Group Relations Theory and Practice

This is a note regarding my strong interest in focusing the attention of the Agile/Scrum community towards Group Relations theory, practice and conferences.

I believe if enough agile/Scrum leaders simply do some preparation and actually attend a Group Relations conference, we can advance the agile/Scrum work. This is achieveable by raising awareness of how we act and react in often completely unconscious ways as we participate in group life.

Original date of note: 10/24/2009 by Dan Mezick



Group relations work is mostly focused on issues of boundary, authority, role and task. My experience is that GR work in a GR conference setting is immediately applicable after you do it. GR work is concerned with depth psychology at the level of ‘group’ or ‘system’. GR work is not therapy but rather “here and now” experiential learning.

For example, I learn at a GR conference that people have an ‘orientation’ or ‘valence’ regarding authority. Some seek it …while others seek to assist the current authority. Still others have a ‘adversarial valence’ towards current authority.

At Agile2009, I meet Tobias Meyer and we discuss this. He reflects out loud and admits freely that he has a adversarial orientation towards authority. For him, questioning authority is comfortable and very natural.

Today I examine the blog post by Jean Tabaka entitled Escalation is Killing Agile. I notice Tobias Mayer makes a comment on this blog post. I notice also that previous to this, Tobias develops into a de facto authority, over time, in the Scrum community. Now the tables are turned– his noted authority in the Scrum community is now attractive as a big target for other individuals to shoot at.

Other examples abound, such as ….

“…What is it about discourse in the agile community? This year, I’ve encountered three examples of pushing back against incivility, blaming, and scornful, abusive language. -Diana Larsen, Agile Alliance newsletter, 10/19/2009

We can argue what precise factors or forces are at work. One thing is certain: we are at or near a defining moment. Old ways of thinking and doing as a community no longer apply.

Everyone Loses

We are rapidly reaching a state where a “lose-lose” outcome is a very real reality within our community. We are at a defining moment. We can choose to devolve into an unstable state where we spin out of control and implode. End of cohesive community: Everyone loses. This very real possibility is the result of a collectively held “zero-sum game” mental model that says “for me to win you must lose”. Do we all want to lose?? OK, let’s all keep doing that !!

A better result is to TRANSFORM into a new thing. That is what this community is trying to do, now.

To get there, we need a collectively held “win-win” mental model that says “I am invested in this community and if it self-destructs, I lose in a huge way. Therefore, for me to NOT lose, we ALL must win– by stabilizing this downward spiral right NOW.”

My current belief is that we all collectively do not YET realize that we need to slog though this defining moment to emerge on the other side as a new and different thing….a TRANSFORMED thing ….or self destruct at the level of “group”.

We can slog through this. There is a way.

I know this is Jean’s intention, as she says directly:

1. When everyone is trying to win, the system suffers. Anyone’s “win” is nobody’s win; and anyone’s “loss” is everyone’s loss.

2. I’m done with all the distractions that don’t feed my growth. I’ve lost the ability to abide behaviors that don’t give evidence of what was written with conviction in the Agile Manifesto.

3. My personal commitment is to seek those interested in creating more and more insights about how we can grow and learn.

Jean is a leader.

Enter Group Relations theory and practice

In the absence of clear ground rules, people in a situation must create or re-create ground rules. This occurs by testing the fuzzy and ill-defined Boundary, Authority, Role and Task definitions in a messy system. That is part of what is going on here and now and it is full of waste and more importantly, it is destabilizing.

For an example of how this works, think about Scrum. Scrum has clear BART definitions. This dramatically reduces ambiguity for all involved, and frees up precious team energy– energy that might be wasted by the testing and discovery of boundaries, authority, roies and tasks.

Scrum is a boundary-centric container for work– by virtue of clear ground rules. Energy and focus can now be focused on the work, rather than wasteful boundary-discovery tasks. The clarity of Scrum’s BART definitions are designed to honor production at the expense of waste.

We are at a defining moment. Most of what is going on– with any acrimony in our community now– is completely unconscious, and is operating at the level of ‘system’. We are ALL participating, now.

Group relations work brings this reality into very sharp focus. As such, knowledge of GR theory and practice can help– alot.

My Intentions

My intention is to bring GR work to the attention of the Agile and Scrum community, such that the agile and Scrum work can advance.

Below is an email with links that I send, earlier, to agile and Scrum leaders this week. Please consider studying the Tavistock primer listed below, and attending a GR conference– such that you can gain valuable new insight and experience in groups.

I am in contact with Group Relations community leaders, see below. My current belief is that raising the ambient level of mastery of GR concepts has the potential to help us reverse this very unstable state we are now developing as a community. Please consider learning more about Group Relations theory and practice. Links appear below.


Dan Mezick (bio/profile)

(email sent to agile/Scrum community leaders 10/22/2009…)


I am writing you to bring Group Relations (GR) and the GR community to your attention. I send it because you are a leader in the agile community and I am eager to bring this topic to the attention of the community-at-large.

As you may know, GR events are ‘conferences’ where the psychology of groups is explored.

Each conference and 100% experiential and unique. There are many dotted lines to agile thinking, including: empiricism, group collaborative process, systems thinking, retrospectives.

GR work is interesting if you are looking for answers to how and why groups behave as they do. GR conferences and present-moment, “here and now” focused. The Tavistock primer listed below is useful for understanding the conference format.

I am providing links to key documents and web pages to help familiarize you with GR work. I hope you might consider attending a GR conference. These conferences span 3-4 days, and usually residential and held at a retreat location. I hope you might consider attending a GR conference. My own experience of GR work is as follows: GR conference attendance is some of the best leadership/follow-ship training ever.

At Agile2008 and 2009 I speak on Group Relations and related work from the GR community called BART (Boundary, Authority, Role and Task).

My 2008 and 2009 sessions on these topics are here:

In 2009, I help out with the [Manifesting Agility] stage, incorporating‘ Psychology and Cognition’. Going forward, I am eager to see group-level psychology and cognition play a MUCH more central role in the development of agile practice and knowledge. I hope sincerely that the Agile2010 conference has a Stage for [Group psychology and Cognition].

Here are some links to familiarize you with Group Relations work:

BART: Boundary, Authority, Role and Task

Group Relations FAQ

Tavistock Primer

For my part, I am busy evangelizing Boundary, Authority, Role and Task (BART) concepts inside our community. I am speaking on BART at local PMI meetings and also the GIVE THANKS FOR SCRUM event on 11/25 in Boston:

BART at the SNEC-PMI event

BART presentation link at SNEC-PMI

The GIVE THANKS FOR SCRUM event 11/25/2009 Boston

My session on BART and Scrum:

I hope you might consider learning about GR and attending a GR conference. I am eager to see group-level cognition and psychology get more attention from our community. In particular, I am eager to see these topics get a formally authorized Stage at next year’s conference.

If we want to create a conference event dedicated to agile community members, this is possible. I have experience speaking to leaders in the GR community about this. Leigh Estabrook is the President of the AK Rice Institute and she is willing to set this up for us, if we can get 25 or more to attend. It can be in any USA city. Other leaders in the GR community are willing to create private conferences and otherwise accommodate similar requests we may make.

Let me know if this is of interest to you. I am very interested in attending such an agile-only GR conference.

I am eager to answer your questions, and I hope you enjoy the provided GR links and subject matter. GR conference calendar links to conferences appears below. Shoot me a call or email if I may be of assistance to you as you explore the Group Relations domain. See the links listed below.

Please forward this email to colleagues and friends, as I am sure I miss many people who likely have an interest in this subject matter.

Please note the GR conference coming up in Chicago area in April listed below. I have experience attending events under the authority of this conference director, Kathleen Cain, and I attest to the quality of the conferences she runs. Chicago in April is a good choice if it fits your schedule.

I welcome your questions on GR work as applied to Agile.

Best Regards,
Dan Mezick
Cell 203 915 7248

Group relations conferences (near term)

NYC- 11/13

India- 12/14

Boston- 1/22

Chicago- April 22-25

A Group Relations Conference
*Leading in an Environment of Complexity, Transparency and Conflict/
Kathleen Cain, LCSW, Director
Mark Kiel, Psych.D., Associate Director

Where: The Cenacle – A Retreat Center, Chicago, Illinois

When: April 22 – 25, 2010

Sponsored by the Chicago Center for the Study of Groups and
Organizations and The Midwest Group Relations Center of the A.K. Rice

Contact Diane Denes, <>

Baltimore- June 29 (Annual International Conference)

Overall Group relations community calendar

List of AK Rice affiliate organizations USA and worldwide:


About the Author

Dan Mezick: An expert on teams and a trusted adviser to CxO-level executives worldwide, Dan consults on enterprise-wide culture change, implementing Scrum, and the often difficult adoption of authentic Lean principles.

He creates and teaches specific, useful tools and techniques for facilitating successful enterprise-wide adoption of agile and Scrum. Dan’s articles on teams and organizational dynamics appear on,, and Learn more about Dan Mezick’s agile writing here.

He’s the organizer of the Agile Boston user group and a 3-time presenter at Agile2007, 2008 and 2009, an invited speaker to the Scrum Gathering (Orlando) in 2010 and a news reporter for

Reach Dan at:

dan.mezick [at] newtechusa [dotcom]

You can learn much more detail about Dan via his Agile Coaching page here.