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!


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

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.27.19.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1: Bring the challenge close to home

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

Agendashift provides a number of these starting points:

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

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

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.27.40.png

Step 2: Identify obstacles

Again, a simple question:

  • “What obstacles are in the way?”

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.28.01.png

Step 3 (optional): Clarify

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

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.28.31.png

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

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

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.29.09.png

Moving deeper into ‘outcome space’:

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.29.24.png

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

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.29.37.png

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

Steps 5-9: Managing options

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

Step 5: Organise (Map)

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.32.21.png

Step 6: Prioritise, just in time

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.32.34.png

Step 7: Choose the right kind of approach

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

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

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.32.52.png

Step 8: Generate options

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.33.05.png

Step 9: Frame hypotheses, develop experiments

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

Keeping the show on the road

Step 10: Rinse and repeat

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.33.31.png

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

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

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

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

References

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


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My favourite Clean Language question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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


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We are champions and enablers of outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation. Building from agreement on outcomes, Agendashift facilitates rapid, experiment-based emergence of process, practice, and organisation. Instead of Lean and Agile by imposition – contradictory and ultimately self-defeating – we help you keep your business vision and transformation strategy aligned with and energised by a culture of meaningful participation. More…

Agendashift as coaching framework

[This is the second of a three-part series. Start from the beginning: Lean-Agile transformation as Lean-Agile process]

What with last week’s London workshop (sold out!) and work on the new book I’ve got a bit behind my usual blogging schedule. Sorry about that! Every cloud though – here’s Agendashift partner Andrea Chiou debriefing (in Slack) her appearance this week at the Agile NOVA meetup in Washington, DC:

I said, using this style of interview, you can get managers in a room learning about each other’s vision for their most pressing problems, and in doing so you can then see where there is energy, as well as where there are solutions already inherently existing within the org

And:

This differs from almost every other Agile transformation approach I know, except one (I mentioned Open Space Agility). And the reason it works is because it is values-based, and based on mutual exploration and dialogue with managers/sponsors.

I might add here that Agendashift is also about exploration and agreement with participants (not just managers and sponsors), but Andrea does a great job of explaining how Agendashift helps facilitate those early conversations.

Especially in the guise of the Agendashift facilitator day, you can view the Agendashift workshop as a demonstration of three things:

  1. The power of a values-based and outcome-centric approach
  2. How the different techniques we use integrate so pleasingly
  3. An end-to-end transformation process that mirrors (and even exemplifies) a Lean-Agile delivery process.

Part 1 in this series expanded on point 3. Today, we’ll again review the five sections of the workshop, this time as a possible structure for a coaching engagement:

  1. Discovery: Identifying the strategic goals and needs that any coaching must support, setting the right tone in terms of ambition without losing sight of where the real challenges and opportunities lie
  2. Exploration: With or without the aid of the Agendashift assessment, exploring key areas of opportunity in more detail, identifying obstacles, and from those generating a set of outcomes that represent the scope, objectives, and priorities of the engagement
  3. Mapping: Understanding the challenge in enough breadth to be sure of not missing anything important, and keeping the coaching process fed with fresh and important challenges to investigate
  4. Elaboration: Generating, framing, and develop actions
  5. Operation: Ensuring follow-through, maintaining appropriate transparency, accountability, and feedback in the relationship

Just as we discussed in the previous post, this isn’t a completely linear process, in fact much of this needs to happen on a frequent or ongoing basis. There are however some key conversations that do need to be had, and the earlier in the process, the better. A coaching engagement that stands on a platform of agreed needs, scope, and level of ambition is surely healthier than one based on the offer of technical help or of facilitating a process whose goals no-one is able to articulate.

The tools we use and demonstrate through workshops will be used more informally and naturalistically in a coaching context, but they’re still valuable. All the more so, some of them! What coach wouldn’t want to be able to ‘flip’ obstacles into outcomes, identify the drivers behind pet solutions (and thereby open up the possibility of alternative solutions), or turn the vague into something actionable? These are very teachable skills. So too are the highly reusable skills of framing hypotheses and developing actions. Many coaches will find what Agendashift says about organisational design interesting too.

Coming up in the next few weeks are opportunities to experience this for yourself, with events in Hamburg (Feb 9th & 10th), Manchester (March 23rd), Edinburgh (April 6th), and Oslo (April 21st). Don’t see one near you? Get in touch and we’ll see what we can arrange together.

This was the second of three related posts (posts 3 coming soon):

  1. Lean-Agile transformation as Lean-Agile process
  2. Agendashift as coaching framework
  3. Agendashift as Good Strategy

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