It’s 10 years since the post that changed my career

Happy New Year! For me it’s a big anniversary: this time in 2013 I had spent the New Year’s break taking the principles and practices of the Kanban Method, and from them abstracting a system of nine values. Then on January 3rd, I published Introducing Kanban through its values. Kanban’s values model was born.

Nine values are quite a lot to hold in one’s head at once, so I soon learned to present them in groups:

  • An initial six, or two groups of three: transparency, balance, and collaboration, then customer focus, flow, and leadership
  • Then understanding, agreement, and respect, which for reasons of brevity are often subsumed under leadership

In most of the decade since, it has been my most-read post each year. And it led to my first book, Kanban from the Inside (2014), which remains a Lean-Agile classic. Great! Now what?

I had no interest in making Kanban any more technical than it already was; if anything, the values model would always draw me in the opposite direction. Neither was I drawn to the emerging Kanban Maturity Model (or any other such model). What I did instead was to allow a common problem to bother me: why do so many people arrive at the training class not knowing why they are there? Tempting as it might have been to see that as a failure of administration or marketing, I saw it instead as a symptom that there were important organisational conversations that simply weren’t happening.

I realised quickly that this problem was far from unique to Kanban. To those that resent having had Scrum or (later) SAFe thrust upon them, the Agile manifesto’s “People and interactions over processes and tools” must ring rather hollow.

That took me away from Kanban into the realms of organisation, leadership, and strategy, to the development of Agendashift, and then sort of full circle, not back to Kanban and Lean-Agile specifically, but to business agility. Ten years on, as practice gets refined through use, as its message gets refined through the telling, and as we dig ever-deeper roots into the available theory, three main topic areas co-evolve together:

  1. As described now in two editions of the Agendashift book (2nd ed 2021), Agendashift the engagement model (thank you Daniel Mezick for describing Agendashift as such) and dialogic/generative organisation development approach (thank you Gervase Bushe & Bob Marshak), a way for practitioners to approach organisations without prejudging what solutions they will employ(/impose/inflict) and instead to help them have those missing conversations – engaging in participatory strategy, as it turns out
  2. The wholehearted organisation, a deliberately minimalistic values-based model of organisation and leadership, a spinoff from my third book, Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile (2019, audiobook 2020) that unexpectedly gained a life of its own
  3. The leadership development curriculum Leading with Outcomes, which compared to Agendashift minimises detail relevant mainly to practitioners, and instead distils some easily-learned patterns, strategies, and organisational models relevant to leaders at all levels, leaders in transforming organisations most especially

Explicitly in both Agendashift and Leading with Outcomes and implicitly in wholehearted, we have doubled down on the eighth value of that initial nine-value model, namely agreement. What if we put agreement on outcomes before solutions? One way or another, I’ve been asking that question for most of the past ten years, and I have no doubt that it will keep me going for a good while yet.

I no longer identify as a Kanban guy. That separation was necessary to what followed, but all these years later I remain proud of the work I did there, of that first book, and of the blog post that started it all. Not that I’m planning on retiring anytime soon, but I have long seen it as marking the beginning of the rest of my career.

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The 1967 Manifesto for The Deliberately Adaptive Organisation

It may still too early to judge the 1990’s for its net contribution to organisational understanding. If much of what was published on the specific topic of change management had never been written, it might have been for the better! It’s not all bad though: I have recently enjoyed two books from that period, Karl Weick’s Sensemaking in Organizations (1995) and the 1994 first edition of Henry Mintzberg’s Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. (Regarding the latter one, if you can tell me whether I should also read the 2000 second edition, do let me know.)

Reading Mintzberg, what stood out for me wasn’t so much his concept of emergent strategy (arguably not much more than a fancy name for what really happens to our best-laid plans) but these five things:

  1. The limits of rationalism and control, and the apparent disregard shown for them not just by the mid 20th-century strategic planners but by their champions in academia
  2. The idea, attributed to Edelman, of experts being those who avoid (or merely bemoan) the pitfalls but fail to notice the grand fallacy (see point 1 above, and I suspect I may never hear the words ‘expert’ and ‘pitfall’ in quite the same way again!)
  3. Primed by my prior reading of that Weick book on sensemaking, the idea of strategy as the means by which we make sense and meaning of our decisions; strategies don’t just help us to act in the present and project ourselves into the future, their role in helping us reinterpret how we got here is important too
  4. And before we get too comfortable with strategy as story, strategy as theory – something to be tested, lightly held
  5. Brian Loasby’s 1967 Manifesto for the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation

I’m having a bit of fun with that last one of course. I’ve no reason to think that Loasby (now Emeritus Professor in Economics at Stirling University) had anything manifesto-like in mind, and the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation didn’t exist back then. Not even its sources: the Viable System Model (Beer) was not yet fully formed; the Deliberately Developmental Organisation (Kegan & Lahey) was decades off; Agendashift’s main architect (yours truly) was just two years old.

But check this out:

if, instead of asking how they can more accurately foresee future events and thus make better decisions further ahead, firms were to ask first what they can do to avoid the need to decide so far ahead, they might be led to discover important ways of improving their performance.

Brian Loasby, 1967, via Mintzberg

Let me recast that in the “this over that” style of a notable document familiar to many readers, the Agile Manifesto. Adding some flourishes of my own:

In the pursuit of business performance, we are finding it useful to see plans and strategies more as theories to be tested quickly than as predictions and commitments for the longer term. Through this change of perspective, we are learning to value anticipating and meeting needs over setting and meeting deadlines, open options over past decisions, and rate of learning over closeness of control. Not that deadlines, decisions, and control have no value, rather that when valued against needs, flexibility, and adaptability, it is the latter group that drives our development forward.

I am not seriously advocating a new manifesto – for me, that ship sailed long ago – but Loasby was definitely onto something all those years ago. Rewriting history, there is already something Lean-like about his heuristic, and for anyone trying it, I’ve little doubt that Lean’s explicit attention to people and to flow would soon be required in any determined application of it. Invite the customer inside that way of thinking and you get something quite Agile-like. And compared to Agile as first framed, much more obviously relatable to business agility too. Interesting!

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

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What’s new in the February Deep Dive workshop

February’s Agendashift Deep Dive isn’t just the first of the year, it’s the first since I delivered the manuscript for the 2nd edition (publication is due in March). The revision process has helped me identify a number of improvements to the workshop materials. More significantly – and as I mentioned in my previous post on strategy [1] – we have been digging some deep foundations in systems, organisation, and personal development over the past 18 months or so, work of a kind that takes its time to feed through.

There are two main elements coming now to the foreground. One is pre-existing, familiar to followers of this blog, and receiving an upgrade; the other is new. But before I introduce them, a reminder of what Agendashift is: it’s an engagement model. And what does an engagement model do? My definition [2] states that they have three jobs to do:

  1. To structure and support the work of those that would encourage innovation, change, and transformation
  2. To help the organisation engage its staff meaningfully in change-related work
  3. To keep the the organisation’s parts engaged with each other as they change



The upgraded and new elements in Agendashift speak to the Organisation box in that picture:

  1. Wholehearted, our mission [3]
  2. The Deliberately Adaptive Organisation, a non-prescriptive but still powerfully diagnostic model of business agility

In the 2nd edition you will see Wholehearted reconciled to two foundational models, Bushe & Marshak’s Generative Change Model [4] and Stafford Beer’s classic Viable System Model (VSM) [5]. Out of that reconciliation come a number of base assumptions [6] that Deep Dive participants will have the opportunity to validate, reject, or reflect on. (I’ll share them here once the book’s out.)

Book-wise I nearly left it there, but after sketching out an appendix with more detail on how that reconciliation worked, I felt compelled to add a whole new final chapter, Up and down the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation, a title inspired by Robert Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey’s Deliberately Developmental Organisation [6]. My model plugs theirs, Agendashift, Sociocracy [7], and OKR [8] into VSM. Thanks to the way that VSM scales – fractally – the combination is able not only to describe team-level, organisational-level, and people-level agility in one self-similar model, it reveals some of the organisational issues that Agile delivery frameworks either ignore or exacerbate [9].

For the Deep Dive, the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation helps to put several of our tools into better perspective, including:

I may also add an exercise on those scaling issues.

Details of that February Deep Dive:

And before that:

For all three workshops, all the usual discounts apply: repeat visits (not uncommon), partners, gov, edu, non-profit, country, un- or under-employment, bulk orders. If you think that one might apply to you, do please ask. Many of those considerations apply to private workshops also.

For the Deep Dive especially, if you think that you might become an Agendashift partner, partner discounts make it well worthwhile to get on board before you sign up to the workshop.


[1] If you are not already engaging on strategy, the time to get serious is now (January)
[4] The Dynamics of Generative Change, Gervase Bushe, Gervase R. Bushe, (BMI Publishing, 2020)
[5] The Fractal Organization: Creating Sustainable Organizations with the Viable System Model, Patrick Hoverstadt, (John Wiley & Sons, 2008)
[6] Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar H. Schein, (Jossey Bass, 5th edition, 2016)
[7] An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, Robert Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey, (Harvard Business Review, 2016)
[8] We the people: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy, John Jr. Buck & Sharon Villenes, ( Press, second edition, 2019)
[9] What the (Lean-)Agile scaling frameworks don’t give you (December)

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