Who sets the agenda?

Who or what drives your agenda for change? From which direction? Two common and clear-cut answers to these questions are these:

  • Bottom up – continuous improvement (coaching or otherwise enabling the ‘doers’ to find better ways of working), the sideways and upwards sharing of learning, and so on
  • Top down – strategic direction, strategic initiatives, etc, including also some unattractive versions such as management by objectives

Top down and bottom up describe extremes that are often a poor fit for a reality that seems much messier. How about middle out? This is can refer to either or a combination of these:

  • Change led by people who have (i) a foot in both the operational and strategic camps and (ii) networks that reach out across the organisation
  • Change stimulated stimulated by ‘mid level’ feedback loops such as service delivery reviews that sit above the more operational feedback loops of replenishment meetings, delivery planning meetings, and daily standups

In larger organisations, these ‘foot in both camps’ people are middle managers. The service delivery review is a key tool of Enterprise Services Planning. As someone who remembers what it was like to be a middle manager and an enthusiastic support and implementer of feedback loops, I have sympathy with both definitions!

With the agenda [for change] sitting right at the centre of the Agendashift model (below), I could describe Agenadashift as incorporating elements of bottom up, top down, and middle out change. Would that be helpful? Not really. I could stick with middle out and use it to mean “neither entirely top down or bottom up” but that would be a cop-out. Let’s not use the term so carelessly!

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Happily, my thinking around how to describe what sets the agenda for change has further crystalised recently, thanks in part to the happy coincidence of reading Schein [aside: this works surprisingly well as an audiobook] and a scheduled chat with Karl Scotland on the topic of strategy deployment.

I have concluded that the agenda for change is best described not in terms of source or direction, but more simply as ‘the result of a process’. It might be a deliberate process (perhaps including some those approaches already described), supported by tools (such as the strategy deployment tools Karl and I discussed), or something rather more implicit, perhaps neglected. The process and therefore the agenda can be fed through continuous improvement. They can be informed by purpose and strategy. They can be aligned to values. They can be kept on the straight and narrow by feedback loops. Their outward impact is in multiple directions too – changed performance, changed outcomes, changed ways of working, changed attitudes.

I have long been wary of throwing the culture word around too casually but I’m very encouraged to find parallels with the ‘agenda-setting as a process’ that lies at the heart of Agendashift and Schein’s very helpful description of culture as the result of a process of social learning, again a process that may or may not be deliberate. The model is holding up well 🙂


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