Becoming agile

Agile, through the storms

Group Relations Conferences and Agility

My first encounter with the Group Relations model took place more than ten years ago, in an International conference in February 2002. The conference, nicknamed The Tavistock after the organization that invented the concept, was a turning point in my professional life. It was then that my career path gradually started shifting from the engineering domain to human relations.


Statue of Sigmund Freud and Tavistcok main clinic in the background. Photo by Mike Peel, Source: Wikipedia

Last week, Elad Sofer and I, two of the three partners in Practical Agile, participated in Ofek’s Group Relations Conference, which took place in the Galilee in Israel.

Although I had no idea what will happen during the conference, I had two hypotheses on our participation in such a framework:

  • Early on during the conference, Elad will engage with the model of the conferences and the Tavistockian thinking (which was already familiar for me before)
  • Both Elad and I will have a different type of influence, that will be enhanced by our participation as a pair

Both these hypotheses stem from a belief that while the models of agile software development and of group relations are very different, they have similarities on how they perceive systems, and in what they set to achieve.

In addition, for me it was a first to participate in such a conference together with participants with whom I interact regularly, and I have had ideas on how this might affect our experience.

Here are a few of my observations –

  • Elad and I entered the conference as a couple, which enabled us to practice pairing in a domain very far from the traditional pair-programming. In contrast, pairing in group-relations is typically referred to as a defense mechanism: basic assumption Pairing. Together with other pairs in different maturity phases, we could examine the power of pairing practice and when it becomes and anti-task mechanism
  • During the organizational event we have had a hyper-productive team entering an anti-task pattern, which ultimately led us to not working on the primary task of the event. Being able to observe this, using our knowledge of teamwork, we could analyze the development of a failure in real-time. In turn, this enabled us to observe the reaction of the team (in which both of us and 4 others were members), and the 5 stages of grief with the ultimate approach of the end of the conference
  • In addition and in parallel to the conference progression, we had, together and separately, significant interactions mirroring the relevance of our work to non-profit organizations, verticals quite foreign to ours, and even to the Arab-Israeli conflict

As in all other conferences I participated in there was a vast amount of learning. When my second conference ended, other participants asked me: What did I learn? I responded: Ask me in 6 months’ time – a response appropriate to this conference also. This way or another, at the end of this conference I have a firm reassurance in my new career path.

Critics may say that the nature of my hypothesizing makes it very un-scientific – to begin with, from research methods perspective, there is ambiguity of my role as researcher, experimenter, and the object and subject of the research. True, but I have little problem with that; mainly because the objective is not to have a scientifically proven result, rather to have a qualitative indication of the object or objects we are researching on one hand, and to encourage learning on the other.

One such example is the seminal paper Promiscuous Pairing and Beginner’s Mind: this work is by all means not scientific – the results of the experiments were explained after the fact, without a working hypothesis, to begin with. Nonetheless, I take two main outcomes from it: a) the results are so distinct, that there is no doubt on the relevance of this work; and b) more important than the results is the message – try out the pairing models that work best for you – that is, the experiment is more important from the result.

As the conference was nearing its end, in the closing plenary, there was a discussion between two participants: one participant, with no human-services background made a comment on his own learning, to which another participant responded: “you are in the wrong profession”, suggesting that the comment indicates good understanding of the group relations domain. At this point I joined the discussion, commenting that he certainly is in the right profession; if he goes out with his learning, influencing another lawyer, factory manager, janitor or dressmaker to join such a conference, this language will become more commonly practiced, making people communicate more empathetically and respectfully with others.

If you want to learn more about experimentation, if you want to learn how to encourage experimentation in your organization, if you forgot how to experiment and would like to remind yourself – this conference is a fantastic place to start. Multiple participants from the same organization get significant discounts, indicating that Ofek and Tavistock understand the benefits of cross-pollination during and after the conference.

What more, you will inevitably gain a lot of learning on yourself as a person – I know I did!

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2 thoughts on “Group Relations Conferences and Agility

  1. Elad Sofer on said:

    I like this post a lot ;)

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