Why the Open Leadership Symposium is a big deal

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I’ll be speaking and facilitating at the Open Leadership Symposium in Boston on May 14th-15th and leading a masterclass (a 2-day Agendashift workshop) afterwards. If you’re wondering what the fuss is all about, here’s my personal take on something very exciting that is still in the process of emerging, for which the conference represents an important milestone.

Behind the scenes, the conference organisers and some like-minded contributors have been going back to basics, challenging even what we mean by “Open”, let alone the “Open Leadership” after which the conference is named. Along the way, Niels Pflaeging dropped in the the term “Open Social Technologies” and it got me wondering:

  1. What that might term mean for Agendashift and similar frameworks, and
  2. How that differentiates us from the less open (and non-open) incumbents

So, with inspiration from Niels, Heidi Araya, Daniel Mezick, and others, here’s my take, very lightly adapted from a passage I’ve already included in the draft of my forthcoming book [1]:

[Relative to the branded Agile process frameworks, the term] Open Social Technologies represents a much broader, more diverse, and still complementary array of frameworks that address a range of organisational concerns in ways that the process frameworks simply cannot.

They’re open in multiple ways:

  1. Not only are they well documented, they share substantial parts through open source, Creative Commons, and similar mechanisms (including release into the public domain), to the extent that a suitably-experienced practitioner could with effort reproduce and even improve on it, without necessarily licencing whatever conveniences might be available to them on a commercial basis.
  2. They’re open not just to extension (a natural property of any framework) but also to modification and replacement, something that many branded frameworks actively discourage. To be truly open, there must be no mandated practices; instead an attitude of “core or better” [2] prevails, enabling both local adaptation and community-driven innovation.
  3. They are non-exclusive; they combine in multiple, interesting, and exciting ways, the composition often greater than the sum of the parts
  4. They are highly sensitive to context, portable from one social or organisational context to another, producing perhaps radically different outputs according to the situation. To achieve this, they’re generative, such that outputs are generated, organised, prioritised, and developed by participants – predetermined neither by the framework nor the facilitator.

As social tools, they help people to work together, empowering them with decision-making authority, building social capital up, down, and across the organisation and beyond its four walls. This describes both how they work when they’re being used deliberately and the kind of organisational legacy they tend to leave behind. For the engagement models in particular, this internal consistency is an explicit design goal, one that contrasts sharply with the dissonance and disengagement too easily triggered by traditional approaches to change.

A small selection of relevant frameworks that demonstrate all of these properties:

  • The engagement models [3] Agendashift [4] and OpenSpace Agility [5]
  • Clean Language [6], which via Agendashift or on its own is valued by parts of the Lean-Agile community as a coaching protocol. Its heritage however is in psychotherapy – a powerful demonstration of the portability and sensitivity to context described in point 3 above!
  • The large-scale collaboration framework Open Space Technology [7]

The conference brings representatives of these frameworks (and more) under one roof for the first time, and that is surely cause for excitement. We have a programme not just of talks but hands-on workshops also, not to mention the pre- and post-conference masterclasses of which mine is just one. Who knows what might happen? To be honest, I don’t think anyone can be sure, which makes it an event not to be missed.

Further information about the conference can be found here; sign up to the masterclasses here. See you there!


[1] Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile (due by midsummer 2019)
[2] See the blog post “Core or better”
[3] See agendashift.com/engagement-model
[4] See the site agendashift.com and the book Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation (New Generation Press, 2018)
engagement model
[5] See the site openspaceagility.com and the The OpenSpace Agility Handbook, Daniel Mezick, Mark Sheffield, Deborah Pontes, Harold Shinsato, Louise Kold-Taylor, and Mark Sheffield (Freestanding Press, edition 2.2, 2015)
[6] See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clean_Language and for Agendashift’s application of it, the coaching game 15-minute FOTO
[7] Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, Harrison Owen (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 3rd edition, 2008)


Upcoming Agendashift workshops

See also the recent blog post: Agendashift workshops in Seattle, London, Boston, and Berlin, which includes a detailed description of the 2-day workshop. Workshops facilitated by Mike Burrows (yours truly) unless otherwise indicated:

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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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