What kind of Organisational Development (OD)? (And a book recommendation)

both-kinds.png

Mind slightly blown, I discover that organisation development (OD) divides into two schools of thought. Or more accurately, that a crucial aspect of organisation development may have been hiding in plain sight for decades. The two ‘schools’ (if for the moment I can refer to them that way) are diagnostic OD and dialogic ODThey are not in fact mutually exclusive – it’s this that allowed one to hide with the other – but for the purposes of explanation let me begin by describing two ends of an OD spectrum.

Diagnostic OD

At the “extreme diagnostic” end of the spectrum, the OD practitioner (here very much playing the role of the expert consultant) thinks and works like this:

  • According to the practitioner and in all likelihood the sponsor (the latter chooses the former after all), your organisation is best understood by some dominant metaphor: as a machine, an organism, an ecosystem, or a system of autonomous agents (the ‘agents’ being ‘people’ and groups thereof)
  • Accordingly, the task is to diagnose a problem and to prescribe (and perhaps implement) a fix, a cure, a conservation measure, or some reprogramming

Only a short distance beyond that extreme lies dysfunction:

  • Ivory tower diagnosis – lacking in empathy and respect, characterised by dismissiveness and judgementalism – or fake diagnosis whose main purpose is to establish the absence of some fashionable solution (see also snake oil merchants) and perhaps induce an inauthentic sense of urgency (burning platforms and the like)
  • Inviting failure by approaching adaptive challenges as though they are mere technical problems, fixable through linear, step-by-step processes (hey, 20th century change management frameworks, I’m looking at you)

Drawing a safe distance back from that precipitous edge, we have whole systems approaches, in which the diagnosis part and increasingly the implementation part involve meaningful levels of staff participation. As much facilitator as consultant, the practitioner consciously dials down their judgemental side and dials up their curious and conversational sides instead.

What if this begins to describe what successful OD has looked like all along? Would an alternative to the diagnostic model be helpful? Enter dialogic OD.

Dialogic OD

Again for the sake of explanation, let’s put those organisational metaphors to one side and start with something more philosophical:

  • The organisation is socially constructed and the creator of meaning – brought to life, sustaining itself, and continuing to evolve through its discourse, both with itself and with the outside world
  • Change is an ongoing (ever-present) process that is never entirely under anyone’s control; the practitioner’s job is to spark and facilitate new conversations, uncover fresh expressions of meaning, and help set loose new kinds of dialogue

The idea that culture is the product of a process that no-one fully controls is an important one. No wonder that change management is hard! I first saw it spelt out that way by Edgar H. Schein [1], and referenced it in Agendashift [2]. Schein is without doubt one on the greats of OD and it seems to me a little ironic that he is so strongly identified with the diagnostic model. In fairness to him, social constructionism [3] is younger than OD; moreover he contributes a superb foreword to Bushe & Marshak’s Dialogic Organization Development [4] – an excellent book that might easily have escaped my notice without his endorsement.

Before reading Bushe & Marhak’s book and as I began to read Schein’s foreword, I couldn’t help imagining for myself what diagnostic and dialogic OD might mean. Quite naturally I wondered what Agendashift would look like in the light of those two imagined models. I jumped to the conclusion that Agendashift had elements of both: diagnostic wherever it is concerned with the present (in particular the assessment and anything concerned with current obstacles), and dialogic wherever it is concerned with the future (which it does most of the rest of the time).

My instincts weren’t completely wrong, but nevertheless as I read the book I was surprised just how strongly the dialogic model resonated with me. It turns out that Agendashift is much further along the spectrum towards fully dialogic than I anticipated. Some of the more obvious parallels:

  1. Even Agendashift’s more diagnostic tools are there not to measure or judge but to stimulate conversations whose destinations – outcomes – the facilitator can’t even guess at (certainly I don’t try). As the Solutions Focus [5] guys will tell you, the point of scaling  – which they mean in the sense of giving something a numeric score – isn’t the number, but they way that it encourages you to think.
  2. Agendashift makes extensive use of generative images, things – typically terms or phrases – that help to conjure up a diverse range of naturally-aligned responses. Our de-jargonised Lean-Agile True North statement (below) is Agendashift’s most obvious example (quite a chunky one by normal standards), but even the prompts of the assessment tool are used in that way.
  3. And of course there’s the Clean Language, mainly via our 15-minute FOTO coaching game [6], though its influence runs deeper. It’s not just that the game gives participants the opportunity to ‘model’ the organisation’s obstacles and outcomes – conversations that probably haven’t happened before – it also creates the experience of a new kind of conversation.

Slide12

With the benefit of a few days of reflection, I am over that initial surprise. Agendashift was designed as a positive response to the prescriptive approaches to Agile adoption that at their worst seem to actively embrace all the diagnostic dysfunctions I identified above. Instead of prescriptive and linear, generative. And what do we generate? Outcomes around which people can self-organise, and ideas for action and experimentation that will point the organisation in the direction of those outcomes – hence outcome-oriented change – and all of it done in a coherent way that helps to develop Lean, Agile, and Lean-Agile sensibilities rather than work against them.

That said, I am not yet over my enjoyment of this book. In fact, I’m still wondering if Agendashift could and should move even further towards the dialogic end of the spectrum. Even in the Agendashift book there are hints of what might be possible – helping organisations create their own True North statements or their own non-prescriptive assessment tools, for example. And without creating any new tools, we practitioners should perhaps be keeping a closer watch for powerful new generative images amongst the many outcomes generated by participants, using their “thematic outcomes” (a phrase that is already part of the Agendashift lexicon) not just for organising plans but as seeds for wider dialogue.

I’m even challenged (in a good way) by two alternative visions of the workshop (a large part of my work). Is an Agendashift workshop:

  1. A planning event (diagnostic), or
  2. A “container for disruption” (dialogic)?

Yes!

One thing is for sure: if ever there’s a 2nd edition of Agendashift, Bushe & Marshak’s Dialogic Organization Development will certainly be among its key references. I’ll be adding it to our recommended reading list [7] very soon.

References

[1] Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar H. Schein (5th edition, 2016, Wiley)
[2] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation, Mike Burrows (2018, New Generation Publishing)
[3] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_constructionism
[4] Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change, Gervase R. Bushe & Robert J. Marshak (2015, Berrett-Koehler Publishers)
[5] The Solutions Focus: Making Coaching and Change SIMPLE , Mark McKergow and Paul Z. Jackson (2011, Nicholas Brealey International)
[6] 15-minute FOTO: agendashift.com/15-minute-foto
[7] Recommended reading: agendashift.com/recommended-reading

Acknowledgements

Thank you Mike Haber and Parag Gogate for feedback on earlier drafts of this post.


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My favourite Clean Language question

We describe our coaching game 15-minute FOTO [1] as “Clean Language-inspired”, and as shown on the cue card (below) it makes use of a small subset of the Clean Language questions, a subset particularly suited to exploring or modelling (ie building a model of) a landscape of obstacles and (especially) outcomes.

The objective of the game and its function in Agendashift is to generate a good number of outcomes that can then be organised in various interesting ways. Through subsequent exercises we facilitate agreement on outcomes, thereby helping to co-create the basis for organisational change. Those goals aren’t quite the same as those of Clean Language, and through my favourite Clean Language question I hope to say a bit about the latter.

Here’s the 15-minute FOTO cue card, an essential piece of equipment for the game. Notice that the X‘s (and in one question a Y), placeholders which the coach replaces with the client’s own words (coach and client are roles in the game; participants take turns in different roles):

15-minute-foto-cue-card-2018-01-29

Given the game’s objectives, the two most important questions on the card are these:

  1. “What would you like to have happen?”, which tends to “flip” obstacles into outcomes, moving from the negative to the positive, quickly identifying the outcome that might be found hiding behind the obstacle (figuratively speaking).
  2. “And when X, then what happens?”, which when the X is an outcome, generates another, and sometimes several. Asked a few times, a surprisingly long chain of outcomes can be generated with the minimum of prompting from the coach.

However, my favourite question on the card is a different one, namely “What kind of X?”. Functionally, it’s a clarifying question, one we use in preference to questions such as “What do you mean by X?”, and “Can you be more specific?”. In the aspiring Lean-Agile context typical of an Agendashift workshop, examples might include:

  • “What kind of Agile?” (instead of “What do you mean by Agile?”)
  • “What kind of collaboration?” (instead of “Can you be more specific about the kind of collaboration you’re talking about?”)

(Aside: see [2] for my answer to the first of those)

Let me further illustrate the “What kind of X?” (WKO) question with an everyday scenario that I frequently find helpful as an example. You have just told me that you’ll be on holiday next week. How do I respond?

Some possible responses politely close the conversation before it gets started: “That’s nice!”, “I hope you have a lovely time!”, and so on.

I might show some interest with a question: “Where are you going?”. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned question is not entirely without risk. Suppose your answer is “I’m not going anywhere, I’m staying at home”.  Awkward! Have I embarrassed you?

To be clear, “Where are you going?” isn’t a terrible question. It is at least an open question, a question to which might be given a wide range of possible answers. This is in contrast with binary questions that expect mainly yes/no answers or leading questions which are mostly about the questioner’s own agenda (in the Agendashift book [3] I describe the latter as not genuine).

The possible flaw in the question “Where are you going?” is that it makes an assumption that might not be valid in this context, the assumption that you’re going somewhere. “What kind of holiday?” removes that assumption – in fact it is about as stripped of assumption as a question can get. As a result, it is much more likely to lead to an interesting answer, one that I can’t easily predict.

This is what Clean Language is all about. It’s not about the killer question, a trick that like the world’s funniest joke soon gets old. It’s about putting the coach’s assumptions to one side, because what’s in the mind of the client is far more valuable. As well as heightening curiosity it improves listening, because we can’t fill in those X‘s if we’re not paying attention. And although there is some skill in choosing the question (a skill that we begin to develop by playing the game), it’s not about leading the client on the strength of the coach’s domain knowledge – there’s a time and place for that, but not yet. Instead, it’s about facilitating a process, one that helps navigate what may be complex issues, often helping the client arrive at some real insights.

15-minute FOTO is carefully framed as a game: it works within clear constraints and with clear goals. It’s not therapy, and never pretends to be. But for some it has been the gateway to the Clean Language body of knowledge with its generous community and has kindled interest in a deeper kind of coaching. And that’s wonderful!

References

[1] 15-minute FOTO
[2] My kind of Agile
[3] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation; Clean Language is introduced with 15-minute FOTO in chapters 1 and 2. See also its recommended reading page, in particular (these Clean Language-related books):

  • The Five Minute Coach: Improve Performance Rapidly
    Lynne Cooper & Mariette Castellino (2012, Crown House Publishing)
  • Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds
    Wendy Sullivan & Judy Rees (2008, Crown House Publishing)
  • From Contempt to Curiosity: Creating the Conditions for Groups to Collaborate Using Clean Language and Systemic Modelling
    Caitlin Walker (2014, Clean Publishing)

Acknowledgements: I’m grateful to Johan Nordin, Steve Williams, and Mike Haber for feedback on earlier drafts of this post.


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A Grand Unification Theory for Lean-Agile?

The job of chapter 3 of the forthcoming book Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile is to introduce a number of important Agile, Lean-Agile, and associated frameworks. I have taken care to describe them not as alternative solutions that must be chosen between, but as patterns to be combined in interesting ways. That’s not a new idea, but what does seem remarkable is how helpful a right-to-left perspective is in explaining how they work together and complement each other. When I say right-to-left, we’re talking not just collaborative, continuous, pull-based, and so on (concepts conventionally associated with Lean-Agile) but something very explicitly outcome-oriented.

Almost verbatim from the manuscript:

  1. Scrum (and Scrum-based scaling frameworks, if that’s your bag): continuously iterating on and self-organising around goals (short term outcomes) in the pursuit of longer term outcomes – product vision, the team’s mission, broader organisational objectives, and so on
  2. Kanban, making progress on outcomes visible, concentrating effort on the ones that matter most, fostering a focus on completion
  3. XP and DevOps, right across development and production, providing the infrastructure of process, practice, and technology necessary to accelerate feedback on the delivery of outcomes
  4. Service Design Thinking (along with user research, user experience and so on), continuously discovering which outcomes are important
  5. Lean Startup, pursuing business viability through continuous deliberate experimentation, managing for impact (outcomes again), finding and continuously refining a business model that enables customer outcomes to be sustained

Here it really is outcomes that holds everything together, not (as you might expect) flow, collaboration, or some other shared value or technical principle. This way, we avoid saying “if you dig deep enough, they’re the same” (which I hear from time to time and strongly reject, believing that it does each framework’s creators and communities a huge disservice).

Neither are we saying “don’t use frameworks”, if (and it’s quite a big if) this means that you must always start from first principles. A sensible way to start is again outcome-oriented and has a measured and pragmatic attitude towards frameworks (quoting this time from chapter 4, Viable scaling):

  • Identify needs – looking at what kind of organisation you’re trying to be and at what you’re trying to achieve  – and the obstacles that currently prevent those needs from being met
  • Agree on outcomes, not just goals plucked out of the air, but the kind of outcomes that might be achieved when these obstacles are removed, overcome, or bypassed
  • On a just-in-time basis, prioritise outcomes and generate a range of options to realise them, using your favourite frameworks as sources of ideas (not excluding other sources, but valuing coherence nevertheless)
  • In manageably small chunks of change and through a combination of direct action and experimentation (choosing between those approaches on a case-by-case basis according to the level of uncertainty and risk involved), begin to treat change as real work: tracking it, validating its impact, and reflecting on it just as we would for product work

In a nutshell, I’ve described Agendashift, which is of course a right-to-left approach to change and transformation. Other engagement models exist – see OpenSpace Agility (OSA) for another excellent, well-documented, and highly complementary example. Whichever approach you choose, take care to choose one that models Lean and Agile values, lest the dissonance proves too great and you fatally undermine your work, a very real risk. To sow disengagement would be a truly bad outcome!

Related:


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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…

 

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…

My kind of Agile

I’ve alluded to my kind of Agile in previous posts, but let me spell it out. I’ve hinted at it for quite a while, most recently in my popular post Right to Left: a transcript of my Lean Agile Brighton talk, which helps to explain the necessity and urgency of a Right-to-Left treatment of Agile.

I’m in the process of reworking the second chapter of my 2019 book Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile. Verbatim, here’s a key passage from chapter 2, Right to left in the digital space:

In chapter 1, we saw some of the quite different ways in which Lean is understood. Before we get to Lean-Agile, let me describe my kind of Agile, a kind of Agile that should already sound familiar:

  • People collaborating over the rapid evolution of working software that is already beginning to meet needs, their teams placing high value on collaboration, continuous delivery, and adaptation

That’s my highly condensed and “from-the-right” summarisation of the Agile Manifesto (agilemanifesto.org), describing a sweet spot for digital, and widely applicable elsewhere[1].

If you want to know what Agile is, the manifesto is where you need to start. Agile isn’t a defined process, method, or framework; Agile means embracing manifesto values. To embrace them you must understand them, and to understand them you must catch something of how they reveal themselves in environments that have allowed them to flourish.

Clearly, the manifesto values resonate with many. Meaningful conversations, the opportunity to build things that actually work for people, and the ability to keep improving the working environment to the mutual benefit of developers, customers, and the organisation – who wouldn’t want that? In other words, these things are valued for their own sake (which is why we recognise them as values).

For a values system to be more than just wishful thinking, there must be a clear relationship between the values, the kinds of behaviours expected, and the assumptions that underpin these behaviours. In the case of Agile, these assumptions are well documented – not least by the manifesto itself – and they go a long way to describe the behaviours:

  • Assumption 1: Direct, ongoing collaboration with customers is necessary to develop and maintain a mutual understanding of needs and potential solutions
  • Assumption 2: Collaboration across the entire process is what makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts – not just multiple perspectives brought to bear on complex problems, but new ideas created in the interactions between people
  • Assumption 3: The most effective way to build anything complex is to start with something that works[2], and ensure that it still works as it evolves. This is true not just for products, but for the working environment in terms of its technical infrastructure, processes, practices, organisation, and culture (not to mention all the complex interactions between those all of those internal elements, the product, and the outside world).
  • Agile’s breakthrough comes from bringing these assumptions together to everyone’s attention in the form of a compelling values statement. The underlying message is clear: wherever those assumptions are likely to hold, you would be wise to behave accordingly!

[1] I would stand by this definition outside of the digital space too and would argue that it is far more achievable than some would admit. But that’s outside the scope of this book.

[2] See Gall’s law, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gall_(author)#Gall’s_law, and John Gall’s rather wonderful book Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail (Pocket Books, 1978).

How does this resonate with you? Is there anything there that you would challenge?

The book is due early next summer; if you’d like to stay on top of developments and perhaps even get involved:

  • Subscribe to updates via the book’s landing page here
  • Join the Agendashift Slack community and its #right-to-left channel, the place for book-related conversations
  • On Twitter, follow @Right2LeftGuide &/or hashtag #Right2LeftGuide
    (Note: I’ve only just stopped using the more generic hashtag #RightToLeft, so don’t expect to find much at the new one just yet. I’ve renamed the account accordingly.)

Screenshot 2018-11-16 10.40.57


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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…

Agendashift is not a maturity model

Agendashift – an engagement model – is sometimes mistaken for a maturity model. I can imagine how this happens, but let me explain.

At no point did we specify a number of stages or steps and further corroborate with characteristics (what Wikipedia describes as a top-down approach). Neither did we determine distinct characteristics or assessment items and cluster into steps (the bottom-up approach).

Yes, we do have an assessment tool, and after many iterations of community refinement (much of it in #asssessments in the Agendashift Slack) we think that it’s one to be proud of. No, it doesn’t tell you where you fit on a journey described by someone else’s narrative (one that often says more about the vendor than the client). And the more we look at how our data clusters (we’ve tried), the more sure we are that a linear model would at best a gross oversimplification. We try to avoid those – people spot them a mile away.

What our tool does do is help teams and organisation find opportunities, whether that’s to build on strengths, address weaknesses, or to bridge gaps. The subsequent process is far from prescriptive (a material risk if the job of the aforementioned assessment items is to identify specific practices that you’re not doing by the vendor’s book); instead it’s generative:

  1. Decide what prompts (our assessment items) are important. When I’m facilitating, my opinion is not important, and not shared unless I’m asked directly – I value authentic agreement too much to risk undermining it.
  2. Identify what obstacles are in the way and prioritise them
  3. Identify the outcomes that lie unrealised behind those obstacles, the outcomes behind those outcomes, and so on (visit 15-minute FOTO to see how this is done)

You have by now plenty of raw material from which a plan – an agenda for change (see principle #3 in the graphic below) – can be organised. As for realising those outcomes, the approach to take very much depends on what kind of outcome it is:

  • Where there’s already widespread agreement on what needs to be done and what the impact will be: It’s done already (well almost)
  • Things that need a bit more analysis and planning: Delegate someone who will circle back later with a plan
  • The outcomes that you’ll never achieve in one go: Frame a big hypothesis and some smaller/cheaper/safer experiments that will test its assumptions and get you moving in the right direction

I’ve just described Exploration, Mapping, and Elaboration, the middle three chapters of the book and most of the top row in the graphic below. Typically, it’s preceded by Discovery (chapter 1), a way to build broad agreement on what the destination might look like (a broad brush picture, not a design or a detailed plan). At the bottom of the graphic is Operation, which is about the feedback loops and behaviours that sustain change (the fifth and final chapter in the Agendashift book and to be expanded upon in Right to Left).

Screenshot 2018-11-05 14.40.43

(Yes, I’m still tweaking the graphic. The new circular arrows? The moment you learn something, you might decide to revisit your earlier work. You’ll want to do so periodically anyway.)


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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…

Right to Left: a transcript of my Lean Agile Brighton talk

Friday was Lean Agile Brighton, a chance to catch up with friends in the community after the 3-day Brighton workshop with Karl. Here, from memory, is a rough transcript of my talk, the last one of the day (giving me the opportunity to refer back to other speakers), and just 20 minutes long. I don’t often do talks this short, but it was fun! 

PS Over the weekend, I knocked up a cover for Right to Left (the book). It’s in the first slide below, also at agendashift.com/right-to-left, where you’ll find an overview.

Slide01

Like Sal [Freudenberg, @SalFreudenberg, the previous speaker] I’m getting all misty-eyed about coming back to Brighton. My wife’s a Brighton girl, and my first job out of uni was in Lancing, just just down the road from here. My wife’s first boss later became mine (though not at the same time), and he’s in the audience today. Hi Peter! Thirty years!

Another reason to be excited: so many collaborators and influencers here: Karl [Karl Scotland, @kjscotland, one of the conference organisers] Steven [Steven Mackenzie, @busywait], and Liz [Liz Keogh, @lunivore] to name just three.

And I get to meet Caitlin [Caitlin Walker, @caitlinwalkerTA, opening keynote speaker] face to face at last! Her book [From Contempt to Curiosity] was quite an influence on the Agendashift book.

As I talk with colleagues and as I write my third book [see agendashift.com/books and agendashift.com/right-to-left], I detect a convergence: things happening in the Agile world that have long frustrated us but were hard to pin down we now have names for. And that’s good – instead of just complaining, we can begin to find solutions! Look out for couple of those in my talk today.

Slide02

Who here is a Lego fan?

Wow, that’s a lot of hands!

Slide03

If you had to describe Lego, where would you start? On the left with truckloads of plastic granules arriving at the Lego factory, or with children playing with the finished product? Plastic feedstock, or children playing? From the left, or from the right?

From the right of course.

Slide04

Let’s try that with Agile. Where would you start? On the left with backlog items in Jira* (*other tracking tools are available), or on the right with people collaborating over working software that’s already beginning to meet needs? Backlog items in Jira, or people collaborating over working software. Left or right?

Yes, from the right again. You have to wonder though… How often do you hear Agile explained from the left, starting with backlogs, item sizing, and stuff? Rather too often. That’s a problem! It’s very easy to completely miss the point when you start from the wrong perspective.

Slide05

We can do this with Scrum too. On the left we have the two levels of backlog, planning events, and so on. On the right: shared objectives pursued goal by goal.

Here we have two very different descriptions of Scrum, yet both of them entirely compatible with the Scrum Guide. And there are two mindsets represented here. Which mindset is the one more likely to encourage self-organisation, engagement, and innovation? The one that thinks mainly from the left, or the one that thinks from the right?

Again right, no question. Why then do we mostly hear the “from the left” version? Why do goals seem to be treated as though they’re some kind of advanced concept?

Slide06

Now to SAFe, and it’s almost identical: n levels of backlog (where n is a parameter determined by the height of your SAFe poster), planning events and so on (very much like Scrum), or shared objectives pursued goal by goal (the wording here is identical to the previous slide, and it’s 100% compatible with SAFe).

I ask again: Which mindset is the one more likely to encourage self-organisation, engagement, and innovation? The one where progress against plan is closely tracked by the PMO, or the one where teams are encouraged to self-organise around goals?

You’re with me: the one on the right.

I’m not a SAFe user myself, but friends of mine in the SAFe community whose opinions I respect tell me that this tension is already beginning to be acknowledged and discussed in the SAFe community. Some implementations are more one way than the other; sometimes different people on the same project take a different view. Awkward!

Slide07

We’ve done Scrum and SAFe but I’m not quite finished with this pattern yet. Let’s try it with Agile adoption. What’s your kind:

  • Here on the left: Prescribe a solution (or have it sold to you), justify it (manufacturing an inauthentic sense of urgency), roll it out regardless of what people think, and deal with the consequences: the resentment, the cynicism, the disengagement (which is very hard to undo once it’s there), not to mention the realisation that much time has passed, the world has since moved on, and we’ve got to do it all over again! Maybe that sounds a bit like a caricature, but from the nods I’m seeing around the room, I know that this hits pretty close to home for some of you.
  • And here on the right: Agree on some outcomes (a process we’re well practiced now in facilitating), generate some options (based perhaps on expert advice, but perhaps you’re already capable of more than you initially realise), and start to test some assumptions. Who here has worked with Lean Startup? [A few hands go up]. At least somewhat familiar with it? [Several more]. You’ll know that the way we make progress is by relentlessly testing assumptions, and trying to do it in such a way that we often realise some business value in the process. It’s the main engine of progress in Lean Startup, and also a great model for change. Do that for a while and change becomes part of the day job, real work done by real people, not spare-time work, hobby work, or something to outsource.

So which is it? Left or right? I hardly need ask.

The brokenness of that left-to-right model is a serious issue. Here for example is Martin Fowler [@martinfowler], a signatory of the Agile Manifesto:

Slide08

[See agendashift.com/engagement-model]

That’s quite recent, in a 2018 State of Agile Software keynote. But he’s been consistent about this over the years: teams must have choice in their process.

Slide11

[Again: agendashift.com/engagement-model]

Let me highlight this term, Engagement Model. When Daniel Mezick used it in the foreword to my book, I knew right away it was an important term, one that I might perhaps have run with in the book if we weren’t just about to go to print! It’s something I also recognised in Caitlin’s work – in fact the way she deliberately went about discovering and iterating on her engagement model is one of her book’s main threads, even if the phrase itself isn’t there. Of course whether they’re explicit about it or not, every Agile supplier has some kind of engagement model; the question is whether their model does what Daniel’s definition seeks: promoting staff engagement rather than destroying it (creating the kind of disengagement we heard about earlier).

There is a third level to this engagement model thing, and it’s the focus of some of the excited conversations I’ve had with Liz and other collaborators like those I mentioned at the start. As I said, I think we’re converging on something. It’s about teams, as they transform, engaging constructively with their surrounding organisations, not saying “don’t bother us, we’re busy being Agile”. We want both sides to thrive! Hunkering down might make sense for a short while as teams are trying out radically new ways of doing things, but to normalise this attitude is a disaster! How is that going to encourage the organisation as a whole to develop? What we need – and it’s something that Liz said in her talk too – are collaborations and feedback loops that deliberately span organisational boundaries, and we have some great patterns for that. The opportunity is enormous – think just of the opportunities created by cross-boundary participation in strategy, for example.

We have only a few minutes left but I want to give you a taste of what an overtly right-to-left and outcome-oriented approach to change can look like. And based on what we’ve experienced over the course of the day, it’s going to feel surprisingly familiar.

We’ll start with this True North statement:

Slide12

[See agendashift.com/true-north]

Let’s pause for a few moments pause to take that in.

You might remember “Working at your best” from Caitlin’s talk; in my book I give full credit to Caitlin for the inspiration.

Now, to get the conversation started, a question for your neighbour.

Slide13

In pairs: What obstacles do you see in the way?

You’ll recognise question 2 – it was one of the Clean Language Language questions we heard in Caitlin’s keynote:

Slide14

With your neighbour, and with respect to the obstacles you identified: What would you like to have happen?

We’re starting a process Caitlin described as “modelling a landscape”; here we’re modelling a particular kind of landscape, a landscape of obstacles and outcomes. We could dig into the obstacles, but instead we’re going to go deeper into outcome space – it turns out this is a much better use of our time (quick book plug: Solutions Focus):

Slide15

In your pairs: Then what happens?

People sometimes say to me “Oh, this is the 5 Whys!”. In a way it is, but here we’re going forwards into outcome space, not backwards into obstacle space. But now that we’re on the subject, I have to tell the 5 Whys joke:

Q: Why are the 5 Whys called the 5 Whys
A: Because with the 6th Why you get a punch in the face

We could break a relentless line of questioning with a different choice of question, perhaps one of the questions Caitlin introduced to us this morning. But let’s risk it:

Slide16

In your pairs: Then what happens?

Slide17

[See agendashift.com/15-minute-foto]

What we’ve done here is a super-quick, stripped-down version of our Clean Language coaching game, 15-minute FOTO. We’ve open sourced it, so you can download everything you need to play the full version. We do it in table groups of around 4 people, and in just 15 minutes, each group can easily generate 15 or more outcomes. Across a few table groups it can generate loads – it’s really effective.

Slide18

[See agendashift.com/overview]

In our workshops or as part of a longer engagement we actually use it twice: once as part of Discovery, to help explore our ambitions and aspirations, and for a second time in Exploration when we’re looking for the opportunities to take forward.

Slide19

[See agendashift.com/done]

I’m done, at least in the sense that my 20 minutes are up. I hope that someone’s need was met. Thank you very much.


Upcoming public Agendashift workshops (Italy, Germany * 2):


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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…