs excellent site.

OODA is a fast decision making loop. If you need to have an Emergency Change Approval Board before each Act, decide who’s on this and make it happen quickly if you want things fixed. This is a feedback loop that can run really quickly. Have the right people in place.

Observe

What do we know? What is instrumented? Is there information from users? How much do we trust the data? This information will have been collected and added to your map. Show what information we know where.

Orient

As an Incident Team, discuss what does this data mean? Where does it suggest the problem may be? What do we now know, and with what certainty?
You’ve probably just run and test, and you should already know what the results mean, but it’s likely you also have new data from other sources too.

Decide

Decide what test to run next. Everyone needs to agree what the potential results of the test means. Ideally the next test will rule out the largest part of the End to End map possible.

Using the End to End diagram, understand what the data may be suggesting. When evaluating proposed actions as “What is ruled out if the results are X, what is rules out if the result are Y”. Ideally you’ll design tests that give X or Y.

You need to decide as a Team what the results mean before the test is done. What the results mean should be visible on the End to End diagram. For example a test should allow you to rule out parts of the system.

Every test goes through this. So if the Highest Paid Person in the rOom thinks you should find what is being tested on the End to end diagram, and the things that can be learned from the results are discusses.

Act

Run and document the test and results.

Where do the fingers point now?

Instead of pointing fingers at each other, the Incident Resolution Team are pointing fingers are the End to End Diagram, and asking questions like “what would reconfiguring this tell us” or “We could replace this component to rule out all of this part of the diagram”.

New ideas can be quickly evaluated, and extra detail is quick and easy to add where it is required.

We can ask better questions and make better decisions. When we are asked why, we can point at a map, rather than a person. That’s got to be better.

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Clean Interviewing at Work

Photo by Alex on Unsplash

At work, I need to talk to people at work to understand their perspectives on how the organization functions. A large University is similar to a small town. We have lots of buildings and green space, a lake, car parks roads and buildings. And security guards. And lots of people trying to achieve their goals in different ways. We’ve campuses in the UK and Asia too, links to a large teaching hospital and our own Arts Theatre. We’re complex.

I’m collecting information for User Journeys for people working, studying teaching and researching. If we help these people reach their goals, the University reaches it’s goals too. We’re structurally coupled to their success. The success of students, staff, and faculty is the success of the University.

An example of a user journey is below. We can see how someone experiences traveling with Lego.

To collect information I’m talking to people using ideas from Clean Interviewing. My goal is to find out what people think using their own words. I’d like them to see the maps I build and recognize their journeys. By accurately reflecting their perspective I hope that they’ll advocate for the use of the maps.

In almost all aspects the conversations I have are normal. I’d not expect the person I’m talking to notice anything unusual. There really isn’t anything weird or unusual. Apart from the questions are usually of the following form, and use the exact words used. I don’t paraphrase.

A selection of the questions I use are:

  • What needs to happen here?
  • What is it called?
  • Is there anything else about <that>?
  • What happens before <that>?
  • Is there anything else that needs to be here, but isn’t?
  • What happens next?
  • Overall, is there anything missing?

What I’m doing is using a framework to develop a model of what things are, what they are called, and what needs to happen before and afterward. It’s a normal conversation, and every part doesn’t follow these rules. If there is something I’d need to find out, I’ll use a clean question.

These are really simple questions suitable for situations where I could assume that I knew what the words used meant, and what happened was the same as the other interviews I’d done. By removing the assumptions I believe I get better information.

Clean Interviewing is based on the work of David Grove, modeled by James Lawley and Penny Tomkins.  More details, including use in academic research settings, are on the Wikipedia entry. This blog post shows a very simple use of Clean Language Interviewing.

To learn more about Clean Interviewing there are events on https://cleanlearning.co.uk/events

Clean Interviewing for Technology conversations

giraffe, chris barbalis.

Alternative title:

Writing Software, hardest job in the world, 40 years man and boy…

Writing software that meets people needs, that is.

What’s the problem with just talking to people to find out what they want?

When we talk to people, we use shortcuts that help us to understand. We assume that what the other person means by, say ‘website’, ‘connection’, ‘usability’ or even ‘tested’.

Shared understandings can work fine, but very often problem arise when we think we have an understanding that isn’t there. Meetings can start and finish without the attendees really understanding the models in each others heads, and spend time discussing their unknown lack of understanding, rather than the pressing concerns.

Perhaps the HIPPO (HIghest Paid Person in the rOom) gets the last say, based on their unexplained model?

We let the things in our head get in the way of understanding the things that we’re trying to understand in other people’s heads. It’s our brains relentlessly finding patterns and connections to make life easier for itself. We need to act differently.

Clean Interviewing

Clean Interviewing, rooted in David Grove’s Clean Language, is a way of structuring conversations in a way that is incredibly effective in finding out the information inside someone’s head, without influence from the stuff in your head.

Alongside the questioning is the approach to questioning that is best describes showing curiosity towards a person or situation.

When talking to other people we often think that our stuff is like their stuff. Our idea of something is the same as theirs. This is great quick social glue, but if we are coaching someone, or trying to find out something in particular , our unknown lack of understanding can get in the way.

Think of an Elephant. (Or a Website).

An example of this is to ask a group to “think of an elephant”, and then ask them to describe their elephants. None will be the same, some will be close up, or cartoon elephants, or an elephant in a specific place. Questions like ‘Hear Music’ or ‘Think of an ideal day at the beach’ also show how we can really not know what someone is thinking. If you asked me to organise an ideal day at the beach for you, you may not get what you like. You’d get what I like.

Unlike coaching, when we’re interviewing, the interviewer gets to decide the purpose of the conversation. There is an agreed subject to discuss, and this will often be something that has happened in the past, or will happen in the future.

In technology, I’ll suggest Clean Interviewing helps:

  • Discussing the model in the customers, product owner and  develops head
  • In Incident postmortems to discover what happened in safe environment
  • When reviewing work, looking for what went well and lessons learned
  • When getting requirements from a customer for software

 

So what is Clean Interviewing?

Clean Interviewing is a style of asking questions that have roots in Clean Language questions designed by David Grove. Davids questions remove the model, ideas and worldview of the person asking the questions.

We can use Clean Interviewing when we want to find out about

  • Someones favourite holiday destination
  • The needs they would like to have met with software
    • Their goals
    • The way they work with others
  • Their ideal
    • Team
    • Programming Language
    • Work Environment

Examples of Clean and Contextually Clean Questions

A contextually clean question takes the basis of a clean question for example, keeping the speakers context out of the question, and adding the exact words used in the answers.

  • Is there anything else about that X
  • What happens before X?
  • ..and that’s X like what?

Clean Interviewing adds context that is known by both parties, so you can use words used by the other person, or are known in the context of the conversation

So for discussions about developing a new website

  • What happens before people get to your website?
  • Is there anything else about a customers order?
  • and what happens before a customers order?
  • and that’s interactive like what?
  • and is there anything else about that data?
  • and that’s a customer journey like what?
  • and that’s individual user experience like what?
  • Is there anything else about individual user experience?
  • (and for people who know me) ..and that’s digital like what?

The words in italics are the interviewees own words, or things that are known in context of the conversation.

Of course you cannot have all the questions lined up before you start, you’ll use the words given to you to build an understanding of someones mental model.

Writing Software, hardest job in the world, 40 years man and boy, etc

Software is a set of instructions, running on a machine that follows instructions really well. It’s the ultimate machine. The code never gets tired, or goes rusty, or deviates from the configuration. This is powerful.

People wanting software to meet their needs have models in their head of their problem and solution. Those models can be incomplete, or unconstrained by reality. In an agile Scrum team it’s the job of the Product Owner and the developers to build something that meets the customers needs.

I’d suggest that this is much harder than for example tailoring clothes or even writing a song for someone.

Bridging the gap between the models in someone’s head, and the constraints of software is a huge task. Clean Interviewing can help with understanding requirements.

This post was inspired by a session at Northern Taste of Clean, facilitated by James Lawley and Caitlin Walker..

DevOps in a Nutshell. Treating Machines like machines and people like people.

Serviced by @buildcycleworks

A google search finds few posts called DevOps in a Nutshell. As far as I am aware this may be the only one that mentions nutshells and how metaphors can help us understand DevOps.

I’m going to use nutshells to start a conversation about how the language we use can affect how we think about how best to organise. Our hidden metaphorical understanding of how things work also informs how we think, limiting the ideas we have and bypassing our conscious thought and critical thinking.

 

The first way of DevOps is systems thinking, and the performance of the entire system. The entire system contains people and machines. The dominant organisation metaphor in use is machine based. I’ll show others, and how they help the DevOps First Way, and understanding the entire system.

Treating Machines like People and People like Machines

Before DevOps we treated machines like people – there was really no other way. They needed to be installed manually (pre Jumpstart and FAI, old people), it took about 9 months and when you’d finished you had an almost living thing that you gave a name. Installs were often path dependent. It mattered what order you installed things, and it was quite hard to get and keep multiple machines exactly in sync. The tools to work differently simply didn’t exist the way they do now.

There is also an old people management technique, called Scientific Management or Taylorism, after Frederick Taylor. Taylor invented and popularised scientific management at The Ford Motor Company. Taylorism took craftsmen & women (especially during WW2) and timed, measured, divided and controlled what they did until they were doing repetitive tasks on a production line, separated from the craft of what they were making.

Taylorism was popular with factory owners, much less popular with workers. Without it, we simply would not have the world of cars and technology we have today. Taylor also raised wages, so that Ford employees could afford Ford cars. It’s not all bad.

Scientific management treats people like machines.

Pre DevOps we had machines treated like people, by people treated like machines.

Now we have an abundance of approaches to treat people and computers differently.

We have automation, orchestration and monitoring tools for treating computers like machines, and the tools keep getting better.

Our approach to people is less mature. We still can often use the machine based metaphors and ideas. No one would have thought it unusual if I’d called the approaches to working with people ‘tools’. The machine metaphor goes deep.

If not machines then what?

It’s worth saying that it’s possible you may feel that people should be treated like machines. This is how Frederick Taylor saw the world and is dominant thinking in many areas.

Often I’ve found that those who feel people should be treated like machines usually mean other people. There is a difference between the thinkers and the doers.

If we think that other people should not be treated like machines, what are the alternatives? We could treat people like roads or books or gases. But I’ve not really thought these through…

Gareth Morgan wrote the seminal book Images of Organisation that contains a set of metaphors that cover most ways of treating people in our Organisations. Fortunately, he’s thought about the metaphors so I don’t have to.

Gareth Morgan’s Organisational Metaphors

Picture by Venkatesh Rao, ribbonfarm.com

Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organisation has eight metaphors; Machine, Organism, Brain, Culture, Political System, Psychic Prison, Change and Flux and Instrument of Domination.

All the metaphors can be true at the same time. Often people favour a dominant metaphor in their understanding of their organisation. This dominant metaphor may be colouring their thoughts and reaction and shaping the ideas they have. When I say their thoughts I mean our thoughts. Mine and yours.

The organisation that your DevOps team is part of will be working in ways they cannot see if they only think with one metaphor. Using a variety of lenses increases our understanding.

The metaphors shown in the diagram above are

  • Organisations as Machines
    • with a known input they should produce identical output
    • ‘well oiled’
    • People as machines are interchangeable cogs, once trained or certified
    • It’s about Input, process, output
    • We reduce variation (6 sigma)
    • A leads to B leads to C, always
  • Organisations as Brains
    • Who knows what
    • Information spreads through learning
    • Constant learning through feedback, and learning to learn
    • Management cybernetics
  • Organisations as Organisms
    • Adapting to the variety of a changing environment
    • Evolving from organisational DNA
    • Changing with a survival strategy
    • Looking for best fit with the environment
  • Organisations as Cultures
    • The way we do things here
    • What we value Systems
    • Behavioural Norms and Patterns of Behaviour
    • Dominant cultures and sub-cultures
  • Organisations as Political Systems
    • Influence
    • What’s in it for me?
    • Centres of Power
    • It’s not what you know, it’s who you know
  • Organisations as Psychic Prisons
    • Cognitive Biases
    • How else could I behave
    • We couldn’t do that here
  • Organisations as Flux and Change
    • Constant change
    • Less about boundaries
    • We’re connected and part of our environment
    • A system can’t change independently of its environment.
  • Organisations as Instruments of Domination
    • Prisons or Boarding School
    • Physical Punishment
    • Prison Industrial Complex

When using the DevOps first way to think about the whole system, the metaphors can help uncover and explain things that are happening. Viewing situation through the metaphorical lenses is revealing.

Conclusion

“In a Nutshell” not a great way to think about this topic. It suggests that “here is everything you need”, a complete explanation. When we’re working with people we need to be open to ideas and change.

I’ll use another post to discuss situations and responses through the lenses above.

Clean Scoping and Seeing Systems

instagram.com/bogdandadaOverview

In the post  ‘Listen carefully, it’s the System talking I wrote about Barry Oshry’s Seeing Systems model. This describes the conditions we are in when working with other people, and how we can choose to behave in the relationship. I called these choices balcony or basement behaviours. Barry has an excellent book too.

I recently heard Caitlin Walker describe her method of Clean Scoping at the Metaphorum 2017 conference. This is an approach to understand or scope potential work to see if a Clean Language approach is suitable and is likely to work. The rest of this post discusses how I see these two approaches adding value to each other. I recommend Caitlin’s book ‘From Contempt to Curiosity‘ for more details.


Seeing Systems

In the Seeing Systems model, if we are trying to build a relationship with someone in the CUSTOMER condition, we’d like balcony customers, rather than basement customers. As someone responsible for the overall delivery of whatever a customer needs, we can choose to act as balcony TOPS.  A quick overview is:

Balcony TOP’s want to create a systems that can meet the challenges that they face. They empower people in the system to use their unique knowledge to improve the outcomes.

Balcony CUSTOMER’s engage in the details of what they need, provide feedback on the delivery progress, suitability and timing. Reading a bit more into Barry’s work I feel balcony CUSTOMER’s also see the power they have in using and developing the solution. They are not just asking for the answer provided to them.

Clean Scoping

Clean Scoping is part of Caitlin Walkers Clean Language and Systemic Modelling ™ approach, that i feel is a practical way of seeing if the necessary balcony conditions exist. In Caitlins case Clean Scoping is used to decide if she wants to work with the client or not. If we can’t choose our customers then we may try to influence them to behave in a BALCONY way.

Using the two models together allows us to understand what we are trying to do, and have a practical guide to having the conversations.

Caitlin is explicitly trying to create a system that is able to solve the problems it is trying to face. This is done by ensuring she is working at a sufficiently high level in the organisation to make sure the changes stick, ensuring that balcony customer behaviour exists, and transferring the skills to the customer so they are self sufficient.

Customer Behaviour

At my work organisation there is a group interested in how to develop and encourage balcony CUSTOMER behaviour from CUSTOMERs we work with. Catilin looks for this behaviour in potential clients at a high level in the organisation before agreeing to work. Described in her book, ‘From Contempt to Curiosity‘ Caitlin looks to encourage this behaviour – called Quadrant 3 behaviour – at different hierarchical levels of the organisation once there’s buy in. At my work we don’t get to choose our customers.

Using Clean Scoping questions, the organisational behaviour we want to have happen are balcony TOP, Balcony BOTTOM, balcony CUSTOMER.

Clean Scoping Questions

The help achieve this organisational behaviour, Clean Scoping questions would be:

  • And what do we see and hear when <balcony behaviour>?
  • When do you naturally get the <balcony behaviour> you’re hoping to get more of?
  • What is happening at the moment?
  • What is working well?
  • What is not working well?
  • What needs to happen, so what you would like to have happen is automatic?
  • What would need to be true for people to naturally behave like this?
  • What is happening at the moment?
    • Often Uncomfortable patterns are happening. This is often the difference between what we ask of others and what we do ourselves.
    • For example when we behave as a basement TOP with heirarchy, and expect others to behave as balconies. Behaviours are coupled.
    • Acknowledge what is true is true
      • Worldviews and perspectives are important here, and metaphor models can help
    • What would need to be be true for people to naturally behave like this? – People working to their strengths and acknowledging others strengths and contribution.

Biased and basement Behaviour

Behaviour from biases ensure that the patterns from the past continue. These are often confirmation biases that form part of the coupled relations in the Seeing Systems model. The blind reflex response is precisely why the relationships are here, and not in a better place. If we expect or behave with basement behaviour from another, we’ll get it in return – especially if there is organisational hierarchy.

Why and how

This post has covered some of the how questions for the why questions in the previous “It’s the system talking” post. There is a bit more to this…

 

Listen carefully, it’s the System talking.

I’ve been interested in conversations, relationships and working together. How can we relate better at work and home. How is our behaviour affected by those around us, hierarchy, and our willingness to do emotional work – managing feelings and expressions to help a situation progress.

We often react to people  instinctively, pairing our response to their behaviour. Sometimes we choose to break a pattern of conversation, either with empathy for the other persons condition at the time, or to sabotage ourselves and the situation.

Barry Oshry has developed an incredibly useful model to discuss these situations, allowing us to see beyond the people, and to see the system talking. Of course all models are wrong , but some are useful (quote from George Box), and we’ve found Barry’s Seeing Systems model provides brilliant insights. There is a great introduction written by Barry, called Total Power Systems. Ignore the red cover and the words “total” and “power”. It’s not like that.

I worked with colleagues to develop and run workshops, asking ” could you work better with colleagues who had taken this workshop” and ” could you work better with colleagues who have not taken this workshop”. Responses are 100% positive for working better with others who have done the workshop. It seems to resonate.

Barry Oshry’s Seeing Systems Model

Barry’s Model has four conditions that we find ourselves in, in conversations and relationships

  • The conditions change regularly
  • They affect how we behave
  • They affect how others relate to us
  • The conditions are not roles, and do not imply hierarchy
  • But hierarchy is an ever preset overlay

None of the conditions is better or worse. They just are. And they are

  • Topoften overburdened and held accountable
    • Can create a system that thrives, where members are knowledgeable about the system and can use their full potential working in the system
    • When we are TOPS we often sabotage the situation by keeping responsibility to ourselves, away from others including BOTTOMS who can help
  • BottomHard done to
    • Are uniquely placed to see the problems that occur, and to identify and help correct issues
    • When we are BOTTOMS we sabotage the situation when we see problems we hold tops responsible. We don’t feedback suggestions. End of Story.
  • Middle stretched or torn 
    • Able to function as the organisations web, connecting parts and co-coordinating
    • We sabotage ourselves as MIDDLES by connecting primarily with one side or the other to the detriment  the relationship
  • Customerusually righteously screwed
    • Are in the best position to evaluate the delivery process and quality
    • We sabotage ourselves as CUSTOMERS when we hold delivery system solely responsible for delivery. We take no responsibility.

Each condition has two types of behaviour, we’ve called these balcony and basement. Balcony behaviours are positive, appropriate and “Using Yours Powers For Good”. Whereas, basement is the stuff we don’t like in others:  disruptive, argumentative, disengaged.

We move between the conditions often in conversations, and employ balcony or basement responses, usually re-actively without thinking. I’ll give examples later.

We do not act alone

The way we choose to communicate affects how people communicate with us. Hierarchy at work affects this, but we are not our role. Our unthinking reaction – called the “dance of the blind reflex” by Barry, is reinforced by  hierarchy.

  • Anyone who is responsible in a situation is a TOP in interactions
  • Anyone tasked with doing something is a BOTTOM in interactions
  • Negotiating between TOPs and BOTTOMS we are MIDDLES
  • Anyone getting something done for them is in the CUSTOMER condition

We can move between roles in the course of a conversation, meeting or day, often when walking down the corridor between conversations. The model helps us to have empathy for others in their condition. We can choose how to respond. It won’t always be easy or appropriate to respond with balcony response when we choose.


Example Situations

A tidy room.

As a parent you’d like your young child’s room tidying. You’re got hierarchy here. You can approach the conversation a number of ways.

You can tidy the room yourself. Your child is a CUSTOMER. If engaged to be a BALCONY CUSTOMER they could help, and tell you where everything goes, so all the toys are in the right place. You’re kind of both happy, but as a parent you’ve created yourself a job. If they’re not engaged, parental hierarchy may mean they don’t give you feedback, they could just wait until you’re finished, and then constantly ask where things are. If they can’t find anything, it’s your fault. Forever.

At worst, basement TOP behaviour, with hierarchy may have induced BASEMENT customer. At best it created work.

You can ask your child to tidy the room, giving instructions and guidance as the room gets tidier. You’re CUSTOMER/TOP, child is BOTTOM. They ask where things should go, and you’re there to tell them. You tell them what to keep, what to throw away and everything. They may learn after a few times to tidy the way you like it, assuming there is not too much new stuff. If anything changes they expect you to tell then what to do. Years later they may still expect to be told how to tidy their room.

By giving detailed instructions you’ve not created an autonomous system for keeping the room clean. You’ve helped  create a dependent basement BOTTOM behaviour.

As CUSTOMER/TOP you could create a system for keeping the room clean. You could encourage your child to be a BALCONY BOTTOM, by letting them tell you how the room works. What gets used the most, what they don’t like, and letting them work out how to tidy it all up, what to throw away etc. You’d need to check together  that everything looks OK, and check whats thrown out, but this feedback builds a better system, for example they learn they can’t throw out Christmas presents from Dad, no matter how uncool they are.

 


Example Holiday Advice from a Travel Agent

You want to go on holiday. Booking through an all inclusive agent you’re the CUSTOMER. You could walk in and just say “Here’s £1000. We want a family holiday where we’re all happy. Over to you. It better be good, or I’ll give you a terrible online review.” This sounds like basement CUSTOMER behaviour.

Or you could have a list of what your family like, for travel options, activities, temperature, food. You could work with the travel agent to get what you want. This may take more time, but you’ll probably get a better holiday.

From the travel agents perspective, they could behave as a basement TOP, and hold onto responsibility, or build a system that gets people the best holidays.

The travel agent may specialise in holidays for the over 50’s. When a group of young adults come in to book a wild holiday they could hold onto responsibility, and start figuring putting something together from scratch that they’re not familiar with. After all, they’re TOP and responsible. Or they could refer the group next door to the Student Travel Center. If the Student Travel Center refers groups of over 50’s back, then they’ve just created a system to get people the best holidays.

Interestingly, once on holiday, the agent is often a MIDDLE. Customers may complain about the standard of the food and accommodation. Hotels may complain about the lager louts that the travel agency send to the hotel, and the Travel agent is torn between the needs of both. Basement behaviour of reflexively siding with one or the other may not be good long term business sense. Balcony behaviour is a balance.

 


Example of Chief X Officer, working at boardroom level

A CxO is not always a TOP, despite being far up a companies hierarchical structure. For example the part of the organisation the CxO heads will provide service to the rest of the organisation. In meetings with the rest of the organisation, there could be two strategies.

When in meetings responsible for the delivery of their part of the organisation, a CxO would be BOTTOM. They need to deliver, and there is a choice of BALCONY or BASEMENT BOTTOM behaviour, that would have a different strategic outcome.

They can just do as they are told, and hold the next level up to be responsible for the outcome. This behaviour may be induced to be reflexive.

Or they may accept they are in the best place to recognise, diagnose, and get the resources to tackle the issues and work to rectify them using the knowledge and insights they have. If they are allowed. This behaviour is coupled with those in the TOP condition.

The CxO would soon leave the BOTTOM condition when making things happen, but may regularly be MIDDLE or CUSTOMER as well as TOP.


Example of calls to IT Service Desk

IT service desks staff receive calls from CUSTOMERS who often need things fixing. In the initial discussion they are TOPS responsible to the CUSTOMER. They can encourage BALCONY customer behavior where the CUSTOMER helps get their problem fixed, by providing information, feeding back on progress and being involved in the solution where required.

The service desk staff, in the TOP condition can hold responsibility for fixing the issue to themselves, when they need to involve others in the resolution. Involving others may involve moving into the MIDDLE condition to talk to others to get the problematic situation fixed, and be between the CUSTOMER, and the new BOTTOM.

The situation gets interesting if it turns out a 3rd party is involved. After being involved in a complicated problem, isn’t it just great when you can give the lot to someone else and say ‘you just fix this’. We’re in the basement CUSTOMER role here holding the 3rd party to be responsible, end of story. We’d act as MIDDLES between the Service Desk customer and the 3rd party. This is understandable, but maybe not helpful for getting the real customers problems fixed.

Silo Working

The above Service Desk shows an extreme example of Silo working – When we pass things between organisation silos we’re in the CUSTOMER condition, and it’s easy to fall into the basement. It’s often expected to behave as a basement CUSTOMER and hold the delivery system totally responsible. Helping them is not a good use of our limited time.

However we’ve all worked closely with others, times when we’ve temporarily removed barriers and worked together, as balcony CUSTOMERS, working with balcony TOPS, MIDDLES and BOTTOMS. It’s how we get important things done.


This is the goal of Barry Oshrys lifetime work, to help people understand how they relate to each other, and how their reactions can be conscious choices to work in a way that has the potential to induce positive behaviour in the people they are working with.

When we talk to other we should listen carefully, it’s often the system talking.


What can this help us with? When we hear “culture must come from the top”, we can understand “top” to mean hierarchy. ANY of the conditions that people at the hierarchical top of an organisation find themselves in, will be the basis of induced behaviour – effectively setting culture.

In this sense culture does come from the top. HOWEVER, if we apply Barry’s model to itself we find that if someone in the TOP condition and top in the hierarchy sets a direction, and “has the answer” then they may induce the basement BOTTOM behaviour of “I’ll just do what you say – and you’re responsible for the results.”

Any cultural change ideas, applied from the top/TOP down in a basement way are not likely to produce the desired change.

This induced behaviour has echos in the Theory X / Theory Y management styles. Barry Oshry’s work shows how we may induce Theory X behaviour reflexively when we may be wanting to develop relationships and create systems that utilise the resources and intelligence of the people in the system.

IT From Common Resource to Strategic Partner

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This blog post is about IT in large organisations, including public organisations like councils and businesses where new Tech competitors are changing the environment of business. The environment is changing, or more accurately, being changed by the strategies of competitors.

Organisations are looking for a digital strategy to combat this threat, moving digital to the heart of what they do. IT for it’s part is keen to become a Strategic Partner to the business. So what is stopping it?

Where did IT departments come from?

It’s worth looking at how IT departments may have been created. They traditionally exist as a cost on the balance sheet, providing common resource to other areas of the business, often underpinning other parts that are necessary, but may not directly exchange value with the environment, like accounting, marketing or HR. The may also run internal and external websites, but they are unlikely to be the core value propositions.

If not managed,  common resources can suffer from the “tragedy of the commons”. The popular example is common grazing land is so overburdened by people wanting to graze their animals that loses it’s initial value. People are assumed to want to maximise the number of animals on the common land.

Common IT Resources

Many people in IT departments will recognise this, with many unrelated customers in the business wanting their work to be prioritised by the limited IT resource. Like in the tragedy they want to get value from the resource. There is now no such thing as an IT project – they are business projects central to strategy. But with a common IT resource each may be another cow on the  metaphorical field.

The big issue is ‘Who would strategically partner with an unmanaged commons?”. It’s a very risky proposition.

From an Unmanaged Commons to Strategic Partner

Managed commons can and do exist. Elinor Ostrom studied working, managed commons, and found that there are 8 organising principals common to functional commons. Applying these to IT could provide the step towards being seen as a potential Strategic Partner.

Eleonor’s rules applied to IT may look like

  • Define clear group boundaries
    • This is perhaps the easy part, but it’s vital to understand where the boundaries are, so you can understand and manage the work and relationships across them
  • Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
    • Your rules will differ from other commons, best practices won’t work. You need to look at what is required by the people who use the resources.
  • Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
    • For natural commons like an inland fishery the fish don’t get a say. For IT departments there is likely to be internal work that needs be done, for example upgrades, patching and audit requirements.  So the IT department itself, alongside Project Managers, Service Managers, Marketing and Finance should discuss the rules for using the common resoure.
    • Users of IT resources need a way of getting work done
    • They need a way of getting progress reports out
    • They need a way of getting ad-hoc questions answered by subject matter experts.
  • Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
    • We need to sell the idea that IT will work better for everyone as a managed common resource
    • We should have rule for getting urgent business requirements discussed and done appropriately – so that there is not a requirement for the use of higher authority to get work done
  • Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behaviour.
    • Monitoring should be done by users of the commons. It is in their interests that the rules they helped create are followed.
  • Use graduated sanctions for rule violators
    • Starting small, and agree. What sort of sanctions would you like to see?
  • Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
    • Anticipate things may go wrong, and we know how issues will be resolved quickly and easily
  • Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.
    • Create systems within systems, with each level being viable. The Viable Systems Model would be ideal for creating, or diagnosing this organisational structure.

There are many other areas of organisations, or entire organisations that are Common Pool Resources. Strategically some may aim to be well managed commons, others may need to use this framework to be seen as a potential strategic partner by other areas of the organisation or environment.