There will be caveats: Warming cautiously to OKR

From the Agendashift Slack a few days ago:

Early morning crazy thoughts spoken out loud:
Wholehearted: bringing OKRs to life with Agendashift
A workshop based on and expanded from edited highlights of the core Agendashift workshop and the outside-in strategy review

Why “crazy thoughts”? The background: we’ve been discussing Objectives and Key Results (OKR) [1] in multiple corners of the Agendashift Slack in recent weeks (channels #wholehearted-x, #bookclub, and #strategy) and I didn’t hide my nervousness.  Isn’t OKR just Management by Objectives (MBO) rebranded, with all the dysfunction [2] that goes with it?

To cut a long story short (two books later), it’s clear now that Agendashift  – outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation [3, 4, 5] – and OKR are a great fit – so great that they almost seem made for each other. As recently as this week, Karl Scotland blogged about the combination (more accurately he blogged about Agendashift and 4DX, but the distinction isn’t that important):

I do still have reservations. It was – shall we say – an interesting experience reading (or listening to) Doerr [6] and Wodtke [7]. Good books both, but page after page (hour after hour) my frustration would grow before my concerns would finally be acknowledged. Given the risks (and they’re recognised), it seems clear to me now that OKR has something in common with Agile process frameworks: how you approach the framework matters very much more than the choice of framework itself. Depending on your point of view you may find that thought subversive (helpfully or otherwise), heretical, or commonsense; as for me, I’ve staked my career on it.

So to my caveats. Coming from where I’m coming from, they’re significant enough that they should treated not as footnotes but up front as design principles. OKRs must be:

  1. Respectful of diversity and autonomy at individual and team level
  2. Agreed through meaningful participation
  3. Executed knowing the difference between implementation and experimentation

Caveat 1: Respectful of diversity and autonomy at individual and team level

An objection sometimes laid at the door of OKR is that it’s all about alignment, and that the goal of alignment is to bring about some kind of monoculture. I reject this as a strawman argument; the goal of OKR is to provide enough direction that the organisation isn’t destroying its ability to get things done because its different parts keep pulling in opposing directions. For most organisations, too much alignment would be a nice problem to have, and address that very common issue well, great things can happen. In practice, key results (the KR part of OKR) aren’t long lasting (they work in timeframes ranging from days to months), and even many objectives (the O part) don’t last for more than a quarter; good luck creating a monoculture that quickly!

That argument dismissed, it’s worth remembering that OKR is a tool for strategy deployment [8], not operations management, and it’s explicit that existing operations must continue to perform well even as they undergo change. Resilient operations in an unpredictable world depends on diversity (you need to be ready to respond in different ways to respond as both conditions and internal designs change), and only a fool would seek to destroy options for the sake of consistency. Technically, we’re in the world of Ashby’s law of requisite variety [9]; colloquially, power is where the options are. If you can, why not create that power everywhere?

But that’s just the technical argument. Take away from people and teams their ability to create and exercise options and you destroy their autonomy. With that you destroy their engagement – and then it’s game over if what you need is their energy and creativity. So how then is strategy deployment meant to work?

Caveat 2: Agreed through meaningful participation

The textbook answer to this conundrum is that OKR works both top down and bottom up. Some objectives come from on high, with lower levels defining their own objectives and key results to suit. Others bubble up, high level objectives somehow summarising (blessing?) what needs to happen lower down.

I’ve long since abandoned this “Top down vs bottom up? It’s both!” thing. It’s a cop out that does little to help the inexperienced manager and may put even the experienced manager in a bind; small wonder that middle managers can be a miserable bunch (I’ve been one, so I know). Middle out is no help either; as with the iron triangle, it’s time to recognise that these metaphors make little sense in open-ended and high feedback contexts. Also, they are hierarchical in a way that’s quite unnecessary, and clinging to them just gets in the way.

My answer – and it comes from an area where Agendashift excels – lies in participation: facilitating challenging and meaningful conversations about obstacles and outcomes (and progress thereon), making sure that they take place frequently both within and between strategy, development, and delivery, and have diversity of representation in terms of both functional responsibility and seniority. In place of top-down imposition, authentic agreement on outcomes becomes the basis for change. Where in the past innovation and intelligence would become increasingly diluted and distorted as news passed up the chain, now we create frequent opportunity for rapid and informed responses.

Of my two most recent books, authentic agreement on outcomes is a key theme of Agendashift. My latest book, Right to Left [10] explores the implications for organisation design and leadership in much greater depth, in the final two chapters most especially.

Caveat 3: Executed knowing the difference between implementation and experimentation

A common lightbulb moment for participants in Agendashift workshops comes when we organise outcomes using the Cynefin Four Points Contextualisation exercise. We dare not speak its name up front – it rather spoils the surprise – so we go by the pseudonym “Option approach mapping” initially [11]:

mapping

The key insight is that not all outcomes are alike. Easily recognised (and all shades and combinations in between these extremes):

  • Some are uncontroversial and don’t need digging into, regardless of whether they’re to be done right away or kept for another day
  • Some you’re confident can be achieved reliably, but first they will need to be broken down by someone who knows what they’re doing
  • Others can be approached in different ways, but no single approach (or combination thereof) is guaranteed to deliver the outcome in its entirety; consequently we’re in the land of iteration and experimentation
  • Sometimes, where to start and even who to ask is beyond current knowledge

Reading/listening to OKR’s fascination with stretch goals, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only thing in question with each one is whether we can do it in the time we’ve set for ourselves. If that’s your only hypothesis, much opportunity for learning – about customer needs as much as organisation capability or technical possibility – will be missed. Moreover, choosing a sequential approach when an iterative one is needed (or vice versa) is a costly mistake to make – costly not only in time and money but in reputations too. The books do get there in the end, but honestly, I feel they could do better. For some balance on issues of complexity, I’d suggest pairing Doerr with McChrystal [12], and Wodtke (which seems to be aimed at the startup community) with a good Lean Startup book, of which my favourite is Maurya’s [13].

So what are we left with?

Ten years ago I saw my employer, UBS, nearly destroyed by the scandalously ill-chosen ill-managed, and under-informed pursuit of the wrong goals (the recommendations of a benchmarking exercise conducted by a big name consultancy), so I speak from the heart here. But I’m not warning you against OKR – in all honesty I’m really warming to it.

My caveats take nothing away, because I don’t think I’ve said anything contrary to the literature, albeit that it takes a long time getting round to it. So a few pointers:

  • Find groups of people – let’s call them circles –  who share (or should share) some common objectives. Give them the opportunity to explore thoroughly their landscape of obstacles and outcomes, decide what’s important, and set some priorities. Agendashift is the manual on that! Expect them to track progress and revisit both their understanding and (accordingly) their plans on appropriate cadences.
  • Look for overlaps between circles, and where they don’t (a single manager isn’t enough), delegate people into the intersections. Not only will the conversations here be a lot more interesting and challenging, but we’re very obviously creating opportunities for both alignment and mutual accountability. A wider organisation listening not just for progress but for learning here will be sending a powerful message (not to mention learning itself – if it’s listening).
  • Metrics can be great, but don’t reduce it all to numbers. I’d argue that the “Measure what matters” in the title of Doerr’s book is a little misleading – certainly it deterred me for a while! Moreover, and as Doerr rightly emphasises, it would be a catastrophic mistake to connect OKRs with individual compensation (Drucker’s plausible but ultimately disastrous error with MBO).

If you’ve read Right to Left, you’ll know where the above comes from. If you haven’t, put it on your list. Doerr, Wodtke, and my recommended pairings too! Mercifully, mine isn’t too long, so you might want to start there 🙂

[1] Objectives and key results (OKR) (wikipedia.org)
[2] Management by Objectives, Arguments against (wikipedia.org)
[3] About Agendashift™ (agendashift.com)
[4] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation (2018)
[5] Agendashift partner programme
[6] Measure What Matters: OKRs – The Simple Idea that Drives 10x Growth, John Doerr (2018)
[7] Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results, Christine Wodtke (2016)
[8] What is Strategy Deployment (availagility.co.uk)
[9] Variety (Cybernetics) (wikipedia.org)
[10] Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile (2019)
[11] Agendashift in 12 icons
[12] Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, General Stanley McChrystal et al (2015)
[13] Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works, Ash Maurya (2012)


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It’s out! Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile

Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile is released out today in both print and Kindle editions, with other e-book formats to follow. Find it here:

  • Amazon UK (amazon.co.uk) and Amazon US (amazon.com), disregarding Amazon’s incorrect estimated shipping dates
  • Waterstones (waterstones.com)
  • Barnes & Noble (barnesandnoble.com)
  • Or search “Right to Left Mike Burrows” at your favourite online bookstore

And when you’ve read it, do please leave a review – it really helps.

Whoop – I was lucky enough to read Mike’s new book as it formed. It somehow manages to be a crisp, articulate read with depth and reflection. Mike has written an essential read for anyone interested in people-centric, pragmatic, outcome-based change. I’m very happy to recommend this and excited for Mike!

Angie Main (linkedin.com), Change & Organisational Development Lead, UK

A third book, and so soon after the last one! Why this one, and why should I read it?

Most people reading this announcement ve rcould easily describe themselves a digital leader of some kind, whether that’s understood in some corporate sense or perhaps as a practitioner of Agile, a movement whose co-evolution with the rise of digital technology is no accident. Whichever way you respond to the term, this book is for you.

Both audiences – and yes, there’s a challenge there – deserve a book that does all of these things:

  • Speaks with empathy and from experience to anyone who is called to digital leadership or might have it thrust upon them
  • Speaks respectfully, insightfully, and at times firmly to Lean, Agile, and its other key sources and communities – avoiding lazy dogma and tribalism, and not excusing failures and excesses either
  • Represents a clear departure from 20th century thinking, not falling into the trap of trying to explain Agile and Lean-Agile in the terms of past models

To give a sense of what makes this book different, let me present two representative elements: the Right to Left metaphor, and my kind of Agile. In place of a glossary, a selection of short and characteristic extracts such as the two below are collected in Appendix B, My kind of…

Right to Left:

A whole-process focus on needs and outcomes … Putting outcomes before process, ends before means, vision before detail, “why” before “what”, “what” before “how”, and so on. It can also mean considering outputs before inputs, but give me outcomes over outputs, every time.

Simultaneously visualising this and echoing Agile’s manifesto, what if Agile meant putting the things on the right (needs met, outcomes realised) ahead of everything to their left (process, tools, practices, and so on)? Happily, an explicitly outcome-oriented Agile is straightforward enough to describe, and it makes me wonder why it is not done more often. Perhaps Right to Left will change that!

Agile (short version):

People collaborating over the rapid evolution of working software that is already beginning to meet needs

Whether or not you get the references, if you get that definition, you will love this book. If you don’t get it, you need to read it.

Across chapters 1-4, Right to Left is both the metaphor by which the fundamentals are (re-)introduced and the fresh perspective from which the Lean-Agile landscape is surveyed. The last two chapters, 5. Outside in and 6. Upside down, take complementary perspectives on issues of organisation, change, governance, strategy, and leadership, drawing on Viable System Model (VSM), Servant Leadership, Sociocracy (aka Dynamic Governance), and of course Agendashift for inspiration. In case you’re wondering why I reference models from outside the Lean-Agile mainstream, let it be said for now that process frameworks, the Agile practitioner’s stock-in-trade, will never be enough. For a more considered treatment of frameworks than that, you’ll have to read the book!

Readers of my previous books will have some sense of Right to Left‘s humane and optimistic philosophy already. My first, Kanban from the Inside (2014), was organised around values and it’s only a short step from values to outcomes. Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation (2018) describes a 21st century approach to change; for reasons of focus it leaves behind a Right to Left-shaped hole that I knew would be exciting to fill. If you’ve read neither of those, start instead with my latest and see where your interest takes you – I give full credit to my sources and provide an extensive recommended reading list.

For further book-related news and conversation, follow us on Twitter, join the #right-to-left channel in the Agendashift Slack, and check out blog posts tagged right-to-left. Via the Right to Left page on agendashift.com you can send book-related questions direct to my email inbox (or simply wish me luck!) and subscribe to the mailing list.

Enjoy!
Mike

cover-right-to-left-2019-04-26.001 border


August 15th 2019: Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile is released today in both print and Kindle editions, with other e-book formats to follow. Find it here:

Agendashift founder Mike Burrows is known to the Agile and Lean-Agile communities as the author of Kanban from the Inside (2014) and Agendashift (2018), the creator of the Featureban and Changeban simulation games, a keynote speaker at conferences around the world, and as a consultant, coach, and trainer. His new book Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile is published August 15th 2019.

Right to Left‘s foreword is by John Buck, Director at GovernanceAlive LLC (MD, USA), co-author with Sharon Villenes of We the people: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy (2nd Ed. 2019) and co-author with Jutta Eckstein of Company-wide Agility with Beyond Budgeting, Open Space & Sociocracy: Survive & Thrive on Disruption (2018).

Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: New Generation Publishing (15 Aug. 2019)
ISBN-10: 1789555310
ISBN-13: 978-1789555318

Agendashift in 12 icons

Ten days until the big one – Right to Left comes out on the 15th – but still time to squeeze in something Agendashift-related…

Count carefully! Agendashift in 12 icons:

discoveryexplorationmappingelaboration-operation

They have a new section on the Agendashift home page and a dedicated page at agendashift.com/icons, both with links to related resources.

To see them in a bit more context, check out these workshop-related pages:

Other opportunities to experience all of this for yourself this autumn: Stockholm (9-10 September), Athens (17-18 September), Istanbul (26th October), and Berlin (13-14 November).

*The early bird discount for the London workshop expires at the end of this month so grab it while you can!

Credits:

  • Idea: this was one of several ideas discussed at the last Berlin workshop (writeup here, though this particular idea isn’t mentioned)
  • Produced in collaboration with Steven Mackenzie with the encouragement of Mike Haber, whose Celebration-5W template design is reflected in its icon
  • I appreciate also Teddy Zetterlund‘s input on naming of items in the third and fourth rows – I’m pleased how options emerges more clearly as a theme, with Mapping (the fourth row) bringing about the shift in perspective
  • Inspiration: Liberating Structures (www.liberatingstructures.com) and The Noun Project (thenounproject.com)

And as you’d expect, Creative Commons. See the icons page for details.


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Visualising Agendashift: The why and how of outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation

First, what doesn’t work (or at least it fails more often than it succeeds), transformation (Agile or otherwise) as project:

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.27.19.png

Using a shallow and dysfunctional version of a model that was already tired 20 years ago [1], linear plan meets adaptive challenge in a complex environment. Seriously? I’m not sure which is the saddest thing – that its failure modes are so painfully familiar, or that they’re so avoidable:

  • Instead of obsessing over how to overcome resistance, stop provoking it! Instead of imposing change, make it a process that is open in a big way to meaningful participation and creative collaboration.
  • Wrong solutions aren’t a problem if your experiments are:
    1. small enough to fail quickly, cheaply, and safely
    2. framed to generate learning about real needs, succeed or fail
  • Instead of being driven by solutions – with energy wasted on the consequences of  commitments made in the past – organise around outcomes, getting quickly to the point where you can confirm that they are already beginning to be realised
  • Instead of a depressing sequence of failed change projects – each of which on its own would risk fatigue – normalise a continuous style of change, baking it into everyday ways of working

None of this is hard. Despite its record of failure though, that linear model has familiarity on its side, not to mention generations of managers being taught that this how things are done “properly”. Thankfully, credible alternatives do exist however (see [2] for a selection), and here’s Agendashift (this is the Agendashift blog after all).

Agendashift’s defining characteristic is that it is outcome-oriented. Just about every part of it deals in some way with outcomes: identifying them, articulating them, organising them, working out how they might be achieved, and on on. In this post I endeavour to visualise that process.

I will describe Agendashift in 10 steps. That might sound worryingly linear, but there’s some structure to it:

  • Steps 1-4 are happening frequently, at different levels of detail, and to varying degrees of formality – in fact those are just some of the ways in which Agendashift scales (the topic of a forthcoming post). Together, these steps represent a coaching pattern (or routine, or kata if you like).  It’s not just for practitioners – we teach it to participants too, introducing a more outcome-oriented kind of conversation into organisations that may have become over-reliant on solution-driven conversations.
  • Steps 5-9 are about managing options, a continuous process punctuated from time to time by more intense periods of activity.
  • Step 10 could just as easily be numbered step 0 – it’s about the organisational infrastructure necessary to sustain the transformation process.

Steps 1-4: A coaching pattern that anyone can practice

Step 1: Bring the challenge close to home

The pattern starts with some kind of generative image, the organisation development (OD) community’s term for “ideas, phrases, objects, pictures, manifestos, stories, or new words” that are both compelling in themselves and are capable of generating a diverse range of positive responses [3, 4].

Agendashift provides a number of these starting points:

  • The Agendashift True North [5]
  • The prompts of one of the Agendashift assessments; the Agendashift delivery assessment in particular has 43 of these, a few of which are prioritised by people individually or in small groups
  • Potentially, any of the outcomes generated through this process overall (we make this explicit in the Full Circle exercise, presented in the book [6] as an epilogue)

Sometimes these generative images may seem out of reach, but nevertheless, reflecting on them is typically a positive experience, sometimes even cathartic. The invitation is simple:

  • “What’s that like? How is it different to what you have now?”
  • “What’s happening when this is working at its best for you?”
  • “X months down the line, what will you be celebrating?”

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.27.40.png

Step 2: Identify obstacles

Again, a simple question:

  • “What obstacles are in the way?”

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.28.01.png

Step 3 (optional): Clarify

Deep diagnosis at this stage tends not to be productive. Sometimes however it can be helpful to clarify a little, when obstacles seem vague and/or overgeneralised, or when they seem to prescribe a solution already:

  • “What kind of X?” (the X here referring to an obstacle)
  • “What’s happening when X?”  (ditto, this question being helpful for finding the real obstacles that motivate prematurely-specified solutions)

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.28.31.png

Step 4: Outcomes, more outcomes, and yet more outcomes 

From our generative image, a generative process, one capable of producing lots of output! It starts with a classic coaching question:

  • “What would you like to have happen?” (for an obstacle)

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.29.09.png

Moving deeper into ‘outcome space’:

  • “And when X, then what happens?” (the X here identifying an outcome noted previously)

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.29.24.png

Clarifying, exploring locally, or preparing to take conversation in different direction:

  • “What kind of X?”
  • “What is happening when X?”

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.29.37.png

See [7] for more of these Clean Language questions (with a video) and [8] for an brief introduction to how they work. What we have here is a highly repeatable coaching pattern adaptable to a wide range of contexts. And as we practice it we’re teaching change agents of every kind how to speak the language of outcomes.

Steps 5-9: Managing options

These steps are about managing the bigger picture (sometimes quite literally):

Step 5: Organise (Map)

Here are two possible visual organisations of the generated outcomes: the Options Orientation Map (aka Reverse Wardley [9,10]) and something akin to a User Story Map, with outcomes prioritised in columns:

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.32.21.png

Step 6: Prioritise, just in time

When – by design – everything is changing, it’s better to give yourself options than to decide and specify everything up front:

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.32.34.png

Step 7: Choose the right kind of approach

Outcomes don’t just vary by size or difficulty, they differ fundamentally:

  • Outcomes that need the minimum of ceremony, because everyone can easily agree what needs to be done
  • Outcomes that can be delegated to someone with the necessary expertise
  • Outcomes for which multiple ways forward can be identified, yet (paradoxically perhaps) it’s clear that the journey will involve twists and turns that are hard to predict
  • Outcomes for which it’s hard to see beyond symptomatic fixes

If you’re thinking Cynefin at this point, well spotted! See [9, 10] again.

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.32.52.png

Step 8: Generate options

Where you want innovation, create the opportunity to generate multiple options for the outcome or outcomes currently under the spotlight, and as diverse as you can make them. If you have a framework in mind and it has good options for your current challenges, include them! (We’re framework-agnostic, not anti-framework!)

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.33.05.png

Step 9: Frame hypotheses, develop experiments

Not every outcome is best approached this way (see step 7), but where uncertainty is high, frame your chosen option as a hypothesis, then develop it as an experiment [11]:

Keeping the show on the road

Step 10: Rinse and repeat

So often said, and so often ignored! Whenever you hear “change cycle” or “improvement cycle”, it’s important to ask about the mechanisms in your organisation design (structure, process, leadership behaviours, etc) that will sustain the process. That’s a question we know to ask, and we have some helpful patterns to suggest when the current organisation design is lacking.

Among other things, we’re looking for at least three levels of feedback loop:

  1. The day-to-day meetings whose purpose is to help people make informed choices about what to do, where to collaborate, and when to seek help
  2. Operational review meetings that:
    • Step far enough back from the day-to-day to scrutinise progress (or lack thereof) in terms of both speed and direction
    • Create expectations of continuous and impactful experimentation
    • Cause learnings to be aired and spread
  3. Strategic review meetings that reconfirm key objectives (calibrating the level of ambition appropriately), and ensure the right levels of commitment relative to other goals

One way to visualise the strategic calibration part is as an “aspiration gap”, the area in red below between the outcomes being worked towards and the overall challenge that seeded this process.

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.33.31.png

Sometimes the aspiration gap is so big that it isn’t even recognised – not seeing the wood for the trees, so to speak. With too little ambition and too little coherence across the options under consideration, both energy and alignment are lacking. Continuous improvement initiatives are prone to this; their failure modes may be different from those of the linear change project but failure here is still uncomfortably common.

Conversely, when the aspiration gap is small, there may be too much focus on an overly specific objective, leaving few options available outside a prescribed path. You’re into linear planning territory again, and we know how that goes!

This is why those three feedback loops are so necessary. Almost by definition, continuous transformation needs daily conversations. For it to be sustained, it also needs a tangible sense of progress and periodic reorientation and recalibration.

“Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation” – the strapline to the Agendashift book – summarises the process pretty well. If there’s anything hard about it, it is simply that it’s a departure from that familiar but tired old linear model, the one that we all know doesn’t really work. So dare to try something new!

References

[1] What kind of Organisational Development (OD)? (And a book recommendation)
[2] Engagement: more than a two-way street
[3] Notes on Dialogic Organizational Development (medium.com)
[4] Gervase Bushe: Generative Images (youtube.com)
[5] Resources: True North
[6] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation
[7] 15-minute FOTO
[8] My favourite Clean Language question
[9] Stringing it together with Reverse Wardley
[10] Takeaways from Boston and Berlin
[11] The Agendashift A3 template


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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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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 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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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…

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:


Subscribe here for monthly roundups and very occasional mid-month announcements

Upcoming public Agendashift workshops (India*2, US*2, UK, Netherlands):

Also: Channel #agendashift-studio in the Agendashift Slack if interested in a cozy workshop with me at Agendashift HQ (Derbyshire, England).


Agendashift-cover-thumbBlog: Monthly roundups | Classic posts
Links: Home | About | Partners | Resources | Contact | Mike
Community: Slack | LinkedIn group | Twitter

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…