Know Yourself with a User Manual for You

Title: "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes", "Single Works" Author: Doyle, Arthur Conan - Sir Shelfmark: "British Library HMNTS 012634.m.7.", "British Library HMNTS Cup.410.g.93." Page: 275 Place of Publishing: London Date of Publishing: 1892 Publisher: G. Newnes Issuance: monographic Identifier: 000977457This post uses a set of questions, called “User Manual for Me“, by Cassie Robinson. (ht Mike Watson @herdimmunity)

Cassie’s idea is that answering a set of questions about how you prefer to work and interact with people lets people can help you work together better. In an ideal world, you’d know more about people around you, and they’d know more about you.

These questions seem ideal for framing as clean interviewing questions, with following clean questions that can help the client get deeper knowledge of themselves. They can choose to share these insights with colleagues of not.

In this post I answer these questions for myself, and then suggest contextually clean following questions that could be asked.

 

Warning Required?

I’ve had a mixed reaction when talking to friends and colleagues about Cassie’s questions, which all came down to safety. If you’re in a team and everyone wants to do this it would be great. If there is anything like hostility this soft of thing in the team then it’s not something people seem happy about. If you’re in charge, don’t force this on anyone.

Warnings aside, if you’re in a good team, or want to know this to share with a few colleagues then these questions are excellent in helping others understand you.

In this post I’ve suggested contextually clean versions of the questions, and contextually clean follow ups questions to my answers.

What are Contextually Clean Questions?

Clean Interviewing is a way of asking purposeful questions that contain a minimum amount of the questioners thoughts, ideas, opinions and suggestions. These questions are contextually clean.

Clean Interviewing allows the client to express their understanding with the minimum influence from the questioner, and can lead to unexpected insights.

More information is on the Clean Language Wikipedia page which has been recently updated by James Lawley.

The contextually clean versions of the questions pretty much wrote themselves. Cassie’s heading were pretty clean already. I’ve added some contextually clean follow-up questions to my own answers in green, as an example of how the User Manual questions could be followed up with contextually clean questions.

By Cassie Robinson

My Answers and some potential follow-up questions

Contextually Clean follow-up questions in green.

Conditions I like to work in.

(Contextually Clean Question: What are the conditions you like to work in?)

I need variety. I get ideas by talking to people and hearing their ideas and perspectives. The conversations don’t need to start with the goal of having an idea. I like face to face interaction.

Is there anything else about the ideas from face to face interaction?

If I’m reading detailed information, or doing technical problem solving then I work best alone, but I need to get feedback on my work if I’m not making progress. I can stubbornly bang my head against a problem for far too long. It’s effective, but perhaps not always efficient.

(There is already a contextually clean question about feedback later.)

I need to read and annotate paper copies. I don’t read or understand well off a screen. Sorry trees.

I move around to get unstuck, or if I’ve got something to think about. I work well on the move.

Are some ways of moving better than others?

Is there anything else about getting unstuck?

The times/hours I like to work

(Contextually Clean Question: What are the times and hours you like to work?)

I start thinking early, when I wake up. I re-run what I learned the day before, and plan for the day before getting out of bed. Cycling to work is time when I work through problems, so I arrive primed. I then really like to make progress. Meetings and major task switching here can really stop progress for the day.

What happens when you re-run what you learned the day before?

Is there anything else that needs to happen before you’re primed?

After lunch I’m better at discussing ideas and meetings, unless I already shared the ideas I had in the morning. Mid afternoon I get a second window to work well on technical problems.

Is there anything that needs to happen before the second window to work on technical problems.

I read and write well in the mornings and evening, from 9.30 till about 11.15pm.

If something is difficult and interesting enough I’ll be mentally working on it all the time…

What makes something interesting enough for you to be mentally working on it all the time?

The best way to communicate with me

(Contextually Clean Question: What way of communication is best for you?)

I like communication to be in person, followed by a written overview of any actions I have. I work best if I understand your purpose, and goals. I’ll figure out the best way I can help you reach them.

How do you like someone to express their purpose and goals?

How would you figure out the best way to help?

I’ll also tell you if I can’t make sense of your purpose and goals. I’m good at juggling multiple perspectives, so I like these perspectives to be in the open.

The ways I like to receive feedback

(Contextually Clean Question: How do you like to receive feedback?)

I like feedback to be quick, and to include context. Face to face feedback is best, as I can misunderstand written feedback easily.

I like feedback to focus on what I did, and ideally to  suggest areas for improvement, without being prescriptive. I’m continually increasing my understanding of how I work and learn. I need feedback for this.

Things I need

(Contextually Clean Question: What do you need to be at your best?)

I need to understand purpose. I’m not the best at following a process, without understanding why. I may need someone to listen if I have an idea for improving a process too. That’s what I’m good at.

Where do your ideas for improving a process come from?

I need to be trust to do the right thing. I sometimes express an idea that doesn’t seem to follow from the facts. I need people to ask me to fill in the gaps in my thinking and explanation.

Where do the ‘gaps’ in your thinking and explanation come from?

I need something to be curious about.

What’s that curiosity like?

I need reminders for things I may have forgotten, and for people to ask how it’s going.

Things I struggle with

(Contextually Clean Question: What do you find difficult? I think the difficult is cleaner than struggle..)

I struggle following a process, and using ‘we just followed the process’ as an excuse when we knew there were problems.

When following a process, what would you like to have happen?

I struggle with making sense of dense text when a diagram would work better. I may miss an important point if it’s hidden in lots of unimportant text.

My short term memory is almost non existent. it’s not a reflection on my intelligence.

Things I love

(Contextually Clean Question: What things do you love?)

I love

  • a challenge
  • designing and building things that other people find useful
  • learning and making useful connections between ideas
  • The ‘aha’ moment when something clicks
  • bullet points
  • helping people with the things above, and solving their problems

What happens before you build something people find useful?

Other things to know about me

(What would you like people to know about you?)

I need to draw something to explain it to you. Even if there is a perfectly good drawing in front of me, I need to draw it again while talking.

I like ideas. I can sometimes be a bit enthusiastic. I like to talk.

I can often quickly analyse a situation, and figure out a course of action, or the events that led up it. I can think this much quicker than I can articulate why. I quickly model situations, and run accurate scenarios against them.

Extra Question Suggestion

How I learn things

(Contextually Clean Questions: How do you learn things?)

I learn things best when they extend something I already know. It’s like a need a hook to hang new information on. I also need to learn the principles, context, and any constraints to the information or tools I’m using. When I learn things I’ll remember them by understanding the principles and context, rather than the facts and process.

How do you get hooks to hang new information on?

I’ll learn something new by relating it to the information I already have, and any similarity of context, patterns or constraints.

 

I hope to ask these questions with friends and colleagues soon.  Know Yourself is a popular phrase in philosophy and I think Cassie’s questions, followed up with Clean Interviewing questions is a great way to start knowing.

 

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Caving with Plato

IMAG1229

The Squares have uniform colour but are not flat

I recently spend a morning at The Design Museum in London. The Breathing Colour exhibition by Hella Jongerius was great. There was a quote from the guide “A Shadow Philosophy” p24 Breathing Colour, Hella Jongerius. It links Plato’s philosophy to the work on our perception of colour.

We don’t see colour in an unbiased way. Lighting, shadows and materials all affect how we see things in the world.

Plato’s Cave; Understanding of the world is derived from shadows cast on the wall from passing objects. The shadows are the prisoners reality, not the objects that cast them. The prisoners have no experience of real objects, and yet they give names to them, and extract an understanding of them, purely from the shadows.

If they step outside the cave and see the real world, they cannot go back. Their colleagues in the cave would not believe them of the world outside.

Outside in the Real World

Those outside see a true world, and it’s so much richer, with only the shadows cast by reality being seen by those in the cave. How privileged we are to see the world as we do.

What we see of the world outside is seen through our biased lenses. There is so much we can’t see, either because of a physical bias, like the spectrum of the wavelengths we see and hear, or because we can only really see the things we have name for, that make it through our cognitive biases, because they are unusual, and we’re paying attention. Or maybe they reinforce what we believe.

We cannot ‘see’ things that we cannot name. To understand new things we need a new language. Knowing that our perceptions are biased we should seek out as many viewpoints that use different language to describe what is seen if we care about getting out of our cave.

Caves all the way down

We should also know that outside of our cave, we’re just in another cave, seeing and talking about things that people who never left the old cave can’t comprehend.

The understanding we get from the shadows on the wall of our cave are all we have, and all we can have. We’re working with our limited and biased information receptors, and we can only see using the bandwidth provided by our current lens, our current cave.

Limits of Metaphors

Metaphors revel and conceal insights. Their power is also their weakness. When writing this I first used the metaphor of the cave ‘above’ and ‘below’. Above / Below suggests a hierarchy of caves and knowledge. This made me feel uneasy  with above being better and below worse, and there being a top cave. So I changed it to say different. I feel happier with this. There isn’t a place where we can see see reality outside of our biases.

In fact, Anil Seth argues that our brains hallucinate our reality. Reality is our brains filling in the gaps in the limited information we have.

What we perceive has as much to do with out internal pattern matching than what is received though our receptors. Our internal pattern matching depends on the patterns we’ve matched before. Ouch, we’re locked in our cave.

This has big implications when talking to others about our ideas, and we are looking for the right thing to do. How do we know when we have enough ways of looking at things?

This short video on Plato’s Cave below suggests that people get angry when their ignorance is pointed out. Plato was killed for his beliefs, and he likes pointing out other people’s ignorance. It could be that a perspective that makes you angry is the one that you don’t want to be without?

When we’re looking to make or suggest the right thing to do, how can we know we’ve got enough perspectives?

Critically challenging our understanding

An approach called Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) may help us to systematically challenge our perspectives. CSH asks us, and the people affected by the situation to challenge the decision boundaries in use for proposed action. Asking are these shadows on the wall sufficient? Do I need to go to a different cave?

In CSH we get others to answer the same questions we’ve answered and we see the differences.

This diagram from Sjon van ’t Hof shows how we can question motivation, power, knowledge and legitimacy.

csh

I’m suggestion that there is no correct answer to the question of how many perspectives. There isn’t a hierarchy that can be scaled, but we can be critical of the decisions we make in a repeatable systematic way, and be open to challenge.

There may not be a reality out there, but we can still try to understand and act in the best way we can.

 

 

 

 

 

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..

Northern Clean: 2017

There was a lot happening at “A Northern Taste of Clean”. This is what I learned:

I build models to feel in control. This means  I sometimes need to stop building models and get into the real world, and this may feel hard.

I’ve found a path, and I’m following it. I don’t know the destination, and that’s fine, since I trust myself to make good decisions where to go next. I also have great friends who help me.

What I do to find new things to learn is different from what I need to do to learn them. I need to develop a machine like process for learning specific things. This will stop me ‘spinning my wheels’ when I should be getting on with things.

My tapping foot is telling me I need to move to have ideas. I work best on the move, or when I am ‘somewhere’. (I did 3hrs reading/writing on the train home…)

I need to know when I’m on the Drama Triangle, were other people are, and understand what I can do.

I build models feel in control, and compensate for my lack of short term memory. I can feel really out of control when I don’t have an understanding of what is going on. (So I should get to places /events early,  have phone numbers / directions sorted, get written timetables.)

Learning and teaching Clean Language and Modelling enables anti-fragility.  Learning to model means you can grow, understand your patterns, be anti-fragile.

You can’t have outcomes faster than the speed of trust.

You may have multiple allegiances or reasons for questioning. Know why you are asking each question.

I make expensive decisions sometimes because for me, the alternative is to do nothing, not to plan how to do things cheaper.

I’ve got power and control, it can be used, and wasted.

I’m a novice at this.

The clean community are lovely. I’m happy to be a part. Thanks to everyone who made Northern Clean possible.

Thanks to David Grove for creating something amazing.

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.