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.

Resources

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 – https://medium.com/the-ready/the-operating-system-canvas-420b8b4df062

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.

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.

How to Measure the Life Impact of a Change

Transcript (edited from Temi.com)


Like most coaches, we’re going to work with the wheel of life.

There’s going to be a couple of key differences though between how you and I are going to work together with this versus other coaches.

First – I wanted to make sure you could see how whatever area you’re focusing on impacts the other areas of your life because it’s going to impact other areas of your life.

What we’re going to do is work together to define how you see the areas of your life. We’ll start with this rough template.

We’re going to wind up ultimately with between five and 10 areas. Then, we’re going to work together to define which area you’re going to focus on for the 12 weeks and also which area we need to keep an eye on to make sure that it at least stays stable. We don’t want that area impacted.

For instance, over the past three months, I’ve been working on putting together this coaching practice, so I’ve been very focused in this work and education area. It was important to me to not impact my relationships negatively. So the area I’m keeping an eye on is relationships.

I’m not working to improve them necessarily. I just don’t want them to get any worse. Thankfully I’ve got really solid relationships with my family and friends. I’m very grateful for that. Work and education has been my area of focus. Relationship is the thing I’m keeping an eye on to make sure that’s not negatively impacted, and then these other areas are going to improve or decrease depending on whatever else is happening. In the health and appearance area, my workout regimen hasn’t been terribly consistent because I’ve been spending more time on work and education.

These things happen. If you’re focusing on one area, other areas are going to be impacted. Hopefully not negatively, but that is a risk. You need to decide what you’re willing to tolerate. We’re going to make sure that all of that is very clear during the course of our engagement.

The other thing that we’re going to be keeping an eye on (and I’m going to click on this progress tab) is any trends because what we don’t want to have happen is, “I’ve been focusing on work to the complete detriment of my health and appearance.” You don’t want to go from a level four to level one, so we want to keep an eye on that.

I think by using a dashboard, it’s going to be easier for both of us to really see what’s going on. We can see trends and whether things are trending up or down. Also, we can see what the current overall changes are in the averages. This is one of the tools that we’ll be working with in the coaching practice. I hope this helps.


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 http://middlecurve.com/coaching/  .

#52books The 12 Week Year

#52 Books – The 12 Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks than Others Do in 12 Months (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Format: Hardcover

Brian Moran and Michael Lennington’s main argument is that we need to think in terms of quarters vs annually when it comes to evaluation and goal-setting.

It’s not the argument that is most compelling – any project manager or manager familiar with Agile, Scrum, and Sprints can tell you the power of thinking in small, achievable chunks.

What I find compelling in this book are Brian Moran and Michael Lennington’s choice of definition of accountability and their emphasis on the importance of aligning one’s business/career vision to their personal vision (and NOT the other way around – which is what most of us do), and their steps for creating a plan one can actually use.

  • Accountability – Moran and Lennington take their definition of accountability straight from Peter Kosterbaum and Peter Block’s Freedom and Accountability at Work: Applying Philosophic Insight to the Real World (Amazon affiliate link). Accountability = ownership.  Accountability = personal sovereignty.  Accountability, according to this definition, is NOT something someone else does to you or can do for you.  Your managers claim to “hold you accountable.” What they are doing is trying to motivate you to do something for them that you may or may not have taken ownership of.  This alternate definition forces one to look in the mirror and take responsibility for one’s choices.  I don’t know which is scarier.
  • The importance of aligning your business/career to your LIFE – If you are being externally motivated to do things, how close is the alignment of your job to how you want your life to look. If the business/career goal doesn’t align with your life vision, how inspired are you to work towards the goal?  How quickly are you going to give up, or do something else, or find another distraction?
  • Creating an actionable plan you have a fighting chance of following – As with many of the authors I’ve encountered of late, they insist on vision, focus, measurement, and getting VERY honest with yourself if you are not following the plan you laid out.

The first part of the book is theoretical.  The second part of the book is the step-by-step.

In the second part, they divide the practical application into individual and team considerations. For each, they include pitfalls and tips.  It’s obvious these two know what they are talking about from their troubleshooting tips.

This book nicely bridges the gap between The Perfect Day Formula, which is focused on defining the perfect day and week for individual execution, and The 4 Disciplines of Execution, which is more focused on team applications and longer-term execution.

So How’s That Working For Ya?

The dreaded question.

Anyone who has spent time with business coaches has heard this one.

It comes out when the coach has identified one of your blind spots.

A pattern of behavior that isn’t working.

And you don’t see it. OR you are holding onto it for dear life because it is familiar.

I hated it when Matt asked me that question.  “So how’s that working for ya?”

Got me. (internal shame spiral because I think I should know better)

Now what?

I think he asked me “So how’s that working for ya?” at least once per session during our coaching engagements together.

As uncomfortable as that question is – “So how’s that working for ya?” is the question that has improved my life the most.

It forces me to think about what I am doing and why I am doing it?

It forces me to find alternatives that will better move me towards my goals.

What’s currently eating your lunch?

How are you dealing with the problem right now?

And…how’s that working for ya?


Matt Cross is an awesome business coach and has been one of my coaches for years. I’m not affiliated, just sharing information 			</div><!-- .entry-content -->
	    
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#52books Coaching for Performance

#52Books – Coaching for Performance Fifth Edition: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership UPDATED 25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Format: Softcover

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My primary skill-building goal for the year – get better at coaching.

Any problems I’ve had on projects have, at their core, been people issues.

It is to be expected.

We can’t control people.

What we CAN do is to try to develop ourselves so that people are more likely to behave in the manner we desire. Or, at least, feel ok about our part of the interaction.  I don’t know about you, but whenever I “lose it,” I usually feel terrible for a long time afterward.

Sir John Whitmore and Coaching for Performance is the classic coaching textbook for people who want the skills, but aren’t necessarily out to become a “life coach.”

The emphasis is on professional performance. In his final edition, he provides question streams, the GROW (Goals, Reality, Options, What you will do), and ways to measure the effectiveness of this approach.

The Agile (and any Agile-hybrid) approach requires Project Managers to be more like coaches and mentors. This would be the first reference I would give someone if they find themselves wanting to move to a coaching-style of management.

There’s a reason why this book, in its five editions, is a classic.  I’ve already got this book beat-up and dog-eared. High praise for a reference.


Overwhelmed by busywork?

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Join the Flowbox – a subscription service containing short videos, tools, and templates to help you overcome overwhelm, reduce meaningless busywork, and find flow in your work and your life.

Use the coupon betatestmonthly for 20% off the first 6 months of your subscription.

10% of all subscription fees received through December 31, 2018, will go to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

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#52books Find Your Why

#52books Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team

Format: Kindle

This book is the “how-to” for Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.

Simon Sinek, David Mead, and Peter Docker give incredibly detailed instructions for facilitating what they call “Why Discovery” and provide instructions for finding a personal “why” and finding a team/organizational “why.”

They talk in detail about potential pitfalls and failure points, particularly when trying to do this yourself (not recommended) or if you are working within an organization that is so dysfunctional that it is hard to have a civil conversation.

They also noted that directly asking for “why” may trigger emotional resistance.  Instead, it’s best to come at it sideways – asking more “what” and “how” questions.  Asking “why” tends to trigger an emotional, occasionally defensive, response.  I’ve seen that in my own practice, so it was nice to have that impression validated.

I’m impressed that they were willing to provide the entire how-to guide for their team workshop, including time codes facilitation tips, exercises, and question pools.

If you haven’t read or purchased Start With Why, I would recommend watching Sinek’s original TED talk, then purchase Find Your Why instead.  This book is the result of almost 10 years of practice in this space and provides everything you need for you and your team to determine your “why.”


Let me help you find your why!

Subscribe to the newsletter and I will send you a free PDF to help you with personal prioritization.

I hope you can join me on this journey!

#52books The 4 Disciplines of Execution

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#52 Books  – The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals

Format: Kindle

There will always be more good ideas than the capacity to implement.

I’m tempted to stick this quote on the back of my business card.

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Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, Jim Huling and Jim Stuart at FranklinCovey spent years developing and implementing this model of execution.

Their 4 disciplines are straightforward:

  1. Focus on the wildly important
  2. Act on the lead measures
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard
  4. Create a cadence of accountability

Straightforward, but not easy.

And, as with any sound change practice, the disciplines require steady, consistent effort to implement successfully.

They recognize the enemy of successful execution is the “Whirlwind”, i.e. your day job and the urgencies that appear necessary to sustain your business.  If you can’t focus on the wildly important, the other three disciplines won’t help you.

As they put it numerous times in the book:

The most important contribution a senior leader can make is to remain focused on the wildly important goal and resist the allure of your next great idea. (emphasis mine)

They recognized that the people who tend to rise to leadership positions are also the type of people who are creative and ambitious.  The type of people who are hard-wired to take on too much and, because they are in a leadership position, have their staff take on too much.

They also recognized that leaders like to hedge their bets and position themselves, and their team, such that people can’t question the level of effort.  Busy looks good.

Nothing is more counter-intuitive for a leader than saying no to a good idea, and nothing is a bigger destroyer of focus than always saying yes.

How many of these 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) implementations failed because their clients couldn’t find the discipline of focus?

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They kept avoiding the “whirlwind.”  Throughout the book, I hoped they would ask, “Is what you are doing in the whirlwind truly necessary?”

They stated that a focus on wildly important goals might help narrow the size and complexity of the whirlwind.  It was obvious, however, that they were keeping day-to-day operations out of scope.

They never asked about what was happening in the whirlwind.

Why did they keep skirting around the thing that was likely to derail their model?

I’m going to talk more about this book in the next couple of posts and try to unpack that.




I hope you can join me on this journey!

#52books The PMI Agile Practice Guide

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Agile Practice Guide

Format: Softcover

The recent update to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, fondly known as the PMBOK, added the Agile Practice Guide as a supplement to version 6.

What excites me about this add-on, beyond being repeatedly asked if I “do Agile,” is the recognition that there is a spectrum of agility and the call to use the appropriate tools for the job at hand.

The Project Management Institute (PMI), in its recent communications, is calling for a “toolbox” approach to projects and asking many questions.

  • Can you deliver value in small chunks?
  • Can you iterate?
  • What is the cultural tolerance for drafts of deliverables?
  • How clear are the requirements?

The supplement has a good troubleshooting appendix that maps well with my experience in various organizational environments.

I have a feeling I will be referencing this supplement many times over the next couple of years.