January 19, 2018

Agile leadership and consciousness

The intention of this blog post is to test the content of an upcoming book that I am writing on Leanpub called So You Want To Be A Here - Soft skills at the core of Agile leadership. It is a follow-up on my previous post, My Take on Agile Leadership.


Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist of the 20th century who developed the theory of cognitive development. In layman's terms, he categorized four stages in which a child's brain goes through until he becomes an adult. Known as the Piaget stages, it looks something like this:

Piaget theory of cognitive development


Once we'd gone into adulthood, we would be a functioning adult where each and every one of us would have the same capabilities to understand a specific amount of complexity from the world around us. Thus, forty years ago, our understanding of adult development was seen as this:

Consciousness - Forty years ago


As you can see, the slope on the far left of the chart represents Piaget stages which leads us to a flat line once we hit adulthood. With insufficient data and a lack of tools, we drew a flat line, thus thinking that every adult would be able to manage the same level of complexity.

Unfortunately, this flatline doesn't reflect what scientific papers and studies have revealed in the last forty years. Research has shown that adult brains have different degrees of mental complexity throughout the lifetime of an adult. In other words, some people are more aware of what happens around (and in) them than others.

Consciousness - Today

Next time you hear somebody stating something is to complex to grasp, it's really an admission to himself of not being capable of understanding this level of complexity. From the data has emerged stages of consciousness. By stages of consciousness, I mean mental models interpreted qualitatively into plateaus that we use to see and apprehend reality.

Different authors have used different topologies to map these stages. To simplify things for the rest of the book, I'm going to use the stages described by William Torbert called Action logic. From the cloud of points in the previous image, Torbert has defined seven leadership development stages where each stage can be seen as a plateau on a mountain.

Torbet action logic stages

As you look at this image, there are a few key points that need to be made:

  • Going up from one plateau to the other doesn't mean you will be more successful. As a matter of fact, people in the higher plateaus generally feel more alone as fewer people see the world like they do.


  • While plateaus in the image give the impression that you are only on one plateau, it's important to note that people keep what they have discovered in the previous plateaus. They also belong to a predominant stage and while the stages show a hierarchy, it calls us to recognize how we are linked to each other.


  • Stages are a picture, a caricature of a stage of consciousness. Some authors have put colors instead of names to prevent our own mental models to judge them based on our understanding of these words.


  • It's important to remember that this perspective of our consciousness doesn't determine the value of a person. However, we could try to adequate a person to an environment that best suits her understanding of the world.


A great analogy to the stages of consciousness are the plateaus on the mountain. Just like in the picture above, each stage is like a view you have on a mountain. As you climb higher on the mountain, your view will be less obstructed by trees. You will see farther in the distance, picking up on new facts that you didn't notice before.


Tying it back to mental models

As we saw earlier, our mind is full of mental models driving our everyday actions. Those mental models are in adequacy with the stages of consciousness. As we move along the mountain, those mental models are revisited and updated, or self-actualized, thus giving a new sense to our experience. The following is a brief description of those stages:


The stages

Attached to each stage is an image from the Leadership Development Framework to help the reader summarize the stage. On these images, the big star represents the person occupying the stage described


As the title says, people at this stage view others as opportunities to be exploited. It is a Me against the rest of the world mentality where bad behavior is legitimate in such a setting. Leaders in this stage are manipulative and mistrust their people.


Luckily, only 5% of the adult population occupy this stage.



His vision of the world is one of the family. Together, we are in security. Loyalty and service to the group are most important while strangers should be avoided. People who see the world at this stage believe they are respected and followed because of their rank.


While Diplomats are concerned by the harmony of their group, this perception of the world has its limits. These leaders won't question the ways of thinking and doing prescribed by his group. When people challenge and critique the group, they are seen as a threat.


12% of the adult population is predominantly at this stage.



At some point, Diplomats will start to distantiate itself from his group. They will start to question the group and take a third-person view of the world. Elements such as career objectives and long-term ideal are now of importance to the Expert.


The Expert has moved from a We to a Me perspective of the world. He is now master of his own destiny and his success is based on his own standards. Experts are great at tactical roles, meticulous and excellent analysts.


There's one way to see the world ... theirs ... where logic and rational rules. This means they have a hard time to compromise because they mostly see the world through their own lenses. They are open to feedback though compared to diplomats. But feedback most come from people who they consider experts too. Feedback from non-expert is considered a threat. Experts believe they are respected and followed based on their authority and expertise.


In software development, books geared towards Experts will be about doing the right architecture, writing clean code or fine-tuning our software development practices. As software developers, we are asked to build systems to solve problems. We are often fixated on this expert view of delivering a stable and operatable system. We might forget about the customer, the people who will support the product, sales or other parts of the organization.


It is estimated that 38% of the adult population occupy this stage of consciousness.



As Experts are confronted with the reality of others, some of them will make it to the next stage of consciousness where we define the Achiever. While the Achiever still has a 3rd person view, they can also have this view five years back or five years forward. She has more sensibility to look back and ahead at her current interactions with people.


Achievers are great in executive and management roles. They are oriented towards results. Contrary to Experts, they are open to feedback from peers even though they aren't seen as experts too. As long as the feedback is bound to the objectives at hand, Achievers welcome it. Unfortunately, the Achiever doesn't see that his point of view is solely one out of many.


They are great at delivering results as they are preoccupied with the efficiency of the system. They are good at delivering a long-term vision for the organization. Achievers believe leaders motivate others by showing them the challenge of achieving an objective.


Achievers do feel the limits of their mental models as they can't take the step back to critic their own system of thought or the organization itself in which they operate. This limit also has an impact on their faculty to hardly appreciate the difference in others.


It is understood that 30% of the population is at this stage of consciousness. Examples of books oriented towards Achievers would be Good to Great by Jim Collins, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or In the Search for Excellence. Pick up your business paper where words like success, performance or excellence are easily geared towards Achievers.


Before moving on, let's step back to see the percentage of the population at each of the stages we just saw. On the left, we have 85% percent of the population in what we would call ego-systems or conventional stages of consciousness.

Population in each stage of consciousness


The world we live in today is largely built by the 85% of the population that occupy these stages. By build, I don't mean buildings and houses. I mean how organizations, cities, and nations to name a few examples are built. This also means that Agile teams, IT departments or software companies are also built by people who are Diplomats, Experts or Achievers.


I strongly believe we are not fully leveraging Agile because our way of giving sense to the world limits us to fully exploit Agile. To quote Einstein, "we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." Agile was a response, or a different mindset, to the problems in our industry. As long as we don't change our way of understanding the world, or what I call stages of consciousness, we cannot apply Agile to its full potential in our organizations.


Let's now move forward to the three stages of consciousness that we call post-conventional (or eco-system).



We now move into stages often called post-conventional where our first stage, the individualist/pluralist starts to take conscience of the subjectivity of reality. They start getting it that reality is a construct of our brain. It is less important for them to know versus what do they understand from the world. While the Expert took a third-person view of the world, he does not distance from himself, something the Individualist does in what is called the 4th person perspective.


People here start to appreciate the point of view of others. They appreciate receiving the perspective of others as they can explore facts from a new angle. Individualists now make the distinction between physical reality and abstractions, or creations of the mind. One who sees the glass half-empty is limited by fiction as emptiness and lack are mere abstractions of the mind. The glass is half-full and it is left to the observer to create a reality around this data.


As Achievers were focused on results, Individualists are oriented towards results AND processes that lead us to these results. Individualists believe that leaders are followed for their innovative and inspiring vision where they empower others.


Individualists also have their own limits. As they see the subjectivity of reality, they have a hard time making a decision or to impose their vision. They might be hesitant or ambivalent about assuming their leadership. Books of interest to individualists would be The Art of Possibility or the Great Work of Your Life as they see the world as full of possibilities and not scarcity.


10% of the population predominantly occupy this stage.



While the Individualist is taking time to say "Look. I'm not an Achiever. I'm different.", Strategists now turn outward and look at the underlying principles of human life. They are now focused on objectives processes AND the beliefs and history of these processes. They have a long-term vision interconnected with the whole, not just the organization like the Achiever has. By whole, I mean society, ecology (or nature) and the Self.


While the Achiever was able to look back or ahead within a few years, Strategists look back and forward a few generations. Strategists ask themselves what are the long-term consequences of our decisions and can we imagine the impact of these decisions. While the Individualist wants to know the opinion of everybody in a meeting, the Strategist will prioritize these opinions and move forward with a decision.


The Strategist appreciates that different people are functioning at different stages and they deserve different approaches in order to bring out the best of them. Rather than assuming that everybody should be like me, Strategists understand that a different language or different expectations should be taken into account with each individual. He thus has a desire to co-create with others a sustainable organization. Strategists have a deep appreciation of others.


4% of the population occupy this stage.



Our last plateau is about the Alchemist where only 1% on the population can be found in personalities like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or the Dalai Lama. At this stage, Alchemists discover the limits of language to express their experience. For example, the word "Definition" comes from "Definire" in Latin which means set bouds to something.


While Strategists stenghts were about transforming organizations, Alchemists are seen as being able to transform societies as a whole.


Because there are so few of Alchemists in the population, Alchemist suffers because they are alone. They do not have a lot of people with whom to share there perception of the world.


Before we move on

I strongly believe Agile leaders should assess where they operate from and think about progressing to a post-conventional stage of consciousness to make our profession and organizations more sustainable.


The roles of a Scrum Master or a Agile coach are a great addition to our industry although I believe they are not expressed to their full potential. As these roles are fundamental at articulating Agile in organizations, people who occupy them should be aware of their mental models and stage of consciousness as it will shape the structure and organization of the teams they lead.


Before we move forward, let's take a minute to recap what we have gone through. We first learned about mental models and how our brain creates tons of them to help us understand reality and make decisions. We've seen how these mental models are subjectives and we seek information that will reinforce them.


In this chapter, we've learned how the human adult operates at different stages of consciousness. We've had an understanding of these stages and a global sense of mental models constituting each stage. The rest of this book wants to help you with your current mental models. More specifically, we will touch three topics: emotions, uncertainty and compassion.


Emotions are a strong indicator that your mental models are activated and in that chapter, we help Agile leaders pick up and revisit mental models activated by emotions. The chapter about uncertainty aims at helping the Agile leader embrace a stance of not-knowing. In our complex world, Scrum and Kanban are great frameworks to handle this complexity by making small batches of work at a time. Unfortunately, they don't offer tools to help the behaviour of the Agile leader to live in such uncertainty.


Finally, we end with compassion to help Agile leaders with a new perspective about performance. Compassion is the opposite of criticism and while there are no studies proving that self-criticism improves performance at work, it has been documented how self-compassion makes people more productive.