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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How Agendashift scales

Last week’s post Visualising Agendashift: The why and how of outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation is already in the top 3 for 2019. Clearly it resonates! I will build on that post now by enumerating some the ways in which Agendashift scales – not by becoming bigger, heavier, more layered, or more bureaucratic, but by fitting its context.

The bottom line: Agendashift scales because it is scale-free (not an oxymoron, but using the technical term), evidenced by a fractal quality inside it, similar patterns occurring naturally at different scales.

First, there are some initial high level decisions to be made about scale:

  • The initial organisational scope of the exercise (we find that it is well worth making this explicit)
  • Who is invited to participate in workshops (and how that invitation should be given)
  • Who is invited to participate in the pre-workshop assessment (at a minimum, this is the workshop participants for whom it is set as prework, but it is often widened)
  • Any specific organisational themes that should mentioned in either invitation

Often, the exercise is centred on a leadership team of some kind, making the above decisions quite easy to make. However, I do make two recommendations:

  • At least three levels of seniority should participate – not to make a virtue of hierarchy but allowing it to be bypassed for the sake of interesting and authentic conversations
  • It’s good to get wide coverage in the assessment; potentially the whole business function and beyond, or some representative sample thereof

There are more choices about workshop design that we could make here, but usually they’re better left until later exercises and we’ll put them to one side for a moment.

In the workshop itself, scale is everywhere:

  • In the warm-up exercise Celebration-5W, different table groups might generate anything from an internal technical achievement for a small team to things like “One billion pounds in turnover” or “Our millionth registration” (both of these are actual examples). I recall one team coming up with a new product idea!
  • After True North (in Discovery) and the assessment debrief (in Exploration), obstacles can range from everyday niggles to fundamental misalignments and dysfunctions.
  • For any given obstacle, the outcomes generated in 15-minute FOTO can range from short-term quick wins beyond even long-term goals through to enduring values. Surprisingly often, the entire range is covered in the course of a conversation that lasts only a few minutes.
  • The Mapping exercises expose different kinds of structure in the naturally coherent (by construction) but still fragmentary output of the preceding exercises.
  • In Elaboration, we bring focus where the range of options is high, looking up for the big payoff and down for opportunities for rapid learning and early value.
  • In Operation, we raise awareness of the connection between everyday choices and bigger-picture organisation design

Discovery and Exploration both feature our Clean Language-inspired coaching game 15-minute FOTO. At first glance it might seem redundant but the repetition of the same tool in different settings demonstrates the utility, repeatability, and scale-independence and of the pattern (for that is what it is). Regardless of scale, you can:

  • Reflect on the promise of the challenge in question
  • Identify and (briefly) clarify the obstacles currently in the way of a successful conclusion to that challenge
  • Rapidly explore the landscape of outcomes to be found when those obstacles are overcome, bypassed, or ignored

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.29.37That might sound obvious, but for people used to the experience of conversations that start with solutions already decided, it’s both liberating and highly illuminating.

The workshop designer seeds this process with challenges that have some compelling promise, made all the more compelling by their avoidance of prescription. The off-the-shelf workshop design provides these in the form of the True North and the assessment prompts. These have been tested and refined through repeated use and I would recommend sticking to them initially (advice that may evolve as we gain more customisation experience). However, subsequent events may make use of harvested content, with the potential to make any broader ‘scale out’ excitingly fractal.

There’s a balance to be struck between focussing on new kinds of conversation (clean, outcome-oriented), and on new conversations (the follow-through on specific, newly-articulated outcomes). There’s win on both sides so perhaps I worry too much about whether I get the balance right, but why not have it both ways? Those new kinds of conversations re-seeded by those harvested outcomes. Now we’re talking!

___________

While we’re here, check out these opportunities to experience this for yourself in a public setting (for private settings reach out to me or your friendly neighbourhood partner). One of them is less than two weeks away:


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

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.27.19.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1: Bring the challenge close to home

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

Agendashift provides a number of these starting points:

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

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

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.27.40.png

Step 2: Identify obstacles

Again, a simple question:

  • “What obstacles are in the way?”

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.28.01.png

Step 3 (optional): Clarify

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

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.28.31.png

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

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

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.29.09.png

Moving deeper into ‘outcome space’:

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.29.24.png

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

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.29.37.png

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

Steps 5-9: Managing options

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

Step 5: Organise (Map)

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.32.21.png

Step 6: Prioritise, just in time

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.32.34.png

Step 7: Choose the right kind of approach

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

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

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.32.52.png

Step 8: Generate options

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.33.05.png

Step 9: Frame hypotheses, develop experiments

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

Keeping the show on the road

Step 10: Rinse and repeat

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2019-06-24 14.33.31.png

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

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

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

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

References

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


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

both-kinds.png

Mind slightly blown, I discover that organisation development (OD) divides into two schools of thought. Or more accurately, that a crucial aspect of organisation development may have been hiding in plain sight for decades. The two ‘schools’ (if for the moment I can refer to them that way) are diagnostic OD and dialogic ODThey are not in fact mutually exclusive – it’s this that allowed one to hide with the other – but for the purposes of explanation let me begin by describing two ends of an OD spectrum.

Diagnostic OD

At the “extreme diagnostic” end of the spectrum, the OD practitioner (here very much playing the role of the expert consultant) thinks and works like this:

  • According to the practitioner and in all likelihood the sponsor (the latter chooses the former after all), your organisation is best understood by some dominant metaphor: as a machine, an organism, an ecosystem, or a system of autonomous agents (the ‘agents’ being ‘people’ and groups thereof)
  • Accordingly, the task is to diagnose a problem and to prescribe (and perhaps implement) a fix, a cure, a conservation measure, or some reprogramming

Only a short distance beyond that extreme lies dysfunction:

  • Ivory tower diagnosis – lacking in empathy and respect, characterised by dismissiveness and judgementalism – or fake diagnosis whose main purpose is to establish the absence of some fashionable solution (see also snake oil merchants) and perhaps induce an inauthentic sense of urgency (burning platforms and the like)
  • Inviting failure by approaching adaptive challenges as though they are mere technical problems, fixable through linear, step-by-step processes (hey, 20th century change management frameworks, I’m looking at you)

Drawing a safe distance back from that precipitous edge, we have whole systems approaches, in which the diagnosis part and increasingly the implementation part involve meaningful levels of staff participation. As much facilitator as consultant, the practitioner consciously dials down their judgemental side and dials up their curious and conversational sides instead.

What if this begins to describe what successful OD has looked like all along? Would an alternative to the diagnostic model be helpful? Enter dialogic OD.

Dialogic OD

Again for the sake of explanation, let’s put those organisational metaphors to one side and start with something more philosophical:

  • The organisation is socially constructed and the creator of meaning – brought to life, sustaining itself, and continuing to evolve through its discourse, both with itself and with the outside world
  • Change is an ongoing (ever-present) process that is never entirely under anyone’s control; the practitioner’s job is to spark and facilitate new conversations, uncover fresh expressions of meaning, and help set loose new kinds of dialogue

The idea that culture is the product of a process that no-one fully controls is an important one. No wonder that change management is hard! I first saw it spelt out that way by Edgar H. Schein [1], and referenced it in Agendashift [2]. Schein is without doubt one on the greats of OD and it seems to me a little ironic that he is so strongly identified with the diagnostic model. In fairness to him, social constructionism [3] is younger than OD; moreover he contributes a superb foreword to Bushe & Marshak’s Dialogic Organization Development [4] – an excellent book that might easily have escaped my notice without his endorsement.

Before reading Bushe & Marhak’s book and as I began to read Schein’s foreword, I couldn’t help imagining for myself what diagnostic and dialogic OD might mean. Quite naturally I wondered what Agendashift would look like in the light of those two imagined models. I jumped to the conclusion that Agendashift had elements of both: diagnostic wherever it is concerned with the present (in particular the assessment and anything concerned with current obstacles), and dialogic wherever it is concerned with the future (which it does most of the rest of the time).

My instincts weren’t completely wrong, but nevertheless as I read the book I was surprised just how strongly the dialogic model resonated with me. It turns out that Agendashift is much further along the spectrum towards fully dialogic than I anticipated. Some of the more obvious parallels:

  1. Even Agendashift’s more diagnostic tools are there not to measure or judge but to stimulate conversations whose destinations – outcomes – the facilitator can’t even guess at (certainly I don’t try). As the Solutions Focus [5] guys will tell you, the point of scaling  – which they mean in the sense of giving something a numeric score – isn’t the number, but they way that it encourages you to think.
  2. Agendashift makes extensive use of generative images, things – typically terms or phrases – that help to conjure up a diverse range of naturally-aligned responses. Our de-jargonised Lean-Agile True North statement (below) is Agendashift’s most obvious example (quite a chunky one by normal standards), but even the prompts of the assessment tool are used in that way.
  3. And of course there’s the Clean Language, mainly via our 15-minute FOTO coaching game [6], though its influence runs deeper. It’s not just that the game gives participants the opportunity to ‘model’ the organisation’s obstacles and outcomes – conversations that probably haven’t happened before – it also creates the experience of a new kind of conversation.

Slide12

With the benefit of a few days of reflection, I am over that initial surprise. Agendashift was designed as a positive response to the prescriptive approaches to Agile adoption that at their worst seem to actively embrace all the diagnostic dysfunctions I identified above. Instead of prescriptive and linear, generative. And what do we generate? Outcomes around which people can self-organise, and ideas for action and experimentation that will point the organisation in the direction of those outcomes – hence outcome-oriented change – and all of it done in a coherent way that helps to develop Lean, Agile, and Lean-Agile sensibilities rather than work against them.

That said, I am not yet over my enjoyment of this book. In fact, I’m still wondering if Agendashift could and should move even further towards the dialogic end of the spectrum. Even in the Agendashift book there are hints of what might be possible – helping organisations create their own True North statements or their own non-prescriptive assessment tools, for example. And without creating any new tools, we practitioners should perhaps be keeping a closer watch for powerful new generative images amongst the many outcomes generated by participants, using their “thematic outcomes” (a phrase that is already part of the Agendashift lexicon) not just for organising plans but as seeds for wider dialogue.

I’m even challenged (in a good way) by two alternative visions of the workshop (a large part of my work). Is an Agendashift workshop:

  1. A planning event (diagnostic), or
  2. A “container for disruption” (dialogic)?

Yes!

One thing is for sure: if ever there’s a 2nd edition of Agendashift, Bushe & Marshak’s Dialogic Organization Development will certainly be among its key references. I’ll be adding it to our recommended reading list [7] very soon.

References

[1] Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar H. Schein (5th edition, 2016, Wiley)
[2] Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation, Mike Burrows (2018, New Generation Publishing)
[3] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_constructionism
[4] Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change, Gervase R. Bushe & Robert J. Marshak (2015, Berrett-Koehler Publishers)
[5] The Solutions Focus: Making Coaching and Change SIMPLE , Mark McKergow and Paul Z. Jackson (2011, Nicholas Brealey International)
[6] 15-minute FOTO: agendashift.com/15-minute-foto
[7] Recommended reading: agendashift.com/recommended-reading

Acknowledgements

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


Upcoming workshops – Boston, Berlin, Oslo, and Stockholm

Watch this space for Greece, Turkey, London, the Benelux region and Scandinavia 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…

On the quality and nature of backlogs

From the Agendashift and Agile and Lean Software Development LinkedIn groups (the second by request):

If you’re building systems for use by humans, ploughing through backlogs of requirements  – however well they might be written – rarely delivers anything better than mediocrity. Conversely, in a high feedback environment (where ideas get tested very quickly), even apparently low-quality inputs can deliver great results, if the inputs do at least focus collaboration and innovation on the right challenges.

Not that the “upstream” folks get a free ride from me – it’s their job to ensure a ready supply of those right challenges to work on, options developed to an appropriate level of detail just-in-time. What’s “appropriate” here is highly contextual, depending as it does on the degree of uncertainty involved and the skillset of the team. Focussing on the quality of the backlog as a whole would be a mistake and not a metric I would want anyone to take seriously.

That’s taken a little out of context and there is no doubt a risk that I’ll be misunderstood, but the comment stands alone well enough I think. One thing is for sure: I completely stand by the idea that ploughing through backlogs is a recipe for mediocrity, particularly when the system under construction is mainly for use by real people. I said it before in Agendashift and I’ll be saying it again (albeit for a different audience) it in Right to Left.

As to the idea that focussing too much on the quality of the backlog can be a trap for the unwary, let me quote from the draft of Right to Left. Here we’re describing close collaboration between development and its ‘upstream’ process in a digital context where this kind of working is now very well proven:

[They] learned to stop thinking of [their ‘upstream’ process] as a phase broken down into stages with gates in between; now they understand it as managing a portfolio of options for the best possible return. The best ideas will be released quickly, perhaps even before they are fully formed – the opportunity being great enough that more eyes and hands should be involved sooner. Some ideas take longer to mature, the cost/benefit equation being sufficiently marginal that a few rounds of prototyping and user testing might save the team some wasted effort later. The least promising ideas will languish for a while before a positive decision is made to reject them. No-one mourns a rejected option; each one is a bullet dodged, waste avoided.

Focus less on the backlog itself and more on the job that it has to do!


Upcoming Agendashift workshops

See recent blog post: Agendashift workshops in Seattle, London, Boston, and Berlin

Facilitated by Mike Burrows unless otherwise indicated:

open_leadership_symposium_speaker_burrows


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…

A Grand Unification Theory for Lean-Agile?

The job of chapter 3 of the forthcoming book Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile is to introduce a number of important Agile, Lean-Agile, and associated frameworks. I have taken care to describe them not as alternative solutions that must be chosen between, but as patterns to be combined in interesting ways. That’s not a new idea, but what does seem remarkable is how helpful a right-to-left perspective is in explaining how they work together and complement each other. When I say right-to-left, we’re talking not just collaborative, continuous, pull-based, and so on (concepts conventionally associated with Lean-Agile) but something very explicitly outcome-oriented.

Almost verbatim from the manuscript:

  1. Scrum (and Scrum-based scaling frameworks, if that’s your bag): continuously iterating on and self-organising around goals (short term outcomes) in the pursuit of longer term outcomes – product vision, the team’s mission, broader organisational objectives, and so on
  2. Kanban, making progress on outcomes visible, concentrating effort on the ones that matter most, fostering a focus on completion
  3. XP and DevOps, right across development and production, providing the infrastructure of process, practice, and technology necessary to accelerate feedback on the delivery of outcomes
  4. Service Design Thinking (along with user research, user experience and so on), continuously discovering which outcomes are important
  5. Lean Startup, pursuing business viability through continuous deliberate experimentation, managing for impact (outcomes again), finding and continuously refining a business model that enables customer outcomes to be sustained

Here it really is outcomes that holds everything together, not (as you might expect) flow, collaboration, or some other shared value or technical principle. This way, we avoid saying “if you dig deep enough, they’re the same” (which I hear from time to time and strongly reject, believing that it does each framework’s creators and communities a huge disservice).

Neither are we saying “don’t use frameworks”, if (and it’s quite a big if) this means that you must always start from first principles. A sensible way to start is again outcome-oriented and has a measured and pragmatic attitude towards frameworks (quoting this time from chapter 4, Viable scaling):

  • Identify needs – looking at what kind of organisation you’re trying to be and at what you’re trying to achieve  – and the obstacles that currently prevent those needs from being met
  • Agree on outcomes, not just goals plucked out of the air, but the kind of outcomes that might be achieved when these obstacles are removed, overcome, or bypassed
  • On a just-in-time basis, prioritise outcomes and generate a range of options to realise them, using your favourite frameworks as sources of ideas (not excluding other sources, but valuing coherence nevertheless)
  • In manageably small chunks of change and through a combination of direct action and experimentation (choosing between those approaches on a case-by-case basis according to the level of uncertainty and risk involved), begin to treat change as real work: tracking it, validating its impact, and reflecting on it just as we would for product work

In a nutshell, I’ve described Agendashift, which is of course a right-to-left approach to change and transformation. Other engagement models exist – see OpenSpace Agility (OSA) for another excellent, well-documented, and highly complementary example. Whichever approach you choose, take care to choose one that models Lean and Agile values, lest the dissonance proves too great and you fatally undermine your work, a very real risk. To sow disengagement would be a truly bad outcome!

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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)


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…