Zoom Out

Have you heard the expression “context is king”? It’s very true if you work with teams because many of the things that can affect a team negatively can be found outside of the team itself. How good is your understanding of your team’s context?

When the world around our teams is messy, it’s natural to latch onto the smaller and local, team specific, questions and shield ourselves from the complexity that surrounds us. In the worst case, we end up with a powerful “illusion of progress”: we work hard and efficiently in our own bubble, but ultimately we fail anyway.

Obviously, a team should focus on doing its job but if a team focuses too much inwards it looses touch with the reality it exists in. Doing team work well means taking good care both of the internals of the team and the context the team is operating in. The context is what informs about what solution to develop, and why. It also contains the resources and support we need to succeed. So, we’d better understand it well.

Some years ago I learned an exercise we can use to help our teams build situational awareness, but before we dive into the practice of doing this, I want to explore why understanding “the bigger picture” is so important for successful collaboration.

Whenever we try to collaborate in an organization, we experience different kinds of friction. We resist, argue, and misunderstand each other. Without shared understanding it’s very hard to pull in the same direction.

Don’t fall into the trap of believing that others disagree with with you out of stupidity or ill will. That happens of course, but in my experience people are trying to do what makes sense, from their point of view. The question is what their point of view really is? If we knew that, we would understand others better and be better able to collaborate – or intelligently discuss – with them. We may not accept their worldview, but we might be able to understand it better.

So without further ado, here is an exercise I use to rapidly build new insight in groups. I first learned this from Jerry Weinberg who called this technique org mapping. I believe he was inspired by Virginia Satir’s family mapping. The idea is to visualize a bit of the context around a group of people, so that their understanding and empathy can deepen. One caveat: it’s quite easy to do this, but it can shake out uncomfortable truths quickly, so make sure you are ready to handle whatever comes up.

Having gathered a group of people, I begin by handing out blank sheets of paper (larger is often better) and various colored pens, including black ones. I explain that we’ll be doing some doodling in order to better understand their situation.

Participants to begin by writing out a question about the situation that they want to explore – this often creates focus and gives clarifies the motivation for completing this slightly silly exercise.

At this point, I also point out that the aim here is not to create aesthetically pleasing works of art. We’ll be creating visual models of real situations, and as long as we get something to point at and reason about, they are perfect.

I then instruct participants to add the things in the list below. We add one theme at a time with just a few minutes spent on each:

  • Draw yourself (in the middle, and not too large, and a simple stick figure is fine)
  • Add other people (or groups, roles, organizations etc)

Here I ask people to use size and placement so that their pictures seem reasonable. For example, some people might need to be really small and far away, and others larger and close by.

  • Add things (products, documents, hardware, buildings, …)

Again, scale and place things as makes sense. Remember that we don’t need to add everything, just the things that make the model useful to us. I emphasize that it will be useful for participants to zoom out one step more than they usually do, when thinking about this situation. For example: who are the customers of our customers, and what do we really know about them?

  • Draw interactions (information flows, relationships, boundaries, …). For these I explain that arrows of different kinds are useful, as are circles and other lines of various thicknesses and styles.

The pictures are probably getting a bit messy by now. Using different colors can help.

Next, things get a lot more exicting. Now we are ready to start adding opinions about what it is like to actually be in the depicted situation. So, in turn, we add:

  • Problems (everything from a little friction to major crises)
  • Strengths (things we want to keep building on)
  • Other things that need to go in the picture

As you can imagine you can do a lot of interesting variations or changes to this exercise. You could add other categories to help catalyze ideas: who has power, who thinks or says what, which informal alliances exist, and so on.

When I participated in this with Jerry Weinberg some years ago, he ended by asking us to give our drawings a title. I really like how this causes us to externalize and summarize so this is how I usually end the drawing too. Don’t be surprised if the titles of your paintings contain some variant of the word “mess”.

In fact, the word “mess” is the exact term that systems thinker Russell Ackoff used to describe the interacting system of problems that characterize organizations. I love how clearly we see just how complex our workplaces are whenever we draw them like this. Again, we are not assuming that we are looking at reality here, just one quick attempt at sketching out one perspective on it. I call this kind of work “zooming out”.

So what do we do with these drawings? We explore them together in dialogue, with the explicit purpose of better understanding the perspective of others. We explore the interactions that produce the performance of this organization. By combining our various perspectives on a situation, we approximate a more true understanding of the reality we find ourselves in.

A word of caution. Zooming out can awaken feelings of hopelessness. Large organizations in particular always come with an unhealthy serving of institutionalized insanity. Seeing this and realizing how hard it will be to change is tough. Still, we need to do what we can, here and now. We dig where we stand. Understanding the larger picture can help us make meaningful local changes, even we currently lack the formal power to change the system at large. With a better understanding of the larger whole, we might even be able to start to influence it more effectively.

This text is one of the tips you can find in “Tips from the agile trenches – for scrum masters and agile coaches” edited by Yves Hanoulle. In it, you can find lots of shorter and longer tips to inspire your leadershipwork. Check out the table of contents and you’ll soon see why it’s worth reading.

Published by Tobias Fors

I'm a software management consultant. I help other people succeed with software development. In my work, I help teams and organizations be more effective and ship software.