Engagement: more than a two-way street

September 14th, 2018 is the second anniversary of Agendashift’s public launch. I’m marking the occasion with a post that describes a key motivation and gives some clues about where we’re headed. And while we’re here, if you haven’t recently checked our programme of upcoming workshops, there are four listed at the bottom. Enjoy!

We all know what employee disengagement looks like, how it saps energy and creativity, and not just in the unengaged. I won’t go into all the causes and symptoms here, but briefly, if you take away people’s agency – their perceived ability to make choices for themselves – a stress response is provoked, and not the kind of stress that you would want to find in an organisation that hopes to see people working at their best [1].

Just as anywhere else, disengagement is a very bad sign in the context of [Lean-]Agile transformation. It’s a sign that the change agents (managers, consultants, coaches, etc) don’t know what they’re doing! If people are disengaging because there’s the perception that they have no say in how things are going to work inside their teams, it strongly suggests that they have been denied the opportunity to participate meaningfully in the transformation process. This represents an inexcusable failure to engage on the part of the change agents responsible. It would seem that engagement is a two-way street (actually it’s more four-way intersection than two-way street, but we’ll come to that).

In short, 20th century-style rollout projects and managed change programmes run the risk of destroying engagement. Not only do the ends not justify the means, the means don’t work if the goal is an engaged and creative workforce. That it keeps happening is “an absolute travesty”, as Martin Fowler (an Agile Manifesto signatory) recently put it [2].

So ‘Big Agile’ bad, ‘Small Agile’ good? Not so fast. Agilists lamenting a lack of Agility in the organisation is not engagement. Tweeting false dichotomies about management vs leadership is not likely to engage many managers. Praying for viral adoption is not much of a growth strategy. And don’t get me started on the passive aggression (“We’re so Agile, we only let our stakeholders talk to us in the Sprint review” [3]).

A plague on both their houses then? No! The arguments between the two sides keep missing the crucial point that success depends on engagement. It’s a phony war, fought on the wrong battleground, few shots landed. The apparently less exciting good news: the more that they do engage, the less obviously top-down or bottom-up they become and the more that they have in common. Funny that.

It should now be clear why engagement models [4] such as Agendashift [5], OpenSpace Agility (OSA) [6], Systemic Modelling [7], BOSSA nova [8], and TASTE [9] are so necessary. Non-prescriptive by design, they work happily with frameworks big or small, branded or home-brewed, and with each other. In their various and complementary ways, they bring people together from multiple levels of the organisation, help the organisation collectively to reveal to itself what needs to change, and come to agreement on what needs to change.

But we can go further. In a transformation of any reasonable size, it is inevitable that different parts of the organisation will move forward at different speeds, and this will keep on throwing up new challenges. If we want the ‘new’ to survive and then thrive, then its surrounding organisation must too. If the new is to grow, then the old must adapt. Both have needs, those needs will evolve over time, and attending to them is key to the viability [10] of not just the transformation, but the organisation itself.

What’s needed then is another kind of engagement: not person-to-person but system-to-system. It raises questions like these:

  • How does strategy work going forward? How will ‘old’ and ‘new’ participate in the processes of strategy development and deployment?
  • On the day-to-day stuff of delivery, how will old and new coordinate with each other effectively?
  • How might this play out over time, and what implications will that have for the easily-forgotten, slower-changing, but still critical parts of the organisation? (For example, what role do HR and Finance play in the staffing, skilling, and funding of a very different-looking organisation?)
  • How will we know that it’s working? How will we know to intervene when it is not?
  • How will we know that we’re winning? Then what?

These questions could easily be re-framed so that Agendashift-style tools can be used to explore this evolving landscape. For example:

  • What obstacles will prevent ‘old’ and ‘new’ participating in the processes of strategy development and deployment as we move forward?

(Then from obstacles to outcomes (FOTO) [11] – you know the drill)

Whether we’re talking about Agile process frameworks or engagement models, I don’t honestly think it’s sensible to expect off-the-shelf products to have answers to these questions. What’s important is that they’re asked and answered, then re-asked and re-answered as the transformation progresses. Instead of glossing over them, how about embracing them? Does this not invite management from both sides of any old/new divide to become more engaged, to take more responsibility for the process, and for new kinds of leadership to develop as a result?

Screenshot 2018-09-14 05.50.14
No shortage of opportunities for both kinds of engagement [12]
I believe this represents a massive opportunity for the engagement models. It’s not that we didn’t already kinda know this, but we’re going to make it more explicit, both because it’s important in its own right and because it further exposes the bankruptcy of approaches based on imposition and other negligent forms of non-engagement. A concerted effort is gathering a head of steam here in Agendashift-land [13], and we collaborate with our friends in our peer communities too. No lack of choice there!

Notes & references

[1] I credit the phrase “working at your best” to Caitlin Walker’s From Contempt to Curiosity: Creating the Conditions for Groups to Collaborate Using Clean Language and Systemic Modelling, Caitlin Walker (2014, Clean Publishing). You can see its influence in the Agendashift True North (agendashift.com/true-north).

[2] The State of Agile Software in 2018 (martinfowler.com). Key quote:

The Agile Industrial Complex imposing methods on people is an absolute travesty

[3] A sensible enough short-term policy designed to protect the newly-forming team becomes dogma, to the long-term detriment of all.

[4] Engagement model: For Daniel Mezick’s quick introduction to the concept, see Engagement (openspaceagility.com). Key quotes:

Engagement Model (noun) : Any pattern, or set of patterns, reducible to practice, which results in more employee engagement, during the implementation of an organizational-change initiative.

If you cannot name your Engagement Model, you don’t have one.

[5] Agendashift™: agendashift.com, and of course the book, with communities on Slack and LinkedIn. Twitter: @agendashift

[6] OpenSpace Agility™: openspaceagility.com, with communities on Facebook and LinkedIn.

[7] Systemic Modelling™: See Clean For Teams: An Introduction to Systemic Modelling (cleanlearning.co.uk) and Caitlin Walker’s book above [1].

[8] BOSSA nova: See the website and the book by Jutta Eckstein and John Buck. Twitter: @AgileBossaNova

[9] TASTE: Karl Scotland’s take on Lean strategy deployment, with the X-Matrix as a key artefact. See the blog posts TASTE Impacts, Outcomes and Outputs and TASTE Success with an X-Matrix Template. Karl is also a leading collaborator on Agendashift; the upcoming Brighton workshop (see Upcoming Agendashift workshops below) includes both.

[10] My choice of the word ‘viability’ is deliberate. Its conventional meaning works fine, but I’m also alluding to Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model (VSM). Rather than the somewhat impenetrable Wikipedia page I would wholeheartedly recommend Patrick Hoverstadt’s excellent book The Fractal Organisation.

[11] 15-minute FOTO (agendashift.com/15-minute-foto), our Clean Language-inspired coaching game, Creative Commons licensed, available now in several translations.

[12] Figure based on Agendashift chapter 5 and my keynote Inverting the pyramid.

[13] Channels #right-to-left and #systhink-complexity in the Agendashift Slack. Note the title of the pivotal fourth chapter of Right to Left (due 2019). Twitter: @RightToLeft3

Acknowledgements: I’m grateful to Allan Kelly, Daniel Mezick, Philippe Guenet*, Karl Scotland*, Mike Haber, Thorbjørn Sigberg*, Andrea Chiou*, and Jutta Eckstein for their feedback on earlier drafts of this post. Asterisks indicate Agendashift partners.


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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…

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