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Learning and Liminality in Agile Adoptions

Posted by Dan Mezick on Nov 16, 2013 |

A note to the reader: If you are new to this series on Open Agile Adoption, you can catch up by examining Part1, Part2 and Part3. The previous article (Part3) described the concept of liminality and reading it is an essential step, before examining this essay.

Stability in the Liminal State

Liminality is unsettling, and generates stress. A hypothesis of Open Agile Adoption is that introducing Agile into typical organizations creates liminality at the group level. If this liminality is handled with a passage rite, there is potential for a rapid and lasting Agile adoption.

The core idea behind Open Agile Adoption is that recognizing and addressing liminality reduces the worry, anxiety and fear associated with Agile adoption. It creates at least the potential for a rapid and lasting Agile adoption. The primary way this is accomplished is by leveraging the ancient practice of the passage rite. A passage rite creates a structured experience for participants….with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Open Agile Adoption is a repeatable technique for getting a rapid and lasting Agile adoption. It works with what you are currently doing, and can be added at any time. It incorporates passage rites, game mechanics, Open Space, storytelling and more, so your Agile adoption can take root.

The Passage Rite

Transitions are tough, and serve as a kind of bridge from here to there. Adopting Agile is a big transition that always means lots and lots of new learning. And learning is stressful, because it generates liminality.

All genuine learning in adults creates instability- liminality- until that learning is integrated. The primary way to manage liminality in a social system is to institute a passage rite.

A rite of passage provides a structure. This ritual has a structure that provides a beginning, middle and an end to a transitional experience.

Experience Design

Designing a passage rite is an exercise in experience design. Passage rites contain and thereby reduce the highly destabilizing feelings of liminality. This is important, because liminality causes stress that can lead to all sorts of problems, including deep anxiety, fear, panic, depression and even various forms of neuroses.

When you study passage rites, you learn that they usually include at least one very scary experience. For example: a member of a tribe in Africa going through a passage rite from boyhood to manhood might have to kill a dangerous animal, like a lion or a hyena. You might be wondering if this passage-rite notion is such a good idea. Do we really want to put people though super-scary experiences?

Here is something to think about: culturally speaking, what comes first: the highly stressful transition, or the passage rite?

Passage Rites and Liminality

The highly stressful transition comes first. Passage rites are a cultural response. Passage rites serve to contain the scary experience of transition. They are established by a culture in response to the need for management of highly stressful liminality. The transition comes first; the creation of a passage rite comes later, as a cultural mechanism for managing the transition from here to there.

In other words, a passage rite does not produce liminality. Instead a passage rite handles the liminality that shows up during key transitions in the life of the group, and its members.

The stressful and necessary transition- for example, the transition from childhood to adulthood- is present BEFORE a passage rite was instituted.

The primary task of of a structured passage rite is to ease the stressful liminality created by a transition.

The primary task of an Agile adoption is to produce a cultural transformation. This is a huge transition that in theory never ever ends, because it is focused on continuous learning and improvement.

We currently do not manage this very huge transition as well as we might. Passage rites can help.

And that is what Open Agile Adoption is all about.

Passage Rites as Culture Games

Passage rites are cultural games. They are designed with a clear goal, clear rules, rich feedback, and opt-in participation. It is important to note that the Open Agile Adoption technique is instituting passage rite, and that this passage rite is in fact a game!

Key Points:

  • Big transitions in the life of a group produce liminality;
  • Liminality is stressful. It can make you anxious and fearful;
  • Passage rites do not produce liminality, instead passage rites are cultural devices that help handle the liminal state of being, so that the participants can get through… to go where they need to go.
  • Agile adoptions are transitions and produce considerable anxiety, worry and the liminal state;
  • A formal passage rite- a certain kind of cultural ritual- can help;
  • Open Agile Adoption works because it acknowledges these dynamics, and institutes a rite of passage that helps all the participants in an Agile adoption get from where they are… to where they need to go;
  • Passage rites are designed games that emerge from necessity in a culture, to help it thrive.

Play and Experimentation

Let’s just tell it like it is: Agile is a learning framework that is based on frequent experimentation. All experimentation is play. Therefore, Agile is learning that is playful. Open Agile Adoption supports and strongly encourages experimentation and genuine playfulness. OAA frames Agile experience as a series of experiments. What is really going on is play. And play is fun.

Communitas

Agile adoptions thrive on strong feelings of communitas. Communitas is “the spirit of community”. When the spirit of community is “up”, the space is open, and the feeling of communitas is strong. When the spirit of community is “down”, the space is closed, and the communitas is weak.

Example: If you love going to work, the overall spirit at work is probably “up”. If you cannot wait till Friday, the overall spirit in that workplace is probably “down”.

With respect to Agile adoptions, communitas is essential. It comes from clearly understood and uniformly applied rules. It comes from a sense that everyone is engaged. It comes from a sense that we are all going through this together.

During Agile adoptions, it seems everyone is being triggered. What is my role? What are the rules? When does this end? What does this mean for my status in the group? Executive leaders are triggered. Managers are triggered. Team members are triggered. A new game with new rules is stressful. In a no-man’s land of new rules, new roles and unfamiliar ways of working, is it any wonder Agile adoptions routinely fail?

Passage rites can help generate communitas- the very spirit of community. Cultural anthropology says that people going through a passage rite do in fact have the same status during the passage. Participants have widely varied status, going in.

Then the communitas kicks in: all are coming from a known place, and going to an unknown place. All of them make the difficult and even dangerous passage, together. And after it is over, all have changed from what they were, to what they now are. Passage rites can help ease the liminality of transition.

Passage rites are intentionally designed cultural experiences. Repeat: Passage rites are intentionally designed cultural experiences. They are cultural-experience designs. Passage rites are designed to create feelings of community.

Agile adoptions generate a steady stream of stressful liminality, because the learning in Agile is constant. “Continuous improvement” is the goal. That generates a ton of stress on your culture. Learning is change, and change is stressful because it produces liminality. The passage rite is a cultural device for handling liminality.

Passage rites bring communitas, and communitas brings at least some (and maybe more than a little) comfort. All the participants going through the passage rite experience a beginning, a middle, and an end. They experience it together, regardless of level of authorization. Everyone is learning.

This structuring of the unstructured is very comforting, and reduces worries– and stress. Passage rites are extremely useful devices for helping you obtain a rapid and lasting Agile adoption.

For those readers interested in the theoretical basis of Open Agile Adoption and the passage rite concept, I encourage you to examine the works of Victor Turner and Arnold van Gennep. Both authors wrote on cultural anthropology. Arnold van Gennep coined the term ‘passage rite’ in his book, The Rites of Passage. Victor Turner built on the work on Arnold van Gennep and went on to develop the essential concept of liminality.

Open Agile Adoption is based on a strong theoretical foundation. It is grounded an informed by cultural anthropology. It’s a repeatable technique for getting a rapid and lasting Agile adoption. It works with what you are currently doing, and can be added at any time. It incorporates the power of invitation, Open Space, passage rites, game mechanics, storytelling and more, so your Agile adoption can take root.

About the Author

Daniel Mezick is a management consultant, author and community organizer. He is the founder of the Agile Boston community of practice. He is the formulator of Open Agile Adoption, a technique for creating rapid and lasting enterprise agility. Daniel is the author of THE CULTURE GAME, a book describing sixteen patterns of group behavior that help make any team smarter. The book is based on five years of experience coaching 119 Agile teams across 25 different organizations. Daniel’s list of clients includes Zappos Insights, CIGNA, SEIMENS Healthcare, Harvard University and many smaller enterprises. Learn more and contact Daniel here.

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