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.)


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…

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):


Agendashift-cover-thumbBlog: Monthly roundups | Classic posts
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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…

Engagement: more than a two-way street

September 14th, 2018 is the second anniversary of Agendashift’s public launch. I’m marking the occasion with a post that describes a key motivation and gives some clues about where we’re headed. And while we’re here, if you haven’t recently checked our programme of upcoming workshops, there are four listed at the bottom. Enjoy!

We all know what employee disengagement looks like, how it saps energy and creativity, and not just in the unengaged. I won’t go into all the causes and symptoms here, but briefly, if you take away people’s agency – their perceived ability to make choices for themselves – a stress response is provoked, and not the kind of stress that you would want to find in an organisation that hopes to see people working at their best [1].

Just as anywhere else, disengagement is a very bad sign in the context of [Lean-]Agile transformation. It’s a sign that the change agents (managers, consultants, coaches, etc) don’t know what they’re doing! If people are disengaging because there’s the perception that they have no say in how things are going to work inside their teams, it strongly suggests that they have been denied the opportunity to participate meaningfully in the transformation process. This represents an inexcusable failure to engage on the part of the change agents responsible. It would seem that engagement is a two-way street (actually it’s more four-way intersection than two-way street, but we’ll come to that).

In short, 20th century-style rollout projects and managed change programmes run the risk of destroying engagement. Not only do the ends not justify the means, the means don’t work if the goal is an engaged and creative workforce. That it keeps happening is “an absolute travesty”, as Martin Fowler (an Agile Manifesto signatory) recently put it [2].

So ‘Big Agile’ bad, ‘Small Agile’ good? Not so fast. Agilists lamenting a lack of Agility in the organisation is not engagement. Tweeting false dichotomies about management vs leadership is not likely to engage many managers. Praying for viral adoption is not much of a growth strategy. And don’t get me started on the passive aggression (“We’re so Agile, we only let our stakeholders talk to us in the Sprint review” [3]).

A plague on both their houses then? No! The arguments between the two sides keep missing the crucial point that success depends on engagement. It’s a phony war, fought on the wrong battleground, few shots landed. The apparently less exciting good news: the more that they do engage, the less obviously top-down or bottom-up they become and the more that they have in common. Funny that.

It should now be clear why engagement models [4] such as Agendashift [5], OpenSpace Agility (OSA) [6], Systemic Modelling [7], BOSSA nova [8], and TASTE [9] are so necessary. Non-prescriptive by design, they work happily with frameworks big or small, branded or home-brewed, and with each other. In their various and complementary ways, they bring people together from multiple levels of the organisation, help the organisation collectively to reveal to itself what needs to change, and come to agreement on what needs to change.

But we can go further. In a transformation of any reasonable size, it is inevitable that different parts of the organisation will move forward at different speeds, and this will keep on throwing up new challenges. If we want the ‘new’ to survive and then thrive, then its surrounding organisation must too. If the new is to grow, then the old must adapt. Both have needs, those needs will evolve over time, and attending to them is key to the viability [10] of not just the transformation, but the organisation itself.

What’s needed then is another kind of engagement: not person-to-person but system-to-system. It raises questions like these:

  • How does strategy work going forward? How will ‘old’ and ‘new’ participate in the processes of strategy development and deployment?
  • On the day-to-day stuff of delivery, how will old and new coordinate with each other effectively?
  • How might this play out over time, and what implications will that have for the easily-forgotten, slower-changing, but still critical parts of the organisation? (For example, what role do HR and Finance play in the staffing, skilling, and funding of a very different-looking organisation?)
  • How will we know that it’s working? How will we know to intervene when it is not?
  • How will we know that we’re winning? Then what?

These questions could easily be re-framed so that Agendashift-style tools can be used to explore this evolving landscape. For example:

  • What obstacles will prevent ‘old’ and ‘new’ participating in the processes of strategy development and deployment as we move forward?

(Then from obstacles to outcomes (FOTO) [11] – you know the drill)

Whether we’re talking about Agile process frameworks or engagement models, I don’t honestly think it’s sensible to expect off-the-shelf products to have answers to these questions. What’s important is that they’re asked and answered, then re-asked and re-answered as the transformation progresses. Instead of glossing over them, how about embracing them? Does this not invite management from both sides of any old/new divide to become more engaged, to take more responsibility for the process, and for new kinds of leadership to develop as a result?

Screenshot 2018-09-14 05.50.14
No shortage of opportunities for both kinds of engagement [12]
I believe this represents a massive opportunity for the engagement models. It’s not that we didn’t already kinda know this, but we’re going to make it more explicit, both because it’s important in its own right and because it further exposes the bankruptcy of approaches based on imposition and other negligent forms of non-engagement. A concerted effort is gathering a head of steam here in Agendashift-land [13], and we collaborate with our friends in our peer communities too. No lack of choice there!

Notes & references

[1] I credit the phrase “working at your best” to Caitlin Walker’s From Contempt to Curiosity: Creating the Conditions for Groups to Collaborate Using Clean Language and Systemic Modelling, Caitlin Walker (2014, Clean Publishing). You can see its influence in the Agendashift True North (agendashift.com/true-north).

[2] The State of Agile Software in 2018 (martinfowler.com). Key quote:

The Agile Industrial Complex imposing methods on people is an absolute travesty

[3] A sensible enough short-term policy designed to protect the newly-forming team becomes dogma, to the long-term detriment of all.

[4] Engagement model: For Daniel Mezick’s quick introduction to the concept, see Engagement (openspaceagility.com). Key quotes:

Engagement Model (noun) : Any pattern, or set of patterns, reducible to practice, which results in more employee engagement, during the implementation of an organizational-change initiative.

If you cannot name your Engagement Model, you don’t have one.

[5] Agendashift™: agendashift.com, and of course the book, with communities on Slack and LinkedIn. Twitter: @agendashift

[6] OpenSpace Agility™: openspaceagility.com, with communities on Facebook and LinkedIn.

[7] Systemic Modelling™: See Clean For Teams: An Introduction to Systemic Modelling (cleanlearning.co.uk) and Caitlin Walker’s book above [1].

[8] BOSSA nova: See the website and the book by Jutta Eckstein and John Buck. Twitter: @AgileBossaNova

[9] TASTE: Karl Scotland’s take on Lean strategy deployment, with the X-Matrix as a key artefact. See the blog posts TASTE Impacts, Outcomes and Outputs and TASTE Success with an X-Matrix Template. Karl is also a leading collaborator on Agendashift; the upcoming Brighton workshop (see Upcoming Agendashift workshops below) includes both.

[10] My choice of the word ‘viability’ is deliberate. Its conventional meaning works fine, but I’m also alluding to Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model (VSM). Rather than the somewhat impenetrable Wikipedia page I would wholeheartedly recommend Patrick Hoverstadt’s excellent book The Fractal Organisation.

[11] 15-minute FOTO (agendashift.com/15-minute-foto), our Clean Language-inspired coaching game, Creative Commons licensed, available now in several translations.

[12] Figure based on Agendashift chapter 5 and my keynote Inverting the pyramid.

[13] Channels #right-to-left and #systhink-complexity in the Agendashift Slack. Note the title of the pivotal fourth chapter of Right to Left (due 2019). Twitter: @RightToLeft3

Acknowledgements: I’m grateful to Allan Kelly, Daniel Mezick, Philippe Guenet*, Karl Scotland*, Mike Haber, Thorbjørn Sigberg*, Andrea Chiou*, and Jutta Eckstein for their feedback on earlier drafts of this post. Asterisks indicate Agendashift partners.


Upcoming Agendashift workshops (UK, IT, DE)


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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 small departure from the book

Slightly technical, but if you’re interested in what we know to be a remarkably effective combination of Clean Language, Cynefin, and Story Mapping as practiced in most Agendashift workshops, read on…

One of the notable highlights of an Agendashift workshop comes when we take the list of outcomes generated by the 15-minute FOTO game [1], transcribe them onto stickies, and organise them 4-points style [2]:

cynefin-finished-2017-12-16

Through the experience of the ‘4 points contextualisation exercise’ (to give it almost its full name), participants are slowly introduced to the Cynefin framework [3], the facilitator trying all the while to avoid naming the model or using Cynefin terminology such as ‘obvious’, ‘complicated’, ‘complex’, or ‘chaos’ (trust me, it’s hard!). For participants familiar with the model, it’s always a funny moment when the penny finally drops and the realisation dawns that Cynefin can be so much more than just a conceptual model, especially when there’s a good supply of ‘narrative fragments’ – outcomes, in our case – to play with. For those that haven’t come across it before, it’s a great opportunity to explore why different kinds of outcomes need different kinds of approaches, a lesson that’s much more meaningful when it’s learned through interacting with your own data (‘sensemaking’) than it would be as a lecture.

Up to now – and as described in the book [4] – the translation from the Cynefin representation to one based on a story map has been a 2-stage process. First, a few minutes of organised chaos as stickies are moved to under their respective headings:

Second, as much time as we want to spend – anything from a few moments to an hour or more – prioritising stickies within columns, and through that process making sure that there is a shared understanding of what each of them means and their possible dependencies on other stickies. Anyone who has done story mapping before will recognise that this can provide an important opportunity for some valuable conversations; we’ve found this to be the case even in public workshops, with ‘teachable moments’ aplenty.

A refinement

Instead of the ‘organised chaos’ followed by prioritisation, work clockwise from bottom right, prioritising as we go:

  • Starting with the ‘obviously obvious’: Sticky by sticky, check that they really are obvious (ie we can all quickly agree what needs to be done and can be pretty sure of the likely outcome), put them in their correct columns, and prioritise. Prioritisation will be easy, as there’ll be at most a few per column, a mixture of quick wins and less important items.
  • The ‘borderline complicated’: For the items on the border between obvious and complicated, explore why they were placed there, and discuss what should be done about their non-obvious aspects (perhaps there’s some important detail that someone will need to get to grips with). Prioritise them relative to the already-prioritised ‘obviously obvious’ items in their respective columns (again, this should be easy)
  • The complicated, one sticky at a time: who might be delegated to run with this item? Should we get some external help? In its appropriate column, how does it prioritise relative to the items already there?

I could at this point say “and so on through the complex and chaos” but the facilitator will flag up here that anything in or bordering on complex is likely to be a good candidate for hypothesis-based change (a session later in the day, see also [5]), and so it’s a good idea to mark each item in some way so that they can be identified easily later. And for the borderline cases:

  • ‘Borderline complex’: Are the complicated and complex parts easily separable? How will we organise this, mainly linear with some room for refinement along the way, or mainly through iteration with some expert input or planned work at the appropriate time?
  • ‘Borderline chaos’: Is it urgent to address symptoms or or attempt some diagnosis now, or can we afford to wait until we see what’s thrown up in the course of other work?

I’ll be honest: it’s still early days for this change and there’s no slideware [6] for it yet – if any is needed we’ll learn that through practice and by partner demand. That’s usually the best way!

[1] 15-minute FOTO, our Clean Language-inspired coaching game
[2] Cynefin Review Part 7 – Finding Your Place on the Framework (adventureswithagile.com)
[3] The Cynefin framework (wikipedia.org)
[4] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation, Mike Burrows (New Generation Press, 2018), chapters 2 and 3 in particular
[5] The Agendashift A3 template (and chapter 4)
[6] The Agendashift partner programme

Finally, some opportunities to experience it for yourself:


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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…

You can’t deliver a task

As suggested in the July roundup, this is the first of a few posts expanding on tweets that have sprung to mind while writing (or thinking about writing) my third book, working title Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile.

Years ago, in my past life as a manager (which I still re-enter from time to time as an interim), I learned that there was little value in me tracking tasks. What mattered to me was the deliverable. Interestingly, I noticed that when I visibly stopped taking an interest in tasks, most of my team members followed suit. I said “It’s completely fine by me to tasks on the board if that’s what works for you, but I’m not going to ask about them”, and soon the task stickies disappeared.

As a team, we made rare exceptions for features that failed our “2 day rule”, which is to say features that at a very rough guess would require more than a couple of days worth of development. Experience taught us that these were disproportionately risky, so it seemed justified to insist on some kind of plan. Of course what actually happened was that most of these big features got sliced into smaller features, and then everyone’s happy to go back to feature-level tracking.

Stop tracking tasks, and no longer does the tracking system drive the developer to work in a way that doesn’t seem natural. A bit over here, a bit over there, then back to the first bit… if the tests say it’s fine, it’s fine! Two people with different skills working together on the same feature? Go for it! And at a stroke it eliminates the anti-pattern of “tasks for quality” – ie separate tasks for unit tests, refactoring, and the like (in the global department I ran more than a decade ago, these tasks disappeared when I asked why these things weren’t happening as the code was being written; I guess my predecessor didn’t see things in quite the same way).

And then there’s the whole question of when a task can be said to be “done”. How do you that some low-level piece of work is really done if the feature as a whole isn’t yet working? Somehow I think that this may have come up before….

Screenshot 2018-05-05 06.23.15Our handy, referenceable, Definition of Done

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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’ works for Scrum too

Update: See the landing page for the forthcoming book Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile (due summer 2019)

Here’s a conventional, left-to-right [1] description of Scrum:

A Product Backlog (all the stuff we’d like to do), a Sprint Backlog (the stuff we plan to do this sprint), then a Sprint (a timebox) that culminates in a potentially shippable increment, a review, and a retrospective. Rinse and repeat.

To me, this is how NOT to describe Scrum. Is it a straw man, put up just so that I can knock it down? Hardly! Not all descriptions of Scrum follow this narrative, but it’s common enough. Complete with a video, here’s a nicely-produced example from a reliable source, the Scrum Alliance: Learn about Scrum (web.archive.org). It’s one of the first pages returned by Google in response to the question “What is Scrum?”.

The bullet points below are the first few from that page’s 30 second summary, and they’re very close to the commentary on the video:

  • A product owner creates a prioritized wish list called a product backlog.
  • During sprint planning, the team pulls a small chunk from the top of that wish list, a sprint backlog, and decides how to implement those pieces.
  • The team has a certain amount of time — a sprint (usually two to four weeks) — to complete its work, but it meets each day to assess its progress (daily Scrum).
  • Along the way, the ScrumMaster keeps the team focused on its goal.

If you wanted to describe Waterscrumfall, would you describe it any differently? Perhaps “the team is arm-twisted into pulling a implausibly large amount of work into the sprint (or the project manager helpfully does it for them)”, but little else changes.  Would it help if the process description were prefaced with mentions of agility, complexity, and so on? That must depend on the reader’s frame of reference; if they don’t share our understanding of those words, they’re just noise.

Let’s try a right-to-left description:

A Scrum Team moves towards its Product Vision goal by goal, the team collaborating around a shared goal for a timeboxed interval called the Sprint, at the end of which the team reflects on how well the Sprint Goal was achieved before it prepares for the next one, organising around a new goal. The team’s best understanding of the work required to achieve the Sprint Goal is represented by a Sprint Backlog; options for future sprints are maintained in a Product Backlog.

The same process, yet so different, and with much less room for misinterpretation. This – I think – is much more like the Scrum that people love. Do you agree? Would you describe it differently?

Thanks to Steve Porter and Thorbjørn Sigberg for their feedback on earlier drafts of this post.

[1] Understanding Lean-Agile, right to left

Suppose you had to understand Lego – and I mean really understand it. Where do you start? With children playing, or with plastic feedstock?


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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…