A small departure from the book

Slightly technical, but if you’re interested in what we know to be a remarkably effective combination of Clean Language, Cynefin, and Story Mapping as practiced in most Agendashift workshops, read on…

One of the notable highlights of an Agendashift workshop comes when we take the list of outcomes generated by the 15-minute FOTO game [1], transcribe them onto stickies, and organise them 4-points style [2]:

cynefin-finished-2017-12-16

Through the experience of the ‘4 points contextualisation exercise’ (to give it almost its full name), participants are slowly introduced to the Cynefin framework [3], the facilitator trying all the while to avoid naming the model or using Cynefin terminology such as ‘obvious’, ‘complicated’, ‘complex’, or ‘chaos’ (trust me, it’s hard!). For participants familiar with the model, it’s always a funny moment when the penny finally drops and the realisation dawns that Cynefin can be so much more than just a conceptual model, especially when there’s a good supply of ‘narrative fragments’ – outcomes, in our case – to play with. For those that haven’t come across it before, it’s a great opportunity to explore why different kinds of outcomes need different kinds of approaches, a lesson that’s much more meaningful when it’s learned through interacting with your own data (‘sensemaking’) than it would be as a lecture.

Up to now – and as described in the book [4] – the translation from the Cynefin representation to one based on a story map has been a 2-stage process. First, a few minutes of organised chaos as stickies are moved to under their respective headings:

Second, as much time as we want to spend – anything from a few moments to an hour or more – prioritising stickies within columns, and through that process making sure that there is a shared understanding of what each of them means and their possible dependencies on other stickies. Anyone who has done story mapping before will recognise that this can provide an important opportunity for some valuable conversations; we’ve found this to be the case even in public workshops, with ‘teachable moments’ aplenty.

A refinement

Instead of the ‘organised chaos’ followed by prioritisation, work clockwise from bottom right, prioritising as we go:

  • Starting with the ‘obviously obvious’: Sticky by sticky, check that they really are obvious (ie we can all quickly agree what needs to be done and can be pretty sure of the likely outcome), put them in their correct columns, and prioritise. Prioritisation will be easy, as there’ll be at most a few per column, a mixture of quick wins and less important items.
  • The ‘borderline complicated’: For the items on the border between obvious and complicated, explore why they were placed there, and discuss what should be done about their non-obvious aspects (perhaps there’s some important detail that someone will need to get to grips with). Prioritise them relative to the already-prioritised ‘obviously obvious’ items in their respective columns (again, this should be easy)
  • The complicated, one sticky at a time: who might be delegated to run with this item? Should we get some external help? In its appropriate column, how does it prioritise relative to the items already there?

I could at this point say “and so on through the complex and chaos” but the facilitator will flag up here that anything in or bordering on complex is likely to be a good candidate for hypothesis-based change (a session later in the day, see also [5]), and so it’s a good idea to mark each item in some way so that they can be identified easily later. And for the borderline cases:

  • ‘Borderline complex’: Are the complicated and complex parts easily separable? How will we organise this, mainly linear with some room for refinement along the way, or mainly through iteration with some expert input or planned work at the appropriate time?
  • ‘Borderline chaos’: Is it urgent to address symptoms or or attempt some diagnosis now, or can we afford to wait until we see what’s thrown up in the course of other work?

I’ll be honest: it’s still early days for this change and there’s no slideware [6] for it yet – if any is needed we’ll learn that through practice and by partner demand. That’s usually the best way!

[1] 15-minute FOTO, our Clean Language-inspired coaching game
[2] Cynefin Review Part 7 – Finding Your Place on the Framework (adventureswithagile.com)
[3] The Cynefin framework (wikipedia.org)
[4] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation, Mike Burrows (New Generation Press, 2018), chapters 2 and 3 in particular
[5] The Agendashift A3 template (and chapter 4)
[6] The Agendashift partner programme

Finally, some opportunities to experience it for yourself:


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We are champions and enablers of outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation. Building from agreement on outcomes, Agendashift facilitates rapid, experiment-based emergence of process, practice, and organisation. Instead of Lean and Agile by imposition – contradictory and ultimately self-defeating – we help you keep your business vision and transformation strategy aligned with and energised by a culture of meaningful participation. More…

4 thoughts on “A small departure from the book

  1. Maybe I’ve missed something. What is the point of the exercise? Are the stickies related to eachother and are part of a user’s product experience. I don’t understand how a model of types of situation are being used to plan a products development.

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    1. Ah, a bit of context needed… These exercises are at the heart of any Agendashift transformation strategy workshop (there are a few flavours) and the stickies represent organisational outcomes, not product features. You could think of outcomes as the ‘so that’ part of user stories (“a placeholder for a placeholder” if you like), but that’s stretching it a bit. They’re created via a generative process: the Agendashift delivery assessment (online, chapter 2 of the book), obstacle identification, then outcome generation (via the 15-minute FOTO coaching game). Check out the video on the 15-minute FOTO page agendashift.com/foto15 and it’ll be a lot clearer I’m sure.

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    2. Having said that, a possible translation back into the product space might be an interesting thing to explore. A lot of these tools have value in both the organisational change space and the product space (if you know the inspirations for Lean Startup this should come as no surprise)

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