Organismic Integration Theory

Recently, I came across a model I had not known before: Organismic Integration Theory (OIT). I read about it on Sal Freudenberg’s blog, which is much easier to digest than scholarly articles on the subject.

OIT may provide insight into the ways people respond to change in their organizations. I found the descriptions of the four states of OIT in Sal’s post aligned nicely with people I’ve met in organizations where I was engaged to help effect change.

State 1: Externally regulated behaviour

Sal writes: [Externally regulated behaviour is] where I take on a particular behaviour, either because I am told to or because I will get some kind of external reward for doing so or punishment if I don’t. I don’t have to really believe in what I am doing in any way. I just need to see value in the reward or in not getting the punishment. For example: ‘I have been told by my manager that we need to hold a retrospective at the end of each iteration. I’m going to do it because I don’t want it to negatively effect my appraisal if I don’t.”

I’ve encountered many individuals who fit this description. A recent example is the technical lead of a team at my current client. When we first started to work with the group of which her team is a part, she seemed to be dead set against any and all change. She explicitly told her own team not to do anything the technical coaches suggested. When she overheard a conversation in another team area regarding proposed change, she would join the discussion and introduce doubts about whether management would support the change.

In a two-hour one-on-one discussion with her, I learned a bit about her motivations. She was primarily concerned with caring for her family. That meant long-term stable work with a local employer, incremental raises, and occasional promotions. Although she was interested in doing high quality work, she had no particular passion about software development methods. I shared with her management’s goals for the coaching engagement and how the coaches felt certain process changes and technical practices could help achieve those goals. Once she felt confident of management support, she became a strong supporter.

In just a single week, by changing three simple things about the way they worked, her team became the shining example for the rest of that part of the organization. They pull one or two User Stories at a time and swarm them to completion, often taking less than a day to complete work that other teams complete in 2 to 4 weeks. They are cleaning up their code base and remediating missing automated tests as they go. Other teams noticed the change and asked how they could achieve the same result. Managers noticed the change on their gemba walks and asked how the result could be propagated through the organization.

She is a person who is strongly motivated by the official employee assessment process. Managers appreciate this sort of person because it’s easy to manipulate their behavior by tweaking the parameters of employee assessments. The downside is that they won’t step up and recommend changes on their own initiative. One way in which OIT is a useful model is that by recognizing the impact of employee assessments on behavior, we can transform obstruction into leadership. But not everyone cares very much about official performance assessments. Read on.

State 2: Introjected regulated behaviour

Sal writes: [Introjected regulated behaviour is] where I take on the behaviour voluntarily but don’t think of it as my own. A good example of this would be if I did something just to show that I could do it like this all the time if I wanted to. For example: “I don’t really see the point of doing a retrospective, but I’ll join in this once, just to show willing.” Notice that here I feel it is my choice, rather than imposed.

In a different part of the same company, technical staff were willing to try whatever the coaches suggested, but only while under the coaches’ guidance. No one took ownership of new practices and carried them forward independently. We asked a few of the top people in the group to lead internal technical sessions over lunch, and management provided food. One of the technical leads facilitated a coding dojo based on Conway’s Game of Life. With almost no preparation from the coaches, he set up and facilitated the session on his own. He did an outstanding job, demonstrating excellent facilitation skills as well as a level of familiarity with practices like pair programming and test-driven development that was at least on par with that of the technical coaches themselves. The session was a great success.

And nothing came of it.

He made it clear that he was not interested in doing that sort of thing on a regular basis. He just wanted to write code. He writes code in his own way. The result is well-designed, well-factored, intent-revealing, functionally-correct code. He does not write tests first. He does not write automated unit tests. He writes a few automated integration tests after the fact. There are no issues with his code. There will be no issues until he leaves the team and a new person joins who makes changes without the benefit of a safety net of automated tests. The code base will deteriorate. But that will not be his problem.

This person volunteered to lead exactly one technical learning session. He showed that he had what it takes to do so. He showed that when he chooses not to test-drive his code and not to use pair programming, his choice is well-informed. Management will never be able to manipulate his behavior by tweaking the parameters of the employee assessment process, because his professional motivation is intrinsic. As long as management doesn’t drive him out by trying to over-manage him, he will add value. But he will add value in his own way. Always.

State 3: Regulated through identification

Sal writes: [Regulated through identification is] where I actually value the goal we are aiming for and so take on the behaviour for this reason. For example: “I can see how a retrospective might help the team progress, so I’m happy to join in.”

Another team in the area where we’re currently working is at this State. Each individual I’ve worked with on that team understands the business value of the goals we’re aiming for, and is willing to suspend disbelief about recommended practices long enough to give them a fair try. They are very interested in learning the effects of each technical practice and each process change we suggest, and how they help move the team in the desired direction. It’s relatively easy to work with this sort of team, because the coach need not search for creative ways to break through barriers of doubt and apprehension.

State 4: Integrated regulation

Sal writes: [Integrated regulation is] where this behaviour is an intrinsic part of my self-evaluation and beliefs. I think of it as part of “who I am.” For example: “Continuous improvement is such a part of me that I feel like I hold little internal retrospectives all the time and ask myself ‘what can I learn from what just happened’?”

I know only a handful of people in the team coaching field who have ever seen this state in the wild. It’s what we always hope to achieve, but it occurs only rarely.

My guess is that moving from State 3 to State 4 is a bigger leap than it may appear to be. After going through struggles to implement practices that yield superior outcomes, most teams want to stick with what they’ve got. They aren’t eager to re-introduce the Change Curve again and again, never settling down into a sustainable, predictable pace of work.

But when State 4 does happen, it’s a golden moment for a team coach. The best example from my experience came at a medium-sized company where the team I was coaching supported five lines of business. They were quick to pick up on the idea of continual improvement, and they took it to heart. It wasn’t long before they were asking the right questions of one another, of their management, and of their stakeholders. They steadily improved over a period of six months, shifting from a two-week time-boxed iterative model to a single-piece-pull, continuous-flow process with a one-week cadence.

It was a beautiful moment when, in a retrospective, a team member asked what value the fixed iterations were giving them, and the team chose to shift to continuous flow. At that point they were running four-day iterations and using Fridays for professional development. They felt that iteration planning overhead was not repaid in any way. That was true, and for exactly the right reason: They had outgrown the need. Ah, but I am waxing nostalgic. Back to the topic.

The team needed some help with upstream work by stakeholders to enable them to shift to a continuous-flow process. Stakeholders had initially used the squeaky wheel prioritization method, arguing with one another until the loudest voices got their work requests into the team’s queue. The two coaches helped stakeholders connect their wish lists with the company’s strategic goals. The team then received a properly prioritized backlog — not “high, high, high, high, medium, medium, low,” but “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven; User Stories will go to heaven.” One at a time.

Movement between states

In her post, Sal suggests people can move from one state to another, and not necessarily in any particular order, but she does not speculate about how this might happen. My own speculation is that it’s highly unlikely for a person in State 1 to change to any other state, because State 1 appears to describe a deeply-rooted attitude about one’s day job. If we map OIT to another model, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it seems to me that a person at State 1 of OIT is obtaining Social and Esteem needs directly from work, and as long as the job remains stable they needn’t worry about Physiological and Safety needs.

But they are no less creative or ambitious than anyone else. For that reason, I assume they are obtaining Self-Actualization needs from some other area of their lives — family, hobbies, community involvement, etc. If anything, this gives them strong reasons to remain at State 1. There isn’t much their management or a coach could say or do that would elevate the person’s day job to a higher priority than whatever is providing meaning in their lives. Fortunately, their behavior can be influenced by setting expectations for their performance appraisal.

Although I suspect it’s unlikely for a person at State 1 to shift to another state, I can also see it’s possible. Maybe the person doesn’t actually have an outside source of Self-Actualization, after all. Maybe they just haven’t thought about where to find Self-Actualization. Maybe they discover, one fine day, that their day job can be a source of Self-Actualization. From that moment, they are in State 3 or State 4.

State 2 is quite a different matter. A person at State 2 may be interested in professional growth and personal improvement, but may be stuck at a certain level of skill because he/she has never had a reason to think there might be a better way. I can imagine this sort of person flipping to State 3 or State 4 in a split second, the moment he/she realizes there’s an opportunity for improvement. If the realization includes the epiphany that improvement can happen more than once, they go straight to State 4.

On the other hand, State 2 can be permanent. I’ve worked with programmers who have developed their own personal style of work over the years, and who aren’t too interested in how other programmers do things. They do improve, but they improve within their own self-constructed universe of possibilities.

State 2 can also lead to State 1. Consider a programmer who feels pretty satisfied with his/her career, and who becomes bored with the work. Such a person might slip into State 1, in effect going into retirement while on the job. They are skilled enough to continue to perform as required to keep their job, but they have lost interest in improvement.

It may be a coach’s bias, as I love to see people adopt a mindset of continual improvement, but State 3 seems interesting because it is the gateway to State 4. Once you see that a few changes in process and techniques can help achieve one set of goals, it becomes fairly obvious that further changes might help achieve another set of goals. It’s a short step from there to making continual improvement a part of your makeup.

All movement isn’t forward movement. What about shifting from State 4 into one of the other states? It seems possible that people could get tired of constantly questioning things and repeatedly enduring the Change Curve. They might just want to settle into a routine and hammer out some software. They might slip into State 2, either permanently or just to take a breather from the unrelenting effort of continual improvement.

State 3 can lead to State 2, as well. A person might see that some changes in methods could help achieve a specific set of goals, and then lock in the “new” practices as their new “current” practices. Having made some improvements, they may feel as if they are now “good enough.”

I think OIT is a useful model, in that it sheds light on certain aspects of organizational change.

3 thoughts on “Organismic Integration Theory

  1. Hi Dave, it’s a great model, isn’t it? And there is lots more to it and how it is used in the medical profession, which is not covered in my (brief) blog post. I was interested about what you mentioned about being ‘stuck’ in Externally Regulated Behaviour as I believe the research suggests that if you ‘act as if’ you believe in something eventually it may become integrated. I find that fascinating. It feels like confirmation bias is so strong that we persuade ourselves we really believe in something if we kind of go along with it for long enough! Cheers, Sal

  2. Hi Sal, my point about being stuck is that one’s day job might not be important enough to warrant investing much in improving work practices, if one gets fulfillment from other areas of life. Some of us in the coaching field tend to assume everyone is driven to achieve perfection. I don’t really see that. Many people want to do a good job at work, but they’re satisfied if they can meet expectations without getting too tired to enjoy their weekend. I guess they aren’t really “stuck,” they’re just choosing to focus their energy on other aspects of their lives.

    The bit about believing your way into changing sounds like the thing about forcing yourself to smile in order to feel happy. Apparently, it works.

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