Intent and Behaviour

A couple of year ago Ola Ellnestam invited me to visit Agical in Stockholm for the day. One of Ola’s colleagues came up with an amazing insight. When considering whether someone is in conflict or collaboration with an idea, you need to consider both “behaviour” and “intent”.

All snake oil purveying consultants have a two by two grid. This is mine…

Intent forms one axis whilst behaviour forms another.

“Intent” indicates the allignment of the individual or sub-group’s goals with the goals of the larger group.

“Behaviour” indicates how the individual or sub-group behaves towards the larger group.

An individual’s behaviour is not necessarily a true indication of their intent.

Last week, Dave Snowden said that organisations should seek out cynics because they care, whereas those who agree are simply corporate survivors. This gave me the name for one of the quadrants. When an individual’s intent is to collaborate but their behaviour appears to conflict, they are a cynic. They are one of the staunchiest allies of the group and are prepared to incur personal (social) loss for the benefit of the wider group.

I quickly made up titles for the other three quadrants (until someone comes up with a better name).

“True Collaborator” and “True Opponent” are individuals whose intent and behaviour are alligned. They can be considered to have integrity.

Cynics do not have integrity but they suffer for the common good by raising unpopular objections. Cynics prevent us from the falling into the Abalene Paradox and other similar types of group think by challenging the group’s thinking. Cynics often sport a fetching black number from De Bono’s milliners.

The most damaging quadrant are the “Snakes in the grass” . These are those individuals who behave as if they are collaborating with the group but have their own interest as their primary concern. They will collaborate while it suits them but are allways following their own agenda.

For the Agile Community, the manifesto is a call to arms to create an experiential learning community. A community that learns by doing, that test new theories in the work place.

The True Collaborator and True Opponent are fairly easy to identify. The Cynic can easily be confused with a True Opponent but a closer observation will indicate otherwise. The cynic will often have outspoken views against the group whilst at the same time maintaining strong social ties.

The hardest to spot is the “Snake in the grass”. The snake in the grass will have strong social ties with the group and will engage in collaborative behaviour with the group. When they act against the group, they will do so in secret to prevent damaging their social standing in the group from which they derive benefit. The interesting thing about the snake in the grass is that self interest will drive them in all our their social groups. If they engage in secret behaviour in one group, it is likely they will do the same in other groups. ( Liz Keogh introduced me to a great book called “Snakes in Suits” that talks about this. )

The reality is that we rarely look for enemies in our own group. Especially when we are already aware of other competitors.

So how do we spot the snakes in the grass?

  1. They espouse different values to privately to those they espouse publicly.
  2. They espouse one set of values publically, but then act in a different way privately.
  3. They espouse integrity but then insist on hiding unfavourable information or engage in nepotism or other self interested practices.
  4. They promote their own ideas when they know that others have better material.

Can you suggest other ways to spot people like that? ( People like me 😉 )

To summarise.

  • You best allies may actually appear to be opponents.
  • Your worst opponent may actually appear to be a collaborator.

It is important to understand the difference between behaviour and intent.

I will now don a mask, turn my back and crawl under the table as the ritual dissent begins. (Of course the great thing about ritual dissent is it gives everyone a vioce, even those with negative intent.)

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

13 responses to “Intent and Behaviour

  • Jamie

    Yes, well put.

    What you are talking about, at least partially, are what economists call ‘perverse goals’. When you have an individual whose goals are not aligned with an organisation’s we say the goals are perverse.

Someone else told me that cynics care about a company. This is a general statement that is very wrong headed. Many cynics claim to care about a company – what else would they say? – but clearly don’t. Their cynicism is a hiding place, and therefore you have to differentiate between (at least) two kinds of cynic: those that are interested in moving things forward and those that are not. The sneaky cynic is a coward – but there is no place for that on your matrix 😉 .

    And of course snakes in the grass, sneaky cynics, etc, are likely to change their minds as their environment changes. More than anything they are typified by a lack of courage and because keeping up appearances is exhausting, they are also likely to trip up. Patience, for this reason alone, is needed for organisational growth.

    • theitriskmanager


      Thank you for your comments. They are making me think. In effect the “True Opponent” may hide behind the role of the cynic claiming that they care when in actual fact they are just taking pot shops at the organisation.

      More thought needed on my part. thank you again.


  • Ann Witbrock

    I’ll just briefly pop my cynic’s hat on to suggest that these concepts may be a useful abstraction if you enjoy spending your time playing the game of polarizing personalities, instead of just getting on with stuff and people. It implies that an individual is continually of one aspect, behaviour and intent, without giving the credit of a full range of personality, which requires more effort to engage with, socially, collaboratively and morally.

    To use the handles you give us, this gives power to the ‘snake in the grass’ to lever against the presenting cynic (your diagram also implies that these are natural opponents, and personal experience suggests this is true of these modes). I’d recommend (using this model) that the person finding themselves in a cynical state should arm themselves with a cynical social group (and collaborators) to avoid being picked off, which would allow the group to lose valuable perspective.

    If your model is correct (and it may be valuable even if it is incomplete) and you are the snake you claim to be (I think?), then I guess I know who to look out for (but I don’t believe you are). 🙂

    To engage with your model, I would place myself on the +ve ‘x’ axis, and all the people who have damaged my work happiness have been on the -ve ‘x’ axis. But I’d hesitate to draw strong conclusions from that.

    • theitriskmanager

      Hi Ann

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      The “model” is not as formal as I intended. I had not considered the dynamic nature of the model in the way that you suggest. It was simply my way of asking people to consider intent as well as behaviour. I wonder if Maslow can help us understand the dynamics of the model? When we are feeling secure, we are more interested in being part of something larger than ourselves. I know at times of financial stress I have considered trying to generate an income from “Agile” rather than simply use it. Perhaps if your livelihood and mortgage payments are based on Agile you may find yourself in more “conflicts of interest” between your own needs and those of the larger group.

      Fortunately London has one of the largest social groups of Cynics around. 😉 So I feel at home here.

      The model is meant to show allignment of an individual / sub group with the goals of a larger group. Perhaps it could be considered from a personal perspective. At the moment its not much more than a Friday afternoon post.

      Have a lovely weekend.


  • Jamie

    Ann, this is very well put:

    “I’ll just briefly pop my cynic’s hat on to suggest that these concepts may be a useful abstraction if you enjoy spending your time playing the game of polarizing personalities, instead of just getting on with stuff and people. It implies that an individual is continually of one aspect, behaviour and intent, without giving the credit of a full range of personality, which requires more effort to engage with, socially, collaboratively and morally.”

    The search for models, the codifying of knowledge, is very dangerous. That’s what I have against the statement: cynics care about a company.

    • theitriskmanager

      Jamie, Ann

      Thank you for helping me think this one through. In retrospect, the statement “Cynics care” is a little niaive. Cynics may care. As you say, they may also have negative intent. I do not think the title is appropriate anymore.

      I do not think allocating people or sub-groups to a quadrant is valuable. The only value of a model like this is to help us understand that people who behave as collaborators or opponents may not have the intent we initially ascribe to their behaviour. Sometimes we have to look a little closer.

      Thank you both.


  • Olav Maassen

    Hi Chris,

    Suppose we would be discussing things our intend is collaboration as we are both interested in the knowledge. Our behavior as a consequence of our different points of view is conflict. From research it is known that groups with dissident voices within them make better decisions.

    Not all conflict is bad and I think if the intend is collaboration conflict can be a good thing. The label of “Cynic” doesn’t properly cover it.


  • flowchainsensei

    I wonder what your intent was in making this post?

    – Bob

  • Sociopathic BA (@BASociopath)

    You call me a Snake in the Grass. Others call me a Sociopath. The problem is, the team doesn’t get it. I would call them clueless, but it’s too kind. If I don’t smile at their face and then work to fix their problems after they’ve turned away, then we’ll never get anywhere.


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  • Kent McDonald (@BeyondReqs)

    As a purveyor of snake oil, I’d like to extend my thanks for adding a little more oil to the vial via a new 2×2.

    Another title for snake in the grass could be passive aggressive. The way you described that quadrants reminds me of too many corporate settings I have witnessed over the past few years.

    Thanks for sharing these perspectives.

  • Ed Sumerfield

    Great article. The only word I was concerned about was the “integrity” of the cynic. It feels like a person with integrity can incite conflict without sacrificing their values. I could also argue that the arguing of unpopular opinions, for the benefit of the team, is a demonstration of integrity.

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