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Big change from small changes: George Dinwiddie

Michael Hunter


Welcome to Uncommon Leadership.

I’m Michael Hunter with Uncommon Teams.

Today I’m talking with George Dinwiddie.

For the past 18 years, George has been an independent consultant helping organizations learn to develop software more effectively.

This follows two dozen years in hardware and software development.

Right now, he’s also exploring ways that people can make better decisions for themselves and their organizations.

He’s happy to talk with people about that.

Welcome, George.

George Dinwiddie 0:36

Thank you for having me.

Michael 0:40

I’m excited to have you here. Looking forward to our conversation.

As you reflect back over your journey to building uncommon teams, seeing people as people, and learning to leverage the unique gifts that they each bring, when did you first recognize that this might be a valuable approach?

George 1:00

When did I first recognize that?

Well, I remember back when I was a young kid, I don’t know how old I was then.

We had a woman who would come in half day on Saturdays and do ironing and help my mother clean the house. I used to talk with her while she was ironing.

I remember one day she said to me—I was mad at my mother about something—and Lucile said, “Don’t be mad at your mother. She’s doing the best she can.”

That was a point of view that my mother couldn’t teach me.

I still think about that.

So, trying to see things from someone else’s point of view has become a big thing.

And then, back in the early 2000s, when I was getting into Extreme Programming, I met Dale Emery on the Extreme Programming list.

Dale was always good at asking the questions that go to the heart of the matter.

He reintroduced me to Jerry Weinberg, who I had met briefly on CompuServe some years before, but Gerry didn’t much like the way CompuServe worked and set up his own method of communicating with people.

So that got me back into that and got me into reading Jerry’s books, which are about the people aspects of software development.

Michael 2:44

Jerry has been a key influence in my journey as well. Actually, on one of his email lists is where you and I first met, I believe.

George 2:56

Probably the SHAPE forum.

Michael 3:00

That sounds right. I couldn’t remember the name.

George 3:05

Software as a Human Activity Performed Effectively.

Michael 3:10

And that’s what this conversation is all about.

As you think back over all those times where you’ve been trying to get into someone else’s point of view, is there a time that especially surprised you once you understood where they were coming from?

George 3:35

A time that especially surprised me?

I have surprises all the time. Because I’m not very good at predicting people.

It takes listening.

It takes listening.

I’m no longer so much surprised by people coming from different ways, because I expect that.

But, sometimes, it’s harder for me to really understand their point of view.

Particularly people who have a very strong opinion of, “There’s one right way for things”, that’s still a little hard for me to get my head around.

But if you look at the, take any of the Myers-Briggs instruments or pseudo-instruments, then the one thing I’m really strong on is the “P” dimension rather than “J”. So, I like to let things happen and see how it comes out. I don’t like to fence myself in.

Michael 5:03

That is something that has always bemused me as well. People will say, “Well, this is where it happened.” And I’m looking at it, I see three other things that might have been going on.

Oftentimes when I’m working with teams, I’ve heard three or five or ten or fifty other versions of what happened. Which have some similarities, and they all have very different views on what happened as well.

I’ve learned not to say, “Well, that’s not really what happened.”

George 5:39

In terms of retrospectives, team retrospectives, that’s why it’s so important for the team to look at the data together.

And so many people overlook that aspect.

They think that, “Oh, we’ve got this small group of people who’ve been working together in one room for two weeks. They all know what happened.”

But, no.

They all had different views of what happened.

They saw different things.

They focused on different things.

They interpreted the same things differently.

If you don’t share that information to start with, you don’t have any foundation to build on.

Michael 6:18

And even if they had actually managed to have all viewed exactly the same things happening in exactly the same ways, they almost certainly would have different emotions about what had happened, and different emotions about those emotions. So, they wouldn’t have had the same experience.

George 6:39

Exactly, exactly.

And they’ve got different rules that they’ve developed over the years, starting from early childhood, about what’s permissible for them to say or do and what’s not.

Michael 6:59


How important have you found bringing these aspects of team dynamics out, and visible, and working through to be with teams?

George 7:15

I found it hugely, hugely important.

It’s something that has to be done with some subtlety.

You can overload people very quickly.

Trying to tease out some of the stuff, one of the things that Jerry used to call the Rule of Three: if I haven’t thought of three ways of interpreting this, then I haven’t thought about it enough.

I use that probably daily in my own personal life.

I also try to share that with other people, when they are sure of one way of looking at it or one way of interpreting it or one option to take, to think of some others.

Because what I found in my own life is when I’m stuck on just two options, well, one of them is the one that I’ve thought of, that I want to do, or that attracts me, and the other is just a foil to make the first one look good.

You get stuck in this linear binary choice.

Sometimes it’s hard to think of the third one.

But when I think of that, then I break that one-dimensional view, and I can think of 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 really quickly, usually.

So, it produces a lot more options.

Michael 8:46

I find the same.

I think Jerry put it as something like, “If you only have one option, you don’t have an option. If you have two options, you still don’t have options, you have a dilemma. If you have three options, now you start having real options, and often you can see many, many more.”

George 9:09

And then, of course, Jerry got that from Virginia Satir.

I’ve been trying to find, I haven’t found the place Virginia wrote that.

But most of her work is in videos.

So, I’ve been trying to find it there and asking people who knew Virginia personally.

So it’s recognizable to people but I haven’t found any exact quote yet.

Michael 9:38

I didn’t realize he got it from there. I’ve learned one more thing today.

George 9:45

Studying with Jerry has had a huge impact on my view of these things.

And then, through Jerry, getting to understand a little bit about Virginia Satir.

And so now I’ve become somewhat involved with the Virginia Satir global network. And I’ve learned and I’ve met a lot of people who worked directly with Virginia, which has been fascinating.

Michael 10:22

I just talked with Esther Derby, and she worked with Virginia for a year, if I remember correctly. I can only imagine what the experience may have been like. Jerry++, perhaps.

George 10:46

Talking with people who spent a lot of time with Virginia, it’s really fascinating because little stories come out that make her more human and less godlike. It makes me feel like there’s hope for me.

Michael 11:09

That’s one of the reasons I’m doing this show: to help all of us—even those of us who are just getting started on this journey—to know that there is hope for us.

All of us are struggling.

All of us are succeeding.

All of us are having the impact we want to have.

What other tools beyond the Rule of Three do you use as you ease teams into the squishy people stuff that we may not be so comfortable with?

George 11:50

Another tool I use a lot, and I don’t always explain the tool itself to people in the situation, is Virginia Satir’s concept of congruence.

Congruence is a concept that started with Carl Rogers about your external self matching your internal self.

Being congruent, which is a word from geometry.

Virginia took that and sort of dug into it a little deeper to get beyond the surface-level similarities.

Some people will say, “Oh, well, this person is really terrible and they act terribly. So, therefore, they’re being congruent.”

But Virginia wanted to dig into it so that it excluded that sort of viewpoint that doesn’t help.

She broke it down into concern for the needs of yourself, first of all; a concern for the needs of the other person; and concern for the needs of the context.

Trying to balance those needs and be aware of all three of those is hugely powerful.

It’s hard.

It’s a dynamic balancing act.

You can’t just say, “Oh, I’ve reached this state, and therefore I’m good.”

It’s not like nirvana.

Maybe it is, I don’t know, I haven’t reached nirvana either.

Maybe that’s a balancing act too.

But, keeping in mind, and in any moment, I might think, “Oh, wait a minute. I’m neglecting this need. I need to take that more into account.”

When I have an inclination to blame someone else, well, that’s a clue that I’m not taking their needs into account. What were their needs that lead to whatever happened?

Maybe they needed information that I had, and they didn’t have.

Michael 14:21

That takes us back to our earlier conversation about seeing all the different viewpoints. If I can’t see those other viewpoints, I’m gonna have a really hard time sussing out what they may be needing that I’m not providing for them.

And your mention of Self Other Context reminds me of, that sounds a lot like when I talk with teams, I talk with them about “There’s each of you, what you need. And then there’s the team that you all form. And it’s not just the collection of each of you. It’s its own entity that has its own needs.”

Maybe I’ve been channeling Jerry and Virginia, and their Self Context Others, not realizing.

This gives me another way to talk about that that will work better for some people.

Because, as you say, they need different things, than what I need to explain any particular concept.

Is there a particularly dramatic shift that you remember seeing as you help teams work through this shift from, “I’m just me and I know what I need” to “Oh, now I’m starting to understand or even, actually understanding, from what the others are telling me, what they need as well and helping us all get what we need individually and collectively.”

George 16:12

Not so dramatic in terms of “suddenly.”

I worked with one team, where it was supposed to be two teams.

We came in to help this organization adopt Agile software development.

This was supposed to be two teams.

Within the first week or so, we could see that the two things they were supposed to be working on had a lot of dependencies on each other.

So, we put it to the team.

“Do we want to try to continue to make this two teams? Or do we want to make one large team?”

They took one large team.

It was way bigger than people suggest for a team.

But it ended up working really well.

It took a little while going.

But they had, there were two people that were sort of, what they called them, Iteration Managers. They didn’t want to use Scrum terminology.

One of them had been a really good take-charge manager, very detail oriented.

One day, something came up.

She was paying attention to that.

She was trying to solve the problem for them.

I just said to her, quietly, “Why are you trying to solve this for them?”

She looked at me, got this puzzled look, and started to say something, and then she didn’t.

She became so good at leading this, and doing a lot less of the work herself.

The team really thrived, became one of the highest performing teams I’ve seen.

Michael 18:16

I love that question.

That’s such a common stumbling block as leaders move up in scope, of still trying to do everything themselves and not realizing that they have all these other people now that can, and will actually even love, to be doing all these things for the leader, letting the leader focus on that higher level, broader, whatever other scope that they have now.

George 18:55

A lot of times, the advantage of the leader is calling attention to things that might be overlooked, that they can incorporate that into their solutions also.

Michael 19:12

I love this example.

It shows how those interventions can be very tiny.

It doesn’t have to be a whole big meeting about, “How do we want to rearrange the team?”

It can just be one small question to one person that completely shifts the dynamics on the team.

George 19:35


In fact, I think those tend to be more effective.

It allows smaller changes more frequently, and time to internalize those changes.

I’ve rarely seen anything that started with “Oh, here’s what we’re gonna do. Here’s the big plan, and we’re gonna roll this out.” I’ve rarely seen that come out well.

Michael 20:04

I agree.

Speaking of not coming out well, can you think of a time where you tried one of these small interventions and it didn’t work? How did you react to that and help that come into something that then did work?

George 20:29

I can’t think of anything specific at the moment.

But I think that’s because most small interventions don’t seem to accomplish what I had hoped when I said something

I’m okay with that.

Sometimes, it did make a difference, but it takes a while for it to be absorbed.

Other times, well, I just didn’t reach, I didn’t communicate it in a way that reached the other person.

Or, maybe I’m trying to solve a problem that isn’t the problem they want to solve.

And that’s okay.

I’m comfortable with that now.

My concern is, I don’t want to cause damage.

If it takes longer for things to converge on what looks like a good path, and it may not be the path that I thought was the best, but then it’s not just my choice.

As long as it’s a path that seems to be leading in a productive direction for the people concerned, then that’s okay.

Michael 21:54

And even if it doesn’t seem to be leading in a productive direction, as long as we’re taking tiny steps, then they’re getting to learn what these decisions, the effects that they’re having, and may actually get to a productive place faster by taking these seeming detours.

George 22:20

I don’t remember the exact words you used, but I guess the situations that sort of, where it just doesn’t work, are the ones where somebody in the organization has hired me to come in and effectively “fix” these other people.

Those people, they know that there’s this dynamic within the organization.

I may not be aware of that at first.

They don’t want me there at all.

That’s always trouble.

Sometimes you can get beyond that.

Sometimes you can, by listening to the people involved, and understanding their needs and their way of viewing it, then you can get around that. Help them understand that you’re there to help them.

Well, I’m there to help them. I guess not all consultants that come in are.

You can get around that and get some good things done.

Other times, the situation is so poisoned before I get there, that I can’t make any progress.

I had a team one time, team lead tell me, “We don’t need any consultants.”

And, to be honest, a lot of the problems they were having were really instigated by the manager.

I tried to set up some meetings with him to talk about things.

I think he realized that I was going to talk about him instead of about the teams, and then he started avoiding me. He’d set up a meeting, and then he’d be out of town that day.

Michael 24:20

He would set up a meeting and be out of town. Wow. He really didn’t want to be set to something, it sounds like.

George 24:35

Like that iteration manager, I can’t really do it for them.

I can help them, but they have to be along, doing the work themselves.

Michael 24:52

What else should I ask you today, George?

George 25:02

One thing you mentioned before we started was about the biggest struggle.

The thing that I struggle with the most is reacting too quickly.

This is also something from Virginia Satir. Her interaction model

You go through all these different things. From what you thought you heard, and what that means to you and how you feel about it. How you feel about how you feel about it. Into a reaction or response.

And that happens so quickly.

It’s really hard sometimes to slow that down and leave some space so that you can respond most appropriately.

Michael 25:54

Do you have a particular tool or technique that you use to help you take that pause?

George 26:01

No, I don’t. I wish I did.

I just know if I’m aware of it, and I try to be conscious of it at the time.

Sometimes I’m most aware of it when I’ve just said the wrong thing.

That’s why it’s still my biggest struggle. Because it still triggers me. I still trip up on that.

Michael 26:40

What would you like to leave our listeners with today, George?

George 26:48

The most important thing is making contact, making authentic contact.

You have to be who you are.

But you also have to let them be who they are.

And get some understanding of each other.

That’s not something we’re necessarily taught, particularly in technical fields.

It takes some time to do that well.

Some people have more experience and are more skilled at that than others.

Michael 27:28

Thank you.

You have some handouts for listeners. Would you like to tell us about these?

George 27:37

On, I have a number of handouts that I’ve created over time that could be helpful.

One that a lot of people have found helpful in recent years is one I did on limiting work to capacity.

That’s a problem I see so many places.

There’s so many things that people want to get done.

So, they pile the work onto the team.

The team can’t get it all done.

So, they put more pressure on.

And it gets worse and worse.

Especially where there’s planned work plus unplanned work that has to be done.

I created a handout, it was specifically for an ops team.

They were basically filling up their schedule with planned work.

But then there was unplanned work that was added as things went, they were trying to work in two-week increments aligned with the development teams.

They filled up two weeks’ worth of planned work, and then there’d be, things, “This exctract failed. This project ran out of space storage space, and so the machine has to be upgraded.”

I had, for a week, keep rough track of how much planned work, unplanned work, and overhead, meetings and such, took up their time, and then use that as a rough guide when they were planning how much they were going to take on.

Michael 29:33

Nice. I imagined they were surprised, what they found.

George 29:38

Well, it was really interesting.

Even the people who were dumping work on them were much happier, even though they were taking on less work to start with.

They ended up being much happier very quickly because things actually got done instead of half done.

Michael 30:01

Where can people find you, and what’s the best way for them to connect with you?

George 30:05

My company website, It has links to various other places to find me, including my blog, which is

I don’t blog as much these days. I’ve been writing a newsletter roughly monthly, and that’s at

if you go to, the links are there.

Michael 30:40

Okay, great. I’ll put links to all those in the show notes.

Any last last words for us today, George?

George 30:50

Go out, work at understanding yourself, work at understanding the world around you, and thrive.

Michael 31:01

That’s what this show is all about. Thank you for a perfect ending!

And listeners and viewers, have an edifying day.

Thank you so much!


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