How Can You Understand Someone’s Context?

A few weeks ago, I was at the Agile 2018 conference. The conference has changed from its beginnings. It’s now full of certifications and big consulting organizations that will sell you “the One Right agile framework,” regardless of your context (my caps). My experience is that if you want any kind of change—personal or professional—your context matters.

In this picture, the people on the inside of the image have a different context than the people on the outside. That’s just one example of context.

If we want effective change, we learn how to adapt frameworks to fit our context. Even better, we might start with principles instead of a framework.

Context affects every opportunity for change. It doesn’t matter if you create the change, as in an agile transformation, or if change happens to you. Context matters for every change.

Context is a great word. What does it include?

  • Our culture. At work, culture, according to Edgar Schein is what people can discuss, how people treat each other, and what the organization rewards.
  • Our work. What products do we develop and support? What do we do to contribute to those products and services?
  • Our beliefs. Our beliefs drive us to live and work in certain ways.

Your context might include more, but these areas are a good start for me.

That leads me to the question I use most often to create empathy and with my clients, colleagues, friends:

“What would have to be true for people to act like this?”

Sometimes, I can’t answer that question.  I then might ask these questions:

  • What kinds of work do you value? What don’t you value? (If I’m working with a manager, I might ask about rewards or recognition.)
  • What do you believe about work? (If that’s too vague, I might ask if people need incentives or how a manager should assign work.) I almost always ask about interruptions.
  • What do you think your most important product is here?

Now, I have some possibilities about the context, to ground me in this person’s here-and-now.

I often discover empathy with the person. I might not agree with their beliefs. I might not like their products or culture. But I learn about their context, which allows me to find ways to connect and communicate.

Now, I can ask more concrete questions, narrowing the situation to their context. For agile approaches, my clients’ context is often that they can’t release often enough, they need to change more often, their quality isn’t good enough. There might be more.

It’s not the problem that’s a problem. It’s how we respond that’s the problem. That’s why context matters so much. Our response is part of our context.

When people expect to “insert, adopt, or install” a framework, they’re responding in a way that rarely changes their culture. That’s because we haven’t addressed what we can discuss, what the organization rewards, or how the people treat each other. They aren’t taking their context into account.

This is another case of it’s not the problem that is the problem. It’s how we respond to the problem. (I wrote a little about this in How Can You Generate Options When You Feel Stuck?

When we’re stuck, we might see our context in the small, too closely. If we try to use someone else’s framework, we might not see the context at all—the context is too large, encompassing “everything” for this problem.

Context helps me see what I can do and what might not help me in this situation. Context guides my selection of options.

That, dear adaptable leaders, is the question this week: How can you understand someone’s context?

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