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Adaptability by Agreement: Valuing Outcomes over Imposed Solutions


Key Takeaways

  • Initiatives done in the name of adaptability are often implemented in ways incoherent with their objectives: too much decided too early, inadequate provision for local innovation, and process formalised at the expense of flexibility
  • We replace the solution-driven rollout approach with a different paradigm, one that puts authentic agreement on outcomes before solutions, more granular solutions emerging where they will best make the required impact on agreed strategic objectives, wherever and at whatever level of organisation that might be
  • Each level of organisation owning its own strategy process helps it to integrate planning, delivery, and organisation development; multi-level participation in strategy and governance processes ensure that coherence between and across levels is maintained
  • The approach is not predicated on wholesale change; the principles on which it is based are effective also as leadership strategies – highly teachable patterns and routines of outcome-orientation and organisational awareness that can be experimented with by leaders at every level
  • Whether sourced externally or designed internally, our relationship with defined process frameworks must change. In a healthier relationship to frameworks, 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 in context


In the pursuit of Agile at scale, the landscape is dominated by process-driven approaches. These come with two change-related challenges:

  1. How to implement the chosen framework – as a transformation project, for example
  2. How to maintain adaptability – one of Agile’s key benefits – as process becomes increasingly formalised and more deeply integrated over larger organisational scopes

With that first challenge come a host of familiar change-related problems, including:

  • People driven to disengagement and cynicism by the repeated failure of imposed solutions – real issues of human agency further complicated by past organisational history
  • The organisation’s systems continuing to reinforce old behaviours, but the sponsors of change still disappointed to be seeing the same old results; people caught uncomfortably between the two
  • Innovation failing to flourish – in fact, never given the opportunity to so do, either because too much has been decided upfront, or because potential innovators lack the authority to put their ideas to the test

Some real examples of pushback, all of them very reasonable:

  • Why are we doing this, when we’re still suffering the effects of our upstream team’s transformation?
  • I’m no longer doing this – it’s clear now that it is additional to the work that I am rewarded for
  • I can only make changes that are self-funding – budgets were fixed long ago

What is not often enough recognised is that these are symptoms, not of change in general, but of the change-by-rollout approach, a process that might be characterised as follows:

  1. Choose a solution – a process framework, for example
  2. Tout its benefits (to call this stage "sell it" would risk overstating the level of engagement typically involved)
  3. Roll it out (not only in the face of resistance to change, but failing to acknowledge that resistance’s systemic causes)
  4. Live with the consequences

A caricature no doubt, but not entirely unfair either. These linear, process-driven, solution-first approaches may be reasonable enough if the challenge is purely technical – a piece of technology infrastructure, for example – but where goals are organisational and cultural, this kind of approach is surely broken.

So what’s the alternative? If the approach is not to be process-driven and solution-first, we need a different paradigm. Fixing up that broken process won’t do; neither should we describe the alternative in the same terms as before (a mistake Agile often makes, but I digress). We must start somewhere else.

The wholehearted organisation

We start with a particular vision of the adaptive organisation. This is neither a generalised definition nor a prescription, but rather a descriptive and generative ideal:

  • Obstacles, imbalances, and contradictions recognised and owned as opportunities for authentic engagement
  • Strategy, organisation development, and delivery:
    • Integrated – made whole – through meaningful participation
    • Celebrated for anticipating and meeting real needs
  • The language of outcomes inviting leadership at every level:
    • New conversations and new kinds of conversation – renewing the organisation’s discourse and thereby the organisation itself

That describes the "wholehearted" organisation, a descriptive model for "business agility at every scale" that has become a mission statement for the Agendashift community. It was inspired by the writings of Christopher Alexander, the renowned architect and father of the patterns movement, in particular his musings on wholeness and wholeheartedness, and most especially a passage (below) that I quoted in Right to Left (2019), took as an organisational metaphor, and further developed in the second edition of Agendashift (2021).

A thing is whole according to how free it is of inner contradictions. When it is at war with itself, and gives rise to forces which act to tear it down, it is unwhole. The more free it is of its own inner contradictions, the more whole and healthy and wholehearted it becomes.
The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander (1980, OUP USA)

What if we – leaders in transforming organisations –  saw ourselves as being in the business of building wholehearted organisations?

Wholehearted is a useful starting point not only for its humane perspective on the adaptable organisation, but because it is careful to say so little about process. Not that process is unimportant, but because it frees process to be treated as an emergent property of an adaptable organisation, not its starting point.

If Wholehearted is an idealisation, it’s one that rejects the notion of the perfect design, an idea antithetical to adaptability. Nevertheless, it still manages to describe something aspirational and always a little out of reach, capable therefore of giving direction.

How, practically speaking, to move in that direction we like to summarise as follows:

  1. Keep asking the agreement on outcomes question: what if we put agreement on outcomes before solutions?
  2. Keep bringing outcomes to the foreground
  3. Keep finding new places for strategy to happen

These are leadership strategies, strategies for getting better at strategy, meta strategies if you like. And in support of those strategies, not a defined delivery process or organisation structure, but patterns that act on those, each pattern organising relevant tools, techniques, practices, activities etc that can be chosen according to need and circumstance.

Respective to the three strategies, Agendashift’s three most important patterns are these:

  1. The IdOO ("I do") pattern: Ideal, Obstacles, Outcomes – an expandable structure applicable to conversations and bigger exercises ranging in duration from moments to hours or longer, whose participants can represent any organisation scope or range thereof
  2. Right to Left – working backwards from key moments of impact and learning
  3. Thinking in Circles – not so much implementing a model of circular organisation (described later), but seeing it there already and giving it voice

Together with their respective patterns, let’s take the three strategies in turn.

Strategy 1. Keep asking the agreement on outcomes question

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

That has been Agendashift’s driving "What if" question since almost its beginning. It emphasises authentic agreement, the right people in the room agreeing on things that matter, articulating them in their own words. It brings a human dimension to outcome-orientation, and its encouragement to put outcomes ahead of solutions separates it from the linear, process-driven, solution-first change paradigm discussed in the introduction.

Developing practices around agreement on outcomes led Agendashift to embrace Clean Language (a careful discipline of curious questioning), Solutions Focus (emphasising small outcomes and their small solutions, in that order), and Challenge Mapping (strategy, innovation, and the "How might we…?" question) – none of these to the exclusion of other models and techniques, formalised or otherwise.

We noticed a pattern emerging, not a strict sequence but a loose progression, with the possibility of movement in both directions:

  1. Ideal – Envision a compelling future
  2. Obstacles – Identifying what’s in the way of what we want
  3. Outcomes – Look beyond to something better

This is the IdOO ("I do") pattern. Each element and each of the possible transitions between them has an associated set of questions or exercises. For example:

  • Our workshop exercises True North: Ideal and True North: Obstacles take participants through the first two elements of the IdOO progression; the Agendashift assessments are used similarly but operate at a lower level of detail
  • Good Obstacles and Bad Obstacles promote the thoughtful framing of obstacles, replacing for example "Lack of a knowledge management system" and "Lack of people/money/time",  with more generative obstacles such as  "Information is hard to access" and "Staff overburdened"
  • Our Clean Language coaching game 15-minute FOTO is designed to generate obstacles from outcomes (whilst allowing for some flow in the reverse direction also)
  • The "Why is that important?" question (used with Challenge Mapping) moves the conversation in the direction of Ideal

An IdOO conversation is a strategy conversation, but to be sure that it is grounded in reality and finishes with something worthwhile, we surround it with some supporting structure:

  1. Establish context
  2. The strategy conversation (IdOO-based or otherwise)
  3. Organise the strategy

This is another pattern, the "strategy wrapper". Combining the two patterns skilfully, we ensure that:

  • Participants know why they are there and are working to the same strategic context
  • The conversation and the resulting strategy have clear direction and motivation
  • The strategy takes present challenges into account
  • The strategy identifies areas of immediate opportunity, longer term objectives, and measures of success
  • Outcomes at these different timescales and levels of aspiration are related coherently enough (visually, or in the form of for example hypotheses or OKRs) for a line of attack to be developed and the innovation process engaged

With that last step, we avoid the classic mistake of agreeing only next steps, throwing away most of the preceding conversation. But for the translation between the development of strategy and its pursuit to be effective, we now need to pay some attention to delivery process and in particular to how it is governed. This takes us to strategy 2.

Strategy 2. Keep bringing outcomes to the foreground

If outcomes describe what we want, it pays to keep them in the foreground, pushing solutions into the background. That way, we avoid being so distracted by our solution designs and our implementation activity that we fail to notice that they are not living up to expectations.

This strategy has two further benefits:

  1. It becomes much more natural to expect solutions to follow from outcomes; solutions selected or created by the people closest to the problem, typically smaller and fitter solutions
  2. By co-opting existing feedback opportunities in support of this strategy – everyday feedback opportunities and longer-cadence feedback events – we begin to modify the organisation’s own expectations, addressing a significant impediment to adaptability

This strategy’s key pattern is Right to Left – working backwards from key moments of impact and learning.

For those everyday feedback opportunities – daily standups, "3 amigos" conversations, and so on – it means focusing on moments of impact. For any given piece of work, "done" means that someone’s need was met; assuring that implies knowing whose need it is, what their need is, how we’d know that their need has indeed been met, and so on. Clarity on all of those precedes any discussion of the work itself.

To further emphasise the focus on impact, we start any review with work that may already be beginning to make an impact, moving then to work that is closest to reaching that state, and working backwards from there. Visualised on (say) a kanban board, we start with the work in the rightmost column (work we believe to be done, reviewed quickly for any news to the contrary) and move leftwards – hence the naming of the Right to Left pattern.

Work stays on the agenda – not necessarily a kanban board – until it is "really done", meaning that all the available learning has been fully accounted for; only then is it removed. Typically, that accounting takes place in those longer-cadence feedback events. These capture what has been learned about the customer, the product, its underlying technologies, the process, the organisation, and so on. If past assumptions have been thoroughly challenged and decisions made accordingly, then some learning has happened.

For a government digital service, that kind of learning led to the insight – supported by hard data – that efforts to i) discourage ineligible applicants from wasting their time on the site and ii) encourage the remainder to stay were in fact complementary. This in turn led to usability improvements that benefited both populations and also the service itself. A very happy outcome for an issue that had policy implications, visible well outside our team. The associated metrics far outlived the development work involved.
Often, the longer-cadence feedback opportunities are big enough both in terms of the number of work items reviewed and the number of people, specialisms, and groups thereof represented, that two levels of meeting agenda can be justified:

  1. Outside in – sequencing updates so that they come first from those specialisms or teams closest to the customer, working inwards through increasingly internal concerns
  2. Right to left – as per the everyday feedback opportunities but starting with a reiteration of relevant objectives, sharing progress on relevant metrics, and limiting work item updates to those of most significance and widest interest

Variously known as the Outside-in Service Delivery Review (OI-SDR) or the Strategy Performance and Alignment Review (SPAR), this agenda structure promotes alignment. If an update seems not to fit the outside-in flow or it seems mistimed, a potential misalignment may have been revealed and it can be dealt with.

"Working backwards from moments of impact and learning" means that work is done in anticipation of both moments. Work is focused on meeting needs, and is performed within a container for learning. The practice of framing work items as experiments is a natural fit here. We would go further: a truly right-to-left process is generative, in the sense that generates more ideas than it consumes. Only then can an innovation process sustain itself.

Strategy 3. Keep finding new places for strategy to happen

Strategies 1 and 2 say nothing about organisational scope – ie where the outcome-oriented development and pursuit of strategy should happen. An easy answer would be "everywhere", but to be useful, a little more guidance is needed.

One answer is to place the burden on leadership – strategies 1 and 2 are highly compatible with Servant Leadership for example – but we still need to find a way to look at an organisation that’s compatible with what’s there now and what it could be, both aspects essential to adaptability.

Agendashift’s answer and the pattern here is to think in circles. Thinking in Circles means:

  • Seeing (or imagining) purposeful conversations among groups of people
  • Inviting those groups to develop their own identity and strategy, and to pursue the latter

We are viewing the organisation not as a hierarchy, but "edge-on", as a set of overlapping circles. What stops this from becoming a free-for-all is contained in the first strategy. "The right people in the room" implies taking care of who is invited, so that those impacted by change have an adequate voice in the decision. The more that the people deciding on change, implementing the change, and being expected to work differently are the same people, the easier it is.

Thinking in Circles promotes autonomy, but equally it can be a tool for promoting organisational coherence also. People in the intersections between circles (for example between product and technology, or between technology and operations) can be tasked with attending to the relationships between the multiple circles to which they belong, some of which may explicitly exist for the purpose of bringing other circles together (for example communities or practice or governance circles). Attending to inter-circle relationships often starts with the underlying interpersonal relationships, creating supportive opportunities for individual development too.

Further emphasising the coherence point, Thinking in Circles is in fact inspired by a governance model, known variously as Sociocracy, Circular Hierarchy, and Dynamic Governance. It consists of four principles:

  1. Decision by informed consent – decisions made when reasoned objections have been addressed
  2. Organisation in circles – decisions are made by autonomous groups of people with a shared mission and a defined scope of responsibility (its domain)
  3. Double linking – circles overlap, ideally by at least two people, supporting (among other things) a model of representation, delegation, and mutual accountability, and enabling a wide range of organisational structures
  4. Election by consent – people join circles and new circles are spawned by consent; the net effect is that everyone is in their circles – perhaps multiple circles – by consent

Although the fourth principle seems to follow from others and could be regarded as redundant, it is worth making it explicit, especially when bootstrapping the organising process with those initial invitations. Thereafter, it tends to look after itself.

Thinking in Circles does not prescribe any particular organisation structure overall and it leaves plenty of scope for creativity and dynamism. Both are important; somehow the structure must remain a good fit for the business environment in its ever-changing complexity, reflect organisational priorities, create developmental opportunities, and still make sense to the people inside it. A design’s elegance on paper or its adherence to external recommendations should be secondary concerns at best.

In a Deliberately Adaptive Organisation, the correspondence between environment, organisational structure, and strategy is explicitly a concern for every organisational unit; so too is the nature of the relationships between units within their purview – see also Team Topologies, Skelton & Pais (2019). Like other models referenced here, the Deliberately Adaptive Organisation is not prescriptive; being founded on Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model it does however have significant diagnostic power. Its name alludes to another contributing model, Kegan & Lahey’s Deliberately Developmental Organisation – see their book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization (2016).


The three strategies again:

  1. Keep asking the agreement on outcomes question: what if we put agreement on outcomes before solutions?
  2. Keep bringing outcomes to the foreground
  3. Keep finding new places for strategy to happen

Taken together as a system, they lead to:

  • People agreeing and maintaining alignment on outcomes, integrating the development of strategy and its pursuit
  • Agreements adjusted in response to learning, ie emergent strategy
  • A flexible and dynamic at-every-scale (fractal) form to both the strategy and the associated action, ie organisational adaptability

Explicitly, this is the system working on itself. Adding to its practicality as a change approach, any of its three strategies can be introduced when and where needed, for any organisational scope or organisational challenge, and treated as experiments or as highly teachable leadership principles. Scaling it up or down is a matter of choice.

Agendashift does not seek to fix the scaling frameworks’ issues. Not only do some of their problems run deep, we believe that such a focus would miss the bigger point. Whether it’s a feature of the framework or of its implementation approach (and often it’s both), we refuse to accept unchallenged the idea that it’s acceptable and effective to impose process and strategy where they could instead be seen as valuable opportunities for engagement.

The process-centric frameworks probably won’t go away, but where they’re referenced, let’s at least approach them with a 21st-century appreciation for things that scale a lot more easily than process: context, participation, outcomes, strategy, feedback, learning, autonomy, self-organisation, leadership, and more. A more developmental approach still leaves plenty of room for process expertise; let’s apply it with a little humility.

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