Using Cognitive Conceptualization Diagram in Organizational Transformations

What I want to emphasize before digging deeper is the fact that in order to use tools and techniques form psychology, one must first understand oneself and sort oneself out. As Jordan B. Peterson says, set you house in perfect order before criticizing the word. This will probably require a lot of work and will take time, but it is a necessary precondition to successful usage of those tools. Otherwise there is high probability that instead of looking into person’s psychi you will fight your own dragons. So tools I am going to discuss in that post are not some quick fixes. But I hope those tools can help us move forward in complex situations. After all, as Agile coaches we are aiming to change organizational culture and peoples mindsets, so psychology seems to be a good thing to start with.

We know that one of the possible sources of resistance to change is some unconscious reactions. But how we can deal with them? And, to be more precise, how we can make sense on what is the source of that resistance, so that we could address it more specifically?

In this post I want do discuss some of the tools of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Let’s start with some basics of CBT.

The core concept of CBT is a cognitive model. According to that model a person’s reaction (emotional, behavioral and physical) to a given situation is not a product of that situation as is. Rather the reaction is based on some automatic thoughts that a person have in a given situation. 

Let’s consider an example, when Agile coach proposes to use Kanban to visualize and manage workflow, there might be different reactions:

  • Developer A thinks that it would be cool to draw a Kanban and use it to collaborate with others, so he says “Cool! Let’s do this”.
  • Developer B might think that they have already tried to do Kanban, nobody was actually updating Kanban board, and they ended up having a board showing a months-old picture so that they eventually abandoned it, so he says that it will be a waste of time.
  • Developer C might think that everyone will see how little work he is doing, so he becomes defensive and says that he will not do it, cause it’s too much unnecessary work – writing tasks down and moving those cards and etc.

In the latter case, it is not necessary that Developer B is an underperformer – he could possibly be a top performer of the team, but his perception is that he does less than he should do. That is quite a common case that is called “the impostor syndrome”. So we have the same situation, but different reactions.

The extended cognitive model has three additional layers: core beliefs, intermediate beliefs (latter can take form of assumptions, rules or attitudes) and coping strategies. In our example, developer С might have a core belief “I am incompetent”, and have attitude “It’s terrible to look incompetent”. He has assumption “if no one knows what I am doing, no one will know that I am incompetent”. And he might have a rule like “If I will hide my real amount of work, everyone will think that I am smart, If i will disclose real amount of work, everyone will think that I am incompetent”.

It could be the case that one automatic thought or emotional or physical reaction triggers another automatic thought, creating a cascade of cognitive processes and reactions. For our purposes we will use this simplified model.

By understanding a cognitive model, one can analyze person’s cognitions and work towards changing those parts of cognitive model that are dysfunctional. People often unaware of their core and intermediate beliefs, while they might know some of their automatic thought – it depends on situation and a person’s self-awareness. Key point here is that these thoughts are usually taken by a person without any doubts.

In CBT a therapist can help both in conceptualizing that model and help in finding ways to improve that model by changing dysfunctional cognitions to more functional or at least neutral.

An Agile coach might also use that cognitive model to help a person accept changes. In the example above a coach might help developer to discover that he is actually a top performer, and by visualizing his work he could help himself (so as other team members) see his actual impact on team’s performance. But how a coach might learn how a particular person’s cognitive model works? Here comes a Cognitive Conceptualization Diagram (CCD).

As you can see CCD has two parts. Bottom one is about specific situations, automatic thoughts and reactions – we might consider this an outer layer, and top is about deeper layers – previous experiences, core beliefs and intermediate beliefs. We could use this diagram to hypothesize about one’s cognitive model, so that we could plan experiments to test our hypothesis.

First, you observe the situation-reaction patterns and fill in the bottom part. It is a good idea to look for different situations, e.g. interactions with team members in formal meetings, interactions with other colleagues during informal conversations, etc. It is important to make sure that those behavioral patterns are common for that person. By doing this you fill in boxes 1, 2 and 3. You hypothesize on automatic thoughts that can cause such a reaction to a given situation, filling box 4. After gathering at least three situations, you can create hypothesis about meaning of automatic thoughts (box 5). Based on that you may hypothesize what core beliefs (6) could lead to assumptions (7) and coping/compensatory strategies (8) that create such automatic thoughts. During a therapy process, a therapist would probably also look at childhood experiences that could create such assumptions, but as organizational change agents we probably will not dig so deep.

It is important to mention that in order to fill this diagram a coach have to spend some time with that person observing his behavior and looking for some patterns.

Having a (partially) filled CCD, therapist might try to validate the hypotheses it is based upon. He can do it by asking questions, and by observing some behavioral and thought patterns. Here comes a tricky part: In therapy, if he will try to discuss his ideas on core beliefs and intermediate beliefs too fast, when a client is not ready, client might resist and this could potentially destroy therapeutic relationships. As people do not expect any therapy from Agile coach, trying to discuss core beliefs will highly probably destroy coaching relationships. However, Agile coach don’t need to go that deep. He can focus on automatic thoughts and in many cases changing (or even making a person aware of) automatic thoughts is enough to start some changes. We could work deeper (if we have both expertize and client’s willingness to do so) – such interventions are outside of this discussion post.

In case of Developer С this diagram might look like this.


Black text represents overt things and blue – hypotheses.

Now a coach can make predictions and run some behavioral experiments based on this model to assess if these hypotheses are true or false (and update this model based on experiments results).

I will dig deeper onto behavioral experiments in one of my next posts. Here I would like to discuss what should we start with. Firstly, we need to master an unconditional positive regard an unconditional acceptance. Whatever a person thinks – it’s OK. We can disagree with that, but we accept it as it people without judgement. Why it is important? As I already stated in my previous post, if a person will see a signs of disapproval, that mere fact might (and almost surely will) switch him to a defensive mode. This will worsen our relationship, probably cause an aggression and make a person blind to whatever we want to offer.

Secondly, after we accepted person as is we can bring awareness to whatever there are. Such non-judgmental mirroring will raise person’s awareness of his thoughts, and it’s a necessary step towards changing them.

As soon as a person becomes aware of his or her thoughts, we can move to the next step – help him to rationally analyze those thoughts, their probable outcomes (both positive and negative), and helping a person design some behavioral experiments that could test the assumptions about outcomes. This could be done using socrative questioning, or other techniques. I will dig deeper into that in one of my next posts.

In the end of this post, I would like to focus once again on the importance of self-awareness and self-acceptance of a coach. Strait yourself out before trying to change others. And before any king of intervention remember the Hippocrates imperative: primum non nocere.

Firstly, do no harm.