What the (Lean-)Agile scaling frameworks don’t give you

[Minor edits 2020-12-11 and again 2021-01-08 with an updated title. It is now aligned to the final version of the manuscript that went to the publisher this week] 

Not a gratuitous provocation but putting it out there for review. The text below comes from the final chapter of the forthcoming 2nd edition of Agendashift; it’s a quick first draft (written today) and I want feedback! The chapter is new to the 2nd edition; it is titled Up and down the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation and the excerpt below comes at the end of a section called Scaling up.

For context, we have by this point reconciled Agendashift with a powerful diagnostic tool, the Viable System Model (VSM). Stafford Beer’s classic model has lessons for all organisations that have the desire to “meet the demands of surviving in the changing environment”.

What the (Lean-)Agile scaling frameworks don’t give you

I can’t help noting that not everything identified in this reconciliation exercise is addressed well by the scaling frameworks. If you’re looking to one of those as the basis of your Deliberately Adaptive Organisation or (somewhat equivalently) as a model of business agility, here are five things that you may need to attend to yourself:

1. Meaningful experimentation

A worthwhile proportion – perhaps even the majority – of your delivery capacity will need to be devoted to objective-aligned insight generation. There is nothing adaptive about ploughing through backlogs of requirements and hoping for a good outcome. Random experimentation isn’t adaptive either; whilst it flexes some important muscles and can be a useful source of innovation, unless the bulk of it is meaningfully aligned to shared objectives (and driven from them in a way that creates meaning for the people doing the work), it’s unlikely to take you very far.

2. Meaningful negotiation between levels based on trust and transparency

If you’re not careful, cascading hierarchies of objectives end up as backlogs of requirements to be ploughed through, and we know where that leads. Dressing up that hierarchy in Agile terms – saga, epic, feature, story, etc – doesn’t change that.

Remember that what’s asked for, what’s needed, what’s possible, and what’s sensible are four different things. Moreover, each level will have its own language, its own way of looking at things, and its own measures of success, and it’s not helpful when one level projects (or worse, imposes) theirs onto another. Instead: trust-building transparency, then mutual understanding, then alignment.

3. Containers for multi-level, multi-loop organisational learning

I’m referring of course to your framework’s equivalent of the Outside-in Service Delivery Review (OI-SDR) and VSM system 4 more generally. How does your framework help you build and evolve shared models of the system and the world outside? How strong are the expectations of learning that it creates? How does it challenge? How does it help you monitor progress towards objectives? How does it challenge? How does it ensure that intelligence and insights are shared quickly across the organisation?

4. Meaningful participation in strategy

Let me say it again: It’s a funny kind of autonomy when strategy is something that happens to you. Now let me add that it’s a funny kind of adaptive strategy if it doesn’t know how to listen. What we have here are two organisational antipatterns that Agile frameworks – scaled or otherwise – has done little to address. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect that they would, but when they’re sold as transformative models of organisation I believe that some scepticism is entirely appropriate.

5. Meaningful self-organisation at every scale

Not just who does what (better described as self-management), but self-organisation as the interplay between structure and spontaneity – who collaborates with whom, at whatever scale, and with what potential. How does your framework both encourage that to happen and ensure that when it happens it is done well?

How well does your scaled (Lean-)Agile implementation demonstrate those five things? The most likely answers are “not very” or “not at all”. If you’re thinking of embarking on a framework-based scaling initiative, I would suggest that it may pay to attend to these issues first. You’ll then be in a much better position both to understand what the frameworks still have to offer and to make whatever further changes now seem necessary.

To be clear, I’m not anti-framework. To understand how a scaling framework really works is to appreciate how its patterns have been integrated, and there’s definitely value in that. But anyone thinking that it’s cool to roll out a large framework waterfall-style is living in the 1990s! Expert-driven ‘tailoring’ doesn’t fundamentally change that. Much better to use your expertise to help people experiment with combining patterns from the full range of sources at their disposal.

Related:


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A postscript to ‘How I Choose my Models’

With a view to referencing it in the Agendashift 2nd edition I’ve been checking out the new Cynefin book Cynefin – Weaving Sense-Making into the Fabric of Our World (Dave Snowden & friends). It’s a book with many contributors and I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect but I’m enjoying it! If you have any interest in Cynefin I would definitely recommend it.

Despite appearances, this post isn’t about Cynefin. One contribution by Anne Caspari and Johann Entz von Zerssen really resonated with me, especially these two paragraphs from Anne (quoted with her permission):

I (Anne) come from 15 years of critical engagement with integral theory, adult development, and all kinds of change theories. When I started working with these theories and frameworks, they helped me immensely. They opened up my thinking and gave me a means to counteract both gross and subtle reductionism in practical work. This was especially helpful to me in my project management work in environmental planning and sustainability contexts. Adult development theory also helped me understand some of the phenomena I encountered in coaching and leadership work.

Over time, however, I experienced a growing scepticism around a new kind of reductionism that crept into most applications of these theories that often went unobserved by the respective communities. Examples include developmental bias (“we need to develop people”) in large parts of the integral theory scene and some very formulaic and linear applications of change theories (“step 5: find deeper meaning and purpose”).  Since this kind of uneasiness is hard to pinpoint and address, I just noticed that I kept away. I settled at the fringes of these communities and did my own thing. 

Yes! This! Exactly!

Anne’s struggle is the same as the one that triggered (via an outburst over Zoom of which I am not proud) the How I choose my models post. And the really funny thing: Andrea Chiou, the target of my outburst agrees with me. Violent agreement is a strange beast! From our Slack channel #what-i-am-reading (I pasted the above quote there as soon as I read it):

It is the ‘we need to’ of the ‘we need to develop people’ that annoys me. It separates ‘us’ from them -> increasing the gap between the ‘experts’ and the underdeveloped others.

And yes, you are doing your own thing.

It has been in fact a very interesting few weeks, one of those times when you’re really glad to be part of a diverse and supportive community with knowledge in areas I’ll never be expert in. My gut instinct hasn’t changed, I stand by every every word I wrote in How I choose my models, and yet I’ll be referencing some of that developmental stuff (caveated of course) in the 2nd edition.

The title of a new 6th and final chapter, Up and down the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation, is inspired by Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey Laskow’s Deliberately Developmental Organisation (DDO), a model described in their interesting but slightly scary book An Everyone Culture. The surprise (not least to me) is that the DDO model comes from the same stable as Adult Development Theory, my “trigger”! I’m grateful to Jonathan Sibley for pointing me in that interesting direction, also to Teddy Zetterlund for some earlier seed-sowing.

I’ve learned that living by these three bullets of mine is harder than I thought:

  • Models that have withstood scrutiny over a length of time
  • Models that treat the individual’s agency, creativity, and problem-solving ability with the utmost respect
  • Models that help to scale up the preceding

If I’m not going to ignore a ton of potentially valuable and relevant work, there’ll be times when I will need to remind myself that the model, my reaction to it, and the reactions I observe in others or fear from them, are different things. What helps to win me – albeit cautiously – over to DDO is that this is part of the model itself. Not in an especially self-aware way methinks, but it’s a start.

A last word to Jonathan, which I apply first to myself:

A great challenge is to build a model and then hold it lightly. And sometimes, followers hold the model more tightly than the founder does!


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How I choose my models

As demonstrated by the models-sources-inspirations picture below, I like my models. If you’ve read my third book Right to Left, you’ll know also that I have little time for the idea that there is one best model – one best Agile framework, for example. And the fun isn’t in choosing between them, not even in recognising what each of them can bring, but in integrating them. And it doesn’t stop there: this is not a one-shot process design exercise, but a process of continuous transformation. In short, I’m a pluralist, and I love to see what happens when models and their underlying patterns are allowed to combine.

agendashift-inspiration-map-2020-06-29

Believe it or not, I am a picky though. In one of our weekly community Zoom sessions (see #community in Slack), that pickiness resulted in a conversation that was outside our usual norms (if the truth be told I was abrupt to the point of rudeness) and I reflected afterwards on what happened. Happily, we cleared things up quickly and had a much healthier conversation the following week after I had the chance to turn something heartfelt into something more articulate. What follows is a summary.

If Agendashift has taught me anything, it is to be very careful with assumptions. Credit for this goes to Clean Language, which turns the dial up to 11 on the discipline of its practitioners to minimise the influence of their private assumptions (which are SO not the point) on their conversations. This discipline applies most to their explicitly Clean conversations but it rubs off elsewhere in ways that need not mean “coachiness” when that is not called for. Practicing it subtly trains your brain to recognise when you are imposing yourself in ways that aren’t helpful.

You see that attention to assumptions in Agendashift’s outside-in strategy review. The way we make explicit its carefully minimal assumptions is of great help to the facilitator. See my recent Cutter paper for details (announcement included in my post last week); they’re also in Right to Left (chapter 5) and there will be brief coverage in the forthcoming 2nd edition of Agendashift also.

I tend to avoid models that encourage me to make assumptions about what is going in someone’s mind, how they will behave, how they will develop, and so on. The same at team level and organisation level, and I have come to be particularly sceptical of extrapolations from one of those levels to another. The replication crisis (en.wikipedia.org) gives me pause also.  For better or for worse therefore, you won’t see Agendashift depending on many “popular” models of psychology, development, or maturity. This is not to say that they are valueless, rather that they make potentially unreliable foundations.

What I do appreciate:

  • Challenges to my own assumptions
  • Ways to moderate the impact of unsafe assumptions
  • Ways to bring assumptions and misalignments to the surface at the right time
  • Ways to encourage people to find their own solutions in the pursuit of outcomes (authentically shared outcomes most especially)
  • Ways to sustain all of the above – engines of transformation

And supporting those:

  • Models that have withstood scrutiny over a length of time
  • Models that treat the individual’s agency, creativity, and problem-solving ability with the utmost respect (you’ll permit me some personal values and base assumptions there I trust)
  • Models that help to scale up the preceding

Thankfully, the list of helpful and reliable models compatible with my outlook of optimistic pluralism outlook is long, a fact to which my Models, Source, and Inspirations picture attests. And please do not take the omission of a favourite model of yours as a snub; if I don’t have time to throw yours into the Great Model Collider™ in the hope that something interesting will fly out, perhaps you (or someone else) will.

Opinions mine, strongly held it would seem. Thank you Andrea Chiou and Tom Ayerst for putting up with me – we got there in the end 🙂


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