How to learn the model
The Spine Model is simple but it is not simplistic. As with any skill, to really understand, internalise and apply it effectively takes time, practice, and some reliable feedback loops.
For those brand new to the model, we find that it is easier to explain it conversationally rather than through text. We recommend you listen to one of the podcasts we have recorded to get an introduction to the model.
If you’d prefer to read about it, we’ve done our best to explain the model below, and for the TLDRs, a stripped down version is here.
If you would like to attend a practical 1-day workshop in your city, please let us know here.
In a work context, maintaining a shared perception of the way things currently are, and agreement on the way they should be is a Hard Problem.
Through our team and organisational coaching work we (Danie Roux, Joanne Perold and Kevin Trethewey) have collaborated to refine a simple and powerful model for understanding, mapping and working with human work systems.
We think of a human work system as any context in which, in order to create value, humans must collaborate together in joint effort.
It’s about: The Right Conversations
Effective conversations make for effective collaboration. Often people get stuck in a dilemma where equally plausible options are available and the conversations turn into undecidable arguments.
It is almost always a moment where “going up the Spine” breaks the deadlock (more about that later).
It’s a TOOL Problem
As a species, we have always been Tool users and makers. When we have the best tools available to us, we can better express our thoughts and ideas to turn them into reality.
Tools are answer the question: “We use _____ to get our work done”.
Make sure you have the right tools for the job. Spend as much money as you need to get those tools. Have many useful discussions about if the rights tool are available in the current work system.
But. How do you know it is the best possible tool?
PRACTICES before Tools
You need to “go up the Spine”. First decide on the Practices that the tools are there to support. Practices are concrete behaviours that can be observed in a human system. They are ways of doing the work.
Practices answer the question: “We do _____ to create value”.
Why has the “Single List of Best Practices for all Contexts” not been written yet? Because it is rarely obvious which practices will work most effectively for the current context. Choose and adapt Practices that benefit the wider system and are optimal for that exact time and place.
But. How do you know that the Practices actively help the system?
PRINCIPLES before Practices
You need to “go up the Spine” some more. First deciding on the Principles to measure those Practices against.
Principles answer the question: “We leverage _____ to change the system”.
It is important to understand how human work systems behave and Principles are the route to doing so. Principles are those things behind the Practices. Every Practice comes into existence because it tries to express a set of Principles.
These are the rules by which a human work system behaves. They are what we like to refer to as ‘ecological levers’ - the knobs and dials you can use to change the current state of the system.
We have extracted important principles from several different sciences - Queuing Theory, Complexity Science and Theory of Constraints to name just three.
For example: We know that if you increase batch size you delay feedback. If you reduce batch size you increase feedback. This principle remains true regardless of the context of the human work system.
You need to be able to debate which Principles people are basing assumptions on. You need to understand which Principles are important in your context so that you make sure you can leverage them.
But. How do you know which Principles you want to apply?
VALUES before Principles
You need to go up the Spine even more. First make as explicit as possible the Values at play in the system.
Values answer the question: “We optimise for _____”.
Any system exist as a sort of magnetic field that attracts the things it wants and repels the things it doesn’t want. The labels that name the parts of that magnetic field are what we call Values.
You need to know what the important Values are in your system. Values help you know what to optimise for. The better you can describe this magnetic field, the better you can filter which Principles are worth focusing on.
We make a clear distinction between Personal Values and System Values.
Personal Values are embodied in you and in the way that you react to the external world. If you “check out”, it is always because your personal values are not being honoured. For a system to be an attractor, it needs to actively attract at least a part of your value field. For other people to know how to honour these values, you have to spend the time helping them understand which behaviours attracts you and which repels you.
There are also System Values. Extreme Programming , for example, says the five important values are: Respect, Courage, Feedback, Simplicity and Communication. That’s actually where eXtreme Programming (XP) gets its name. Kent Beck chose these five Values and then figured out what an environment might look like if you chose Principles and Practices that pushed these Values to the extreme.
If a group get to the point where they create a combined attractor field and all their values have a space to be honoured, you will have a well functioning human work system. And ultimately that field will collapse and fail if this is where you stop.
For a system to stay healthy, that system has to have something to aim for.
NEEDS before Values
It all starts at Needs. Why does this system exist in the first place?
Needs answer the question: “From the perspective of __, we are here to *satisfy* __”.
You need to know that. As a human work system, why do we exist - what are the needs that we are satisfying? As a human in the system, which of my needs to I expect to be satisfied by being a part of this system?
This is the place to start.
Needs are context specific. You have to know them for your specific system and you have to be specific about where the system boundary is.
You are also never going to get it exactly right and they are going to change over time. So you can only ever have a near approximation that you revisit regularly. Make sure the right people are in the room when you do this.
It probably wouldn’t be useful for a team to sit on their own and decide why they exist. You need to get the people who are sponsoring that team into the discussion, and you need to have the discussion again regularly.
This connected path, Tools to Practices, Practices to Principles, Principles to Values, Values to Needs is the heart of what we call “The Spine Model”…
Introducing: The Spine Model
Once you understand the reason the system exists in the first place and the reason you want to be a part of the system (Needs), you can decide what to optimise for (Values). Once you have decided what you are optimising for you can decide what ecological levers are going to get you there (Principles). Once you have that, then decide how you are going to do it (Practices). And once you have done that, decide if any mechanisation is needed (Tools).
We refer to this model as the Spine Model:
The model is a synthesis of several people’s work, as well as our own. You see the Values to Principles to Practices part in XP. The Needs to Values part has roots in NLP. Starting at needs is NVC based.
We see a lot of crooked spines in organisations. Quasimodo-like creations that are doomed to failure. Crooked spines are caused by people only focusing on part of the Spine. Stay with Practices and Tools and implicit and misaligned assumptions are generated about why we are here and where we are going. Stay with Needs and Values and pain is felt when it comes to where, when and how we are going to accomplish anything.
If you want a straight spine, you have to start at the top, at Needs and work down, iteratively. This will keep your spine straight.
Many useless arguments also stay at the lower part of the spine. Arguing about choosing your favourite Tool above another is usually a waste of energy. During these arguments it is best to “go up the spine”. Ask what the Need is that the Tool is trying to satisfy, then work your way down again.
The value of the Spine Model is to enable thinking and communication, not orthodoxy or even heterodoxy.
This model surfaces interesting questions:
- How do you actually apply this?
- What is a system?
- How do you define the system boundaries?
- Who decides what is important at each level of the Spine? Who should?
- How do you get clarity on what the Needs are?
- How do you elicit Values from people? How do you contract them in a team?
- What is the role of management in a human work system?
- What is the role of leadership in a human work system?
We will address these questions and more as we expand this page.
If reading this generated some thoughts, if you would like to know more about this model and how to apply it, contact Danie, Joanne and Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org, we would be very interested to hear your feedback.
For a more concise description of the model, read this.