Rejection, insight, and learning

Two questions:

  • When did you last reject an idea as a result of deliberate testing?
  • What did you learn in the process?

And a followup question:

  • How does your process encourage that kind of rejection and learning to happen?

If your process doesn’t keep asking the right questions, you can be pretty sure you’re over-investing either in stuff no-one needs, or in changes that won’t deliver the organisational benefits you expect. But if you program in the time to reflect on your rejected ideas (however sporadically they’re currently happening), the rest might just follow.

Here’s how at the end of the Changeban [1, 2] game we model that reflection and introduce two key concepts: the hypothesis and double-loop learning [2] (notice the two levels of learning identified by the red callouts):

changeban-retrospect-on-experiments-2018-12-03

In theory, if you have an organisational design that encourages double-loop learning, the rest of your process will soon catch up. In my experience however, it’s rare to see it outside of those organisations that haven’t already chosen to pursue a hypothesis-driven, outcome-oriented, ‘right-to-left’ kind of delivery process.

For example, heavily ‘projectised’ organisations typically learn painfully slowly. This is only partly explained by the fact that they do everything in large batches that take a very long time to process. There are deeper issues:

  • Once the scope of a project has been decided, the mere thought that there might be more needs to discover and respond to is often actively discouraged. If discovery happens at all, it is done by people outside the delivery team in preparation for future projects, greatly limiting the opportunity to integrate new learning into current work.
  • Similarly, when the ironically-named ‘lessons learned’ meeting finally arrives, it is already too late for the project in question to test any proposed process changes, and it’s unlikely that other projects will be ready to do much with the insights generated either.

Not that Agile has this stuff completely sorted either:

  • Backlog-driven Agile projects (four words that will never gladden my heart) remain susceptible to the scope problem, and typically they don’t make a habit of framing individual pieces of work in ways designed to invite challenge
  • Even where the delivery process is a good generator of insights, team-centric Agile tends to limit the organisational scope of any learning

In Right to Left [4] (due summer 2019) I will describe a style of delivery organisation that has i) managed to let go of that old left-to-right kind of thinking, and ii) explicitly created not just opportunities for organisational learning to happen but the clear expectation that it will will be happening all of the time, a natural part of the process, and ‘real work’.

Fortunately, there are enough real-world examples of right-to-left thinking out there that I know that it is no idealistic fantasy. Neither is it a doomed attempt to shoehorn diverse experiences into a single and over-complicated delivery framework or to extrapolate from the experiences of just a few. Rather, the right-to-left concept represents a concentrated essence of Lean, Agile, and Lean-Agile working at their best, a helpful metaphor, and a unifying theme, one that allows me to celebrate a wide range of models, tools, and examples. Each of those is unique and special, but a commitment to learning connects all of them.

In the meantime, don’t forget Agendashift [5, 6]! This is no stopgap, but rather an approach to change and transformation through which that same right-to-left philosophy runs very deep. If you’re in the business of change in what could broadly be described as the Lean-Agile space and are hungry for alternatives to 20th century change management, the book and the tools it describes could be just what you’re looking for.

[1] Changeban (www.agendashift.com)
[2] Changeban has reached version 1.0 (blog.agendashift,com)
[3] Double-loop learning (en.wikipedia.org)
[4] Right to Left (www.agendashift.com)
[5] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation (www.agendashift.com)
[6] Agendashift (www.agendashift.com)


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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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