Adult Cognitive Development and the Agile Mindset – SolutionsIQ

The science of Adult Cognitive Development has been around for quite some time, but William Rowden maps that science to the Agile Mindset and an Agile Transformation. His insights are fascinating and help him identify behaviors that are not aligned with an Agile mindset, and how to help his clients move in the correct development direction. William is speaking not from theory, but from practical application within clients in the US, China and Mexico.

Howard Sublett: William is a senior Agile consultant at SolutionsIQ with expertise leading enterprise Agile adoptions for clients in the US, China, and Mexico. He is a skilled communicator and collaborator who not only can program in over 20 computer languages, but is fluent in English, Spanish, and is rapidly learning Mandarin.

In this episode, William and I discuss Agile cognitive development and the Agile mindset. In his work with clients, he’s mapping adult cognitive development within an Agile transformation. He shares his understanding of how a client’s professional development model needs to aligned and focused on the transformation. This work’s helped him to recognize behaviors that don’t match the expectation of an Agile mindset, and how to help them move in the developmental direction.

Again, thank you for joining us, and now, on to the conversion.

William, thank you so much for spending some time with me today. This is actually the very first time of carrying my gear, that I actually get to sit down in SIQ headquarters and actually record here, instead of in some pub somewhere or in wherever it is. Thanks for coming back from the client and sitting down with me a little bit.

William Rowden: Sure.

HS: Yup, so, you’ve got a monster topic that you and I have kind of been wrestling around – how to actually frame this into some way that makes sense for maybe a listener, and we kind of came up with this idea that what you’re trying to bring to the table is of the Agile mindset and what we could learn from adult cognitive development.

WR: Right.

HS: So, that is something I know very, very little about. I don’t know about the listeners in here, but that’s a huge topic.

WR: Right.

HS: So, we talk a lot about Agile mindset, but you’re bringing kind of the science of this cognitive development to it. Can you break it down for us just a little bit?

WR: Sure. Exactly. I did Agile development for about 10 years before I got into sort of helping people do Agile development. When we started helping people do Agile development, we developed a sort of intuitive sense about how is it that you help people change. It’s an important quality for a coach to support people through change.

But about three years ago, I started looking for a more formal explanation for the things that we know intuitively about an Agile transformation. We know when we go into a client and we present Agile to them, that we’re not just asking them to learn a new set of facts or a new way of doing things. We’re asking them to learn a new mindset, and we even put up slides saying, “A new mindset is needed.” But what really does that mean if we’re talking about helping people transform their mindset? I went looking for science that would help us understand what that really looks like and how we can help that happen.

HS: That’s huge because I know that most of us kind of look and go, “Yeah, he’s got it, and he doesn’t.” Or we can kind of see it and they get it and it’s something by the behavior that we see, but sometimes it’s not. It’s how they approach different problems and stuff.

WR: Right. Right.

HS: So you are bringing to the table several steps here, and we’ve got this wonderful thing that you’ve got on the wall we’re trying to look at, and we’ll try to put a picture of it in the cliff notes of what we’re doing of all these development stages. Can you kind of walk us through where people start at in cognitive development and where they go to?

WR: Sure. First, I want to comment a little bit about what you said about people get it or they don’t, and this is actually the differentiator between different stages of cognitive development. It’s how you make meaning. It’s how you make sense of your world. It’s how you interpret what’s happening to you. The people we see that “get it” are ones that are in a stage where they’re making meaning in a way that’s compatible with what we’re teaching with Agile, and if they’re not, then maybe there’s a little bit of growth that’s needed. This is based on adult developmental psychology that’s just an extension of childhood developmental psychology.

The famous childhood developmental psychologist is Piaget. If you go out on YouTube and you Google “Piaget experiments,” there’s an entertaining set of videos of children at various ages being asked to solve simple problems. You can see in childhood a breakpoint where they start to be able to see the world in a different way and answer questions and solve different kinds of problems. Until recently, it was thought that that just sort of ended, like when you became physiologically an adult, that that sort of development was done.

One of the famous adult developmental psychologists used to go to conferences, and his brain science colleagues at Harvard would make fun of him, so like, “Whatever it is you think you discovered in adult development, we know that the brain doesn’t change. It’s wired by the time you become an adult.” But in the last couple of decades, we’ve discovered that’s not true. Your brain continues to change in its structure over the course of your life. The childhood development stages actually continue into adulthood and so they have a lot to tell us about helping people transform the way they think.

HS: So, there’s probably two personas here that you’re probably talking to about this. From a coach’s perspective, they’re trying to identify those stages in the clients that they’re working with, and then from the individuals, the leaders, managers within organizations- they probably want to self-identify with the stages in which you’re talking about, right?

WR: Absolutely. If you’re a coach, you want to support people who change. If you’re a manager, you want to continue your own professional development because Agile leadership requires a little more than some of more traditional leadership of you personally and professionally.

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Also, if you’re an Agile manager, you want to support your people as they go through the development that’s necessary to adopt an Agile way of working in an Agile mindset.

HS: You’ve got some stages for us here, and I will let you walk us through a little bit of it.

WR: Sure. So from a developmental perspective, there’s about three stages of childhood which is not really that important – just to understand that adulthood is a continuation, and then adulthood at this time, three stages identified as well, and so they would be stage … You’d start the childhood at zero and so we’re talking about stage three, four, and five for an adult.

Most adults spend most of their life climbing from three to four. You’re developing different ways of thinking and more complex ways of looking at the world. The development psychologist that I rely on most for adult psychology is Robert Kegan, and he calls these three stages, the three, four, and five, he calls them the socialized mind, the self-authoring mind, and the self-transforming mind. The self-transforming mind is typically a very small percentage of the population, so we’re really talking about the socialized mind and the self-authoring mind.

Now the interesting thing that caught my attention as an Agile coach is if you look at the expectations that we have of people going through an Agile transformation, a significant number of the expectations are self-authoring mind expectations. In order to do them well, you need to actually progress developmentally in some cases in order to achieve what you want to achieve.

So I have some examples of each of those on the chart if you want to talk about it.

HS: I was going to say, is there a way to describe the stage of a socialized mind, the stage three? What does that kind of look like?

WR: Sure. So, your socialized mind person, this is the team player. This is the person who maybe doesn’t seek out leadership, but is good in terms of a follower, does that well, seeks direction for their work because that’s really where they are.

If you read Stephen R. Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” when that came out decades ago, he talked about “dependent, independent, interdependent.” This is the dependent stage. This is where you’re saying, “Tell me what to do.” Not always that extreme, but we actually run into developers that are basically “I would prefer that you give me a detailed specification of what I’m supposed to develop, and then I’ll just do that because that’s the kind of work that I want.” That’s the socialized mind.

At that stage, a socialized mind, you’re well-aware of shared agreements, shared expectations, so you’re actually able to work really well on a team, so when an Agile coach comes in and says, “We need to work on team. We need have a work agreement. We need to agree on how we’re going to do all this” – you’re right there and you’re able to do that just fine.

HS: Right. Okay. It sounds a lot – and I’m maybe taking this down the wrong rabbit hole here – but when you say that it sounds like kind of the beginning stage when I think about team dynamics into working on a Scrum team, for instance, it sounds a little bit like understanding the roles artifacts and ceremonies of working in a team and doing them well would fit within that stage, but that’s about a group, not an individual, but –

WR: Yeah, well, actually, each of these stages have a corresponding structure in an organization. There’s actually a strong tie between the mindsets of the participants in the organization and the level that the organization is at. If you were to read Laloux’s “Reinventing Organizations” where he talks about different kinds of organizations and classifies them with colors, this is the same set of stages, because one kind of mind is comfortable in a certain kind of organization, and so they’re actually very closely related.

HS: Cool. So now moving from a socialized mind, they would move to stage four, which they call a self-authoring mind?

WR: Self-authoring mind, right.

HS: Okay.

WR: This is the point where you’re more comfortable. This is what Covey would call “independent.” This is the point where you’re more comfortable driving the agenda. You’re beginning to learn to be a leader. You have your own compass and frame of reference that you use to evaluate what comes to you from the world, and you’re seeking out how to solve problems like, I’ve got a bunch of – I noticed this problem, I’m going to own that problem. I’m going to solve it. This is the kind of mind that a lot of Agile training expects or intends to encourage.

As an example, one of the things that we talk about is seeing the whole. This idea that it’s no longer acceptable that I do my work, and I hand it off to you, and I don’t care where it goes from there because I did my piece, and if your piece is late, “What’s your problem?” Right? That’s no longer acceptable. We need to look at how are we, together, delivering value to our Product Owner or our client. So we need to have an outside in sort of look. We need to be able to see the whole and think about a flow. That –

HS: So a little bit of a systems view of things.

WR: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. Systems view is a self-authoring mind kind of stage in order to do that. So when you’re asking people to do that, that’s the level of expectation that you’re asking [of] them.

Another expectation that’s at the self-authoring mind level is this idea of being self-initiating or self-correcting. So, I worked with an Agile team at a telecom, and they had stopped doing retrospectives, and I asked them, “Why aren’t you doing retrospectives anymore?” And they said, “Well, nothing ever happened.” I said, “Really? Tell me more about this because -“

HS: It’s not a great retrospective but …

WR: Right. Well, so they didn’t feel that great of an ownership over the solving of their own problems. They felt like they would identify the problems and someone else somewhere in the organization would solve the problems for them. That’s an external sort of an evaluation, that’s not an internal evaluation, and that’s actually closely related to the next thing that I would call, the next expectation, which is “self-ownership.”

If you just since I keep mentioning Covey, I’ll go back to his comment of stimulus and response, if you think about his idea that something happens to me, but I’m in control of my response, I can respond or not. The gap between stimulus and response is mine – that’s sort of a self-ownership. And that’s what we would want an Agile team to get to. We would want to say whatever organizational environment you’re in, whatever impediments you’re experiencing, we expect you to identify things in your own process that you can improve and so own that. If you can’t control it, maybe you can still influence it, so what can you do to influence the change around you, that kind of ownership. And that was different with this particular team that basically said, “Well, I found the problem. Somebody else should solve it,” and so that’s a different stage of development.

HS: And then, I see mastery up here.

WR: Yeah, so mastery is a similar thing. So the socialized mind says tell me what the standards are, tell me how to do my practice. I’ll follow them. I’ll do them well, and I’m going to essentially take an apprentice viewpoint toward my profession, right?

When we talk about technical mastery, what we’re thinking of is “I’ve learned this well enough to distinguish when to apply what standard to figure out what the best thing is in each case.” And so this is actually somewhat related to something else we use in training, the idea of , right? So at the Shu level, you’re saying just give me the rules. I’ll learn to follow the rules. But by the time you’re at the Ri level, you’re making the rules, right? And in between is the Ha where you start playing around with the –

HS: The edges of the –

WR: …options.

HS: …roles, yeah.

WR: Exactly. Exactly. So when we’re talking about mastery, this idea that you should research a Ri stage and have some idea when you apply what rules – again that’s a self-authoring mind expectation that is difficult to do at the socialized mind stage.

HS: The next level that you’ve got is, so self-transforming mind?

WR: Right.

HS: Is anybody there? I mean, is this something that we see a lot of?

WR: Not a lot. So, Robert Kegan has done research into adult development and who’s at what stage, and so he did one study of about 500 people longitudinally and another study of over 300 longitudinally and found like less than 1% at this stage.

HS: Wow.

WR: So, it’s not frequent in the population or in … It often shows up in leaders, right? Because they’ve been able to see that.

The one expectation that I put up there is around collectively creating a vision. I put in the self-authoring mind, this idea of instituting a vision. So if you think of a leader saying, “Here’s our vision. Here’s the direction we want to go. Let’s go.” That’s a self-authoring approach, right? There is a different kind of a leader that says, “Hey, here’s the general direction I want to go, but let’s create it together. Let’s figure out what that looks like when we all put our desires and hopes into this and create something together.” That’s a more difficult thing to do.

It’s interesting here because there is something here that can be confusing. Covey talks about dependent, independent, interdependent as these sorts of stages. So first, I’m reliant on others, then I learn to be self-reliant, but then later I learn that okay, I’m self-reliant, but actually there’s a lot of value and synergy when I interact with other people. That interdependence can look like dependence. So there’s what I would call a “pre/trans fallacy”: you have to be careful to distinguish between the levels what’s really going on.

At one level, where I’d say, “Give me the vision.” Well, that’s a socialized mind approach. To graduate from that, maybe I would say, “This is the vision. Let me enlist you in it.” But at some level beyond that, you say, “Here’s the general shape of the vision, but I really want all of us together to work on this. How can we make this vision truly shared?” That’s a more difficult level of leadership.

HS: This seems really hard for people to self-assess in themselves, especially in the leadership space because I’ve witness people let clients that feel like that they’re that kind of leader, that they’re actually the kind that you would describe as a self-transforming mind: they do the action without actually doing the heart part of it. Do you see that? And how do people actually know themselves where they are?

WR: This is actually what kept me away from this field for years. Nearly a decade ago, we started talking about maturity models, and we had a big debate, and the group I was with at the time just threw out the idea of maturity models, and for years, I kept with that sort of bias because every time I saw a maturity model, I asked two questions about it. I said, 1) how does this guy who wrote this maturity actually know, like where’s his data? What’s his theory? And then 2) did he just write a model that places him at the peak? Right?

HS: Yeah. Yeah.

WR: Right?

HS: Yeah. I get it.

WR: And so most of those models out there look to me like somebody said, “Well this is how I became Agile, and obviously, I’m much more Agile than everyone else, so this is the end of the road and how I got here is how everybody got here.” So for the longest time, I looked at all maturity models with a skepticism based on “Is that really the way it happened?” It took me actually a while to be convinced that there was some reality behind Robert Kegan’s work, but he has a set of data and a clear theory that explains the transitions between it, so I’ve become convinced that there is really something there.

But, as you note, it’s really difficult to self-assess. This sort of thing is ripe for a lack of self-awareness, and for someone at one level just not knowing what they don’t know and, as a consequence, rating themselves higher. So really, the way to get this kind of information is through external feedback.

There’s actually an instrument called the “subject-object interview” that allows you to do this, but simply going to the people around you and asking them questions like “What do I really need to get better at? How can I improve in a way that would help our overall direction go better?” Those kinds of questions can give you the kind of information you need to assess this sort of thing, but it wouldn’t be something that I would sit down and try to figure out for myself.

HS: I know from my own experience, and I’ve seen it in others, is that the more I know about what I’m supposed to do or the more I know what about what I’m supposed to know, the worse that I will rate myself because now I’m aware of the gap that I have. Before, when I didn’t know that, I thought I was really good at something, and once you really get deep into it, you go, “Wow. I’m a failure,” so I rate myself – the self-assessment changes, but I’m actually growing, and I’m getting better, but my rating gets lower. There’s a saying for that, and I forgot the word now.

WR: That’s actually known is called the “Dunning-Kruger effect.”

HS: Dunning-Kruger effect, yeah.

WR: Because at a certain point, you don’t know what you don’t know, and so you rate yourself, you think, “Well, I know about 90% of what needs to be known in this area.” Actually, you just know 90% of what you’re not ignorant of. But then on the other hand, if you’re actually quite competent, you tend to assume that people around you are equally competent, so you’re probably about average. People tend to underrate or overrate themselves depending on which side of the average they are. It is an area that’s ripe for misunderstanding.

HS: So, you’ve been consulting a long time, and you said it’s taken you awhile to come to this and realize the value in this. How do you apply it? I mean, you’re working at clients. How does this resonate with them? Do you lay out to potential leaders and say, “Here are the five stages. You’re at number two. You suck.” As a consultant, how do you work with this and this knowledge now?

WR: Right. I don’t try to put people in any sort of stage.

HS: Thank you.

WR: Yes. And in fact, if you go back to Piaget and the childhood development, there’s a phenomenon he calls “horizontal décalage,” which means you reach a certain stage, but in one area of your life, and then you spend some period of time expanding your understanding of that across more areas of your life. So I don’t look at a whole person in terms of a stage. I might look at a particular situation in terms of what stage it’s reflecting.

We actually see this in Agile. You’ll get somebody that didn’t know anything about Agile. They’ll learn Agile, and then they think, “Oh, this is great,” and they start doing Agile in their software development. Then they say, “I bet I could apply this at home.” Then they teach their kids to use a Kanban so that they remember to brush their teeth and do their homework. Then they plan their wedding using a Scrum approach or whatever, and so they start applying it all across their lives.

So I really look situation to situation and try to assess what’s happening. Here’s an example of that: so I’m working with a client where there’s a significant amount of challenge in the organization around understanding what other parts of the organization want or are contributing or really mean, and so they’re really struggling to look at things from other points of view. That’s a very sort of stage three, “my tribe, I understand my people, I don’t understand those people” – and you can hear it in their language, the “us and them” – all that sort of thing happens, right?

In that particular case where I recognize that, I say to myself, well I could attempt to accommodate the stage three, but really, to do Agile well, you have to be able to put your mind in the mind of the customer, and put your mind in the mind of other groups, and so we need to stretch. A clear example of that is user stories. User stories – if you come to a group and user stories are written, “As a database system, I want blah, blah, blah,” right. Then you know, don’t really understand user stories –

HS: You haven’t gotten there.

WR: It should be in the voice of the user. So you need to see things from the voice of the customer. In that situation then, I challenge the people I’m talking to to look at things from the other point of view, because I know that doing Agile well is going to require them to do that. They’ll tell me, “Well, so-and-so thinks this thing,” and they’ll say something that no one would ever say because it portrays them in a bad light. And I will say, “Interesting. What would they say they mean by that?” and attempt to challenge to them to think about things from an outside point of view, as an example.

It’s not sort of classifying people by stage, but sort of recognizing behaviors that don’t match the expectation of an Agile mindset and attempting to help that person move in the developmental direction by exposing them to feedback or outside information, just like I was saying that you need outside information in order to make that transformation.

HS: So it seems like the human development is complex. There’s a lot of complexities in that –

WR: Absolutely.

HS: And there’s complexities in the human mind, and there seems like there’s complexity in Agile itself. Is there an alignment and a reason why that these things are that way?

WR: Yeah, so actually one way of looking at what we’ve been talking about is complexity of meaning making, like how complex your view of the world is.

In childhood, you view the world as fairly straight forward, it’s fairly simple. If you’ve got an “us and them” and sort of tribal viewpoint, you’ve got the world neatly divided. The modern world expects us to have a more complex view where we tolerate a wide variety of different ways of looking at things, and so we’re constantly increasing in complexity of mind.

This is actually part of what Agile was designed to address. We used to think that, well, we’re just going to develop software like we developed engineering. We just do our plan, then we do our design, and then we don’t have very many defects, and we’re done. It never worked out that way because it’s not that straight forward.

I used to be in civil engineering, and I can tell you that the human dimension of software and the interaction between humans and systems is far more complex, and so Agile is a way of addressing the complexity in software development and also the complexity in our modern economy, the fact that we need to figure out how to get to market fast and figure out what the customer really wants. This developmental set of stages is increasing the complexity of your thinking in the same way that Agile is increasing your capability of dealing with the complexity of development or the software development or the complexity of the market.

HS: Wow.

WR: Yeah. No, it’s been exciting for me to see these connections, although I am challenged to explain them in ways that seems pragmatic, like “What do I do next?” sort of thing.

HS: I was going to say, you seem to make, you draw really clear lines between, and they’re ambiguous lines sometimes, I realize – but you seem to see those connections. I’m thinking about the listeners that actually can’t seem to visual those connections between them and how to help explain those in a way that resonates with them. It’s deep stuff, man.

WR: Sure. Sure.

HS: It really is.

WR: From the complexity point of view, I think the simple example is if you can make a plan, consult an expert, and then… you know, consult an expert, make a plan, and then execute it, and things work? Then you’re not really dealing with a very complex situation, and we try to treat software that way. What always happened was you would show the software to somebody, and they would say, “You know, I know that’s what I said, and your requirements are probably right, but now that I see it, it’s totally not what I want.” And that’s just because that sort of approach of “we’re going to do some analysis and then we’re going to execute based on that” just doesn’t work on this space. It’s a complex space, and so Agile tools are a way to figure out how to deal with that complexity by simplifying it and reducing it, time-boxing it, setting in front of team. What we’re talking about here with developmental stage is how to expand your ability to think about the complexities that an organization or life or development bring your way.

HS: It sounds like that a client or a customer that’s really wanting to get the full benefit of this Agile adoption, this transformation – which isn’t my favorite word, but that’s the word that we use – has to think about these different stages of mindset shifts and those kinds of things. Because this isn’t like a standups, artifacts, retros – those are actions that you take. How do they grow, how do they learn in that area? And how do they know whether they’re actually on the right track or not?

WR: Right. Well, let me talk about transformation just for a second –

HS: Oh, God.

WR: …because, whatever word we use for it, one of the distinctions that I think is important is that there’s sort of this horizontal learning where I learned a new programming language, I learned a new language, I learned a new process, right? We can call that technical change or technical learning. But then there’s this sort of adaptive change, like I learned a new way of viewing the world. I learned a new way of relating with people. I’ve learned to think about things in a different way and see different things. And really, in a lot of organizations, Agile does require that and so you might use the word transformation for that, or you might call it an adaptive change or something like that.

Pragmatically, what that means [is], let’s take the example of a manager, if somebody’s reporting to you and they’ve come to you and they say, “The Product Owner is telling me what to do and why does the Product Owner get to tell me to do?” As a manager, you would say, “Well, that’s because they’re playing the role of the voice of the customer.”

But you need to recognize that the challenge this person is facing is seeing their team from the outside, seeing their team from the point of view of the organization for which the Product Owner is the representative, and so that’s a developmental challenge. How do we help this person see a little differently? What kind of feedback can we give that will help them see the importance of that role in the team.

HS: That sounds like a professional development opportunity.

WR: Yes, absolutely.

HS: How do they tie that together, for transformation even?

WR: Right. Well an experiment that I’m running with one of my clients is to do exactly that: to tie it together. So to work with a set of people and say, “What is it that you need to get better at in order for the transformation to succeed?” Because this is the thing about it. It isn’t just I learned something, and this will be successful. Each person has to change the way they think about their work and other people in order for it to be successful. You can make all the changes you want on paper, you can put people in rooms, and you can draw different org charts, and you can articulate strategic visions, but unless the people learn to relate differently and think differently and talk differently, it’s not going to be successful.

The tie-in there is to say, “Okay, for each person that we’re working with, what is it that they need to develop? What is it they need to work on for this transformation to be successful?” Maybe for one manager, they’re a micromanager, and that doesn’t work well with Agile teams, and so they need help getting themselves out of the micromanagement trap, where I do everything because my reports don’t know to do it, but of course they never learn because I tell them repeatedly how to do it, right? That’s a trap I’ve got myself in.

So maybe that’s the thing each person needs, that particular person. For each person there’s going to be something that’s going to be part of their growing edge that will help the transformation of the organization as a whole.

HS: It’s a professional development of being Agile, professional development plan towards not just learning the mechanics but of actually what is it like to being Agile, and it’s probably changed management over things that they need to start doing and stop doing as well through that. It’s interesting, I never thought about tying those learning objectives to an Agile transformation.

WR: Right.

HS: That’s deep stuff.

WR: It is, right. Yes. Because the organizations reflect the way we think about the world and relate to each other, particularly the leaders, and so when we’re changing an organization, there has to be also for that to actually happen and not just be a plan on paper. There has to be a corresponding change to mindset on the parts of the leaders and the participants.

HS: Wow.

WR: So that’s deep stuff.


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