Agendashift roundup, September 2020

In this edition: Good obstacle, bad obstacle; The quality that now has a name; 15-minute FOTO update; Agendashift #community Zoom; Upcoming events; Top posts

Good obstacle, bad obstacle

Important dates coming soon: a free October webinar ahead of a November Deep Dive workshop. Details of both here:

The quality that now has a name

I’m hard at work on the 2nd edition of the Agendashift book (not far short of a rewrite if I’m honest) and I’m now on chapter 3 (of 5). In my head I’m a couple of chapters ahead and in this blog post you can see some of what’s going on up there!

15-minute FOTO update

I’ve done some work on the deck for 15-minute FOTO, aligning it with how I have been facilitating our Clean Language-inspired coaching game over recent weeks. Also, I’ve made it both easier for me to maintain and more flexible: hide/show slides according to format (Lite or Classic) and medium (in-room or online). More here:

Agendashift #community Zoom

On Wednesdays I like to put out a reminder on Slack that tomorrow (ie every Thursday) it’s the Agendashift #community Lean Coffee Zoom at 14:00 BST, 15:00 CEST, 9am EDT. I can’t include the Zoom link in this post so ping me for details or check the #community channel in Slack.

Upcoming events

I might yet add some December dates but that will very definitely be the last Deep Dive of the year. If you’re holding out for one in a different time zone in early 2021, let me know.

I get asked about discounts based on country or similar factors. Typically answer is yes, also for non-profit, government, educational, etc, or if you’ve done one of the bigger workshops before – several people have attended multiple times. And Agendashift partners of course. Again, ping me.

Top posts


  1. What I really think about Scrum (August)
  2. 15-minute FOTO, latest v9 deck
  3. The quality that now has a name
  4. Good obstacle, bad obstacle
  5. #2MBM: Meaning before Metric, Measure before Method (July)


  1. My favourite Clean Language question (January 2019)
  2. What kind of Organisational Development (OD)? (And a book recommendation) (May 2019)
  3. From Reverse STATIK to a ‘Pathway’ for continuous transformation (October 2019)
  4. Stringing it together with Reverse Wardley (February 2019)
  5. ‘Right to Left’ works for Scrum too (July 2018)

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workshop 2x1

15-minute FOTO, latest v9 deck

In the latest v9 deck for our Clean Language-inspired coaching game 15-minute FOTO, I’ve done a better job of integrating its Lite and Classic formats, reflecting how I’ve been facilitating both over recent weeks.

The word ‘formats’ is a big part of the change; after extracting what differs between the two and tidying up a bit, I’ve been able to combine the two sets of slides and remove the duplication. A refactoring!

So what is the same? Objectives, rules, and tips, two of each:

Overall objectives:

  1. To grow a list of outcomes, as many as you can in the time allowed
  2. Familiarisation with a curated subset of Clean Language questions


  1. With an obstacle in play, ask only questions from the cue card
  2. For the placeholder X’s, use words captured previously, verbatim – your initial obstacles, responses, or fragments thereof


  1. Be generous in the outcomes you accept – if it sounds like it might be an outcome, write it down
  2. If a minute passes without an outcome being captured, something is wrong  – fishing for solutions, digging into obstacles, meta conversations

To give a little emphasis to that last tip: the “no wrong answers” principle applies, but mind your intent in your questioning. In this game, fishing for solutions and digging deep into obstacles are to be avoided.

The Lite and Classic formats, online and offline

In several workshops – notably Leading with Outcomes, Deep Dive (November!), Wholehearted:OKR, and Core –  we play the game twice, and in this order:

  1. Lite format:  Exploratory familiarisation in an inclusive, minimally-structured table group exercise
  2. Classic format: Structured exercise, rotating the roles of client, coach, scribe, observer in rounds of 3-5 minutes

Both formats work both offline (in room) and online. Some tips:

  • Offline (in room): Always give everyone their own printed cue card (A5 size works well) and never show the full set of questions on screen.
  • Online, and especially if you’re running multiple breakout rooms, everyone will need online access to everything they might need. I use a Google Doc workbook per breakout room; partners have access to my master copies for each online workshop.

Some slides in the deck apply to one format &/or medium only. Hide those you don’t need.

The debrief

For both formats, the post-exercise debrief is the same. We start with what worked well:

  • When the outcomes are flowing well and you’re the client – answering the questions – what’s that like?
  • When the outcomes are flowing well and you’re the  – asking the questions – what’s that like?
  • When the outcomes are flowing well and you’re the scribe or an observer – watching and listening to the conversation from the outside – what’s that like? And what do you notice?

15-minute FOTO debrief slide

Afterwards: What went less well? What was difficult? Any other observations?


15-minute FOTO is released under a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA licence and customisations, adaptations, translations etc are warmly encouraged. The deck includes some notes on how to do that and remain in compliance with the licence, thereby encouraging others to experiment and contribute too.


Check out the 15-minute FOTO page,, where you’ll find:

  • A video
  • How to obtain the materials
  • Facilitation tips

Upcoming events

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Aka the ‘And when X…’ game

This post relates to 15-minute FOTO, our Creative Commons-licensed and Clean Language-inspired coaching game that’s not just for coaches – everyone gets a turn! Consistently, it’s a highlight of our workshops: it’s fun, insightful, and surprisingly practical. Above all, it’s the tool by which we generate outcomes – outcomes being the currency in which we deal.

For several weeks the 15-minute FOTO dropbox (which you can subscribe to for free) has included a beta version of the cue card (below) which adds the text “aka the And When X… game“. The facilitator’s deck has a slide with that as its title too. It’s a low effort / high impact tweak, a helpful reminder to the facilitator to introduce very briefly a little of the theory and practice of Clean Language. After exhausting my old stock of cards (I get them printed by the hundred) I had the opportunity to test the new one last week and the beta tag is removed at last!


The Clean Language questions have been carefully curated and refined over the years to minimise the coach’s natural tendency to pollute a conversation with their unasked-for assumptions and solutions. Keeping the conversation ‘clean’ maximises the chances that the client will achieve an insight of their own.

An important part of the discipline is to stay with the client’s language. One question you won’t hear in a clean conversation is this (the X and Y here are placeholders for the client’s and coach’s words respectively):

What you said X, did you mean Y?

Put words into the client’s mouth like this and there’s a high risk that whatever the client was currently holding or constructing in their head (their model, a precious and perhaps fragile thing) will be destroyed. Potentially, a huge opportunity wasted! So, if as the coach you find yourself a bit lost (ie you’re unsure what X is or how to deal with it), turn instead to the “pre-question”:

And when X…

Three things have been achieved already:

  1. You’re stopped yourself from paraphrasing (or at least delayed it)
  2. You’ve bought yourself some time while you choose what question to ask next
  3. You’ve focussed attention on something interesting

And you have plenty of choice here. If it’s important that you (in the coach role) understand what X is, then ask a clarifying question, probably one of the middle three on the card. If it’s not – and let’s not forget here that the conversation isn’t about you – you could decide to move the conversation along instead and see what happens.

There’s another use for this technique, and that’s to go back to an earlier part of the conversation. Perhaps the conversation is uncovering a virtuous circle of outcomes (not uncommon, but congratulations!) and after a certain amount of repetition you’re ready now to jump off that roundabout. It’s easy:

And when X…

Is there anything else about X?

This is for some past X, allowing the conversation to take a different branch. You’re right, the “And when X…” isn’t strictly necessary. Yes, it’s a bit redundant. But it helps! Somehow, that big leap back seems more manageable.


Workshops upcoming in 2020 – Gurugram, Malmö, Oslo (*2), London, Tel Aviv, and online

For a 20% saving, use discount code LONDON2020 for the London workshop and NORDIC2020 for Oslo and Malmö.

See also our workshops and events pages – Switzerland and Australia to be added soon.

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The language of outcomes: 3. Generating outcomes

This is part 3 of a series looking at the language of outcomes and its lessons for leadership. If we’re keen to see collaboration, self-organisation, and innovation in our organisations, how should we conduct ourselves? What behaviours should we model?

The 5 posts of this series come roughly in the order that its leadership lessons arise in our workshops:

  1. Identifying the adaptive challenge
  2. Framing obstacles
  3. Generating outcomes (this post)
  4. Organising outcomes
  5. Between ends and means

As ever:

  • Subscribe to our mailing list, and whilst you won’t get every post as an email, you will get our monthly roundups and you won’t miss a thing, I promise!
  • Scroll to the end of this post for news of upcoming public workshops in which you can experience what I describe for yourself

3. Generating outcomes

One of the things Agendashift is remembered for is the use of Clean Language via our open source coaching game, 15-minute FOTO [1], which is among the exercises covered in chapters 1 & 2 of Agendashift [2]. Indeed, it would be easy to think that the language of outcomes and Clean Language were one and the same thing. If you’ve been following this series, you will understand already that they are not! However, and even if practised only sparingly, Clean Language as a leadership discipline does offer a number of important takeaways. Again in the context of wanting to see collaboration, self-organisation, and innovation, it’s not hard to see that you might want to:

  1. Practice asking questions to which you don’t already have the answer
  2. Practice asking questions that don’t needlessly pollute the conversation with your own assumptions

If you’ve heard that vulnerability might be key to good leadership but don’t know where to start, why not start with those?

15-minute FOTO is a great introduction to those two practices. It uses a menu of 8 Clean Language questions, which for an in-room workshop are provided on printed cue cards, one per participant:


Typically, the game starts with a list of obstacles (see the previous instalment). Digging into obstacles isn’t very productive (in the game certainly, and surprisingly often in real life too), so we go quickly (if not immediately) from ‘obstacles space’ to ‘outcomes space’ with “What would you like you have happen?”.

The questions in the main part of the cue card were specifically chosen for their usefulness when exploring outcomes space. From right to left, the questions in the middle can be taken in three groups:

  1. Then what happens? – a question that takes us deeper into outcomes space
  2. A choice of three clarifying questions – including my favourite [3]
  3. Two questions that draw us back

Not only can you experience a surprisingly rich and (in a good way) challenging conversations with just those questions, most of the work is done by only three, the three shown in bold on the card. What’s hard therefore isn’t mastering them, but resisting the temptation to depart from them! Mostly – and tellingly – it means resisting the temptation to give advice uninvited, to prescribe, and to ask questions that say more about the questioner than they do about the topic, the client, or what’s in their mind.

That leaves one last question – What obstacle might be in the way of X? – which you might remember from the previous instalment. It creates the opportunity for a shallow dive into obstacles space – not a productive place, so we won’t linger there for long!

The X’s in the questions are placeholders for the respondent’s own words, repeated as verbatim as possible. This isn’t about mind tricks, a sneaky way to build empathy! Rather:

  • The person in the coach role – the asker of questions – disciplines themselves not to impose their own assumptions on the conversation, helping them maintain an attitude of curiosity. They can expect to learn something!
  • The person in the client role – responding to those questions – isn’t jolted out of their thoughts by words that don’t fit the mental model that the process is exploring/building. We’re putting the client first, and the conversation can go so much deeper this way!

This is not about one ‘killer question’ (a shallow and rather silly idea if you ask me). Neither is it a hunt for the ‘right’ answer! Rather, it’s a powerful demonstration of a generative process, a simple set of rules that takes some input (as described in the first two instalments the initial challenge and the obstacles in the way of that) and patiently grows a list of outputs (outcomes here) through the repeated application of a defined procedure.

In 15-minute FOTO, the roles, of coach, client, scribe, and observer are rotated so that every participant gets a turn in each role. As coaches, they guide the process by choosing which questions to ask, but the content is always the client’s – they’re the experts after all! It’s an amazingly productive process, producing lots of output, all of it coherent by construction, and anchored on something real, those obstacles.

Even though it takes only a few minutes, there’ll be enough work produced that it will need organising somehow. That’s the topic of the next instalment. Meanwhile, practice!

  • Practice asking questions to which you don’t already have the answer
  • Practice asking questions that don’t needlessly pollute the conversation with your own assumptions

Next: 4. Organising outcomes

Notes & references

[1] 15-minute FOTO (, CC-BY-SA licence)
[2] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation, Mike Burrows (New Generation Publishing, 2018)
[3] My favourite Clean Language question (January 2019)


I’m grateful for feedback on earlier drafts of this post from Teddy Zetterlund, Thorbjørn Sigberg, Richard Cornelius, and Kert Peterson.

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

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It’s mashup time: Adaptive challenges accomplished at their ideal best

A quick one, based on work already informally announced and more that’s in progress:

Already shared on Slack, LinkedIn and elsewhere, but for the record:

Released a v3 of our outside-in strategy template – just a 1 word change, replacing “Objectives” (confusing in an OKR context) with “Ideal”, channeling Ackoff if you like

OI-SR template (

And while I’m channeling Ackoff, a mashup:

adaptive challenge ideal best

Watch this space for news of Wholehearted:OKR, the new 2-day workshop from which this slide comes.

The Celebration-5W here is the Who, What, Where, When & Why of the (future) celebration, the context-setting exercise with which I kick off nearly all of my workshops. CC-BY-SA. This additional slide creates the early opportunity for some references:

[1] adaptive challenge: Heifetz, via Bushe & Marshak (Dialogic Organization Development, The Dynamics of Generative Change, etc) – organisation development here embracing complexity.

[2] ideal: I’m sneaking in an early opportunity to mention Ackoff’s concept of idealized design, setting the tone before the newly-modified Outside-in Strategy Review (OI-SR) tool is introduced. See Re-Creating the Corporation: A Design of Organizations for the 21st Century (1999), a classic and highly recommended.

[3] When you’re ___ at your best, ___?: Dee Berridge & Caitlin Walker, via Caitlin’s book book, From Contempt to Curiosity: Creating the Conditions for Groups to Collaborate Using Clean Language and Systemic Modelling (2014), which I reference and warmly recommend in both Agendashift and Right to Left. Clean Language is introduced in the session following, via the 15-minute FOTO exercise (also CC-BY-SA).

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Announcing v7 of 15-minute FOTO

15-minute FOTO is our Clean Language-inspired coaching game, and version 7 of the facilitation deck is out of beta. On top of the usual minor improvements – fewer slides, better wording, that kind of thing – the big new thing is a new ‘Lite’ edition.


To understand why we’ve wanted to make changes, consider what each participant is doing when they play the game for the first time:

  • Familiarising themselves with the Clean Language questions (from the cue card if it’s an in-room workshop, from the screen if it’s online)
  • Taking turns in the role of client, coach, scribe, or observer, participating in or supporting what can be an intense 1-on-1 coaching conversation
  • Worrying about the game’s objective, which to generate and capture outcomes

That’s a lot! Instead of doing this all at once, the Lite edition starts with a familiarisation exercise, turns the conversation into one for the table group as a whole, and the objective matters only after everyone has had a chance to get comfortable with it all.

If, as happens in many of our workshops, you plan to do 15-minute FOTO twice, you can start with the Lite edition and do the classic edition the second time round.

Spoiler alert

Another motivation for this new version is that it enables new strings of exercises for new workshops. I’ll be announcing the first of those very soon, perhaps as early as tomorrow.

Get the materials

Just ask here:

You’ll find a helpful Youtube video there also.

When you subscribe, you’ll be sent a link to the 15-minute FOTO Dropbox folder and you can download materials (cue card and the deck) from there. Add that folder to your own Dropbox and you’ll get all updates automatically.

Get a taste online

There are two opportunities coming soon to experience 15-minute FOTO online:

  1. One of my two sessions at the Clean Language community’s online OpenSpace event  Metaphorum 2019 on November 22nd will be on 15-minute FOTO, focussing mainly on the Lite version
  2. Comprising two 2h sessions on December 11th and 12th, my next online workshop Learning the language of outcomes will feature both editions

By the December 11th if not November 22nd, there will be a version 8 that explicitly supports online use (the classic edition already does). Consider that announced 🙂


The best place for questions about 15-minute FOTO is the #cleanlanguage channel in the Agendashift Slack.

Upcoming workshops – Berlin, Oslo, Malmö, and online

New dates for USA and UK coming soon!

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What scales up should scale down

This is turning into a series! You may wish to read these first:

Here’s a super-quick variation on Agendashift’s Discovery and Exploration sessions. First I’ll describe it, and then explain how it differs from the by-the-book version.

10-minute Discovery

Let me quickly explain how we kick this off – I’m asking the same of everyone I’m meeting today:

  • First, just a little about yourself – your role, what you’re responsible for, and so on.
  • Then, for a multi-month timescale of your choosing, tell me what outstanding success would look like – describing something truly celebration-worthy if you can
  • Finally, what obstacles are in the way of that?

And do you mind if I take notes?

I ask all of the above in one go, and give the interviewee the space to answer, lightly guided as necessary. 10 minutes max!

50-minute (or less) Exploration

Now we go to the assessment, which typically (although not always) has been completed by my interviewee in advance. We begin with a quick review of their overall and per-category score distributions (some reassuring noises may be required here; these low scores are very common):

Screenshot 2019-07-10 12.19.02

With this alternative view it may be easier to infer some kind of narrative:

Screenshot 2019-07-10 12.17.20

  • Collaboration and transparency at the top – evidence perhaps of some Agile working
  • Seeing flow and balance scoring close together would come as no surprise to any student of Lean or Kanban
  • To the trained eye of our machine learning model, the score for leadership looks surprisingly low relative to everything else (hence the amber colouring)
  • I tell them that sadly, a low score for customer focus is very common (something that 20 years of Agile has failed to fix)

We spend no more than a few minutes on the category-level summaries. We skim or skip over most of the report (more on these parts later) and land here on the ‘starred’ items. Out of the 43 prompts of the full assessment, these have been prioritised for further discussion:

Screenshot 2019-07-10 12.16.26

For each of those prompts in turn, these questions are asked (one at a time this time):

  • What would it be like if this was working at its best for you?
  • What obstacles are in the way of that?
  • What would you like to have happen?
  • Then what happens?
  • etc

In well under an hour in most cases, the meeting is concluded. I write up my notes and include them in a thank you email. Done!

What just happened? What’s different?

Let’s compare that to a more typical Discovery/Exploration, done workshop style. First, Discovery:

  • Celebration-5W – normally done in table groups and taking (say) 40 minutes to introduce, do, and debrief – is condensed into a question (in fact one part of a multi-part question): “Then, for a multi-month timescale of your choosing, tell me what outstanding success would look like – something truly celebration-worthy”
  • We skip True North and jump straight to obstacles, still expecting that many of the obstacles heard will relate to ways of working and other organisational issues
  • No 15-minute FOTO (with participants ‘coaching’ each other, generating outcomes); if there’s any outcome generation at all, it is cursory at best
  • No time spent organising outcomes (no ‘Plan on a page’); if they’re generated at all they just get recorded in my notes

Then Exploration:

  • At best, we skim over most of the debrief slides: strengths, weaknesses, areas of high and low consensus
  • No group-wise prioritisation of prompts or their respective obstacles
  • Again, no 15-minute FOTO ; it’s me asking the questions (and I’m free to use a wider palette of questions with perhaps some cleanish freestyling)
  • Again, no time spent organising outcomes (no Mapping); they just get recorded in my notes

The big difference though isn’t the stripped-down meeting design. It’s that instead of working with several people together workshop-wise, I’m spending an hour or so at a time with a succession of people on a one-to-one basis. Instead of acting as facilitator, I’m the roving consultant (albeit a “clean” one). And instead of participants collaborating with each other, they’re my interviewees.

Naturally, there’s a tradeoff. Less time is required from participants, and for many, that’s welcome. Unfortunately, it also means little (if any) time spent facilitating agreement on outcomes (principle #2). If I’m able to report back to my sponsors a coherent picture thanks to the similarity of interview results, this omission might be fixable. That’s a big if though; what seems the most efficient might not be the most effective in the end!

Upcoming public Agendashift workshops
– online, Stockholm, Athens, London, Istanbul, Berlin

Leading change in the 21st century? You need a 21st century engagement model:

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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!


[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 (
[4] Gervase Bushe: Generative Images (
[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

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

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


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.


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)?


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.


[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)
[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:
[7] Recommended reading:


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

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

Agendashift™: Serving the transforming organisation
Agendashift  Academy: Leading with OutcomesHome | Store

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More ‘Open’, and my first online workshops

I’m getting ready for a busy couple of weeks mid May:

Partly in preparation and partly as housekeeping, I’ve updated the generic workshop description page Advanced Agendashift: Coaching and Leading Continuous Transformation as follows:

  1. Very much in the Open spirit of the Boston symposium, it now has a Creative Commons 4.0 CC-BY-SA license. That’s not quite the big deal that it might sound since the Overview pages that describe all Agendashift-based workshops have long had one, but it’s good to get that sorted.
  2. Its structure now tallies with recent improvements. Day 1 is Learning the language of outcomes. Day 2 is Organising for impact, and it reflects the “rejigging” described in last week’s Notes from the April 2019 Advanced Agendashift workshop, London. I’ve updated the abovementioned Overview pages also.

As a spinoff from Boston (there’ll be discounts for attendees), from June I’ll be offering an online workshop, also titled Learning the language of outcomes. Presented as two 2-hour sessions on consecutive days it will be a great way to get up to speed quickly with outcome-orientation and Clean Language, getting some real practice in applying the latter to the former. At a minimum we’ll cover:

Officially, we launch these at the Symposium, but for a sneak preview (and early bird prices):

In person or online, I hope to see you soon!

Upcoming workshops – Boston, Berlin, Oslo, and Stockholm

Watch this space for Greece, Turkey, London, and the Benelux region in the autumn.


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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…