Sunday, January 21, 2018

Importance of treating Relationships as First Class Entities

I have been helping companies implement agile for over a dozen years.  I love agile because it aligns with the evolutionary and incremental manner in which change occurs in nature.  As in nature, people’s needs change continuously and it is best when an incremental and evolutionary system is used to support this continuous change. In my early years, I focused more on communications via television, photography, and film, as it was fascinating to capture the importance of character development and the relationships being built. As I moved into mindset and methods, I realized how Agile values and principles and the practices that support them focus on not just the changing needs of customers but the importance of the relationship between team members and customers and amongst team members themselves. 

During one of my engagements, I was introduced to a fascinating model called Matrix Leadership by Amina Knowlan and Jody Gold. During the education they were delivering that was focused on giving and receiving feedback, I realized that the thing between two people, a.k.a., relationship, is a first class entity.  In other words, it is a real thing that must be built and nurtured.  In a programming world, a first-class entity is a data type you can freely assign to variables such as Scalars, Arrays, and Hashes to help build out the language. 
In the human world, relationships should be thought of as first-class-entity with variables such as respect, honesty, trust, commitment, forgiveness, expectations, and empathy that can define, strengthen, and build out the relationship. There are elements that impact the way a relationship works such as experience together (aka, past) and dynamics of your relationship to those around you (e.g., influences).  These variables structurally represent various channels (or strings) that live within a relationship between two people that can either strengthen or weaken a relationship.  If one does not exercise the relationship or speak honesty, the channels of a relationship can become brittle and break when tested.   

I used to think relationships were the by-product of personalities applied to goals and are often thought of as invisible and nebulous entities.  But relationships are more like channels through which information, energy, and resources can move between people.  The strength and capacity of these relationship channels enable or inhibit the creation of value on teams as surely as the width, depth, and condition of canals enable or inhibit the movement of goods by ship.  

In an Agile world, to fulfill our goal to get our best ideas to customers faster, we have to learn faster and implement better together.  Most organizations experience meaningful gains during their first two or three years of agile implementation.   The early and iterative feedback achieved by delivering value to customers faster lets us build feature sets and user interfaces that align with current needs, instead of adhering to imperfect plans made long ago.  But after we’ve followed the agile model for a while, we run into the same people-problems that bedevil collective understanding, intelligence, and action everywhere.  Eventually, there are fewer process problems, and more relationship problems.

Understanding that relationships are first class entities has allowed my teams to take early, incremental, and iterative actions on ourselves as a system so that we can work together as effectively as possible.  Because we offer feedback not only about our tasks, but also about the impact that our behaviors have on one another, there is more trust, psychological safety, commitment to outcomes and each other, than I’ve ever known.  Next time you look at your friend, attempt to visualize the relationship entity.  What do you see in the space between you?


We hope you enjoyed Part 1 of the Relationship series. Consider reading Part 2 and 3:  
(Part 2) Strengthening the Relational Infrastructure to Build High-Performing Teams
- (Part 3) Woven Together - A Practice to build Authentic Connection and Psychological Safety 

1 comment:

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