Building a Container

For those of us who find ourselves in “informal” positions of leadership (trainers, project managers, team leads, event organizers, etc) – it’s important to understand that we, too, are responsible for building a supportive container for the teams and people we work with.

I purposefully use the concept of “container” because we are often trying to protect our students or team members from the stresses of the larger organizational environment during the time we have them.

Containers have boundaries.

Containers, when built well, provide the safety and security people need to do the work they need to do.

Since much of my career has been spent inflicting unwanted change on people, I’ve become mindful of the container I have wanted to build.

The build starts with one question:

How do I want individuals to feel when they leave my container?

When I’m training, the answer is “confident.” Confident that they can function once the change hits. Confident that they are capable of learning new things in the future. Confident that they have a path to mastery within the new environment created by the change.

In project teams, the answer is “comfortable.” Comfortable that they have the resources needed to do the work. Comfortable that their work is valued and appreciated. Comfortable with the knowledge that they are being set up to succeed and (when possible) thrive. Comfortable with asking questions and with sharing challenges.

In a recent workshop, that answer was “safe.” Safe to explore potentially sensitive areas of themselves and their world. Safe to share with others. Safe to reach out for help.

Once you determine the desired emotional outcome (the Why), you can then consider how you want to encourage these outcomes (because you can’t control how others feel, you can only create a space where those feelings are more likely).

  • How do you wish to model this outcome?
    • Remember: your students and team members are looking to YOU for what this looks like.
    • It is hard to model when you are a ball of stress. I’m not asking you to pretend you have it all together. We’re human and we live in interesting times. Instead, I want you to make sure that you have your OWN support network as you do this.
  • What are the behavioral norms you need to set?
    • This is the core question behind “Classroom Management.”
    • What behaviors will you encourage?
    • What behaviors will you discourage and how will you address them when they appear?
  • What are the boundaries around that container?
    • Who are your allies outside of that container that can help you hold and maintain that container? Who can help you “run interference” as you and the others within the container do the work?
    • What exceptions will you need to make?
      • There WILL be exceptions. I have found that defining these exceptions up front makes it easier to maintain the boundaries of the container overall.
      • Example exceptions (these are IT examples because that’s where I came from): Power outages, Core application outages, the CIO wants something from the team ASAP.

These containers aren’t built to hold forever. YOU can’t hold the container together forever (unless you are a CEO). The containers I am describing are built to provide a temporary space to get real work done. They are built to provide the safety, security, and confidence that allows learning to happen.


Aaron Dignan’s Organizational Operating System Canvas works at the CEO-level. It’s overkill for the containers we are trying to build, but he provides some interesting questions for us to consider as we build our temporary containers –

Amy Edmonson’s research emphasizes the importance of psychological safety in the workplace. Containers are, fundamentally, all about creating that safety in often hostile environments. – The Fearless Workplace: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. (Amazon affiliate link)

The domain of Classroom Management (even in the K-12 space) contains many techniques I find useful when dealing with teams of professionals. Many K-12 teachers are masters at creating containers within hostile environments and without choosing who goes into the container. Better than Carrots or Sticks (Amazon affiliate link) specifically addresses the K-12 classroom. I would argue that what we observe as kids in school carries over into our adult lives. This book contains ideas that we can transfer into the workplace. Even encouraging people to bring their favorite “security blanket” may not be such a bad thing.

Thinking in Containers

What does it take to create a culture?

What does it mean to design an environment that facilitates culture?

A recent project provided an opportunity to explore these questions.

In this project, I needed to create an environment where a group of relative strangers would feel safe exploring potentially sensitive changes.

Some questions surfaced as I sat with the challenge.

  • What are the demonstrable outcomes I want to achieve?
    • My answer: People feel confident and secure both in the new environment and with each other – no exceptions.
    • I will know this by watching how people interact with each other.
      • Are cliques forming?
      • Is someone being shunned by the group?
      • Is someone isolating? They don’t need to participate all the time (I was trying to make the event introvert-friendly), but it was worth quietly asking if everything is OK if they appeared distressed.
      • How are the conversations? Open or guarded? You can tell a lot by observing body language.
  • What is a “safe” environment? What does “safe” mean?
    • I decided that, in this context, “safe” means that people are unlikely to be hurt physically, mentally, and emotionally by the environment or by other people.
    • Any “risks” (we worked with fire) would be identified and mitigated. Participants were responsible for following safety protocol for the physical risks and taking care of themselves for the mental and emotional risks.
  • What expectations do I need to set? What behaviors do I need to demonstrate?
    • Since I was one of the organizers, I was also one of the de-facto leaders. I knew people would be looking to me for both expectations and modeling.
    • The organizers set the expectation that we would be mindful and protective of each other in this space.
    • A pre-existing rule in our code of conduct for this particular group was “impact is greater than intent.” Emphasizing this rule seemed and being clear on our main environmental principle guided people (and myself) to right behavior.
    • My personal behavioral goal – Be Peaceful. Easier said than done.

Fundamentally, we were trying to create a container where people felt safe exploring what change means to them and how it manifests in their lives.

The feedback we received from attendees was that we were successful.

Now that I have some distance from this project, I have been thinking about what we may have done to create the container we did.

When I think about “containers” in this context, I think in terms of the combination of:

  • The people we attracted to join us in the container
  • The environment within which we placed this container
  • The behavioral norms the group established within the container
  • The behavioral modeling the creators of the container demonstrated

Admittedly, we only had to maintain this container for a few days and we were not trying to do this within a legacy organization or group that had to still keep meeting older obligations such as serving customers and executing projects.

Looking at singular, short-term events, however, can help us see what we are working with and potential tools we can use to build these containers.

Let’s explore this further in the next post.

The Myth of “Fearing Change”

I hear so much noise about how “people fear change” and “people don’t want to change.”

I don’t think that’s true.

They just don’t want to be herded through YOUR change.

They don’t want you inflicting your change onto them.

The people you are trying to lead aren’t stupid.

When I hear resistance, I hear variations of the following:

  • I don’t see what’s in this for me OR I see how this will hurt me.
  • You have not provided enough time or support to guide me through this.
  • I don’t feel like I can succeed with the way your change is structured.
  • Your expectations for what this change is going to do for us are unrealistic.
  • Your change is disconnected from the vision/values you claim to espouse.

I’ve witnessed individuals make dramatic changes very successfully.

Pivoting to new careers, building new skills, developing creative solutions, adapting to new environments and requirements.

They do these things often in spite of “leadership” and the systems in which they work.

Workers seem to be more adaptive and optimistic about the future than their leaders recognize. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that workers fear that technology will make their jobs obsolete. But our survey revealed that to be a misconception. A majority of the workers felt that advances such as automation and artificial intelligence would have a positive impact on their future. In fact, they felt that way about two-thirds of the forces. What concerned them most were the forces that might allow other workers—temporary, freelance, outsourced—to take their jobs.

The authors of this Harvard Business Review article found that the lower-income and middle-skilled workers they surveyed had a more nuanced perspective of the forces changing the economy and the workplace, and their role in it, than their managers did.

What the workers are looking for is support and guidance to prepare for future employment. They are looking for environments where they can learn and grow. They understand the necessity of change and of learning.

The workplace offers opportunities to embed learning into the day-to-day.

This can be done through project selection and design, work assignments balancing the skill of the employee and the complexity of the task, incorporating regular performance and learning reflection opportunities at key milestones, and opportunities to discuss organizational strategy and share perspectives.

There’s no big, new systemic change involved here. It’s all things we are already doing (or trying to do). We work on projects. We perform tasks. We have performance reviews (either formally or informally). We discuss strategy and share perspectives (both horizontally and vertically).

The shift is in perspective.

Do you see the people you lead as people or as a “resource” to be “maximized?”

I suspect that if you see people as a “resource” – any talk of “how to make my employees more adaptable” is a waste of time.

Is Microsoft or Google your next LMS? The view from BETT

BETT, das ist „the UK’s largest educational technology show“, kurz: die Learntec in groß. Jason Cole war in London und hat beobachtet, dass die bekannten Lernplattform-Anbieter wie D2L, Moodle (bzw. die UK Moodle-Partner) sowie Blackboard nicht vor Ort waren. Dafür aber Microsoft und Google. Was ihn dazu bewegt, Microsoft als LMS-Anbieter einmal gedanklich durchzuspielen (warum Google im Titel steht, weiß ich auch nicht).

Heraus kommt dabei Folgendes: „When Microsoft makes their push, the learning system won’t look like an LMS, but it will look like Teams.“ Und: „Teams is not ready to replace or compete with the LMS yet, but it isn’t terribly far away.“ Weiter: „The ecosystem around Teams and Office will give Microsoft an increasingly interesting story.“ Natürlich nicht morgen: „While the potential is there, there are a few hurdles on the way.“

Fürs Protokoll.
Jason Cole, e-Literate, 6. Februar 2019

Asking Questions

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” – Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Too often, we use questions as weapons. 

We use questions to dominate others, demonstrate our “superior” mastery, advance our own agenda.

No wonder asking questions, and being asked questions, has become so emotionally charged.

What if we approached encounters with a desire to understand the other first?

Listening then becomes a pre-requisite for asking good, relationship-building, information-gathering questions.

Questioning then becomes a tool for working and creating together.

I have found that the best conversations (and best relationships) have started with my desire to learn about and from the other. 

When I go into a conversation with an agenda, or with a pre-conceived notion, or in a rush, or trying to prove something, it doesn’t go nearly as well.

Programmers have code libraries. Coaches, Therapists, Ethnographic Researchers, and Business Analysts have question pools.

Sir John Whitmore provides one of my favorite coaching question pools in Coaching for Performance.  He designed these questions to help managers improve employee performance.

Tony Stoltzfus also provides a solid introductory question pool in Coaching Questions

These tools are helpful, but they work best as a way to seed conversation.  Other questions surface if you are listening deeply and seeking to understand.


Listening deeply to another is the best gift I can think to give this year.

Being able to hold space for another.

Listening with no agenda. 

Listening without aiming to respond, or be clever, or win the conversation.

Many of us aren’t taught to do this.

Our educational system seems to reinforce “listening to win.”  If you have ever sat in a graduate-level seminar, you will understand what I mean.

Our systems reward cleverness, witty repartee, put-downs, “strong” arguments, “influencing others.”

Mark Goulston and John Ullman, in Real Influence, recognize that the core of real influence is in listening to the other, learning where they are coming from, and meeting them there vs. “getting someone to do something.”

So many of us hunger to be understood. The recent statistics on loneliness are staggering, In a 2018 survey of 20,000 American adults, Cigna found:

  • 54% feel that no one knows them well
  • 56% said that the people around them “aren’t necessarily with them.”
  • 40% felt isolated and lacked companionship

AARP noted that of adults 45 and over – 1 in 3 are lonely.

The situation is also global.

Explanations for our feelings of loneliness vary.

The cause may not matter in the long-run.

I figured the best thing I could do is to learn to listen.  Connect with the people around me. Seek to understand where the other is coming from. Provide a space to just be.

Listening skills require practice.  

Listening skills DON’T require courses (though courses exist).

This is my skill focus for 2019.

A Reiteration of the Importance of Safe Spaces

For real learning to occur, you have to have a safe space to practice.

To create a learning organization, the organization has to be a safe space to practice.

If you want a coaching culture, coaching interactions need to be safe spaces.

These safe spaces can’t be “separate and apart” from the day-to-day work.

Google discovered during their research into high-performing teams that the #1 most important predictor of team success was psychological safety. Is a team a safe space for risk-taking in the face of seeming incompetent, disruptive, negative or ignorant?

You can’t have your only “safe spaces” be the training room. Or the 30-minute “coaching conversation.”

If you have a culture that fears failure, is highly competitive, and has no patience for experimentation – even those “safe spaces” aren’t safe.

Most employees know this. No wonder they resist – unless you have spent months (and, often, years) proving that you can be trusted.


I’ve written about this before: Reskilling Prong 4 – Safe Space

Resources – Google’s Project Aristotle, Research on Teams

What Google Learned (NY Times)
Results: Google Project Aristotle

I have some free resources available that you may find useful. Each button will send you to a video and supporting PDF after requesting your email. Check “I would like to receive future communications” if you would also like to subscribe to my newsletter.

If you are looking for a safe space to practice new skills and you would like some help defining and creating a plan to implement important changes to the way you work or your career – go to  .

Teams as its own Process Area

Team Management, in Version 6 of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOKv6), is buried in the Project Resource Management Knowledge Area under the Executing Process Group.

PMBOKv6 is 756 dense pages (not including the Agile Practice Guide). Of those pages, only 45 of them mention teams. Only 25 of those pages talk about teams in any detail.   That detail is mired in discussions of documentation inputs and outputs along with a brief exhortation to use good interpersonal skills.

Stakeholders get their own Knowledge Area. I would argue that they get TWO Knowledge Areas – if you also include Project Communications Management.

The Project Team is the group that makes the project actually happen.

So why do Teams get such short shrift?  Why is any concentration on teamwork buried in the Execution phase as one of many resources – like materials and money?

Even materials (Project Procurement Management) and money (Project Cost Management) get their own Knowledge Areas – along with being included in Project Resource Management.

So much of what we do these days requires team health and team resilience.

The project failures I have witnessed have been a result of dysfunctional project teams.

Successful projects (often in spite of everything else) have been a result of high-performing, highly resilient project teams.

We need to start paying more attention to team resilience and team health.

One way we can do that is by making Project Team Management a recognized knowledge center – separate and apart from Project Resource Management (which also includes materials, equipment, supplies, and facilities).

The processes I propose within Project Team Management :

  • Initiating Process Group – Identify Roles, Identify Team Members
  • Planning Process Group – Plan Team Management (including team management and performance norms), Estimate Assignments,
  • Execution Process Group – Acquire Team, Develop Team, Manage Team (These are already in the Execution Process Group for Project Resource Management)
  • Monitor Process Group – Monitor Team Performance, Monitor Team Resilience (and yes, I see these as two separate things that need to be monitored – because the team can perform well and be completely burned out)
  • Closing Process Group – Lessons Learned, Reassign Team

The people who help us make an idea real should be given the attention (and support) they deserve.

Thank you to Robb Smith, CEO of Integral Life, for his recommendation that team health, performance standards and norms should be built into the project charter.  I deeply appreciate his time and enjoyed our enlightening discussion last week.

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