2 for the price of 1: Agile Book Club review and interview

Earlier this month my friends Paul Klipp (who I’ve known for nearly a decade) and Justyna Pindel (since the 2017 ACE! conference) released a thorough and thoughtful review of my latest book Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile on their podcast Agile Book Club. Last week they interviewed me, and released it today as a separate podcast episode.

Both episodes can be found here: “Right to Left” by Mike Burrows. You can also find Agile Book Club on Spotify (review | interview) and Apple (review | interview).

Let me also take the opportunity to mention that the epub format of Right to Left is available at last on Google Play and Kobo, both with some mangled blurb that I’m getting fixed!

While we’re here…

A reminder that we’re doing an Agendashift update and Lean Coffee tomorrow, Thursday 17th,  at 12:30 UK time. The original announcement and details here:

And if you can be in Berlin around November 19th, the Open Leadership Symposium is not to be missed! Details here:

I have a chunky discount code for the Symposium – ping me for it!

Note that as per the calendar below I’m doing a 2-day Advanced workshop in Berlin the week before, a prior (and regular) engagement. Symposium participants will however get a discount for the online workshop, for which the Open Leadership Network (the symposium’s organisers) are the certifying body.

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Upcoming workshops: Istanbul, Berlin, Oslo, and online


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What I really think about SAFe

I keep repeating myself – more so since the announcements of the latest edition of SAFe – so let me put it here for the record. It’s based on previous comments on Twitter, LinkedIn, and elsewhere; nothing I haven’t said before, but not all in one place.

My concerns (I do have them) are entirely around implementation, but SAFe is by no means unique in that regard. It’s one on a long list of things for which how you approach it matters way, way more than the thing itself.

See SAFe as 1) a curriculum 2) a demonstration of how things can fit together: fine, whatever, if that floats your boat. That much should be clear from chapter 4 (the scaling chapter) of Right to Left. Some aspects I praise, the principles most of all, and I suggest ways to start from there.

See SAFe as a realisation of patterns such as iterated self-organisation around goals, you’re on pretty good foundations. Credit where credit is due, I found in my researches for the book that SAFe makes this more explicit than any of its rivals, at least when it comes to descriptions easily accessible to outsiders (and I didn’t stop there).

See SAFe as a solution to be implemented: you are courting disaster. Implementing something as big as this with any kind of determination leads almost inevitably to imposition, and that’s the way to destroy collaboration, self-organisation, problem-solving, and innovation. Why would you do that?

This problem is not specific to SAFe, and it’s the driver behind engagement models such as Agendashift (mine), OpenSpace Agility (Mezick et al); moreover it’s a big enough problem that we actively cooperate, not compete.

The sad truth is that mainstream Agile acts like the last two decades of organisation development never existed. If the impact weren’t so serious, it would be laughable. It’s certainly embarrassing, shameful even. SAFe must take its share of responsibility for that, but it is by no means alone.

There. I said it. Arguing about the relative merits of the framework becomes a way of dancing around that most crucial point. So don’t ask me to endorse or condemn it; I just won’t. But don’t think I don’t care…


Upcoming workshops; Istanbul, Berlin, Oslo, online

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New dates for your diaries

Only 8 days since the September roundup and there’s more! Late-breaking news:

  • Online update and Lean Coffee next week (free, all welcome)
  • Open Leadership Symposium, Berlin
  • New/moved workshops, Oslo and online

Online update and Lean Coffee (free, all welcome)

Via Zoom:

There’s no need to register (but RSVP via Slack if you like); just join here:

12:30 UK time is 13:30 CET and 07:30 ET.

Open Leadership Symposium, Berlin

You may remember how excited I was by the prospect and experience of the first Open Leadership Symposium, which took place in Boston in May. Now it comes to Europe!

The Berlin event takes place on November 19th, with masterclasses the day before and after. Details here:

Note that as per the calendar below I’m doing a 2-day Advanced workshop in Berlin the week before, a prior (and regular) engagement. Symposium participants will however get a discount for the online workshop, for which the Open Leadership Network (the symposium’s organisers) are the certifying body.

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Upcoming workshops: Istanbul, Berlin, Oslo, and online

New: Oslo was added only today! There’ll be a meetup (topic: Outside-in Strategy Review) on the first evening too.

Moved: Due to a combination of 1) an idiotic mistake on my part and 2) circumstances beyond my control, I needed to move the two upcoming online Agendashift workshops “Learning the Language of Outcomes”. The first of these is now rescheduled for December and I’ll be adding some 2020 dates soon.


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Agendashift roundup, September 2019

In this edition: Right to Left; Announcing two new workshops; New versions of Changeban, Featureban, and 15-minute FOTO; Upcoming: London, Istanbul, Berlin, and online; Top posts

Right to Left

It is still only six weeks since Right to Left launched! This month, a series of five 5-minute interviews – thank you Matthias Tölken of the Xuviate community! Details here:

Also:

  • An epub version for Google Play, Apple, Kobo, etc is imminent
  • Yes, an audiobook is looking increasingly likely

Announcing two new workshops

By some margin, this month’s top post was about a topic of active discussion in the Agendashift Slack, namely Objectives and Key Results (OKR):

To quote that post (a thought echoed also in Helpfully subversive about frameworks):

… OKR has something in common with Agile process frameworks: how you approach the framework matters very much more than the choice of framework itself.

That places OKR very much in Agendashift territory, and I’m glad to announce a new workshop, the product of a collaboration with (among others) Agendashift partners Karl Scotland and Steven Mackenzie. It will be available for client work in the coming weeks, and there will be public workshops in the new year.

For the record, I’ve put a page up for it already, though it doesn’t say much more than I’ve said here already:

Alongside that, another new Agendashift workshop. In common with the OKR one, it doesn’t assume that the focus is necessarily on things Lean or Agile (though it is of course 100% compatible with those Lean-Agile sensibilities). This one focuses directly on products and services, not just their delivery:

I’m excited about both of these workshops. Compared to the practitioner-focussed transformation strategy workshops (excluding the Applied one, for clients), they make few assumptions about the participants and should be highly accessible. Outcome-orientation – and some strategic thinking – for everyone!

New versions of Changeban, Featureban, and 15-minute FOTO

This month I did two Advanced workshops in quick succession, Stockholm and Athens on consecutive weeks. Somehow this always seems to amplify the feedback and I’m taking the opportunity to make some changes, some impacting our open source resources.

Watch this space and the relevant Slack channels for further announcements, but in brief:

  • For Changeban and Featureban, a change to the order in which the rules are introduced, and switching the colours. I’ll be testing the first change at the Advanced workshop in London later this week and at a meetup beforehand. The second change necessitates updates to the printed cards if you’re using them (you can also use playing cards), so I’ll make two distinct releases.
  • For 15-minute FOTO, a new introductory playing mode, and some quick forays from outcome space back in to obstacle space (making it more fractal). Both changes will necessitate an update to the cue card but I’ll test it first without.

Upcoming: London, Istanbul, Berlin, and online

Top posts


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Right to Left in five 5-minute videos

[Update: Fixed link the main Xuviate site – initial version pointed to a staging site]

Diving into Right to Left in five tweets (published shortly after the book’s publication), five short videos, in which I’m interviewed by Matthias Tölken of the Xuviate community. Thumbnail sketches of the five:

  1. What makes Digital different? Success in digital means integrating delivery, development, and strategy – continuously identifying and addressing impediments to flow, alignment, and anticipation. This is clearly a learning process; a successful digital organisation is a learning organisation
  2. Why Lean-Agile? To Lean’s “strategic pursuit of flow” (after Modig & Åhlström), we bring from Agile a safe default assumption, that in knowledge work, most failures of flow are rooted in failures of collaboration.
  3. It is quite embarrassing that many Agile rollouts are done waterfall fashion… There’s good in frameworks, but blindly rolling out a process framework is more a recipe for pain than a guarantee of success, especially when done at scale.
  4. Left to right or right to left, that is the question… Starting “from the left” with solutions, frameworks, backlogs of work items, etc is a terrible way to explain or experience Agile. Always keep the things “on the right” – needs met and outcomes realised – ahead of all else.
  5. Leaders and managers often get a bit of a raw deal in Agile. Does it have to be that way? The need to clearly & strategically identify, articulate, & stand for outcomes will never grow old. Neither will removing organisational impediments, freeing people to pursue purpose, and developing the next generation of (servant-)leaders

You can watch (or just listen) to all five here:

Thank Mathias and Mark for putting this together!

In case you missed them, other book-related links:

Longer podcast interviews you may have missed:

Last but definitely not least, for this InfoQ article I am interviewed by Ben Linders:

cover-right-to-left-2019-04-26.001 border


Upcoming workshops – London, Istanbul, Berlin, and online

It’s not too late to join the London workshop, Thursday-Friday next week. For that and the online workshops I can offer deep discounts for government sector and non-profit employees and for anyone returning for a repeat visit (some people have done several!). Ping me for details.


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Helpfully subversive about frameworks

This is me being helpfully subversive (if that’s not already a thing, it should be): [1]

 

1. It’s helpful to see frameworks as mere exemplars of patterns

The ‘mere’ will rub a few people up the wrong way, but it’s true! If for example you can see Scrum as iterated self-organisation around goals [2], you’re capable of seeing the same not only for SAFe, but also for OKR, the subject of my previous post [3]. Could a Scrum or SAFe practitioner learn from OKR (or vice versa)? You bet!

2. How they combine is often more interesting than the patterns themselves

See the patterns and you see not only the similarities but the complementarity. Scrum and Kanban for example are a great combination [4]. But don’t stop there! In this same spirit of integration rather than differentiation and tribalism, Chapter 3 of Right to Left [5] covers some of the key landmarks of the Lean-Agile landscape as patterns: Scrum, Kanban, XP, DevOps, User Story Mapping, Jobs to be Done, BDD, Service Design Thinking, Theory of Constraints, and Lean Startup.

No, I’m not trying to define some huge new framework that solves every problem. That would be horrific! Just helping you make sense of what’s out there.

3. How they’re introduced matters way more than the framework itself

It’s well known that many if not most change initiatives fail. Why so many in the change industry and with it much of the Agile industry still cling to the linear, implementation-focussed, and resistance-obsessed change management frameworks of the past beats me. It’s embarrassing!

It’s why Agendashift [6, 7] exists, and with it other modern engagement models such as those mentioned in [8]. They too are exemplars of patterns and are simply begging to be combined! Towards that purpose and since that post was written, the Open Leadership Network [9] has come into being, and I’m proud to be an advisory board member. For all of us, this is not just a provocative statement, it’s a primary motivation that’s powerful enough to encourage us to collaborate. We’re walking the walk here!

If you remember me waxing lyrical about the network’s launch event, the Open Leadership Symposium in Boston last May, you’ll be glad to know that there’s another one in Berlin in November [10]. See you there!

[1]  3 subversive contentions about frameworks in 1 tweet (twitter.com)
[2] ‘Right to Left’ works for Scrum too (July 2018)
[3] There will be caveats: Warming cautiously to OKR
[4] Scrum and Kanban revisited (August 2017)
[5] Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile (agendashift.com)
[6] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation (agendashift.com)
[7] Agendashift home (agendashift.com)
[8] Engagement: more than a two-way street (September 2018)
[9] Open Leadership Network (openleadershipnetwork.com)
[10] Open Leadership Symposium Berlin 2019 (openleadershipnetwork.com)


Upcoming Agendashift workshops – Athens, London, Istanbul, Berlin, and online


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There will be caveats: Warming cautiously to OKR

From the Agendashift Slack a few days ago:

Early morning crazy thoughts spoken out loud:
Wholehearted: bringing OKRs to life with Agendashift
A workshop based on and expanded from edited highlights of the core Agendashift workshop and the outside-in strategy review

Why “crazy thoughts”? The background: we’ve been discussing Objectives and Key Results (OKR) [1] in multiple corners of the Agendashift Slack in recent weeks (channels #wholehearted-x, #bookclub, and #strategy) and I didn’t hide my nervousness.  Isn’t OKR just Management by Objectives (MBO) rebranded, with all the dysfunction [2] that goes with it?

To cut a long story short (two books later), it’s clear now that Agendashift  – outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation [3, 4, 5] – and OKR are a great fit – so great that they almost seem made for each other. As recently as this week, Karl Scotland blogged about the combination (more accurately he blogged about Agendashift and 4DX, but the distinction isn’t that important):

I do still have reservations. It was – shall we say – an interesting experience reading (or listening to) Doerr [6] and Wodtke [7]. Good books both, but page after page (hour after hour) my frustration would grow before my concerns would finally be acknowledged. Given the risks (and they’re recognised), it seems clear to me now that OKR has something in common with Agile process frameworks: how you approach the framework matters very much more than the choice of framework itself. Depending on your point of view you may find that thought subversive (helpfully or otherwise), heretical, or commonsense; as for me, I’ve staked my career on it.

So to my caveats. Coming from where I’m coming from, they’re significant enough that they should treated not as footnotes but up front as design principles. OKRs must be:

  1. Respectful of diversity and autonomy at individual and team level
  2. Agreed through meaningful participation
  3. Executed knowing the difference between implementation and experimentation

Caveat 1: Respectful of diversity and autonomy at individual and team level

An objection sometimes laid at the door of OKR is that it’s all about alignment, and that the goal of alignment is to bring about some kind of monoculture. I reject this as a strawman argument; the goal of OKR is to provide enough direction that the organisation isn’t destroying its ability to get things done because its different parts keep pulling in opposing directions. For most organisations, too much alignment would be a nice problem to have, and address that very common issue well, great things can happen. In practice, key results (the KR part of OKR) aren’t long lasting (they work in timeframes ranging from days to months), and even many objectives (the O part) don’t last for more than a quarter; good luck creating a monoculture that quickly!

That argument dismissed, it’s worth remembering that OKR is a tool for strategy deployment [8], not operations management, and it’s explicit that existing operations must continue to perform well even as they undergo change. Resilient operations in an unpredictable world depends on diversity (you need to be ready to respond in different ways to respond as both conditions and internal designs change), and only a fool would seek to destroy options for the sake of consistency. Technically, we’re in the world of Ashby’s law of requisite variety [9]; colloquially, power is where the options are. If you can, why not create that power everywhere?

But that’s just the technical argument. Take away from people and teams their ability to create and exercise options and you destroy their autonomy. With that you destroy their engagement – and then it’s game over if what you need is their energy and creativity. So how then is strategy deployment meant to work?

Caveat 2: Agreed through meaningful participation

The textbook answer to this conundrum is that OKR works both top down and bottom up. Some objectives come from on high, with lower levels defining their own objectives and key results to suit. Others bubble up, high level objectives somehow summarising (blessing?) what needs to happen lower down.

I’ve long since abandoned this “Top down vs bottom up? It’s both!” thing. It’s a cop out that does little to help the inexperienced manager and may put even the experienced manager in a bind; small wonder that middle managers can be a miserable bunch (I’ve been one, so I know). Middle out is no help either; as with the iron triangle, it’s time to recognise that these metaphors make little sense in open-ended and high feedback contexts. Also, they are hierarchical in a way that’s quite unnecessary, and clinging to them just gets in the way.

My answer – and it comes from an area where Agendashift excels – lies in participation: facilitating challenging and meaningful conversations about obstacles and outcomes (and progress thereon), making sure that they take place frequently both within and between strategy, development, and delivery, and have diversity of representation in terms of both functional responsibility and seniority. In place of top-down imposition, authentic agreement on outcomes becomes the basis for change. Where in the past innovation and intelligence would become increasingly diluted and distorted as news passed up the chain, now we create frequent opportunity for rapid and informed responses.

Of my two most recent books, authentic agreement on outcomes is a key theme of Agendashift. My latest book, Right to Left [10] explores the implications for organisation design and leadership in much greater depth, in the final two chapters most especially.

Caveat 3: Executed knowing the difference between implementation and experimentation

A common lightbulb moment for participants in Agendashift workshops comes when we organise outcomes using the Cynefin Four Points Contextualisation exercise. We dare not speak its name up front – it rather spoils the surprise – so we go by the pseudonym “Option approach mapping” initially [11]:

mapping

The key insight is that not all outcomes are alike. Easily recognised (and all shades and combinations in between these extremes):

  • Some are uncontroversial and don’t need digging into, regardless of whether they’re to be done right away or kept for another day
  • Some you’re confident can be achieved reliably, but first they will need to be broken down by someone who knows what they’re doing
  • Others can be approached in different ways, but no single approach (or combination thereof) is guaranteed to deliver the outcome in its entirety; consequently we’re in the land of iteration and experimentation
  • Sometimes, where to start and even who to ask is beyond current knowledge

Reading/listening to OKR’s fascination with stretch goals, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only thing in question with each one is whether we can do it in the time we’ve set for ourselves. If that’s your only hypothesis, much opportunity for learning – about customer needs as much as organisation capability or technical possibility – will be missed. Moreover, choosing a sequential approach when an iterative one is needed (or vice versa) is a costly mistake to make – costly not only in time and money but in reputations too. The books do get there in the end, but honestly, I feel they could do better. For some balance on issues of complexity, I’d suggest pairing Doerr with McChrystal [12], and Wodtke (which seems to be aimed at the startup community) with a good Lean Startup book, of which my favourite is Maurya’s [13].

So what are we left with?

Ten years ago I saw my employer, UBS, nearly destroyed by the scandalously ill-chosen ill-managed, and under-informed pursuit of the wrong goals (the recommendations of a benchmarking exercise conducted by a big name consultancy), so I speak from the heart here. But I’m not warning you against OKR – in all honesty I’m really warming to it.

My caveats take nothing away, because I don’t think I’ve said anything contrary to the literature, albeit that it takes a long time getting round to it. So a few pointers:

  • Find groups of people – let’s call them circles –  who share (or should share) some common objectives. Give them the opportunity to explore thoroughly their landscape of obstacles and outcomes, decide what’s important, and set some priorities. Agendashift is the manual on that! Expect them to track progress and revisit both their understanding and (accordingly) their plans on appropriate cadences.
  • Look for overlaps between circles, and where they don’t (a single manager isn’t enough), delegate people into the intersections. Not only will the conversations here be a lot more interesting and challenging, but we’re very obviously creating opportunities for both alignment and mutual accountability. A wider organisation listening not just for progress but for learning here will be sending a powerful message (not to mention learning itself – if it’s listening).
  • Metrics can be great, but don’t reduce it all to numbers. I’d argue that the “Measure what matters” in the title of Doerr’s book is a little misleading – certainly it deterred me for a while! Moreover, and as Doerr rightly emphasises, it would be a catastrophic mistake to connect OKRs with individual compensation (Drucker’s plausible but ultimately disastrous error with MBO).

If you’ve read Right to Left, you’ll know where the above comes from. If you haven’t, put it on your list. Doerr, Wodtke, and my recommended pairings too! Mercifully, mine isn’t too long, so you might want to start there 🙂

[1] Objectives and key results (OKR) (wikipedia.org)
[2] Management by Objectives, Arguments against (wikipedia.org)
[3] About Agendashift™ (agendashift.com)
[4] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation (2018)
[5] Agendashift partner programme
[6] Measure What Matters: OKRs – The Simple Idea that Drives 10x Growth, John Doerr (2018)
[7] Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results, Christine Wodtke (2016)
[8] What is Strategy Deployment (availagility.co.uk)
[9] Variety (Cybernetics) (wikipedia.org)
[10] Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile (2019)
[11] Agendashift in 12 icons
[12] Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, General Stanley McChrystal et al (2015)
[13] Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works, Ash Maurya (2012)


Upcoming Agendashift workshops – Stockholm, Athens, London, Istanbul, Berlin, and online


Leading change in the 21st century? You need a 21st century engagement model:

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