Your organisation in 5 networks

Updated 2022-11-17: Renamed network #2, minor edits elsewhere

Expanding slightly on yesterday’s LinkedIn post (linkedin.com), your organisation in 5 networks:

Network #1: Your reporting network. This is just your formal structure – typically a hierarchy, perhaps with the occasional bit of dual reporting thrown in – seen here as lines of communication. Because sideways communication has to be implemented indirectly via upward and downward communication, it can be highly inefficient.

Network #2: Your delivery operations network. I am referring not to material flows or to the knowledge work equivalent, but to the interactions between people that make those flows what they are, performing as they do. In siloed organisations, the delivery operations network cuts across the reporting network, sometimes uncomfortably.

Network #3: Your strategy network. Typically richer than the reporting network, this connects everyone involved in anybody else’s strategic decision-making – any decision-making at any level of organisation that impacts on things like identity, purpose, objectives, learning, and adaptation. A more abstract and less messy version of this network connects not people but domains of responsibility at varying levels of granularity (see circular organisation).

Network #4: Your trust-building network. This is the network of all connections that are enhanced by meaningful efforts to build or maintain mutual trust. In a high-trust organisation, this can be expected to overlap significantly with the preceding three networks.

Network #5: The social network: All the above and more – the totality of your organisation’s network of interaction and influence, covering all the conversations that contribute to making your organisation what it is and what it is becoming.

And two hypotheses (with caveats):

Hypothesis 1. The more that networks 2, 3, and 4 are healthy, the more that networks 1 and 5 look after themselves.

Hypothesis 2. The richer you can make them, the more likely is the serendipitous conversation, increasing rate of innovation.

As rightly observed in some of the questions and comments on the first version of this post, these hypotheses are slightly in tension. Rich is good, richer would be better for many if not most organisations, and​ leaders within them would do well to pay attention to those networks. You can however have too much of a good thing, not to mention that some innovation happens in the darker corners, so to speak. In my use of the word “healthy” in hypothesis 1 I did intend a sense of balance, and I should have worked that sense into hypothesis 2 also. Instead though, this paragraph’s caveats 🙂

Some questions for you:

  1. In your organisation, which network or networks dominate?
  2. At what cost?
  3. Given where you sit in each of these networks and the reach that they afford you, what might you do?

Your answers, questions, or feedback can go on the original post (linkedin.com).

You can also take them to one of the upcoming webinars – the first three (December 8th, January 12th, February 2nd) finish with an AMA (Ask Mike Anything) session. Including that webinar series, The questions that drive us (eventbrite.co.uk), all our upcoming events:


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We help leaders and engaged team members at every level to gain fluency in the language of outcomes – developing and pursuing strategies together, innovating, learning, and adapting as the organisation renews and transforms itself from the inside.

PS The slide below is adapted from the talk I gave last week at SEACON (the Studies in Enterprise Agility Conference). Video to follow.

Meaningfulness, significance, and direction

As I mentioned last week, I’m busy working on a leaner, fitter version of Leading with Outcomes: Foundation. This updates the first self-paced study module at the Agendashift Academy and also makes it available in the form of interactive training, productised for use by other trainers.

Since last week’s announcement, I have renamed the middle session (of three). On reflection, “Aspiring to performance” seemed a bit generic – clichéd even. Its replacement, “Meaningfulness, significance, and direction” emerges quite naturally from the content – not summarising it exactly, but those three qualities do correspond nicely to the Ideal, Obstacles, Outcomes model – the IdOO (“I do”) pattern that is introduced (through hands-on practice) in session 1 and further developed in chapter 2 (again through practice).

The core of the model goes like this:

  • Ideal – envision a compelling future
  • Obstacles – identify what’s in the way of what we want
  • Outcomes – look beyond those obstacles to something better

As you learn to move easily between those elements, properly contextualise those conversations, and organise what they produce into something coherent, you’re getting better at strategy. This can be “everyday” strategy – quick conversations to clarify the thinking around everyday bits of work – or as the overall arc of the “set piece” strategy occasion – participatory strategy reviews and the like. It’s even a model for leadership!

And so to meaningfulness, significance, and direction. Not a new model, but capturing some of the intent behind the IdOO pattern and Agendashift more broadly:

  • Meaningfulness – outcomes not as metrics or targets, but things meaningful to us, identified and articulated through authentic dialogue. Often, we set this up in the Ideal part with stories of people making meaningful progress.
  • Significance – instead of falling into the trap of solving problems just because they are there, choosing our obstacles for what they represent and taking the trouble to frame them carefully
  • Direction – our direction is set by the outcomes we’re choosing to pursue, not by monolithic solutions (perhaps sold to us with outcomes), or by plans whose all-consuming execution comes at the expense of what’s meaningful and significant. Outcome-orientation, in other words.

As well as re-recording the self-paced study version of Foundation, I’m also hosting it in the form of participatory online training over the 23rd, 24th, and 25th of November. All sessions 14:00-16:00GMT, over Zoom, and highly hands-on. Price: just £195 + VAT. Ping us for a discount code if:

  • You have an Academy subscription
  • You’re an Agendashift partner
  • You’re an employee of a government, educational, or non-profit organisation, or are currently unemployed – we’re glad to offer significant discounts here
  • You completed September’s TTT/F or are booked on December’s – for you it’s free

Book here:

And if interested in teaching it yourself or in facilitating the related workshops:


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Leaders as keepers of context

What if all failures were failures of context? OK, that’s an exaggeration, but as a working default assumption, it sure beats assuming failures of competence or character. Moreover, it can be the beginning of a generative line of thinking, one that puts you in the role of keeper of context.

Suppose that you’re a leader in a transforming organisation [1] and you witness an unproductive conversation. What is the shared context that this conversation is missing? You might intervene and provide some, but that’s not the point. Instead, work backwards. What was the conversation that didn’t take place, the one in which that context would have been established? Look not only at formal meetings but at how activities are sequenced, how their respective conversations happen, and their quality. What opportunities for context-creating conversations are we missing?

Looking at your organisation’s processes, it’s easy to focus on just the formal sequence of activities and overlook the interactions that happen (or need to happen) between them, and in particular, their conversations. When each activity involves different people and the chain of activities is long, it’s not hard to see how context gets lost.

Going deeper into organisation design and questions of meaningfulness, suppose now that you come across some work that failed to delight the customer. What went wrong? Lack of skill? Lack of commitment? These are easy conclusions to reach, but let’s try a different kind of assumption. Could this again be a failure of context? Was that work done with a deep enough appreciation of the context into which that work would be delivered? Where was the opportunity to appreciate the customer’s struggles? Where was the opportunity to explore their needs, to identify measures of customer progress, and so on? And suppose that the work had instead been successful, what kind of feedback would those involved have received? Could it be that our role definitions and process designs keep the people closest to the work insulated from the context they need?

Finally, suppose now that you suspect you’re seeing people lose their sense of what’s important, who they are, and what their team is about. Not so surprising in a transforming organisation! When you see confusion, it doesn’t usually help to ask what people are doing or what they are thinking. Instead, go back to the beginning and let them tell the story. If it turns out that the one who was confused was you, don’t be surprised. Context really is everything.

My perspective on these issues of context has evolved. In my first book, I suggested that you might try the assumption that any failures of process you encounter were rooted in failures of collaboration. If you’re looking for systemic causes – making it easier to adopt this perspective non-judgementally ­– I’ve found that this perspective can be highly productive.

Going back a few more years to when I was a global manager of managers, I would see failures of leadership. Confrontational perhaps, but again productive when the failing collaboration involved an imbalance of power or experience, and the more senior party involved needed to understand their additional responsibility in the relationship.

Failures of context, collaboration, or leadership: three closely related perspectives yet quite different in tone. When you’re a manager dealing with these issues daily or an external practitioner sensing one for the first time, which perspective do you choose? I remain comfortable with all three; the right one on the day is the one that leads to the insights needed via a safe and productive conversation. And if you’re not sure, you can always ask!

[1] Leaders in transforming organisations are the Agendashift Academy’s focus; this post expands on two end-of section reflections from Leading with Outcomes: Foundation and Inside-out Strategy: Fit for maximum impact.

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If you want to understand scaling… (part 2 of 2)

If you want to understand scaling:

  1. Start with what must be true at each scale of organisation (part 1)
  2. Then with what happens between scales (this post)

Where we got to last time (and from there to what a healthy relationship with the process frameworks looks like):

  • A structure that makes sense – not just tidy on paper, but purposeful at every scale – allowing each unit at every scale to self-manage effectively (structuring itself to minimise dependencies, for example)
  • Each unit at every scale able to express its own strategy in its own words, in terms appropriate to its domain and its customers, aligning it with other units and other scales according to both structure and opportunity
  • Each unit at every scale able to identify what it must manage at that scale – no more and no less – with protocols to deal with what should be managed elsewhere

We reached those conclusions via a route that made it very obvious that each of them apply at every scale, and that the consequences can be serious if there’s a problem with any of them. But it doesn’t stop there. Whilst it’s possible for a scale to be badly designed in its own right – awkward structure, missing capabilities, or poor coordination to name but a few – it’s not hard to see that the relationships between scales are no less important. If anything, they’re more troubling.

Consider these:

  • One unit doing the coordination work of another – micromanaging, or interfering in other ways
  • One unit doing the strategy work of another – imposing it downwards (directly, via an overly-top-down or centralised plan), second-guessing upwards, etc
  • Units taking on responsibility for outcomes over which they have insufficient control
  • Units providing insufficient transparency about strategy, progress, or risks for related others to make good decisions
  • Units failing to share useful intelligence
  • Or conversely, units not listening (or worse, punishing unwelcome news)

These describe dysfunctional relationships even when they’re between peers, but when there’s any kind of power imbalance involved, those at the receiving end may feel powerless to fix them.

The Deliberately Adaptive Organisation

Let’s recast those challenging but still fixable problems more positively, as principles. These are table stakes I believe for any serious approach to scaling. With minor caveats they apply to every identifiable scope or scale:

  1. Each responsible for its own strategy and accountable for its own performance
  2. Respectful of the autonomy of others, each responsible for its next level of internal structure and its self-management across it
  3. Each committed to building mutual trust in every direction

Choosing its models carefully to maintain that “at every scope or scale” vibe, the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation (deliberately-adaptive.org) integrates the following:

  • From Agendashift: rapid strategy development and alignment between scopes and scales through generative conversations, multi-level participation, and outcome-orientation
  • From Lean and Agile, patterns for collaboration and coordination, and the deep integration of delivery and learning
  • From Sociocracy (known to some as dynamic governance and to Akoff fans as circular hierarchy), consent and purpose as the basis for effective self-organisation and governance
  • From the Deliberately Developmental Organisation (as described in An Everyone Culture by developmental psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow-Lahey), attention to the human side of development

What holds it all together is one of the crowning achievements of Systems Thinking, Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model (VSM), perhaps the most powerfully “at every scale” organisational model in existence. We take the management consultant’s Swiss Army knife and give it some 21st-century attitude in an innovative and accessible presentation.

Given that most of the popular approaches to scaling focus mainly on process, it is important for me to stress that the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation is not a process framework. Neither is it prescriptive. Instead, it is two kinds of model in one:

  1. Diagnostic, but only in the everyday sense that it helps with the identification of dysfunctions and opportunities (building on strengths as well as mitigating weaknesses), not in the sense that those dysfunctions become the excuse for heavy-handed prescription
  2. Generative in the sense that it helps organisations engage constructively with themselves, generate a wealth of ideas, and find their own way forward

If you know Agendashift (mostly generative, with the diagnostic part done generatively), you will recognise that winning combination. In fact, the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation is introduced in the closing chapters of the Agendashift 2nd edition (2021), my previous book Right to Left (2020) doing some of the setup.

And development continues. After I release this month the final instalment of Outside-in Strategy: Positioned for success, production work begins on Adaptive Organisation: Business agility at every scale, the fourth and last module in the Agendashift Academy’s Leading with Outcomes curriculum. Then sometime next year I hope, a book (my fifth – I have a fourth book close to completion, more on that another time).

As that roadmap indicates, the earliest access to the next iteration of the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation will be via the Academy, and you can be part of it. Join one of our regular Ask Me Anything sessions and even before the content is released I’ll be only too happy to explore it with you. Subscribe now:

If you want to understand scaling:

  1. Start with what must be true at each scale of organisation (part 1)
  2. Then with what happens between scales (this post)

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If you want to understand scaling… (part 1 of 2)

If you want to understand scaling:

  1. Start with what must be true at each scale of organisation (this post)
  2. Then with what happens between scales (part 2)

Let’s begin with teams, or more specifically with its members, people. Even allowing for diversity, there are a number of near-universal things you can say about the members of any well-established team:

  • They each know who they are; many will also have a sense of who they’d like to be
  • They each know what they want to contribute; many will also have identified capabilities they’d like to develop
  • They each have a sense of what they can manage on their own and what should be managed more collectively

There are some boundaries there. They may be fuzzy and there may be room for negotiation in the short term and for development in the longer term, but cross them – insist that people do things that “aren’t them”, aren’t what they signed up for, or take away their ability to self-manage to the level they expect – and you have unhappy people in an unhappy team. For example, most people don’t like to be micro-managed; neither do they want to see important things left unattended.

Now to the team itself. You’d be hard-pressed to find a high-performing team for which these aren’t true:

  • There are collective senses of identity, purpose, and of what it aspires to
  • It knows what it’s there to do, what it is capable of, and ways in which those capabilities might be developed
  • It knows what it can manage for itself as a team, and (conversely) what needs to be managed more collectively, ie with (and perhaps by) other teams – potentially even with others outside the organisation

Again, there are some boundaries there. Fuzzy and negotiable no doubt, but only a fool would think they could cross them without negative consequences.

Jump now to the organisation as a whole. I almost don’t need to write these points down, but I will:

  • It has a sense of identity, a sense of purpose, and a sense of what it aspires to
  • It knows what it’s there to do, what it is capable of, and ways in which those capabilities might be developed
  • It knows what it can manage for itself as an organisation, and (conversely) what needs to be managed with others – suppliers, customers, industry groups, and so on

You can be pretty sure that if there are significant issues with any of those points, you’re looking at an organisation that has problems – big problems. At the extreme: identity crises, or working catastrophically beyond its capabilities or its remit.

Starting again at the level of the individual, on the topic of what makes the work meaningful, the answers may vary hugely. Moreover, you never know until you ask, and perhaps not even then until you get to know them well enough. At higher levels, diversity of purpose and capability is essential to meeting the complexities of the business environment. The successful organisation has them distributed effectively whilst maintaining some coherence of its own, not an easy balance to maintain when the environment is changing.

What does all that mean for teams-of-teams? Does this repeating pattern – a pattern that already works at three levels – the levels of individuals, teams, and the whole organisation – apply at other scales? Pretty much!

If your team-of-teams doesn’t have its own sense of identity and purpose – meaningful to the people in it, not just its designers – it is unlikely to amount to anything more than an aggregation of its parts. What is it for? What is it capable of? What does it add, other than overhead? If this problem is widespread, you have a structure that is hard to navigate, a direct cost to the organisation and potentially a problem for customers too.

What if it has those senses of identity and purpose but not a sense of where it would like to get to, what it would like to become, and so on? In that case, what holds it all together as its component parts continue to develop?

And what does it manage? If it’s trying to manage what its constituent parts are capable of managing on their own – interfering, in other words – it does both them and itself a serious disservice.

All that said, what does good look like?

  • A structure that makes sense – not just tidy on paper, but purposeful at every scale – allowing each unit at every scale to self-manage effectively (structuring itself to minimise dependencies, for example)
  • Each unit at every scale able to express its own strategy in its own words, in terms appropriate to its domain and its customers, aligning it with other units and other scales according to both structure and opportunity
  • Each unit at every scale able to identify what it must manage at that scale – no more and no less – with protocols to deal with what should be managed elsewhere

Any problems here I would characterise as organisational problems first (the organisation getting in the way of doing the right thing), problems of the strategy process second, and problems of the delivery process third – a distant third if the first two are in any way significant. And as leadership problems? It is hard work for leaders when these problems aren’t dealt with, so let’s be careful not to personalise problems that may not be of their own making. Neither should we underestimate the power of participation, self-management, and self-organisation. But if as a leader you’re getting in the way of the organisation fixing its problems or are complacent about them, well that’s on you.

Neither should you expect your problems of organisation, strategy, and leadership to go away by rolling out a process framework. Why would they? I don’t know if we have got to “peak process framework” yet – I don’t suppose we can know until some time afterwards and I’m not ready to call it – but in the meantime let’s be realistic about what they can and can’t do. And while we’re at it, let’s not pretend that a framework rollout is an easy and risk-free thing.

Much as I detest the rollout, this is not an anti-framework rant. If you find the opportunity to borrow from a framework as you address those more fundamental problems, that’s totally sensible – there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. You are still are in control of your own destiny, free to pursue what really matters.

Before part 2, more on the topic of maintaining healthy relationships with frameworks in these two articles:

On some of the leading frameworks themselves:

And to those bigger themes:

Watch those last two come together in the coming months. At the Agendashift Academy, the final Leading with Outcomes module, Adaptive Organisation: Business agility at every scale is due in the autumn. You can get ready meanwhile with the first three modules:

  1. Leading with Outcomes: Foundation
  2. Inside-out strategy: Fit for maximum impact
  3. Outside-in strategy: Positioned for success

If you want to understand scaling:

  1. Start with what must be true at each scale of organisation (this post)
  2. Then with what happens between scales (part 2)

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New from the Outside-in Strategy department

Two things:

  1. The next Leading with Outcomes module, Outside-in Strategy: Positioned for Success
  2. A new Agendashift-style assessment/survey tool, the Outside-in Strategy Readiness Assessment

1. Outside-in Strategy: Positioned for success

This is the third of the Agendashift Academy’s four planned Leading with Outcomes modules, and its self-paced incarnation begins its rollout today. Tentative schedule:

  1. Monday, June 20th: Customer
    “What’s happening when we’re reaching the right customers, meeting their strategic needs?”
  2. Friday, July 1st: Organisation
    “When we’re meeting those strategic needs, what kind of organisation are we?”
  3. Friday, July 8th: Product
    “Through what products and services are we meeting those strategic needs?”
  4. Friday, July 15th: Platform
    “What are the defining/critical capabilities that make it all possible?”
  5. Friday, July 29th: Team(s)
    “When we’re achieving all of the above, what kind of team(s) are we?”

We are big believers in leadership and strategy at every level of organisation. “Strategic needs” brings together our customers’ needs and our strategy – whether we’re a team, a team-of-teams, or something bigger, and whether our customers are inside or outside our organisation.

Here’s a quick introductory video (05:33):

Module-wise, Leading with Outcomes is nicely on track to complete its rollout this year:

  • Leading with Outcomes: Foundation – already live (take this one first)
  • Inside-out Strategy: Fit for maximum impact – already live
  • Outside-in Strategy: Positioned for success – rolling out now
  • Adaptive Organisation: Business agility at every scale – due in the autumn

All go live initially as self-paced, video-based training; instructor-led training (with me) is available right now for all but the last one, and we’ll be announcing a train-the-trainer programme soon too.

All four modules are included in your Agendashift Academy subscription. There are affordable plans for both businesses and individuals, with yearly and monthly options in both cases. If you’re a leader in a transforming organisation, you aspire to that role, or you support others in that journey, then it’s for you.

2. The Agendashift Outside-in Strategy Readiness Assessment

Developed for the above but I’m keen to see how it applies elsewhere, a really short (15-prompt) assessment tool, three prompts for each of the five layers of Agendashift’s outside-in strategy review. It’s free to try (registration required in this public survey mode). Like all the Agendashift assessment tools it can be used as the template for an organisational survey too; if you’re an Agendashift partner, you’ll find it on the templates dropdown.


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Resistance – or feedback?

This week I came across blog post that categorised resistors to “Agile” (actually to Scrum) as “diehards, sabateurs, followers, and skeptics”. I couldn’t let that lie and I responded on LinkedIn, but my post is now unavailable, possibly – though I speculate – because the one I responded to in an important way misrepresents Mike Cohn’s original. So here it is again, and slightly longer.

To those who take a solutions-first approach to change, resistance means:

  1. You’re not selling hard enough, and
  2. It’s the fault of those resisting that they’re not buying (and hence those shamefully blaming labels)

Never mind the contradiction, it simply does not occur that maybe it’s feedback, a quite reasonable response when you’ve failed to involve people in the right way early enough, failed to recognise real systemic issues, or most likely both. But that would mean admitting that the solution and/or the change paradigm are wrong. For different reasons, both are difficult things to admit, so it doesn’t happen.

And they wonder why people disengage when Agile, Scrum, or <insert framework here> are inflicted on them! As far as I’m concerned, in frameworks-land, this is the only fight worth fighting. Forget fixing the the process frameworks, our relationship with them needs to change. In a healthier relationship, we would see them not as solutions to roll out, but as resources to draw on as people up and down the organisation find fitting solutions to strategic goals agreed authentically and in proper context. Not solutions-first, but outcome-oriented.

Outcome-oriented change is both practical and teachable. If you want to be a more effective leader in a transforming organisation, you aspire to that, or if it’s your job to support others in that journey, check out the Agendashift Academy’s self-paced training programme, Leading with Outcomes. We help leaders at all levels succeed at developing and pursuing the kinds of strategy that go hand-in-hand with transformation. Membership is now by subscription, and with plans for both businesses and individuals and monthly and yearly options for both, you’ll find a plan that suits you.


What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

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On values, meaningfulness, and change – parallels with Bateson and Mead

Punchline first:

In the methods & frameworks world, I believe there is only one fight worth fighting, and it is not between frameworks. It is between those who would fit people and organisations to frameworks (branded or otherwise), and those who find that idea intolerable.

From a book I am taking the time to savour, here is acclaimed anthropologist and systems thinker Gregory Bateson, on the work of his former wife Dr Margaret Mead, another acclaimed anthropologist:

[If] we go on defining ends as separate from means and apply the social sciences as crudely instrumental means, using the recipes of science to manipulate people, we shall arrive at a totalitarian rather than a democratic system of life. The solution she offers is that we look for the “direction” and “values” implicit in the means, rather than looking ahead to a blueprinted goal and thinking of this goal as justifying or not justifying manipulated means. We have to find the value of a planned act implicit in and simultaneous with the act itself, not separate from it in the sense that the act would derive its value or from reference to a future end or goal.

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972)

This passage resonated strongly with me. Translating from the social space to organisations, how, as leaders, do we make it easy for people to find meaning in work whilst still respecting their choice in the matter? And if it’s the job of leadership to take people to new places, can we make the process of change more meaningful, again without dictating what form that meaning should take for each individual concerned?

My biggest contribution in the frameworks space was a values model for the Kanban Method (2013). It explained why and how Kanban was meaningful to me, and it turned out to be helpful to other people too – to the extent that it become adopted as part of the method’s formal definition.

But I didn’t stop there. I was on a journey, and it wasn’t long after the publication of Kanban from the Inside (2014), that I found myself detaching myself from Kanban community. There was no big disagreement behind this move, and to be clear, I remain proud of that model and my first book. It was simply that there was a job to be done, and I felt that it would be easier done outside.

Bateson goes on:

This then is the type of discipline which has enabled Dr Mead to point out that a discrepancy – a basic and fundamental discrepancy – exists between “social engineering”, manipulating people in order to achieve a planned blueprint society, and the ideals of democracy, the “supreme worth and moral responsibility of the individual human person.” The two conflicting motifs have long been implicit in our culture, science has had instrumental leanings since before the Industrial Revolution, and emphasis on upon individual worth and responsibility is even older. The threat of conflict between the two motifs has only come recently, with increasing consciousness of, and emphasis upon, the democratic motif and simultaneous spread of the instrumental motif. … Are we to reserve the techniques and the right to manipulate people as the privilege of a few planning, goal-oriented, and power-hungry individuals, to whom the instrumentality of science makes a natural appeal? Now that we have the techniques, are we, in cold blood, going to treat people as things? Or what are we going to do with these techniques?

Again, parallels. In the methods & frameworks world, I believe there is only one fight worth fighting, and it is not between the frameworks. It is between those who would fit people and organisations to frameworks (branded or otherwise), and those who find that idea intolerable.

I am on that second side. My fight is against those so convinced of their rightness that they’re sure that the ends justify the manipulative or coercive means, or they lack the imagination, curiosity, or courage to consider that there might be alternative approaches to change. And there really are alternatives. Let no one tell you that change-by-imposition – legitimised the change management industry despite its repeated failures – is the only model. That wasn’t true even 20 years ago – Agilists take note – and it definitely isn’t true now.

That fight is what has energised me in the 8 years since my first book and I expect it to continue to sustain me for the rest of my career. It has taken me from method to values and then to outcomes, meaningfulness, wholeheartedness, leadership, and strategy. They’re integrated into a participatory approach to change and transformation, one that is more than capable of reconciling sophisticated thoughts on organisation design with utmost respect not only for the person but for the organisation that people create together.

It’s hard enough being a leader in a transforming organisation without your approach to change making things worse. If that could be you, check out the Agendashift Academy’s Leading with Outcomes self-paced training programme. And if your organisation is entering into a relationship with a process framework, make sure that the relationship is healthy one*.

*That’s my recent article on InfoQ: Adaptability by Agreement: Valuing Outcomes over Imposed Solutions. It’s the most complete written treatment yet of Agendashift’s three strategies model. Watch out for videos too, in particular from last week’s Lean Agile London (#LALDN22).


What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

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Updated: Agendashift’s three meta strategies

[Updated March 10th: tweaked the headings, replaced the image]

Or if you prefer:

  • After Rumelt, three guiding policies – thank you Oren Golan for the reminder
  • Less grandly, three things to keep working at if you’re doing anything strategy-related (which, if you think about it, should be a lot of the time)

For now at least (this is a work in progress) I’ll go with meta strategies. They’re strategies for getting better at strategy, in particular the kinds of strategy that tends to motivate transformation. And forgive me if I drop the meta once in a while.

Meta strategy 1. Keep asking the “agreement on outcomes” question

Which is to say, keep asking this question and learn to really mean it:

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

Authentic agreement on meaningful outcomes. “Authentic agreement” meaning the right people in the room, agreeing on things that matter, expressed in their own words. “Meaningful outcomes” meaning not just numbers, not just targets, but needs met, happy endings to stories, the world changed for people in meaningful ways.

Solutions second, outcomes leading the way – literally “leading with outcomes” [1] – solutions emerging from the people closest to the problem [2], people already motivated to find them.

All of that is a 180 degree turnaround from those 1990’s models of managed change, a different paradigm entirely. Instead of using outcomes to sell solutions (and very often solutions of the wrong kid of scale), we use outcomes to find solutions. Not just game-changing for engagement, a completely different game.

Meta strategy 2. Change the game’s objectives to keep outcomes in the foreground

The trick here is to change the meaning of ‘done’:

  • You’re ‘done’ only when needs have been met
  • You’re ‘really done’ only when you have fully accounted for all the learning

Outcomes don’t go away once we start thinking about solutions – quite the opposite. Outcomes change what ‘done’ and ‘really done’ mean. When we account properly for learning, it creates certain expections, helping to keep ‘done’, ‘really done’, and all the outcomes they represent in the foreground. Solutions are kept in their proper place, just a means to an end, held much more lightly.

We’re done when “someone’s need was met” [3], the outcome demonstrably achieved. This implies that we know whose need we’re trying to meet, what need, and how we’d know that we have indeed met it.

We’re really done when we’ve fully accounted for all the learning that goes with achieving the outcome. To be sure of not missing any, work is framed in the right way (as hypotheses and experiments, whenever that’s appropriate), the right things are monitored, and regular reviews are in place. The regular rhythm of review and the shared understanding of what each review entails creates containers for learning. If you know that the learning will need to be accounted for, it really changes how you work.

Meta strategy 3. Keep developing your understanding of where all this happens

Where rather than how, because the third meta strategy of the three is not about practice or process, but organisation [4]. It’s about working to eliminate a common organisational dysfunction, also working to develop a kind of organsational agility that’s about so much more than mere speed.

If instead of keeping outcomes in the foreground you allow yourself to be distracted by solutions and how you’re rolling them out, you are managing for progress (or worse, activity), not impact. Compounding the error, one group manages things that people closer to the work could easily be managing for themselves. And it works in the opposite direction too: one group second-guessing the needs, priorities, and strategies of another. In short: the wrong people managing for the wrong things. Totally dysfunctional, so common, and don’t be so sure that your branded process framework or your PMO will fix it for you either!

Often this dysfunction happens between levels of organisation (up and/or down), but the trick is to think less in terms of hierarchy or process and more in terms of identity and purpose. For an outcome, what’s the group of people most closely identified with it or that you would want to see organising around it? Conversely, for any group of people with an identity of its own and the apparent will to develop itself – team, team of teams, something bigger, something cross-cutting, whatever – what are the outcomes that it is pursuing? What, in other words, is its strategy, and has it been afforded the opportunity to develop it for itself and in its own words?

That way of looking at organisation has a dynamism that’s simply not there in the org chart or the process diagram. People participating in multiple circles, circles that overlap and rapidly share learning, insights, and intelligence because they also share people. For as long as they’re needed, circles that have lives of their own. Structures that by themselves and in their relationships support both the development of people and the development of the organisation. Structures rich and dynamic enough to meet the ever-changing complexities of the business environment.

With this third meta strategy, the preceding two don’t just have a home, they have many homes. Strategy becomes something fractal and emergent, living in the conversations not just within circles, but between them.

3 meta strategies

[1] This section drawn from the first video in Leading with Outcomes: Foundation (academy.agendashift.com)
[2] Thank you Karl Scotland for that wording
[3] See Done (agendashift.com/done)
[4] See the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation (deliberately-adaptive.org)

For further reading, my two most recent books:

  1. Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation (2nd ed 2021)
  2. Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile (2019, audiobook 2020)

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

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

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Video: Leading and Transforming with Outcomes

Recorded yesterday at Agile Hartford, thank you Larry Bock for hosting!

Our media page has several meetup talks with this same title, but as I mention in near the beginning, I spent the day yesterday doing a complete rewrite. The recent blog post that sowed the seeds for that rewrite is this one: Agendashift’s three meta strategies and I’m very pleased with how it came out.

Most of the links mentioned in the video you’ll find at the bottom of this (and every) blog post. Apart from this one:

Enjoy!


What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

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

Links: Home | Subscribe | Become an Agendashift partner Events | Contact | Mike
Resources: Tools & Materials | Media | Books | Assessments 
Blog: Monthly roundups | Classic posts
Community: Slack | LinkedIn group | Twitter