Recently, I wrote the post “Escalation is Killing Agile – Can We Please Stop It?”  My passion around escalation brought 40+ in-depth comments.  With my travels and lack of internet access, I had been unable to sit down, sift through, and absorb all the various perspectives.  Until now.

Where are we headed? escalationI’m offering this follow-up post as a means to provide an overall response to all these great comments. I want to add some further background on the “escalation” topic and some more of my personal conviction around it. Specifically, I’d like to provide some insights into delayed feedback, the need for conflict, and how to “show up”, all without escalation.

In one part of the comment stream, I heard and felt the call for an effort to get to the root cause of such deep-rooted assumptions.

According to the Systems Thinking Toolbox from Pegasus Communications, to break an Escalation structure, ask the following questions:

  1. What is the relative measure that pits one party against the other and can you change it?
  2. What are the significant delays in the system that may distort the true nature of the threat?
  3. What are the deep-rooted assumptions that lie beneath the actions taken in response to the threat?

So, in our system of sharing information in the Agile community, we have to ask, “Are we setting up a dynamic that pits us against one another?” If this is true, then we have to ask, “How can this be addressed and still ensure that we share insights?”

Guided by Systems Thinking, that means we need to check in with: what is distorting our communications and what might our deep-rooted assumptions be that would have us act as we do?

Here is an example:

I created a delay in feedback by my not responding to posted comments. I believe that created assumptions around what I may or may not have intended in the post.  I think some individuals thought I had written the post pointed specifically at them. Faster feedback would have helped quell that assumption.

I was writing about, and continue to write about, the Systems Thinking Escalation archetype and how I see it in our community. I was and am looking at a dynamic not at an individual. Escalation is NEVER about an individual; it is about the system in which blame is occurring and allowed to continue. I am fearful that blame and the win/lose game are in our system and that is what I do not like and I want to address.

Some of the comments to my post seemed to indicate that I was anti-conflict. Far from it! In studying the inner workings of high-performing teams, I have often referred to Sam Kaner’s model for participatory decision-making. Conflict is a must.

In this model, Kaner insists that, to get to high performance we must bring forth conflict to discover the best informed decisions. Divergent ideas must be invited. Divergent voices must be heard. Divergence must be allowed to just be. That is, don’t just jump to conclusions. With enough time and patience around divergence, we can then move toward informed convergence.

Conflict in this context is dialogue. It seeks insights. It invites greater and greater participation. I also want to emphasize that in this context of dialogue and non-escalation, our purpose is to engage in forward thinking. We let go and we look forward. And as we look forward, we let go.

So, as a member of the Agile community, my interest in expending energy in discussions is to seek insights, encourage divergence, and discover convergence as it emerges. All of these practices help and encourage me to create more and more forward thinking. If this is not occurring in our community, then we are not getting enough for the energies we expend.  If in our community we really “must win”  in order to “be heard”, we are stuck in an “Escalation” archetype. And, that means we are all trapped on an up escalator to nowhere.

What could any individual do to break an escalation pattern in a system? Create energy around your insights and share them without a need to apply win/lose stakes. Stop expending energy to refute others.

Here is a simple formula for bringing your viewpoint to bear without escalation:

  1. Show up. (Be willing to be engaged.)
  2. Find out what has meaning to you. (Be willing to be honest about your perspective.)
  3. Tell your truth. (Be articulate about your insight without attacking or assigning blame.)
  4. Let go of what happens. (Be courageous enough to allow others to agree or disagree.)

I believe this formula provides guidance on how to remain forward thinking, remain open-minded, and remain engaged.

I have some more mental models I want to offer here. But they will wait for another post.

Thank you in advance for your considerations, insights, and comments.

About the Author: Jean Tabaka is a wine enthusiast, author and Agile Fellow at Rally Software Development. Subscribe today to get free updates by email or RSS.

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