From “What did you do yesterday?” to something better

Go for it! If the main purpose of your standup is to make sure that everyone is keeping themselves properly busy, then the questions “What did you do yesterday?” and “What will you do today?” are without doubt the basis of a great meeting format.

But be careful what you wish for. If your goals involve 1) the team meeting needs, and 2) learning from the process, those questions can hurt a lot more than they help. Honestly, I’m not a fan at all.

You could try these instead. Understand the pattern, and with practice, it runs itself:

  1. What are we learning from what we recently completed? And is it staying completed? Whose needs did we meet, and how do we know we met them?
  2. What can we get over the line?
  3. What is and isn’t making the expected progress? Are we clear about whose needs we’re meeting, what needs, how we’ll know, and what’s our approach?
  4. Do we have the capacity to look at what’s next, or is that enough until we next meet?

You probably won’t get to that overnight, so some things to try:

  • Instead of reviewing activities (what you did, what you’re doing, etc), try to focus the things that you as a team are trying to produce, in the context of the goals you’re pursuing
  • All else being equal (in bigger meetings, this pattern can work within other interesting ways to structure the work), try reviewing your work most-complete work first, not forgetting to start with celebrating and enquiring into work recently completed
  • Make a point of noticing how the conversations change as you work backwards, and develop your repertoire accordingly – by this stage you’ll likely be noticing not only a performance difference but a language change and changes to people’s expectations and behaviour, and you can build on that until they become habits
  • In all of the above, try keep in your mind and everyone else’s what you’re working backwards from: “someone’s need met” and “all the available learning fully accounted for” (my definitions of done and really done)

I’ve used this “right to left” technique in a range of settings, often supercharging something that really wasn’t working before – standup meetings, risk & issue review meetings, service delivery review meetings to name just three. Right to left is named after Kanban’s board review pattern (you start on the right-hand side of the board with work at or nearest completion) but it’s not hard to apply in other settings.

And it’s more than just a productivity hack. In my third book Right to Left (2019, audiobook 2020), I take that philosophy of working backwards from impact and learning and use it as a lens on the whole Lean-Agile landscape (and more). Further to it not being just a Kanban thing, the book shows how right to left fits very well with the best of Scrum. Contrast that with an all too prevalent left to right kind of Scrum that does the reputations of Scrum and Agile no favours at all, and that scales up in the worst possible way. Fortunately it’s fixable.

This post started out as a LinkedIn post, then a second:

  1. Go for it! (linkedin.com)
  2. Building on that last one… (linkedin.com)

And now a third:

Like, comment, share!

You can also take any questions you may have to one of the upcoming webinars – the first three (December 8th, January 12th, February 2nd) all finish with an AMA (Ask Mike Anything) session. Series link: The questions that drive us (eventbrite.co.uk).

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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.

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)

Agendashift™: Serving the transforming organisation
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Links: HomeSubscribe | Become an Agendashift partner | Events | Contact | Mike
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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
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Agendashift’s three meta strategies

Or less grandly, three things to keep doing if you’re doing anything strategy-related (which, if you think about it, should be a lot of the time).

Meta strategy 1. Keep asking this question: “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. Keep outcomes in the foreground; you’re ‘done’ when needs have been met, ‘really done’ 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 manage for progress, 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 levels or hierarchy and more in terms of identity. 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 (and more powerfully), 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 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.

deliberately-adaptive-image

Summary

Agendashift’s three meta strategies, things to keep doing if you’re doing anything strategy-related:

  1. Keep asking this question:
    • What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?
  2. Keep outcomes in the foreground:
    • You’re ‘done’ only when needs have been met
    • You’re ‘really done’ only when you have fully accounted for all the learning
  3. Keep developing your understanding of where all this happens:
    • Less in terms of hierarchy
    • More in terms of identity

[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, audibook 2020)

What if we put authentic agreement on meaningful outcomes ahead of solutions?

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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 
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