Defending Your Position

In Peter Senge’s book, “The Fifth Discipline”, he mentions seven learning disabilities often going undetected in organizations. One of these learning disabilities is the tendency for people to identify themselves with their position.

Mr. Senge calls this the “I am my position” learning disability and states:

When people in organizations focus only on their position, they have little sense of responsibility for the results produced when all positions interact. Moreover, when results are disappointing, it can be very difficult to know why. All you can do is assume that “someone screwed up.”

For many organizations, a long history of defensive posturing between individuals, teams, and departments has led to varying degrees of dysfunction and significant problems. When people do get proactive to solve the problems, they often make matters worse. A “solution” in one area will just shift the problem somewhere else. This may bring short-term relief but the pain will reappear sooner or later and the “blame game” continues on and on.

Often, this disability will emerge during a transformation to Agile and will need to be addressed. A perfect example is the relationship between testers and developers. Testers may have established rigorous sign-offs, exhaustive test strategies or other steps to “defend their position” from the blame they have historically received. This eventually begins to isolate them from the only people who can ultimately help them the most – the developers.

If you find yourself in an organization or team habitually defending their positions, studying “The Fifth Discipline” is a great place to start tackling the problem. Additionally, here are a few of my thoughts:

Look at the whole. Study the “complex human system” making up your organization. Expand your understanding of every role and how they interact within the system. Looking at the whole will help you identify opportunities for co-creation between people and groups you never thought possible.

Remove assumptions. We are often quick to make assumptions about what others should be doing or acting. Discover what is really needed from each other. Here is an exercise to bring people together and learn from each other.

Keep from reacting to events. Instead, take a step back and think about what part of the system is creating the unwanted event. Historically, blame would be placed on the tester when defects emerged in production so process would be built around the tester instead of where it really belongs (a complex architecture, an incomplete design, or poor craftsmanship).

Check the “weight” of your processes. We often spend considerable energy defending our processes as well. As processes become heavier and heavier, focus begins to shift from what is really important – delivering value to our customers as efficiently and quickly as possible.

Many conversations and blog posts from Si Alhir.
Senge, Peter M. (2010-03-25). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization (p. 19). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


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