Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development

(The problem with not blogging regularly anymore is that I will get several ideas for topics a month and forget to write them down; when I finally DO sit down at the keyboard to write, can I remember any of them?? Nary a one. But the Universe sent me a sign last week in the form of some delightful, unexpected fan mail for the blog [waves to Leo!] so I am going to see how I feel about getting back into Tuesday writings. From home for now, given that I haven’t haunted coffee shops since The Before Times and I’m not entirely sure where my regular go-to even IS these days. Also, at home I can write with no pants on. Try THAT at your local coffee shop and see how that goes, I dare you.)

Longtime followers of this blog, and certainly a large number of my client base, will be familiar with my entrenched belief that psychotherapy and software development (specifically, Agile methodologies) have an awful lot in common. A big part of any change process, be it a functional change to a piece of software, or some aspect of individual or relational human behaviour involves looking at two distinct vantage points of the project: where are we starting from, and where are we trying to get to? The way I frame these to my clients: what are the challenges that are bringing you into therapy, and What Does “Better” Look Like. Once the client articulates the gist of the struggles they’re facing and gives some idea of what they want their life to look like under better or ideal outcomes, we look at the part in between those two vantage points, the gap between Here and There.

This is the Gap Analysis.

The Gap Analysis is primarily a way of assessing the resources one has available, and the resources one likely needs to achieve the desired outcome. As part of the analysis, the stakeholders in the process (in this case, the client[s] and their therapist):

  • look at the factors contributing to the gap and any implications or dependencies we might see around changing them
  • assess the effort and risk of making changes to shrink or close the gap
  • identify both the strengths and resources currently available to the client, and where possible, those resources the client will need to acquire or develop along the change path
  • create a roadmap for the changes, applying SMART factors to both the larger and interim goals in progress
  • start making the changes, with a lot of self-monitoring and tweaking the process as necessary; in Agile methodologies, this is a “constant iteration” process that promotes a LOT of flexibility in the implementation phase, because we all know Shit (just) Happens and sometimes we have to adjust expectations and plans on the fly.

I like to use this terminology because it starts with an examination of the client’s available strengths and resources, something they may have forgotten or come adrift from in the process of moving into their current stress or chaos. I don’t practice a lot of pure Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (for reasons I’ve probably documented elsewhere in my disorganized archives), but there are some good tools buried in the approach, including the strengths review. This gets the client started from a hopeful base, rooted in reminders of their empowerment.

From there we analyze what’s in the gap. From the client’s perspective, this is usually an assessment of obstacles: resources that are lacking or outright missing, fears or anxieties that obscure the goals, internal or external narratives that undermine them. Like good Project Managers we list out all the perceived obstacles; this may be a part of the process that overwhelms the client, so as a collaborative support, the therapist’s job is to steer the work towards identifying what needs to happen to manage or remove as many of those obstacles as possible, as part of the roadmap. We are the persistent reminders of the client’s strengths and resources through this part of the change process.

Encountering and dealing with those obstacles is the change process. The end result, according to the client’s original goal definition, is intended to be an improvement in some aspect of their life. Often along the roadmap, what clients learn about themselves and their skillsets enables them to deliberately push out the goalposts, and keep redefining “Better” as a constant improvement process over a lifespan. Sometimes, they reach the previously-defined goals but DON’T feel better; many a Project Manager knows the feeling of presenting a finished piece of software, only to have the client or some other stakeholder say, “We’ve changed our mind, that’s not what we wanted after all,” or, “That doesn’t look/work at all like we thought it would.” And then everyone has to go back to the drawing board, frustrated and disheartened, sometimes hurt and angry. This, too, is part of the iterative change process; just like evolution itself sometimes has to take a side-step or sometimes hits dead ends, so does a behavioural change process.

Doing a Gap Analysis and planning for the risks and pitfalls (including deliberately asking the question up front, “What happens if we get to the end of this particular process and it doesn’t do what I thought it would?”) helps ease those risks by planning for them, but as noted above, sometimes Shit (still) Happens. Gap Analysis puts as much information up front in the decision processes as we can muster, and actually allows for more fluid pivoting on those decisions when things don’t go as planned, or when new, maybe even better options present themselves.

Change is hard, but we can make it a little easier on ourselves if we take a hint from Londoners:

(I swear, I did NOT write this entire post just to be a setup for that pun. Honest! Mostly…)

Emotional Intelligence, Life Transitions, Relationships, Self-Development

“I Ate’nt Dead” – Granny Weatherwax (Terry Pratchett)

Hello! Not dead, not retired, and still generally not finding enough time in the week to write blog posts, though it’s not for lack of ideas and themes crossing my plate and prodding thoughts of, “Oooo, I should write up something about that!” (I should write about the rising tide of transphobia, homophobia, and hate in general but that’s too vast and raw a topic to corral into 1500 words or less while also not working myself into a fit of rage at the state of the world these days, so…)

It’s a typical part of my process that blog motivation arises from seeing a particular theme appearing repeatedly in a relatively short period of time in conversations with clients and others. Unsurprisingly, people are constantly changing, and people who engage in change as active, conscious, deliberate choice often follow similar processes–and make similar mistakes. Some conversations therefore come up time and time again, and it’s not that blogging will make them come up any less often, but maybe the ideas and discussions can reach a few extra people before they need a therapist, or at least give them some plausibly-useful structure to apply TO their therapy.

One of the many valuable tools I brought out of years of working in corporate IT that has a crucial place in my therapeutic Change Management Toolbox is the concept of SMART Goals. A very long time ago, I wrote about creating roadmaps to move towards getting your needs met, and I have written about identifying when a plan is or is not a Plan; the missing piece of the puzzle when putting roadmaps into Plans for Change, however, is identifying the success criteria or metrics that define the actual goals for change.

This is a variation on a recurring conversation I have with a lot of clients:

Client: “I want to make this change!”
Therapist: “Wonderful! What is the goal you’re trying to reach?”
Client: “Making this change!”
Therapist: “OK, great! How will you know when you succeed?”
Client: “I… uh, will have made this change!”
(see also: Client: “I’ll know it when I feel better!”
Therapist: But won’t you also feel better if this storm just passes you by like it always does, and things go back to normal like they always do?”
Client: “I… guess?”
Therapist: “Even though nothing will have actually changed…?”
Client: “…”
Therapist: “So ‘feeling better’ is, at least by itself, maybe not a solid metric for success?”
Client: “Damn.”)

Change happens in a lot of different ways and for a lot of different reasons. Most of the time it happens because something isn’t working, and the resulting situation is anywhere from frustrating to painful to dangerous. All organic lifeforms constantly move towards getting their needs met, be it light, air, water, food, or comfort; we just don’t always know when things are changing until we’ve gotten far enough along to notice things are different. At that point we might find ourselves suddenly in a better place–and just as suddenly, we might find ourselves in a worse place.

Managing change effectively, from a project management perspective, requires knowing several things in advance:
A. What do we have to work with (resourcing)?
B. What are we trying to get to (outcomes)?
C. What do we lack/need to move us from A to B (gap analysis)?
(Some Project Managers will add a separate D here: What’s it going to cost? I generally factor cost into the resourcing details as part of establishing a baseline process.)

Once we have answers to these questions, we can generally start assembling the roadmap, and along the way, we want to look at both major goals (endpoints) and minor goals (milestones) that we set for ourselves to help see where we’re making progress and where we’re struggling or need some extra help. Both major and minor goals need to be clearly defined, however, and this is where Change Management as a personal or relational development process often falls apart for people because this kind of goal setting outside a corporate structure seems pretty alien in the hand-wavy, airy-flairy feelies of our relationships. But if we don’t have clearly defined goals and explicit metrics for success, how will we know when we’ve achieved them? How will we even measure progress towards them? How will we communicate them to others around us we may need to be involved in the change process? How will we hold ourselves (or those others who consent to participate) accountable?

We set SMART Goals.

SMART stands for:
Specific: has a clear target in a precise area for improvement (also sometimes Sustainable: a pervasive improvement)
Measurable: has clear indicators (metrics) for improvement
Assignable: has a clear owner consenting to take responsibility for the goal (also sometimes Achievable, but I find that gets covered by the next letter)
Realistic: improvement target that can be reached with the current resources or with resources discovered via the gap analysis
Time-boxed: has a specific timeframe for achieving the milestone or end goal

Admittedly, none of this is likely to spark the sense of feel-good flexibility of some primo handwavy, airy promises for change that lack concrete details. We all love the romanticism of open-ended promises that will magically be fulfilled exactly to our unspoken expectations, don’t we? Isn’t that the entire myth of how “Love Conquers All” in a nutshell??

It aten’t romantic, but I can guarantee it IS effective. The term was apparently first published in 1981, meaning it was in use in some circles well before being codified for public consumption, and it has been a standard approach of project management for more than four decades for many reasons:

  • It’s much easier to communicate expectations
  • Everyone tends to feel much more comfortable when they know not just WHAT to expect, but WHEN
  • It’s much easier to invite participation where we need it (and to communicate expectations explicitly for other participants to provide informed buy-in or consent)
  • It’s much easier to hold ourselves and other consenting participants accountable
  • It’s much easier to measure progress toward SMART goals and milestones, which also means…
  • It’s much easier to adjust course* when we stray from the roadmap and stop meeting milestones and end goals

Change isn’t always easy, but we also don’t need to make it any harder than it has to be. How we set specific goals that are SMART takes some clear idea of what we’re trying to change or move towards and why, as well as some understanding of what we already have as resources and support for those changes, and what we’re going to need to get there from here. That’s the part where some external perspective and wisdom–an experienced friend or family member, a mentor, a therapist–comes in handy, especially when it comes to keeping goals and milestones realistic, and helping with navigating the expectation-setting communications around them.


(*–Someday I swear I need to write something about adapting Agile methodologies to psychotherapy, but that day is definitely NOT TODAY SATAN.)