Salutogenesis and Agile

Twenty-five years ago American-Israeli Medical Sociologist, Aron Antonovsky developed the theory of salutogenesis. As opposed to the traditional pathogenic model of medicine focused on the study of disease, salutogenesis is the study of health. Since then, his work has been integrated into the field of public health and health education. This asset or strength based type of approach to individual or institutional development has been found in other fields such as organizational development and community development. In organizational development the field of Appreciative Inquiry and in community development the Asset Based Community Development model share the essential premises of salutogenesis. Quoting Garmezy, Antonovsky highlights the medical professions focus on deficits:

our mental health practitioners and researchers are predisposed by interest, investment and training in seeing deviance, psychopathology and weakness wherever they look.

This type of approach to work based on weakness and deficit can be found in most of our organizations. It seems to me that although Agile exposes inefficiencies and problems in organizations, it’s focus never-the-less is to build on strengths and assets. It is in this light that I have been thinking about Antonovsky’s work and what it can offer to Agile.

Antonovsky came to this theory of salutogenisis when he carried out a study on Israeli women going through menopause. He found that there were a number of women who, according to all indications of the pathogenic model, should be suffering severe symptoms (because they faced severe stressors which cause illness). But they were not suffering at all. To his surprise he discovered that these women happened to be survivors of concentration camps. He found certain qualities in these women that resulted in what he called a higher “Sense of Coherence” than the other women.

Sense of Coherence is made up of three factors; comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness.

Comprehensibility means that whatever happens to a person, she is able to make sense of it and understand it, that is, the challenge is in some way “structured, predictable, and explicable.” Manageability means that either the resources are available to one to meet the demands posed by the stimuli,or one has a way to find them. Meaningfulness involves having a sense of meaning in the important areas of one’s life or recognizing “these demands are challenges, worthy of investment and engagement.”

Antonovsky found meaningfulness to be the motivational factor of the three, although he also found that all three mutually reinforce one another. For example if one has a high sense of comprehensibility but is low on the other two, one ends up not having the motivation to find resources and soon after this causes comprehensibility to be lost. If one is high on meaning and missing the other two, Antonovsky explains that there is a good chance to find the other two.

The theory of Salutogenisis may provide researched and proven reasons why Agile is so empowering for people. This research may also provide more insight into how to deepen Agile experiences to higher levels of empowerment. Agile methods help people to make sense of the market place by allowing for iterative delivery and adaptive planning, thus increasing their level of comprehensibility. Iterative delivery, adaptive planning and the concept of amplifying learning are all conducive to increased sense of manageability. Because people spend most of their time at work, it is quite important that they feel a sense of meaning in their work. The concept of empowering the team and the practice of self-organized teams and appropriate metrics can contribute to increased sense of meaning in one’s work.

Salutogenic food for thought for the Agile practitioner:

Antonovsky associated comprehensibility with consistency which he defined as “the extent to which one’s work situation allows and fosters the clarity of seeing the entire work picture and ones place in it, provides confidence in job security, and supports communicability and feedback in social relations at the workplace”.

How can the concept of consistency be promoted in Agile projects?

Manageability is related to under load/overload balance which is defined as “the availability of resources to the individual and to the collectivity within which there is interaction to get the job done well” and “…the extent to which the work situation has room for allowing potential to be utilized in substantively complex work.” The opposite of the former results in overload and the opposite of the latter is a situation of under load.

How can Agile projects guard against overload? How can an Agile coach and Agile teams fully utilize the capacities of its members?

Meaningfulness is closely associated with participation in shaping outcomes. Antonovsky explains beautifully the relationship between these two concepts:

When others decide everything for us-when they set the task, formulate the rules, and manage the outcome-and we have no say in the matter, we are reduced to objects. A world thus experienced as being indifferent to what we do comes to be seen as a world devoid of meaning.

In light of the concept of meaningfulness how can the principle of self organized team and shared decision making be deepened in Agile work?

Antonovsky, Aron (1988). Unraveling the Mystery of Health: How People Manage Stress and Stay Well (Jossey Bass Social and Behavioral Science Series)

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