Thursday, February 6, 2020

Happiness, engagement and performance

We expect more and more from employees in the 21st century. Driven by technology, changes follow each other faster and the average employee can hardly follow the changes. You could say that in addition to the technological disruptive revolution, a revolution is taking place in terms of people's workplace. We are demanding more and more from employees and that requires smart guidance from leadership, from People Operations (Google) or the Concierge (Klick).

This article has been written in 2015 and I published it in Dutch. To be able to say something about the core traits of successful teams, I publish it now too in English. 

At the aforementioned companies, people are convinced that you have to put employees, talents, at number 1, and that you have to set up your organization accordingly: a people-centered organization (see also Peter Drucker Forum 2018: the human dimension). Of course, you also have to earn money and in this competitive market you will only succeed with healthy and engaged employees who enjoy their work. When you listen to the stories at Google (Work rules, 2015), Facebook (ATD, 2015), Klick (Decoded company, 2014), ASML, Gartner or Menno Lanting, a number of personal resources are of paramount importance, such as:

With regard to "resilient", the term "coping style" is also used, with the definition: The cognitive and behavioral efforts made to master, tolerate, or reduce external and internal demands and conflicts among them (H. vd Vijfeijke, et all, 2013)

Both mental and physical health predict work capacbility and a high work capability is associated with high performance and pleasure in work. Good health is therefore the foundation of a high work capacity; such as adequate exercise, good sleep, no smoking, no overweight, etc. (A. Rongen, A. Burdorf, et all, 2013). 

Research from Gallup found that 70% of the US workforce is not engaged (beware this does not mean that 70% is disengaged). Prof. Schaufeli has done extensive research into the factors that influence engagement and personal resources in the Netherlands. In essence, it means promoting energy sources and good leadership. These two factors are again highly correlated.
With regard to energy sources, Schaufeli assesses the following 4 most important factors, all of which have a great deal to do with the organization of work and culture:
  1. Appropriate work 
  2. Supervisor appreciation and trust 
  3. Varied and challenging work 
  4. Learning and develop opportunities Appropriate work scores highest as a determining factor in terms of engagement. 
Appropriate work is about work that matches the strengths and motivations of employees. It is crucial that this is a regular topic of conversation between employee and manager. It is not obvious to all managers to be able and willing to raise this topic. Certainly, when the employee performs well, his or her supervisor will soon have a tendency to hide his/her head in the sand. Other things quickly seem more urgent. And sometimes a supervisor thinks he cannot do anything else, because he or she does not see other options, does not want to lose that person and/or has no other work at hand. The (agile) coach might have an important role to play in the conversation and to look for perspectives together.

Varied or challenging work is another important factor, see also the book Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. This should be much more a topic for discussion between manager and employee; what could be challenging work and how to organize the work accordingly. By the way, it will not always be easy to find something challenging.

Appreciation and trust have everything to do with culture. Valuing or giving feedback is basically simple and it is done far too little, despite all those books that have been written about the learning organization. You cannot solve this with short workshops on (performance) feedback and appreciation. What could you do, so that people naturally express more appreciation to each other; how do you get it in people's genes?

Happiness first 
Engaged, enthusiastic, positive or "happy" employees is the focus. I think the research by Shawn Achor (Harvard) is a nice addition to engagement. He states that it is about "Happiness" and then the successes come naturally. And well, who doesn't want to be happy?

With a positive attitude, he argues on the basis of research:
  • Are people 35% more productive; 
  • A seller sells 37% more; 
  • People suffer much less from stress; Etc. 

He argues that 75% of the successes are determined by optimism, social support and / or people view stress as a challenge and only 25% by IQ. He also argues that positive people are more creative, have a lot more energy and operate smarter.

Shawn's videos are a feast for your eyes; nice to see someone showing what he preaches. According to Shawn, it is possible to adopt new mental habits and thereby become a better employee or manager. He translates scientific results into daily life and gives seven practical advice / principles as a foundation for more success and performance (see his book: The happiness advantage):
  1. Happiness lead 
  2. Mindset: lever and the pivot point 
  3. Tetris effect: make sure you step out of negative automatisms and patterns. 
  4. Falling up: use disappointing events as a positive experience 
  5. Zorro circle: start small, organize your success, make sure you control that small change, and then slowly expand your circle. 
  6. 20 second rule: organize your environment in such a way that you actually do intentions or intended new behavior. Make it easy for yourself 
  7. Social environment: ask your immediate environment to support you. 
The first three points are about the mindset and you can train yourself in a more positive way of living and working; "Rewire your brain". 90% of "happiness" is determined by how your brain processes all information. Shawn states that it is possible to look at the world with a different lens and that you can practice and learn that.

He gives the following examples:
  • 3 activities of being kind to others; express appreciation; 
  • 3 gratitude actions - describe 3 things that you are grateful for and / or that you thank others for something; 
  • record positive experiences (at least 1 per day); 
  • influenced positivity in your environment; 
  • exercise sufficiently; 
  • meditate or do breathing exercises; 
  • strengthen your strengths; 
  • make sure you sleep well (I add). 
The interesting thing about these methods is that people can do this themselves and are not dependent on contributions from others. Of course, a motivating culture is very helpful and it is very useful when top management speaks out for a learning positive culture and acts accordingly.

Learning, happiness and performance 
In line with Shawn, you will connect the organization of the work or the "work rules as Google calls it" more with "happiness" and engagement. As an organization you fully invest in the 4 energy sources of Schaufeli and you work together on positivity. In addition, L&D supports the line to give substance to this. All of this stands or falls again with leadership and as an organization you will have to ensure that they are equipped for this, so that team members can and may get to work together. And you do that step by step, in collaboration with a smart communication department and not with large uplifting learning trajectories. Small changes can act as leverage, Google also speaks of "nudges".

What appeals to me at Shawn is that he takes a practical approach and therefore also appeals to people who have less spirituality or mindfulness. Instead of talking about meditation, you can also talk about short breathing exercises (such as the iceman). Does more choice for happiness mean less attention for performance? Results and success are of paramount importance to the companies mentioned. In all these companies, the information systems are also set up in such a way that the organization and especially people themselves receive real-time information about their results and their performance. You could argue that performance is so embedded in the genes of employees that there is free time to fully facilitate engagement, happiness and pleasure. The words "performance support" will be seen in a slightly different light; everything is more focused to optimally support employees; that it is about realizing engagement and happiness. ‘Happiness’ and performance support

Friday, January 31, 2020

Sensitivity and equal interaction are number 1 in high-performing teams

Google is often cited as a shining example for the organization of work in the 21st century. For a long time, Google thought that creating successful teams means putting the best people together. Google wondered if this assumption was correct. In 2012, Google launched the Aristotle project to find out which factors underlie effective and successful teams. It is no surprise that Google used her very rich data environment for this. In a previous blog I described Alex Pentland's Social physics, an approach that uses big data that is collected using sociometric devices. Pentland has visited Google several times to talk about his insights, and Google's research confirms Pentland's insights. In November 2015, project leader Julia Rozovsky from Google published the results and Charles Duhigg wrote an article in February 2016 about the research in the New York Times.

This article has been written in March 2016 and I published it in Dutch. To be able to say something about the core traits of successful teams, I publish it now too in English.

'Who' is not relevant to excel 
The research showed that a mix of personality, skills or background does not make a significant difference in team performance. The "who" side apparently doesn't really matter; in a knowledge-intensive organization, it is apparently not crucial to coordinate all kinds of competence or job profiles. The importance of the Belbin team role test is for example also not that great.

2 behaviours matter
The Google researchers discovered that two behaviours matter. The first point concerns equality of contribution to work and team discussions; that every team member has the opportunity to speak out on a daily basis and that there are not certain people who dominate the conversations. This was exactly what Pentland had discovered. To which Pentland adds that interaction frequency also matters; you will not get there with quiet open office space, it has to buzz (Sheridan, 2013).

To emphasize the relevance of symmetric communication patterns, you might observe that I visualize teams in all my articles in this way.

The second point is about a high degree of social sensitivity; in other words, are team members able to intuitively sense how the other team members feel and they make that negotiable. They are skilled at observing the non-verbal communication of the other and hearing what someone is saying. Both aspects are about psychological safety and group culture and it is by far the most important of the 5 dynamics for excellent teams, see listed below. People are reluctant to show behaviour when it could have a negative influence on how others see them in terms of person, competence and awareness, and you shouldn't have that reluctance right now. Professor Amy Edmondson defines this dynamic as a shared belief among team members that the team is a safe place to take interpersonal risks. (in 2019 Amy published a fantastic book about the fearless organization). It is a feeling of trust and respect that team members do not embarrass, reject or punish a team member when he or she takes the floor. If attention to each other is so important, then according to Google you should not make an artificial distinction between private and work; it is important that there is also room to share things that play privately, the pleasant things and also the emotionally more difficult aspects of life.

In a team with high psychological safety, employees will be less likely to leave, they see more opportunities to harness the power of ideas and suggestions from their teammates, they generate more income and they are twice as effective, according to their managers.

The researchers discovered that it is important how team members work together, communicate with each other, structure their own work and how they see each other's contribution. The following 5 dynamics are characteristic of successful teams at Google:

1. Psychological safety         In our team we can take interpersonal risks, without feelings of uncertainty and without being embarrassed
2. Dependency             We can count on each other to deliver high-quality work on time                 
3. Structure and clarity Goals, roles and plans are clear                                      
4. Meaning of work Work is personally important for all team members
5. Impact of work Team members experience that their work really matters and brings about change.

What strikes me is that structure and clarity (goals, roles and plans) is only 1 of the dynamics and not the most important. At Google, they use a light performance variant: the OKR (objectives and key results) and in a data-driven organization, everyone's dashboard of course shows real-live how the projects are doing, transparent for those who want to see it. It seems that the structure is a precondition to excel; it is the license-to-work and not the license-to-excel. Performance support is important but it is not the key to success and excellence!
Google has developed a simple tool to give teams feedback how they score on these 5 dynamics. The conversation about the scores was experienced as valuable, as the tool puts the dynamics in the spotlight. I think project leader Rozovsky correctly states that you should not underestimate the value of a shared platform and language.
In short; as leaders and the organization, ensure the conditions and focus as a team on a safe, inspiring and dynamic learning and interaction climate within the team. Based on this solid foundation, team members can effectively interact with the external environment and make that resonate with the team process.
This requires that the CEO and the Management team arrange the conditions, to position the teams and to promote a learning and interaction climate in and between teams wherever it can. It means smart support for team leaders, coaching of managers and team leaders and a step-by-step process. And please do not start a whole circus of workshops and training sessions again; preferably no team coaching, it is the team leader and team members' turn. And help people after each external intervention how to apply and implement things in terms of behaviour; that is not rocket science, but it is often necessary. Focus on the learning abilities,
By paying attention to each other and to the environment, both with mindfulness, team members can build a so-called collective meaning structure with each other. And that is more than the sum of the members and this will pay off twice and for all! Collective learning can only be built in the 'heat' of the work and therefore in the context of the team (Weick, 1993), in the appreciation of all interactions between team members

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Face-2-face and telephone conversations are the most determining for team performance, thank you big data

I am fascinated by the use of sensors, which can generate all kinds of data, so that people can do their work better and with more pleasure. In the last years, one new sensor is launched after the other; you may have heard of the smart thermostat Nest, the smartwatch, etc. The word big data falls on and off. The term human analytics is increasingly mentioned in relation to HR or work. An appealing example is the approach of the authors in the book: The Decoded company; know your talent better than you know your customers! They talk about data like 'the sixth sense'; data for the benefit of the employee so that their talents can come into their own even more.

From sensing and interpreting data it seems a logical step to sense-making in other words: learning. In relation to behaviour and therefore also to performance, "sensing" is important in the interaction with others. In behavioural training you see that at a given moment participants are keen on the interaction with another person and have a keen eye / antenna about their own behaviour. You often see that sharpness in the work environment quickly disappears and people fall back into their old behaviour. Are there perhaps sensors that can help people, managers and companies in the workplace to remain sensitive about their interaction with others and also about themselves?

This article has been written in January 2015 and I published it in Dutch. To be able to say something about the core traits of successful teams, I now also publish it in English.

My eyes fell on Alex Pentland's book: Social Physics, how good ideas spread (2014). Alex is the director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship program and he is co-leader of the World economic Forum Big Data. He leads a group of excellent top researchers. Alex and his team use big data to show interaction patterns between people.

Current social science so far had to draw conclusions based on laboratory analyses or through questionnaires and that feels artificial. The predictive value of testing, for example, is simply not high. In the meantime, the science of social psychology does not have a good reputation, see the Stapel affair. The conventional approaches do not take into account the complexity of normal life, they lack details with whom we interact and how we interact with them. Contact between people consists of millions of small transactions. New sensors with big data give us the opportunity to better view society in all its complexity with all its micro patterns, it offers insight into the many networks of person-to-person interactions. This flow of information is important to understand the diffusion and generation of new ideas and how they are a driving force in behavioural change and innovation. 

Social physics tries to understand how the ideas and information flow results in changes in behaviour and action; how human behaviour is driven by the exchange of ideas - how people work together to discover, select, learn and coordinate their actions. The sensors record everything during normal work; the work has thus become a "living laboratory". The engine that drives social physics is big data; huge amounts of data are increasingly available on many aspects of our lives. Because of the increased computer power, we can do calculations based on millions of data.

How is measured? 
Alex uses sociometric badges; it is a small box that you wear around your neck. The badge collects data and analyses social behaviour. It contains a location sensor, captures body language, determines who is close by and records when the person himself and another person speaks. The badge does not record what is being said. It is still a small box; I can well imagine that there might be a chip on your company ID card (note that privacy is nowadays much an issue).

The badge can also:
  • make engagement and exploration transparent over time; 
  • measure personal energy level; 
  • measure the degree of extraversion and empathy through body language and the degree of "flow". 
 The data can then be combined with:
  • mobile phone data (their "funf" system); 
  • credit card statements; 
  • logs from social media etc. 
When you make the interaction patterns visible, you can make remarkable observations, as Pentland shows at a German bank:

It is striking, for example, that managers have hardly any face-to-face contact with sales and customer services. Product development has hardly any face-to-face contact with customer service and with sales.

2 social physics concepts 
Social physics has 2 important concepts:
  • Strengthen ideas flow within networks (creativity), with a subdivision into: 
          * exploration (finding new ideas and strategies with diverse network)
          * engagement (interact with each other and coordinate behaviour).
  • Social learning: how new ideas become habits and how learning can be accelerated and shaped, among other things through social pressure. 
Pentland defines the ideas flow as the transfer of behaviours and beliefs into a social network through social learning and social pressure. The researchers measure the flow of ideas as the probability that a person's behaviour will change when a new idea appears in the network of those people. He also makes the comparison with the spread of flu. 

The most valuable flow of ideas within an organization are face-to-face and telephone conversations. This is not surprising in itself, but perhaps it is in the light of the fact that employees are increasingly interacting with each other via the computer screen. MIT, for example, visualized the interaction patterns at call centres and came up with the advice to facilitate more face-to-face conversations and showed that this significantly increases productivity. 

It is important that people have insight into the behaviour of others, both directly and indirectly. You should therefore see Yahoo's measure to limit working from home in this light. The more people want to learn from a certain peer group, the more they want to belong and are close to them. It is the flow of ideas within a community that generates knowledge and makes you successful. 

MIT concludes that the best ideas come from careful and continuous exploration of others. The most creative people with a lot of insights are "explorers." Working groups that generate a high amount of ideas from outside the working group seem to be the most innovative. His research shows that these people invest a lot of time in meeting new people with different ideas and they do not naturally look for the best people or best ideas. They are open to people with different and different ideas and ideas, especially outside their own team. 

The most productive people constantly develop a new story and then test it countless times; they add new ideas to the story and try them out on everyone. For them, sculpting ideas is a game. In addition, they are very curious about the successes and failures of others and ask questions about what has played a role in them. They make their decisions based on all those experiences. 

Alex distinguishes 3 important factors for exploration: 
  1. Social learning, learning from others (modelling and see also Bandura); 
  2. Promote diversity of people and perspectives; 
  3. Meeting opponents; they have independent information. 
A so-called "star" network is good for exploration and a smaller richly connected network (team) is best for engagement, idea generation and behavioural change. 

Pentland defines "engagement" as to learn from each other (social learning), often within a working group (peer group). This leads to the development of behavioural norms and social pressure to strengthen these norms. According to Pentland, there is increasing evidence that the power of engagement is vital for promoting collaborative behaviour. Even if intimately connected people cannot see each other, they have a higher performance with a shared rhythm, body language, speech and pitch. It appears that employees with the most engagement have the least difficulty in adapting new interaction patterns. 

When people see that many other people adopt new behaviour, they will often follow those others quickly, we are a bit a herd of animals ... When someone receives 3-4 invitations to participate in a network, the person will also participate quickly going to do. And that certainly applies when their trusted warm network contacts do the same. When the people you are talking to also talk to each other, you are "in". Moreover, social or peer pressure is one of the most effective mechanisms for promoting collaboration. 

The number of direct interactions that people have with their "buddies" was an excellent predictor of how their behaviour would change. This also applies to trust in each other. Changing behaviour was most effective when it strengthened social relationships. 
Given the importance of interactions, it is important to offer smart support through small, subtle incentives (triggers), so that people connect more with others. The most effective network influencing actions should be targeted at those people who have the strongest social ties and with the most interactions with others. According to Alex, social network promoting actions are almost 4 times as efficient as a traditional individual reward market approach. 

The most important factor in predicting group intelligence is the degree of equality in terms of conversation contribution. This means that you have to contain dominant speakers. In addition, the degree of social intelligence is important, something that women are often just a bit better at, often it appears that teams with more women do better ...
Engagement asks:
  • Interaction; 
  • Collaboration; 
  • Trust, take care of building trust 
The pitfall of engagement in one's own team or network is the so-called echo-effect; not being open enough to outside sounds with the result that people only talk to each other. 

Alex Pentland found in research that the interaction patterns between people determined almost 50% of the performance variation between high and low performing groups. The degree of face-to-face engagement (ideas flow within a group) has a huge impact on productivity. Individual intelligence, personality and skill, were much less significant than the pattern of ideas flow. This does not apply in situations with a lot of stress and enormous work pressure. 

Interaction characteristics of high performing groups were: 
  • Many briefly formulated ideas; 
  • Lots of interaction and overlapping cycles; 
  • A high diversity of ideas. 
The pattern of ideas flow can be influenced by leadership. Managers should pay less attention to the individual talent approach and focus more on managing organizations and stimulating much interaction between team members. The social style of managers is then a good predictor of how well their team will perform. You could call a leader who knows how to properly influence interactions in a team a charismatic connector. Charismatic connectors also have a lot of influence on the interaction between teams (exploration). 
A note to this story is that social networking is less helpful in solving more complex problems that require reflection (Lyad Rahwan, 

Online Collaboration 
As far as digital networks are concerned, Pentland believes that there is still work to be done to make them effective in business. As a follow-up to studies in collaboration with MIT, Wooley and Malone (2015) investigated whether groups that collaborate online showed collective intelligence development and whether social capacity would also be important when people shop put in a platform. Again, it turned out that teams worked smarter with team members who communicated a lot, with equal participation and who had a high degree of emotion-interpreting reading skills. 

Make interaction patterns visible 
To get a good idea flow, you will first have to make people aware of their interaction patterns. Visual feedback of the interaction pattern is a useful tool to improve interaction. An app. developed by MIT can, for example, reflect to what extent the interaction pattern in a team is balanced. 

Also, with mindful observations you might become quickly aware of the interaction patterns and then a tool is not necessary. Especially the agile coach should be able to do that.

It comes down practically to the following: encourage employees to come together: drink coffee, lunch, go for a walk at 3 p.m., ... In short: make sure that we talk a lot with each other. 

The layout of the workspace is therefore important. In my opinion, that does not automatically mean that you have to choose for an open space office; people must be able to concentrate ... ... and headphones do not promote the mutual communication that matters.  

So, organize regularly face-2-face formal meetings (rituals) and informal encounters and ensure that the exchange delivers as much as possible within as little time as possible. Guidance from an agile coach is then handy. 

Supervise or coach leaders how they can influence and strengthen the level of exploration and engagement within their team, in terms of communication and equal participation in conversations.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Agile structure is the panacea for learning in organizations and so for agility

Learning is increasingly getting the recognition it deserves, with active learning and learning strategies likely to be the top priority by 2022 (World Economic Forum). Of course, you can only be agile and innovative by learning with each other. Hagel talks about scalable learning; accelerating performance is becoming the new standard, with workgroups acting as the spark igniting its potential. According to the new report about the Future of jobs (the World Economic Forum, 2018), people will need to adopt an agile learning mindset if they want to succeed in the organizations of tomorrow. Chris Piri (General Manager of worldwide learning at Microsoft) illustrates this in a recent interview:

 “the time is ripe for a total transformation of corporate learning. Learning principles are infused in the entire ecosystem, a deep learning culture is built up to create sustained competitive advantage. Microsoft embraces a growth mindset culture by learning from failure, pursuing deep customer empathy, and celebrating curiosity. They harness the social learning already happening across and between organizations and set their teams free to learn from customers and each other.”

Wow!! OK, learning is top priority; talent and skills are the number one hot issue for organization leaders! However, learning processes are tough and, in general, little progress is made; it is hard work and there is no easy solution. Download article.

The problem space
A learning culture is key, but alone is not enough for successful learning processes. First, I thought that transfer is the issue, since we know for years that transfer of training to work is a weak link; but there is much more at stake. I observed that learning processes at work only happen occasionally[1]. Even advocates for change within organizations do not make much progress with regard to learning; one reason may be that they are asked to organize too much themselves. My gut feeling said that we should organize work differently, but I could not put my finger on it. I developed an app, to support people to organize their change in behavior. Good idea, but it meant another additional app, and it was not fully embedded in work; it was still too much a learning world thing. In between, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, the thought leader about economic behavior, published his book, “Thinking slow and fast”, describing the unconscious, intuitive, errors of reasoning that distort our judgement of the world. It is even more delicate when you know that information, as input for learning, is more and more biased and manipulated by machines and AI. The World Economic Forum 2018 advocates analytical and critical thinking, which Kahneman calls “System 2 thinking”; but businesses and employees are overwhelmed by data and information, and the pace of work is accelerating. We are all too busy, leaving no time for reflection or slow learning, or to just do nothing. Then forget all the romantic beliefs about (scalable) learning!
We desperately need something, it should be simple, at hand, which invites people to learn actively and which makes the adoption of a learning mindset very appealing.
What should we do, then - and what do we even mean by “learning”? What do the learning principles mean for the design of organizations? Something else than the well-worn path of the learning organization! How should we organize work? And can we structure the organization - or better, the ecosystem - in such a way so that scalable learning happens everywhere, almost organically and by everybody?

Instead of “learning”, I prefer to use “sensemaking”. Klein defines sensemaking as:
the process of creating situational awareness and understanding in situations of high complexity or uncertainty in order to make decisions
Apparently, it makes sense to use the word sensemaking; since we work more and more in complex situations, and agile is developed for complex business environments. Sensemaking is in essence a relational or social activity (Weick, 1995), because people develop meaning in the interactive process with others. People give feedback, initiate reflection, and consciously promote friction. The trick is to hit a nerve with the other person, to connect with the other person's mental model in the conversation or via another medium, so that the other person can make sense of that information. Each person relies on the other to interpret reality - to “make sense”. Therefore, listening carefully and mindful interaction is crucial!
Weick describes the process of sensemaking as follows:
  1. Enactment: What you notice first from the external environment gives you direction; as you cannot notice everything at once, you make a selection. That selection is not accidental; it’s determined by preferred ways of looking, and past behaviors. We bring our own biases to the environment, so that what you perceive and pick up is subjective.
  2. Selection processes play a role interpreting this information among competing possibilities for interpretation. They determine what you put in the foreground, and what remains in the background.
  3. Retention: After interpreting the information, you assign meaning to it.
  4. Actively question the received wisdom and operated assumptions and become aware of new enactments emerging from the learnings.
The meaning that someone gives to something is in any case a simplified representation, in which much richness, traceability, and ambiguity is lost. Peter Senge refers to these representations as mental models and Weick as "causal maps." They represent what you consciously or unconsciously ‘learn’('retention') from interpretation ('selection'). And also, that gives you cues for your attitude and which new information you will notice ('enactment').

Figure 1 Sensemaking, Weick & Kahneman

Sensemaking starts with (ecological) changes enacting perceived signals from the environment. How do you keep the relevant issues in the foreground, so that new cues might be linked to these issues which give you the chance to make sense? Becoming aware of weak signals is a crucial skill in today's overwhelming information era. As Varela argues: people are largely unaware in their daily lives (Valera, 1991 and 2016). The addiction to social media and the smartphone deadens once more the senses to perceive the potential relevant cues; more and more people look at the media and unlearn to perceive the enactments of their own body, in interaction with the environment and other people. Mindfulness, the practice of becoming more aware, is described by Varela as an 'enactive' approach, in which cognitive processes fit into the relational domain of the body, as a self-organizing system connected to the environment. Embodied enaction and emotion not only influence interpretation, but are a means by which interpretation occurs (Kudesia, 2017). Mindful awareness brings forth relevance, in which the new might emerge. In the books “Presence” and “Theory-U”, Senge (2006) and Scharmer (2009) build on the ideas of Varela.

Sensemaking processes are mainly selection processes, in which people interpret what these changes mean, and they choose the mental models that they think are best suited to the observed stimulus (Weick). Mental models are deep-rooted assumptions, generalizations, images that influence how we see things and how we respond to them. The function of mental models is mainly to simplify information processing about the environment. But we are biased in our observations; people have a tendency to see what we want to see. You might also say that we attenuate external variety and we have no guarantee that we may discard the wrong information. And since we know that only variety is able to absorb the rich complex variety in the environment (law of requisite variety, Ashby & Beer), we should just amplify our capacity to absorb variety.

People tend to confirm their own arguments and own reality and avoid the inconvenience of disruptive external evidence or signals. When signals from the outside world do not fit into people’s mental model, it is difficult to respond adequately and efficiently to those signals. They will then have to change themselves, and by implication, their existing mental model about their outside world. Changing a mental model generally doesn’t happen automatically; people often have to experience an inconvenience (friction), which makes them feel compelled to do something with it. Working with mental models starts with looking at yourself; you have to learn to expose your own unconscious images and examine them critically (Senge, 1990).

Thinking: Fast and slow
To deepen our insight into the selection process, we look to Kahneman (2011); one of the founders of behavioral economy. He contends that cognitive processes are divided into two systems: System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is fast, impulsive and intuitive; it responds to impressions, is easy-going, and makes causal connections at lightning speed, even if they are not there. This system governs most of our lives, making a coherent story immediately of everything that happens, with a head and a tail. It guides us through the day and through life; it is crucial to survive. With System 1, signals that do not fit into people’s mental model are pushed aside; they are not noticed consciously, and people carry on in the same old way.

If life or work becomes difficult, System 2 (slow thinking) can come into effect. It enables us to reflect, argue, behave more cautiously and give attention. It exercises self-control. This part does the hard work, but it is lazy and slow, often needing a conscious effort to engage ('Stop! Think!'). System 2 often chooses the path of least resistance, and is eager to take over what System 1 tries to tell us.

Above all, life is determined by 'cognitive convenience'. A good mood pushes System 2 to the background. When people feel good, they are more intuitive and creative, but also less attentive and receptive to logical errors. In his book, Kahneman presents one example after another, how System 1 is fooling us, and this fits Weick's selection processes. It’s critical, then, that we master the skill of becoming aware. Mindful awareness of Varela fits initially in the slow System 2; displaying something on the table, taking time for it, and letting go. Letting new ideas and insights emerge is a System 1 activity again; in a way, System 1 is then nested in System 2.

We are inclined to let our emotions influence our idea of the truth and live in an era in which emotional engagement seems to be more important than facts (populism). System 1 thinking becomes even more dominant. Bobby Duffy argues in ‘The perils of perception’ that we often misinterpret things, thanks to argumentations of other people (e.g. social media) and experts are not trusted anymore. The field between trust and science has become an ideological battlefield. Therefore, Duffy argues for more awareness; if we understand to what extent our emotions influence our idea of truth, then we might be more resilient to wrong assumptions (a System 2 activity).
We desperately need System 2 for life and work. We would have to make the threshold very low to slip easily into the slow, lazy System 2 thinking
To make sense, to learn, you constantly need the slow and lazy System 2 to:
  • observe well and not be guided by biases; to practice conscious perception. Do not be led by your own mental model;
  • reflect and take time to think about something.
  • to interact with others about what you perceive, and to receive feedback on whether your perception and interpretation is correct
  • reflect personally, or with someone else
  • promote friction for yourself, or among others: asking the right question, promoting argumentation, interacting mindfully, ....
  • to allow inconvenience to yourself; not avoiding conflict, challenging assumptions, and engaging in debate
  • release yourself from certainties and face ambiguity
  • be open and ready to receive feedback
  • monitor psychological safety in the team, and be very alert to disturbances that endanger it
  • be alert to vulnerability (both your own, and others), and pay immediate attention to it
Note that formal training sessions fit some requirements for learning! For learning, we should appreciate friction - the discomfort, the contradiction, to discover black swans, asking questions, confronting information, the counter-argument, and humor. “As organizing becomes disorganized, the forgotten is remembered, the invisible becomes visible, the silenced becomes heard […] creating an opportunity for learning‟ (Weick & Westley, 1996).
For sensemaking and for the sake of agility and innovation we will have to make constant use of our lazy, slow System 2 thinking, which according to Baumeister also has a limit (ego depletion). It is too easy to call for scalable learning, because it takes too much energy to constantly turn on System 2 thinking; that is the hard reality. When the tank for System 2 is empty, intuition takes over as the guiding principle, and we are back on System 1. If people have to organize the requirements mentioned above all by themselves, then they will often not be able to achieve sensemaking adequately, even when they are highly (intrinsically) motivated. People may have a great learning capability and yet not be able to make sense.
People will make (too) little sense (learn), when they have to organize sensemaking all by themselves
It’s a big ask to constantly switch to System 2; sometimes, we simply forget to reflect, to give attention, to give feedback, to question what we perceive. Our best intentions will not get us there, and statements about romantic values and culture may be counterproductive. It requires from us a cultural change; we should invite one another to go to System 2; to be constantly tempted to dwell on experiences, and to think about it, to pay attention to it, to have attention for the other person, and not follow our intuition as a matter of course.
Can we develop and design organizations in which people will automatically, organically slip into system 2 thinking to make sense, interact and learn?
Agile and Scrum as learning structures
Structure and organizing play an important role for sensemaking. We could design the organization in such way that learning principles are leading, in which interaction is regularly sought. In 2013, I was inspired by Richard Sheridan’s book about the learning principles in Menlo Innovations; an organisation often mentioned as a beacon of best agile practice, despite Sheridan not calling it agile.

Agile is based on a set of principles set out in the “Agile Manifesto”, such as valuing “individuals and interactions” over processes and tools. It is a mindset, rather than a framework, relying on empowerment and trust, and (although not explicit in the manifesto) cultural characteristics such as autonomy, servant leadership and teams. The argument for interaction is even more important as there are indications that more and more people neglect the skill of interacting by the addiction to smartphone and social media, it is badly needed to reclaim the conversation (Sherry Turkle, MIT).

Over the last decade, there has been an increase in agile adoption, driven overwhelmingly through the application of Scrum in organizations. The Scrum Guide is a framework for implementing agility, comprising of roles, events and artefacts. Its success is obvious when we recognize that a new way of working can only be achieved with a new structure; an organization in transition has to provide support, an anchor, for all employees coping with uncertainty and ambiguity. Scrum eases the difficult transition to a new way of working by providing a pattern of behavior and rules for engagement. People will have to experience what it is to work together in a different way; a helping hand supports and when felt supported they might be willing to experience it.

I was surprised that using a framework like Scrum to implement agile, you can encourage learning in so many ways. Transforming towards agility may give the space for System 2 thinking. Below I describe the structural elements of agile that have to do with learning.

Teams The cross functional team is one of the pillars of agile. The team can be considered as a learning community or learning lab. It is the meeting place or space for intimate interactions in a safe environment. In the context of the requisite variety in a complex business environment, the team interacts with customers and team members experience and learn from the rich customer environment.

Roles Depending on how you implement agile, there are a number of (leadership) roles to be played. In Scrum, these are Product Owner, Scrum Master (agile coach), and eventually the chapter lead. In any context, people should pick up roles that fit them; and then strengths may flourish even more. Well thought use of the ‘scrum’ roles is key. The Scrum Master, agile coach or Agile & Learning(A&L) adviser can provide best practice and guidance as to how to best implement agile; they are also responsible for ensuring the morale, safety, and learning capacity of the team remains high. They promote a learning climate in which team members feel free to interact, to look for inconvenience and make biases explicit; making entering System 2 thinking cost much less energy. This will start in the meetings and will increasingly take place in work, informally. When it is a role and A&L advisers fit that role, entering system 2 will cost much less energy for themselves and they will invite team members to do the same, using their close proximity. In time team members will jump more and more into the coaching role to foster the interaction climate.

Small wins or sprints Central to agility is shortening the learning cycle, or having quick feedback loops. By breaking down work into “Sprints” and creating smaller viable products. The team is able to evaluate progress more regularly and learn quickly from errors and experiences.

Meetings Scrum events in every Sprint offer a foothold to start the conversations within the team. Each event presents an opportunity to assess and adapt part of the process: planning & review meeting, retrospective meeting, daily scrum, … For instance, the 15-minute Daily Scrum is an opportunity to assess a team’s progress toward their Sprint Goal, the impediments and adapt their approach if they are unlikely to complete it. The feeling of having a daily forum to ask for support is almost revolutionary. Furthermore, every Sprint, the team meets at the Sprint Retrospective to assess and adapt the way they work together and promote psychologically safety; something we could only dream about in traditional project management.

Rituals Rituals are designed to reduce complexity within the framework and allow to enter System 2 with less energy; they are kept at a consistent time and a consistent point in each cycle. They offer support and a ritual goes without saying, you do not need a system 2 for that. The daily stand-up in the morning at a certain time is a ritual. At Menlo Innovations at 10 am all people come together and at 3 pm all people have a short walk outside.

Code of conduct The way of working should be made explicit. As an organization scales, it should have a small set of easily remembered codes or rules. For example, ING has an “orange code” with only three rules. These rules offer support, and guidance toward organizationally-acceptable norms and behaviors. They should constantly be subjects of conversation, you live them. At least one rule should refer to System 2.

This is by no means a definitive list, as there are more aspects linked to structure which might support the learning principles. The agile structure is on a good track to establish an interaction and learning climate; to facilitate scalable learning. The agile framework offers interesting perspectives to make the threshold very low to slip easily into the slow, lazy System 2 thinking to make sense and learn. Each organization or company will have to develop its own structure, though; their own organizational learning process. Of course, there is no organization model; that is contradictory to the learning approach. And when we recognize that the way we organize is crucial for learning, it is wise to refer to organization experts like Henry Mintzberg and Stafford Beer (see my former articles).

Values like trust and empowerment linked to the agile mindset are the guiding principles to develop a structure for sensemaking. People need a support to which they can refer regularly, while developing an effective structure. In a world of growing mistrust (think Facebook data leaks, Trump, etc.), individuals need System 2 thinking to challenge the status quo; leaders need System 2 for wisdom and ensure they have smart advisors to support them.

By using Scrum or another agile framework, the organizations affords team members the opportunity to apply System 2 for sensemaking more frequently. For example:
  • Each team member plans a personal learning activity, linked to their learning goals and writes it on a post-it in the sprint planning meeting;
  • Daily Scrum affords team members an opportunity to reflect and share on learning experiences and tell about their learning experiences to come that day;
  • Sprint Retrospectives encourage mindful interaction and team-wide reflection; opportunities for learning in work are reviewed.
Application of learning structures in teams
All this should take place mainly in a team that is psychologically safe, and with team members who care personally for others; trust and mutual vulnerability are needed to explore the potential of friction and inconvenience. Groups that organize mindfully anticipate potential disruptive events, and are constantly updating their shared understanding of real-time events; by sharing information and expertise, instead of relying on assumptions derived from past experience. As such, they are better able to notice and respond to minor disruptions in their environment before these disruptions cascade into full-blown crises or opportunities are missed (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2006).

The challenge before us is to design organizations in such way that learning processes (sensemaking) take place naturally and organically. We would have to make the threshold to activate System 2 very low, and I am convinced that the structure and the way of organizing plays an important role in this. System 2 thinking can flourish in environments that foster learning, dialogue, openness, and courage. If teams can be mutually vulnerable in psychologically safe spaces, we no longer have to construct spaces or interactions for System 2 thinking; everyone would organically makes 'sense' at a high speed, resulting in increased agility, better quality output, and strengthened learning abilities. A prerequisite of this is leaders who dare to put employees at the center and do what they say (Archyris); only then will trust have a chance.
Agile is a vessel to transform the way organizations view learning, and indeed, how organizations learn.
For sensemaking we need an (agile) structure, in which team members:
  • know that all these interactions in formal meetings and informal encounters are necessary to be seduced to slip into System 2 thinking;
  • enact constantly and mindfully new cues; by doing, by experimenting, and by sharing and questioning these enactments with other team members and other contacts;
  • are invited to question what others perceive and interpret, making biases explicit and trying to avoid group think;
  • are invited to look for the inconvenience and value friction, while maintaining a safe learning and work environment;
  • encourage each other to take time for reflection, to become aware in the now. 
Next to a learning culture, organizations need a learning structure based on learning principles and agile values. Structure paves the way for a free space with a lot of interaction, in which team members feel encouraged, motivated to interact and make sense. The agile framework might offer a structure and a support in which people experience the new working climate. They are seduced almost organically to activate the lazy and slow System 2 thinking, which is necessary for agile learning.

The agile structure also offers a new lens to view the changing nature of organizations and workplaces.  Psychological safety and vulnerability, as pillars for excellence are conditional, and the agile learning Adviser plays an important role in this. The agile mindset implies that the hierarchy of authority is replaced by the hierarchy of competences. As such, the agile structure and mindset offer perspectives to make the 2022 vision come true (World Economic Forum 2018), in which people will have the appropriate skills to perform, with the top priority skills such as analytical thinking, active learning and learning strategies.

[1] I worked 12 years at Schouten & Nelissen as project leader, at that time market leader in training and change of behaviour in the Netherlands