The language of outcomes: 2. Framing obstacles

This is part 2 of a series looking at the language of outcomes and its lessons for leadership. If we’re keen to see collaboration, self-organisation, and innovation in our organisations, how should we conduct ourselves? What behaviours should we model?

The 5 posts of this series come roughly in the order that its leadership lessons arise in our workshops:

  1. Identifying the adaptive challenge
  2. Framing obstacles (this post)
  3. Generating outcomes
  4. Organising outcomes
  5. Between ends and means

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2. Identifying obstacles

Given all the talk of adaptive challenges and needs in the series opener, it seems that the language of outcomes is about more than just outcomes! Shorthand can be dangerous (more on that in a moment) and I should come clean: the “language of outcomes” is shorthand for “the language of outcome orientation: needs, obstacles, and outcomes”.

The logic that ties needs, obstacles, and outcomes together is fundamental – it explains why Agendashift exists and a little of how it works:

  • Most especially in the context of an adaptive challenge, the most legitimate basis for change isn’t a solution – untried in this particular context – but agreement on outcomes [1]
  • The most meaningful and motivating outcomes are those that involve meeting real needs
  • In due course, action will need to be addressed at removing, overcoming, or bypassing whatever obstacles stand in the way of meeting those needs and realising those outcomes. In the wholehearted organisation – the focus of our mission [2] – those obstacles are owned up to and addressed. But long before then, it only takes a moment to take a peek at what lies beyond them, thereby identifying yet more outcomes and continuing a generative process.

It’s “needs, obstacles, and outcomes” because that’s typically the order in which we identify them. It’s not “problems and solutions” because they’re both traps:

  1. Solving problems and meeting needs aren’t the same thing – it’s way too easy to get sucked into solving problems without ever meeting a need
  2. Similarly, as soon as implementing the solution becomes the driver, needs and outcomes fall by the wayside. In the context of an adaptive challenge, the implementation of a solution – a process framework being a prime example – becomes massive distraction to the organisation and a source of needless pain. Small wonder that most such solution-driven initiatives fail.

There’s no great magic to identifying obstacles. With the focus on an adaptive challenge, True North, ideal, or generative image [3], just ask:

  • What stops that?
  • What’s in the way of that?
  • What seems to be in the way of that?
  • What obstacles might be in the way of that? [4]

More sophisticated wordings might be easier to justify intellectually or look nicer on the workshop slides [5] (believe me, I’ve experimented with this a lot), but they can invite a level of abstraction and speculation that proves unhelpful only later. That’s a subtle problem, and it’s why experience has taken us in the direction of short and punchy. Happily though there’s an easy fix when we get it wrong: badly framed obstacles are easily reframed. Let’s see how.

The language of obstacles

In my first book (now more than 5 years old), I identified “lack of” language (the language of scarcity) as often betraying lazy thinking. Fast forwarding to Agendashift –  in which we ask for obstacles at least once per workshop – here are some real examples of badly-framed obstacles:

  1. “Lack of a knowledge management system” (I got this one in my very first workshop)
  2. “Lack of the Agile mindset” (this one pops up quite frequently)
  3. “Lack of people/money/resource” (if you’re a manager, you may have heard this one yourself)

Respectively, these “lack of” obstacles:

  1. Prescribe a particular kind of solution, almost certainly excluding other options prematurely, and failing to identify a problem meanwhile
  2. Use shorthand, that not only fail (again) to identify an actual problem, but that could easily be taken as judgemental, thereby excluding people
  3. Identify only one side of an imbalance, implying one obvious but perhaps unavailable of kind of remedy whilst excluding others

The fix and this instalment’s leadership takeaway:

If you want see collaboration, self-organisation, and innovation, identify real issues, taking care to avoid language that needlessly excludes people or possibility 

Guided by that principle and prompted by “How do you know that?”, those badly-framed obstacles might be replaced by these:

  1. “People holding on to information” or “Information spreads too slowly”, preferring the latter, less judgemental form unless we have good reason to go with the former
  2. One of any number of real obstacles:
    • “Working in functional silos/big batches/…”
    • “Waiting on external approvals/dependencies/…”
    • “Waiting too long for customer feedback”
    • “Glacial pace of improvement”
    • “Lack of experimentation” (yes, that’s a “lack of” but I might let this one pass)
  3. “Teams overburdened, workload exceeding capacity”, or “Expectations running ahead of budget constraints”

Much better!

If we identify obstacles more than once (as we do in both the Discovery and Exploration sessions, for example), we repeat both the reframing exercise and the teaching point that goes with it. The “lack of” trap is so easy to fall into it’s well worth repeating – and it’s funnier the second time round!

Next: 3. Generating outcomes

Notes & references

[1] “Agree on outcomes” is  Agendashift principle #2 – see
[2] Our mission: Wholehearted (, CC-BY-SA licence)
[3] Visualising Agendashift: The why and how of outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation (June 2016)
[4] “What obstacles might in the way of X?” is the “cleanest” of those. And for pragmatic reasons too, definitely the right one to include on the cue card (below) for our Clean Language-inspired coaching game, 15-minute FOTO (, CC-BY-SA licence)


[5] Workshop materials are available via the Agendashift partner programme, details at See also the Agendashift book,


I’m grateful for feedback on earlier drafts of this post from Teddy Zetterlund, Thorbjørn Sigberg, Richard Cornelius, and Kert Peterson.

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

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