Engagement: more than a two-way street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes & references

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming Agendashift workshops (UK, IT, DE)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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True North, tweaked – and a couple more classic posts restored

At last week’s workshop there was a brief discussion on whether the last line of the Agendashift True North – the focus of one of my favourite workshop exercises – should make explicit reference not just to needs, but to “individual needs, corporate needs, societal needs” (or something similar). These have long been in my mind as a result of my several explorations into Servant Leadership – clearly I did not stop at the neutered, team-centric version typically taught in Agile circles.

Through our discussions in Slack and LinkedIn, the more it become clear that change was justified, but not the one I proposed. Here’s that line:

Needs anticipated, met at just at the right time

A conversation with Damian Crawford quickly convinced me to leave this line alone. As currently written, this line includes a range of needs that that hadn’t necessarily occurred to me, and we concluded that it would be unfortunate to exclude them. All it takes to dig deeper here is a simple question (thanks again Damian for asking this Clean-style):

What kind of needs anticipated?

A comment from Vincent van der Lubbe meanwhile reminded me that even whole organisations don’t live in a vacuum, and we turned to this line:

Individuals, teams, between teams, across the organisation

Very easily fixed:

Individuals, teams, between teams, across the organisation, and beyond

Scaling, anyone?

In full, from agendashift.com/true-north, where I’ve updated both the image and the text:


Needs anticipated

That last line also attracted comment in relation to the phrase “Needs anticipated”. I dug out a relevant quote from Kanban from the Inside (published 2014) and it was nice to remind myself to find that I’ve been been banging the drum for needs and anticipation since 2013 if not earlier. Today I restored these two classic posts from positiveincline.com (explaining the sudden flurry if you’re an email subscriber!):

Enjoy those blasts from the past!

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

Agendashift as leadership development

Not everyone who attends our 1-day practitioner (now “Core“) workshops has been a coach or consultant. A significant proportion have held positions of responsibility within  organisations of all kinds, technology-centric or otherwise. For workshops held privately, that can mean everyone in the room!

We’re now able to take this to another level,  offering an Advanced Agendashift workshop that not only gives participants the opportunity to practice some important transformation-related skills, it goes on to help them explore, reflect on, and grow their understanding of the (overlapping) roles of coach and leader. It is Lean-Agile leadership development of a much deeper kind than you’ll get from studying a process framework or attending a bootcamp. My goal is to get it onto the leadership development curriculum of at least one major organisation this year. Yours (or your client’s) perhaps?

Readers of this blog will recognise the 5-part structure below. Everything shown here in italics is specific to the Advanced workshop; the remainder is Core (so no, you needn’t have attended a Core workshop previously):

  1. Discovery: Describing where we would like to get to
    • Exploring organisational context, objectives, obstacles, and outcomes
    • Plan on a page
    • Culture, values, and Systems Thinking
  2. Exploration: Prospecting for opportunities
    • Mission, purpose, and identity
    • Organisational self-awareness and empathy
    • Debriefing your Agendashift delivery assessment
    • Generating outcomes
    • Exploring different approaches
    • Understanding and supporting the learning process
  3. Mapping: Building a visual transformation plan
    • Transformation mapping
    • Strategy model reconciliations
    • Other mapping tools
  4. Elaboration: Framing actions, testing our thinking
    • Changeban: a Lean Startup flavoured variant of Featureban, our popular simulation game
    • Creating options, framing hypotheses, developing experiments
    • Cross-checking your experiment design
    • Authenticity: stories, requirements, and needs
  5. Operation: Change as real work
    • Operating continuous transformation
    • Organising for alignment, follow-through, and mutual accountability
    • The Agendashift adaptability assessment and followups

We now have two UK dates in the calendar:

  • 6-7 February, Leeds (early bird expires on January 16th, a week from today)
  • 22-23 May, Cardiff

Over the next few weeks we’ll be adding locations in Europe and further afield. Wherever you are, I’m particularly keen to explore opportunities to hold these workshops internally, on my own or with partners.

Partners have already reviewed the new material over video, and some will no doubt be planning to use all or part of it with their clients. The way it is built around the Core material means that even those who don’t expect to use it anytime soon have additional resources to fall back on should the need or opportunity arise.

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

Scaling without cross-functional teams / Servant leadership un-neutered

Hot off the press from the Øredev conference (great work guys – the conference isn’t even finished yet), videos of my two talks.

Wednesday: Scaling without cross-functional teams. I’m grateful to track chair Martin Rosén-Lidholm not just for inviting me, but for suggesting this provocative title! It’s a brand new talk and I really enjoyed both writing and delivering it.

Scaling without cross-functional teams from Øredev Conference on Vimeo.

Thursday: Servant leadership un-neutered. I’ve given this talk several times this year, and I have to admit that early versions suffered from me trying to pack in too much material. I keep on editing  (I removed a slide between Hamburg on Tuesday and Malmö on Thursday) and it flows much better now.

Servant Leadership un-neutered from Øredev Conference on Vimeo.

Would you like to have either of these talks at your event? Get in touch!

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Stand up meeting, thinking tool, leadership routine

[Originally posted on positiveincline.com September 16 2013, restored to blog.agendashift.com February 13, 2018. Links are to web.archive.org.]

My last post was on the provocative side; to restore this blog’s usual balance, here are some antidotes to some of the problems I described. These are ways to use your kanban board to help you look at your process from the perspectives of customer focus and flow, two values from that middle direction layer [2018: the other one being leadership].

Imagine you’re facilitating a stand-up meeting in front of your board. If you have a physical board, you’re probably heading (in your mind at least) towards the board’s right hand side so that you can stand looking left across the board. If you use an electronic kanban tool, you can achieve a similar effect by turning your laptop or monitor monitor to the left a bit (ok, I’m kidding).

Now scan the board from right to left (in other words working your way backwards from the end of your process towards the start) and ask these questions of the columns:

Customer focus

  • Whose needs are explored in this stage of the process, and how? Whose aren’t, and what risks does that pose?
  • What do we learn in this stage that we don’t (or can’t) know earlier? In what ways do the activities of this stage help us anticipate what will be needed?
  • What is still to be learned? Are outstanding uncertainties best dealt with by pressing on or by going back?


  • How do work items leave this stage in the process? By what criteria do we know that they’re ready? How are those criteria expressed? How is the state change communicated?
  • Typically, how much time do work items spend in this stage? How much (if any) of that time is spent in active work?
  • What are the most significant sources of unpredictability? In the work in or the waiting? Waiting for internal availability or for external dependencies to be resolved?
  • How much of this stage’s capacity is absorbed in rework? Or in failure demand, which arrives only because previous work failed to meet customer needs adequately?
  • How do work items arrive into this stage? How do we know that they’re ready to be worked on?

You may find it helpful to ask some of these questions of individual work items too.

What we’ve done is to turn a popular protocol for standup meetings into a thinking tool. You can try it with other values, for example transparency (is it sufficiently clear what’s going on here?) or balance (are we overburdened here?), or some other concern that seems relevant.

Caution: questions like these already assume the following:

  1. That the process has sensible objectives (to deliver the right kind of things)
  2. That the work flow is scoped sensibly (starts with the right kind of questions, finishes with the right kind of result)
  3. That the work flow is organized sensibly (sequenced to generate high value learning as quickly as possible)

I’ve encountered plenty of processes where these assumptions are open to challenge. For example:

  • A change management process whose objective was the approval or rejection of design changes, disconnected from any actual implementation process. Needless to say, any customer satisfaction delivered out of that process was somewhat short lived.
  • My bank’s account opening process. A frustrating process and several weeks later and I still don’t have online banking, let alone two additional products that I would be willing to pay for. I sense an institutionalised lack of curiosity into my needs and what might be in the way of delivering on them.

Some acknowledgements are in order:

  • The first set of questions questions are heavily influenced by Michael Kennedy and the model of the Knowledge Discovery Process. That’s a Lean product development model, but I find that many processes are usefully understood in those terms.
  • The “whose needs?” questions (the first bullet) point to the very important question: “who holds a veto on delivery?”. This is one of many good customer focus takeaways from Lean Software Strategies by Peter Middleton and my friend Jim Sutton.
  • The idea of understanding a process by walking through it backwards is an old Lean trick. I don’t know for sure how it was discovered and popularised, but Steven Spear describes very well its use as a leadership routine inside Toyota in his book The High-Velocity Edge.
  • Failure Demand is a concept I associate (in the nicest possible way) with John Seddon.

These are all great ideas. Combining them with visual management and practised routine makes them (as well as the values) accessible and actionable, don’t you think?