Agile and digital transformations require changes in:
- delivery frameworks, tools, business processes and organizational structure AND,
- work-related behaviours and habits of employees.
2. is the harder part of the change. Coaching is used to aid this, but most coaching methods are not evidence-based so they may not work or they may not work reliably.
The latest research in psychology provides us with an evidence-based model of how humans work.
To help us achieve the behaviour changes we desire in our organizations a series of techniques and exercises has been developed and selected using this model.
Practicing these exercises develops a skill called Psychological Flexibility which enables the behaviour change you desire.
“Psychological Flexibility is the ability to adapt to a situation with awareness, openness, and focus and to take effective action, guided by your values.”Dr. Russ Harris
In this article I will introduce you to the 6 aspects of Psychological Flexibility through practical examples of problems you may have experienced in your worklife or organization.
Here are a few examples of the benefits of Psychological Flexibility:
- Increased business profitability.
- Improved business agility.
- Improved employee performance.
- Improved employee motivation, well-being and higher employee retention.
- Improved collaboration, creative problem solving and innovation.
- Developing higher quality products.
- Successful Agile and Digital Transformation Programmes.
Have you, your team or department encountered any of the following business problems?
1. You developed a feature(s), a product(s) or a solution(s) nobody wants or uses.
Why does this happen?
Our thoughts (the words inside our head) and the things they refer to (e.g. a story, an object, a person) can become stuck together, they can feel as one thing. We then react to words about an event or object as if the event is actually happening or the object is actually present. Think of the word lemon. Now think about cutting the lemon in half and licking it. Do actually think about it. What did you feel? Did it feel similar to licking an actual lemon? But you were only reading words on a screen, weren’t you? This is called Fusion which means melding or blending two things together.
In a state of Fusion, thoughts can feel like reality, the absolute truth or orders we must follow. And this can be very costly in business: we can buy into our thoughts about what the customer wants, how the market will react to a product or what feature we must develop even when there is no evidence to support our thoughts.
We then focus our efforts on protecting or justifying our assumptions, instead of testing them, the way we would defend the facts and the truth.
What’s the solution?
It’s possible to learn to relate to our thoughts in a new way where they have much less impact or influence over us. This is called Defusion: separating our thoughts from what they refer to, it’s the opposite of Fusion.
As we defuse unhelpful thoughts, such as untested assumptions about the customer or the product or other beliefs about what’s possible and what’s not they will have much less influence over our behaviour.
Defusion also makes our thoughts lose their ability to disturb, worry or stress us.
Demonstration: try out this Defusion technique
There are over a hundred Defusion exercises some work better for some people than others but the following one tends to function well in most cases.
Take a minute to bring into your mind the three most dominant negative or stressful thoughts that you have regarding yourself, your product or team. E.g. “I’m not smart enough for this task.”, “The customer will never pay for this feature.”, “I must get this work done by Monday or else.”
Write down each of them in large, clear writing on a separate piece of paper or a sticky note. Put these notes approximately one meter away from you, affix them to the wall, your desk or monitor. Make sure the text is easily legible from this distance and that you can read it without moving your head.
Leave them there for the next week and stop at least three times every day to read them (morning, lunch, before going home). While you are reading these negative thoughts, notice that you are here and they are there.
See what happens to your behaviour and well-being during and after this week.
2. You spend a lot of resources creating plans which create the illusion of certainty but are invalidated quickly or are so inaccurate that they mislead you in making business decisions.
I wrote an entire article about how avoiding the emotions of doubt, anxiety and fear ruins businesses, you can find it here.
Sometimes planning can’t serve its practical goals because the information necessary to create good plans is simply not available. We continue to create plans in these cases because planning also serves psychological purposes. It helps reduce the anxiety, doubt and fear caused by uncertainty. Planning makes us and our stakeholders feel better. It makes us feel safe.
This temporary relief from anxiety, doubt and fear can come at a huge price. If our plans are built on inaccurate or incomplete information, they will still reduce anxiety, doubt and fear but without reducing uncertainty. And that is a dangerous combination.
Why do we avoid doubt and fear and what’s the cost of avoidance?
The emotions of fear and doubt are natural responses to uncertainty. Naturally uncertainty is aversive, we want to avoid it. Due to an inherent characteristic of how the human mind works, our reactions (emotions) to aversive events can become aversive themselves: we look for ways to avoid, control or suppress fear and doubt.
As we are trying to control fear and doubt we might become worried about how much doubt or fear we will feel, which makes us even more afraid and doubtful.
We might decide to avoid or minimize contact with situations that could occasion doubt and fear even if those situations would be useful in achieving our goals, e.g.:
- We might avoid proactively looking for new information during the execution of a project plan.
- We might spend a sizeable portion of our budget on (over-)planning to make us feel safe, even when we know that most of the plans generated are built on assumptions and won’t be useful in practice.
- We might spend significant mental effort worrying about uncertain factors, “trying to figure things out”, even when doing so doesn’t actually solve any practical problem. This takes away mental capacity from innovating or doing something useful.
We might endup feeling other, very intense “negative emotions” like sadness and anger when our plans fail, another price we pay for avoiding doubt.
What’s the solution?
Developing Psychological Flexibility involves practicing exercises that enable us to make room for unpleasant emotions instead of trying to suppress them or push them away. This is called “Acceptance” or “Willingness”.
As we open up and make room for these emotions, we will find that they bother us less. It will also become easier to do the things necessary to make our project, product, team or business successful even if those actions and situations occasion doubt and fear (or other difficult emotions).
3. You experience low performance because you struggle to focus on certain tasks. You disappear into your thoughts, you find yourself at another place or time.
We can spend much of our time dwelling on the past or disappearing into our worries about the future. “Will customers like this feature?” “What does my boss think about my last presentation?” “Will we get the funding we need?”
This process is also built into human cognition, it’s normal. However, it can become so extensive that we can struggle to focus on and engage with whatever we are doing or experiencing. This in turn can lead to low performance, unnecessary mistakes or damaged working relationships.
What’s the solution?
Psychological Flexibility involves learning a skill that helps us stay in touch with the present moment and focus on what’s important. We call this “Flexible Attention to the Present Moment”. Some of these exercises are similar to traditional mindfulness exercises, except we now know which of those work, which don’t and how to employ them.
Practice this exercise for 5-10 minutes every day to improve your focus, performance and well-being
Find a quiet place for 5 minutes.
- Close your eyes and focus on a single, stable bodily sensation in your body, e.g. the pressure in your back as the chair holds you (if you are sitting).
- Try to close out all other sensations and focus only on this one for a couple of seconds.
- Then shift your focus and focus on all bodily sensations at once: your arms, legs, belly, chest, back, shoulders, neck, head, face, etc. Do this for a few seconds.
- Repeat this cycle for 5 minutes (i.e. focus on a single sensation again and then on all of them).
- If you find yourself disappearing to your thoughts and not doing the exercise at any point, then just gently come back and continue the exercise. This is normal.
If you find the previous exercise too difficult, then do the following exercise for 5-10 minutes to warm up. This is a body scanning exercise: slowly notice each and every sensation in your body part-by-part. Start with your toes, continue with your lower leg, upper leg, fingers, hands, lower arms, upper arms, shoulders, belly, chest, back, neck, head and face.
What sensations do you notice? E.g. cold, warm, pressure, pain, tension, etc. Are there any areas which are colder or warmer than other areas? Are there areas where there is more or less pressure than elsewhere?
4. You feel lonely at work. Insufficient collaboration in your group or department causes project delays and missed business opportunities.
Deep inside we all yearn to belong, to connect to others.
Sometimes we also need to connect for practical reasons: the successful completion of a task may require the collaboration of people from multiple disciplines. Collaboration requires employees to connect to each other, to develop trust and bonds.
The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves can prevent us from bonding with our colleagues, leaving us feeling lonely.
We can also experience low performance and delays with work which requires collaboration. This in turn can lead to failed products or reduced profit.
Jot down three sentences that you regularly think about yourself. These are sentences that start with “I am …” and finish with an evaluative phrase, e.g. “I am smart.”, “I am bad at math”, etc. We will call these self-stories.
Next to each self-story, jot down the thoughts you think and the actions you take (or avoid taking) because of that self-story. Focus on what it costs you to hold onto this self-story.
Here are a few examples:
|Self-Story||Consequences (examples of thoughts and actions one may think and take)|
|“I am special.”||“These people are below me, why would I spend time with them?”|
|“I am smart.”||“I really shouldn’t be struggling with this task, I won’t ask for help.”|
|“I am always right.”||“My idea has to win, even if another idea would be more useful for me or my organization.”|
If evidence shows that my idea is wrong, I’ll discredit the source.
|“I am successful.”||“I don’t need to listen to feedback I don’t like. If I fail, it’s someone else’s fault.”|
|“I am a winner.”||“I have to win, even if that means damaging my team, product or organization.”|
|“I am a manager.”||“I have to make this decision even if somebody else could make a better decision because he has more pertinent, current and detailed information available.”|
|“I am socially weird.”||“It’s better to avoid this team lunch, I’d just humiliate myself.”|
|“I am dumb in math.”||“I couldn’t assemble this sheet, it’s better not to try, even if doing it would be extremely helpful for my team.”|
|“I am a loser.”||“It’s better not to aspire to do anything daunting, this way I can protect myself from inevitable failure and disappointment.”|
As you can see, positive self-stories can be just as harmful as negative ones.
Self-stories make us rigid: we struggle to do, experience, think or feel things that contradict them. E.g. If I’m smart and I struggle with a complicated task it can feel almost like dying.
Developing Psychological Flexibility involves learning techniques that help us undermine our attachment to our self-stories so that we don’t buy into them and they don’t control what we think and do. We don’t try to change these stories as research shows that makes the problem worse, not better.
As we realize we are not the stories about ourselves, our well-being and workplace performance improves and we become more capable of connecting to others. ☺
5. Your team or department has a high annual attrition rate, e.g. 20-30% of employees leave each year. And/or you suffer from low motivation.
We only seek to engage in activities that help us fulfil one or more of our needs.
We have basic needs that can be fulfilled by money (e.g. food, water, clothes, etc.).
We also have more sophisticated needs like the need to learn and evolve, belong to a community or to do something meaningful with our time that has an impact. These are fulfilled not by money but the attributes of the work, the colleagues, the boss and the work environment.
Whilst a company can experience a high attrition rate if it significantly underpays its employees, in practice this is rarely the main reason behind low employee retention. Knowledge workers seldom quit their jobs solely for financial reasons and most companies aim to pay around the market average at least. People leave a workplace when they are not motivated enough to do their jobs anymore. They choose another, more motivating, role.
Low employee motivation eventually leads to low employee retention.
How can we increase our motivation then?
Check out this article if you want to dig deeper into why we lack motivation at work and how can we increase it.
“There is no yearning more important to human beings than to freely pick and pursue our life direction. A clear sense of self-directed meaning provides us with an essentially inexhaustible supply of motivation.”Stephen C. Hayes PhD, the originator of ACT
An essential step in making our worklife meaningful is connecting with our values.
The difficulty is that social norms, company policies, expectations and our own beliefs can obscure what is truly important to us.
Values and pain are two sides of the same coin, we hurt where we care and we care where we hurt. In our psychological pain we find what’s important to us, what we truly care about.
Developing Psychological Flexibility involves establishing a connection with what is truly important to us through our psychological pain.
E.g. If you didn’t care about evolving yourself and learning new things, then it wouldn’t hurt to feel the monotony and stuckness in your current role.
How to get in touch with what’s truly important to you
For this to work you have to allow yourself to fully feel your pain, without defence, without trying to change it or make it go away.
6. Everyone talks about problems but no one changes anything. Change programmes (e.g. Digital or Agile Transformations) get stuck or deliver few quantifiable benefits in your organization.
Companies spend millions or even billions on large transformation programmes only to realize later that nothing has really changed: everybody essentially does the same in their everyday job, just everything has a different name in the new framework.
The same behaviours yield the same results so the customers are not happier, the products are not better, the company is neither more profitable nor more capable of adapting to changing market conditions.
The model behind Psychological Flexibility enables us to understand how behaviour change happens in humans and how to make it happen in organizations, allowing us to successfully execute transformation programmes.
Here are a few examples of the findings and how you can benefit from them:
(Please note that earlier psychological models have provided a partial understanding of behaviour change so not everything presented here is new)
- Most of our behaviours are automated, we don’t consciously control them, they are the result of months or years of practice. These habits cannot be changed by thinking, talking or planning, only by doing.
E.g. Bob has spent years building a habit of following a plan and developing a product that meets predefined requirements. Now he wants to build a product that customers like and use, so he decides to regularly invite a customer to try out his partially finished product and provide feedback. However, he struggles to modify his existing plans based on customer feedback, as doing so contradicts his existing habits.
- If we try to swap out multiple work-related habits at once, we are guaranteed to fail. You can change larger habits by targeting smaller behaviours first, one at a time.
E.g. You might have read that empowered employees perform better. However, suddenly giving full freedom to an employee who has been told how to do his job for years will lead to chaos. Instead you need to gradually transfer more and more decision making authority to him over a period of several months and help him get into the habit of taking responsibility for his work.
- We will backslide into our old behaviours periodically. That is OK – that is how change happens.
It’s important to acknowledge that this is not the fault of the individual, rather a characteristic built into the human psyche. Everyone does it.
Create an environment where people are not punished based on how much they behave in the “new way” and aim to recover from relapses as quickly as you can.
- We can get stuck in procrastination, waiting for unpleasant thoughts and emotions to go away before we change our behaviour.
This is counter-intuitive but none of our difficult thoughts or emotions need to change for us to change our behaviour, it is our relationship to our thoughts and emotions that need to change. For this, we need the other parts of Psychological Flexibility that we have discussed above.
The techniques developing Psychological Flexibility belong to a method called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and the unified model of human functioning upon which ACT is built is called Relational Frame Theory.
Don’t let the name deceive you, ACT is used outside of a therapeutic context.
Last time I checked there were more than 400 randomized controlled trials (RCT) providing evidence that ACT works in a wide range of life areas, including work.
To put the weight of this evidence base into context, most methods employed by Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters only have anecdotal evidence but not a single RCT behind them. Many well known and researched psychological methods have 10-20 RCT to support them.
Details of the RCTs of ACT can be found here.
Get in touch now and grow your business with psychological intervention that works
In this article I’ve introduced you to some of the aspects of how human cognition works and how you can use this knowledge to improve your business.
We have merely scratched the surface though. Do you want to learn more?
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