How the Leader-Leader model turns Commander’s Intent upside down

If you’ve heard me speak in recent months, it won’t come as a surprise when I say that L. David Marquet’s Turn the ship around! [1] has become a favourite book. It’s the story of how Marquet, a US Navy captain, turned around a poor-performing nuclear submarine with its crew, taking it from “worst in fleet” to “first”. I can also recommend the audiobook, which is narrated by the author himself.

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Commander’s Intent [2] is an important model from the military which (rightly) receives attention in business circles. In this model, leaders make a habit of expressing objectives and the rationale for them, controlling the urge to specify in detail how that objective should be achieved. In short, the what and why, not the how. As explained in Stephen Bungay’s The Art of Action [3], it was developed in the 19th century by Carl von Clausewitz, a general in the Prussian army, and has since become firmly established in military doctrine around the world.

Marquet turns Commender’s Intent upside down, but in so doing proves its point!

Suppose now the intent is expressed not by the leader to a subordinate, but by someone under their command and in the other direction. That person is showing initiative, might even be attempting something innovative. The commander has a choice: to trust them to get on with it, to provide support, or to suggest alternative course of action. Either way, they are mutually accountable, the one for his or her actions, the other for providing an appropriate level of support (in a context in which safety is paramount). If you can establish these leader-to-leader conversations as a new habit, then through countless such encounters and through essentially unlimited opportunities for people at every level of the organisation to show leadership, the organisation grows.

Marquet’s ultimate intention was no different to Clausewitz’s – to turn an organisation stuck in the ways of the past and barely fit for the present into one capable of thinking for itself and innovating its way into the future. Understand Commander’s Intent in those terms and Marquet’s Leader-Leader makes perfect sense.

How frequent are the opportunities for statements of intent in your organisation? Do colleagues (whether seniors, peers, or otherwise) both offer appropriate support and hold each other to account when intent has been expressed? It’s a great way for people and teams alike to grow in capability and for leadership to develop.

This post is the third in a series of three, introducing three core themes to be developed in my next book (my third, out I hope about a year from now in early summer ’19) :

  1. Right to left: the effective organisation – see Understanding Lean-Agile, right to left
  2. Outside in: the wholehearted organisation – see Towards the wholehearted organisation, outside in
  3. Upside down: the supportive organisation – this post

Working title (as of this week!): Right to left: A leader’s guide to Lean-Agile.

Meanwhile, the Agendashift book [4] is a book not about Lean-Agile but about outcome-oriented change. It is steeped in those themes, but by design it assumes them more than it explains them (though they begin to become explicit in the final chapter). If you like, Right to left is Agendashift’s prequel. Join us in the #right-to-left channel in the Agendashift Slack to monitor progress and to discuss any of these three themes.

[1] L. David Marquet, Turn the ship around!: : A True Story of Building Leaders by Breaking the Rules (Portfolio Penguin, 2015)
[2] Commander’s Intent (en.wikipedia.org)
[3] Stephen Bungay, The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2010)
[4] Mike Burrows, Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation (New Generation Publishing, 2018)


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Towards the wholehearted organisation, outside in

It’s one of those often-cited, non-enough-read books, Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building, the classic book on architecture and the built environment that inspired the patterns movement in software (think Gang of Four Design Patterns, PLoP, etc).

It’s a rewarding read – philosophical in a way that is both surprising and delightful, and (whether intended by the author or not) full of ideas that are just asking to be carried over to other domains. I read it with organisation design in mind.

This favourite quote isn’t specific to building but it is loaded with metaphor:

Screenshot 2018-05-26 11.52.59

It got me thinking that I would love to be known for being in the business of helping organisations to be more wholehearted – less at war with themselves, their contradictions identified and owned so that they can be resolved in some pleasing way. If squeezing out excess work-in-progress is a key strategy for improving our delivery processes, perhaps squeezing out the contradictions is the way to improve our organisations for the mutual benefit of all concerned.

In my keynote talk Inverting the pyramid, I use this quote to introduce a section on outside-in reviews – for example the strategy reviews and service delivery reviews that follow the kind of outside-in agenda as described in chapter 5 of the Agendashift book:

  1. Customer
  2. Organisation
  3. Platform
  4. Product
  5. Team

Juxtaposing these different perspectives – each one presented by the people who are best equipped represent them – increases our chances of not only bringing our inner contradictions and misalignments to the surface, but of finding better ways to meet external needs too. Within each agenda item, a right-to-left [1] structure: what we’ve recently learned about how things are, what we’re beginning to learn through experimentation, and what experiments we plan to conduct as capacity permits.

Some context and an invitation: As mentioned a few days ago, I have just begun work on my third book: a no-nonsense, leader’s guide to Lean-Agile, organised around the three themes of right to leftoutside in, and upside down. Join us in the #right-to-left channel in the Agendashift Slack to monitor progress and to discuss any of these three themes.

Related posts:

[1] Understanding Lean-Agile, right to left


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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…

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?


Now suppose you had to understand Lean-Agile. Where do you start? With people collaborating over software that is already beginning to work, or with backlogs and projects? Working software, or JIRA?

With the Agendashift book [1] only just out of the door, I’ve begun work on the prequel, a no-nonsense guide to Lean-Agile, the kind of book you’ll give to your manager and hope that they’ll pass on to theirs. And yes, we’ll start right to left, beginning at the point where needs are met [2] and working our way upstream. We’ll describe what it’s like to have Lean and Agile already working well, and demonstrate powerful ways to understand, manage, and improve almost any kind of delivery process.

There’ll be two more themes: outside in and upside down; more on those soon. Join us meanwhile in the #right-to-left channel in the Agendashift Slack [3] if any of these themes are of interest to you. Perhaps you have relevant examples or models that support these themes, or are already beginning to wonder about how they might be applied in your current situation and have questions.

[1] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation
[2] My handy, referenceable Definition of Done
[3] Agendashift on Slack


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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 handy, referenceable Definition of Done

Now in handy, referenceable [1] form, my working definition of “Done” [2]:

Done

[1] agendashift.com/done
[2] A good working definition of “Done”, also Better user stories start with authentic situations of need

Handy links to closely-related resources:

  • agendashift.com/book – chapter 3 in particular
  • agendashift.com/true-north – “…needs met at just the right time”
  • agendashift.com/principles – Start with needs” is principle #1

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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…

Emergence, Fast and Slow

One word that came up a few times in last week’s workshop (which got a 12 out of 10 by the way) was emergence. It’s a funny kind of word, one that gets some people excited and leaves others completely cold. That’s due in part to its scientific overtones, but there’s more to it than that.

In its slow form, emergence – as in emergent architecture for example – is regarded as a close cousin of evolution, a process whose results (structures, phenomena, properties) emerge from the repeated application of certain rules and constraints. Done deliberately, it looks something like this:

  1. We start where we are, with what we do now, or with a simple but probably inadequate design
  2. We wait until we’re dissatisfied somehow with the status quo
  3. Following some defined rules and keeping within certain constraints, we make what we hope turns out to be a step forward
  4. Rinse and repeat (starting with a new what we do now)

To its fans, it’s reliable way to cause a design to become increasingly fit for purpose – even when the environment around it is continually changing. Two things come with experience of the process:

  • Confidence in the outcome – the details of which aren’t planned in advance but familiar patterns and consistent properties do tend to repeat themselves
  • The realisation that the process can be guided and accelerated, for example using transparency to promote the activations of steps 2 and 4

Unfortunately, to those that haven’t experienced it, emergence and evolution can be a tough sell (which is why I don’t talk about them much). To some ears, these words evoke a process that’s highly wasteful and almost geologically slow, involving speculation, dead ends, and highly unpredictable outcomes. To others, it looks passive and directionless, change happening only in response to external pressures. No-one wants their organisation to go the way of the way of the dinosaur, and when proactivity is called for, it seems safer to stick to planned approaches with their up-front commitments and rigidly defined outputs – never mind that outputs and outcomes are two very different things!

I’ve hinted that in expert hands, emergence can be speeded up. Sometimes it can be very rapid indeed. Take for example the process we facilitate in Agendashift’s Discovery and Exploration activities through our 15-minute FOTO game:

  • Seed the process with a list of obstacles – things that block our path toward our generic True North (for Discovery), impede progress towards specific prompts prioritised from one of our assessments (for Exploration), or some other list
  • Identify the outcomes that lie immediately behind those obstacles
  • Identify the outcomes behind those outcomes, repeating through several layers, searching deeper and wider into outcome space

At Friday’s workshop we calculated that we were generating outcomes at a rate of nearly 2 per minute per table group. Two table groups were able to produce nearly 60 in just 15 minutes! As facilitator, I can’t predict what specific outcomes will be generated (I’ve stopped trying), but I’ve done it enough times to know that it’s a highly productive process, and that what emerges with the detail is a shared sense of both agreement and ambition. That’s gold!

Agendashift’s tagline is “Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation”. With apologies to Daniel Kahneman, this is “Emergence, Fast and Slow” – the rapid emergence of agreement on outcomes and the emergence of a fitter, more adaptable organisation in the focussed follow-through. Agreement without the follow-through would of course mean the waste of a few hours or days of work. A much greater waste would be to implement change in the absence of agreed goals, the committed support of the host organisation, and the meaningful engagement of the people affected. They need each other!


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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 evolution 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…

Centered and T-shaped (sub)communities

On the evening of my arrival at Raleigh, NC from across the pond, I gave a new talk on my first book Kanban from the Inside. Here’s a slide I used to explain the philosophy behind Part II, Models, addressing in particular the question of how multiple (and some would say competing) models can be used together:

Screenshot 2018-04-04 15.28.37

I’m not going to expand on bullet 1 other than to point the curious in the direction of Gall’s Law.

Bullet 2 is much more up my street, and I’ve stuck to this line consistently – it’s pretty much the definition I use for the Lean-Agile community in the Agendashift book: a community that celebrates Lean and Agile, both separately and together.

That definition describes a very broad umbrella, and there’s a wide variety of things happening beneath it. Agendashift is one of them, a community centered [1] on outcome-oriented change. Around that theme we are:

  • Running with the idea, diving deep, developing it through use, making our more successful experiments more repeatable and more easily transferable to others
  • Taking a stance against imposed change (in which we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our friends in the OpenSpace Agility community)
  • Bringing together a range of different experiences and areas of expertise, colliding a number of models old and new, from within Lean-Agile and without
  • Expecting exciting things to happen.

It’s interesting to note that among the Agendashift community’s closest collaborators we have both Certified Scrum Trainers and Accredited Kanban Trainers, knowledgeable and experienced representatives of two great communities whose relationship hasn’t always been easy. Along with vast majority of practitioners who would be comfortable sitting under a Lean-Agile umbrella, I think I can speak for all of them when I say that each of them understands and respects the special contributions of their erstwhile antagonists. And after that, not just “Why can’t we all just get along?”, but “What can we achieve together that were weren’t achieving on our own?”

Observing this, I wonder aloud if the concept of T-shaped people [2] might extend to T-shaped subcommunities. I’m suggesting that in order to stay healthy, an ecosystem as large as Lean-Agile needs groups of people that have:

  1. The persistence to run with ideas and to see just how far they can take them (so that you don’t have to, except where there’s a genuine passion to pursue)
  2. The diversity to ensure they stay vibrantly creative
  3. Broad enough representation that their learning will diffuse and cross-pollinate via the overlaps between communities

Sometimes this will happen by accident, but I suspect that the majority of successful examples are the product of deliberate attention. Can we make it more repeatable? I don’t know, but I would certainly be interested in comparing notes with others who are doing similar things. Could conversations such as these help make Lean-Agile simultaneously more cohesive, more diverse, more respectful, and more productive? I’d like to think so…

[1] BDD is a Centered Community Rather than a Bounded Community (thepaulrayner.com)
[2] T-shaped skills (en.wikipedia.org)


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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 evolution 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…

Incremental and iterative

There seem to be two schools of thought on how best to explain iterative and incremental delivery. In the interests of clarity, the “incremental versus iterative” school, represented excellently by Alistair Cockburn, seeks to keep technical definitions separate as far as possible. The “incremental and iterative” school deliberately emphasises the intertwingliness of it all (in fairness both schools I’m not including people who blur the line unthinkingly).

Just for the purposes of this post I’m in the second school. Here’s a cute, mutually recursive definition that describes a healthy delivery process:

Incremental: new goals agreed and achieved with each short iteration, building on previous work

Iterative: seeking to be objectively better with each small increment, learning from previous work

If that’s healthy, what would unhealthy look like?

  • Incremental only: big backlog up front (BBUF?), backlog-driven development (the BDD acronym is already taken), no time for learning
  • Iterative only: constant tinkering, chasing metrics, busywork, no meaningful alignment on goals

Ugh – you really do need both! If you’re big on planning, break the big rocks down into smaller rocks, and make sure you leave enough gaps between them in every iteration for learning. If you’re big on flexibility (at the extreme, on-demand scheduling), don’t settle for ad-hoc; step back regularly from your individual work items and agree on which goals you’re (self-)organising around.

Related concepts: refinement and fidelity (see this by Karl Scotland). It’s smart to start with crude solutions that kinda work, then refine them incrementally and iteratively (both at the same time):

  • Incremental refinement: make refinements you had the good sense to defer
  • Iterative refinement: make refinements based on feedback

Credits: Thanks to everyone who commented on my crude, kinda-working prototype micro posts on Slack, Twitter, LinkedIn (and LinkedIn group), also privately on Facebook. In particular: Steven Mackenzie, Roy Marriott, Karl Scotland, Sean Blezard, Ray Edgar, Graham Berrisford, Rob Ferguson, David Daly, Becky Hartman, and Lowell Lindstrom.

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 evolution 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…