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Agile Transformation: an Integral Approach

Key Takeaways

  • An integral approach -- where we take multiple perspectives on the people, practices, structures, cultures and worldviews of our organization -- increase the richness and  possible success in an agile transformation
  • The level of consciousness/awareness of the transformation leaders and senior executives sets a ceiling on what it is possible to achieve in a transformation
  • The Integral Agile Transformation Framework™ provides a meta-map for understanding the relationship of various frameworks used in agile work and how they relate to each other
  • An Integral perspective makes it easier for us to look across organizational boundaries to create greater collaboration and innovation
  • As transformational leaders, we need to transcend our own ego story limitations to catalyze organizational agility in the places we work

The book Agile Transformation - Using the Integral Agile Transformation Framework to Think and Lead Differently by Michael Spayd and Michele Madore provides an integral approach to agile transformations. The integral approach operates on all levels, from individual to teams to the whole enterprise, helping us take multiple perspectives on situations and to think and act from multiple worldviews.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of the book Agile Transformation and can buy Agile Transformation on Informit using the 35% off coupon code TRANSFORMATION. 

InfoQ interviewed Michael Spayd and Michele Madore about agile transformations.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Michael Spayd: That’s a very layered question for me. It started with my study of a number of allied disciplines -- organization development (OD), org change, org culture, professional coaching, leadership development, systemic management -- many of them before I entered the agile world (2001). Presenting these topics in agile conferences (starting 2003) bore promising results -- they created real insights for people in the specific challenges they were facing.  At some point, the combination of disparate topics started to coalesce in my mind with the kind of coherency that merits a book.

When Lyssa Adkins and I co-founded Agile Coaching Institute (2010), Coaching Agile Teams was very popular with team coaches; soon the need for a book for enterprise coaches became evident. In fact, when I wrote the original book proposal (2012), the title was Coaching the Agile Enterprise, to speak to that audience. It was designed to fill a big gap seen in teaching hundreds of agile coaches each year -- almost all of them struggled with implementing agile in an organization that wanted the agile "outcomes", but wasn’t always that interested in the cultural, mindset and leadership changes needed to get them there. As we say in the book, executives wanted them to "install the agile".

Perusing my book research folder from that time, I recall I was particularly immersed in my work with Bill Schneider on org culture (CultureTek), Bill Joiner’s work on Leadership Agility, Bob Anderson’s Reactive-Creative Leadership levels, Spiral Dynamics, and others. I wanted to raise the skill level of the industry about how organizational transformation really worked; and I secretly hoped to create the equivalent of a "unified field theory" for organizational transformation. Struggling mightily with how to do that for some time, a breakthrough came: using Wilber’s Integral Theory as the organizing principle for the book would offer that possibility. Later, when Michele became my co-author, we jointly had a mission to bring the insights of serious leadership development (like The Leadership Circle) along with an integral coaching perspective (that Michele studied intensively) to the writing. A long answer, but hopefully illuminating.

Michele Madore: Deciding to write this book really comes from my life’s story and how it culminated to this point. For nearly 30 years I have been in the trenches and in leadership roles, working with people and organizations going through change, from acquisitions and mergers, start-up and expansion markets, to the many agile transformations.

In 2001, before agile, I was leading an acquisition in the telecom space, and a new division that focused on the newly acquired client base. It was extremely challenging in so many ways. It was during that time that something shifted within me. I began to see how the existing culture and mindset of leadership was limiting us. I started to notice that my way of leading needed to shift to more mentoring and developing, as it became clear to me that it was more about the people and less about the process. It was then that I began to pursue professional coaching and various methods to work with people’s development. I also began to study Organizational Behavior and Development as a way to delve more into the change management space. My passion around the development of people extended beyond my corporate work, to working with children, youth, college graduates, and women in my community in various programs and forums.

In 2005, I was burned out, and I quit my job. I "accidentally" landed in the agile space at a very large transformation. Funny, at the time I thought I was getting away from leading an organization through difficult change, only to find myself back in it. Throughout the years, I noticed that I was still working with the same challenges of change in the context of agile transformations. We needed a change approach that focused on all aspects of change, the human and the business, and we needed pragmatic ways of doing this. This brought me to integral thinking and ultimately to my certification as a Professional Integral Coach.

In 2016, I decided to write this book with Michael, from my deepest place of wanting to have a positive impact on how people go through change.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Spayd: Agile Transformation is written fundamentally for enterprise agile coaches and agile transformation leaders who have leadership responsibility for an agile transformation. Secondarily, it will be of benefit to HR/OD professionals, leadership coaches, and others who are involved in supporting such a transformation. It will also be of great help to CIOs and other executive sponsors who are taking real accountability for their transformation. Finally, it will be useful for agile team coaches considering making the transition to enterprise coaching.

Madore: I would say this book is for anyone who is involved in organizational systemic change; for people who are embracing the future of work and looking for approaches to help them to do this humanely; for those wanting to truly shift their way of being as an individual, a leader, a team, or an organization.

InfoQ: Your book provides an integral approach for agile transformations. What does integral thinking mean, and why does it matter?

Spayd: "An integral approach incorporates all of the essential perspectives, schools of thought, and methods into a unified, comprehensive and accurate framework" is a simple definition from the book. The main leverage of Integral Theory is that it provides a meta-framework for mapping other techniques, approaches, and frameworks onto. The fundamental premise of integral thinking is that any school of thought or method that has been around for any length of time must have some truth to it -- "all perspectives are true, but partial" is a Wilber quote.

Integral helps us take multiple perspectives on situations, which is key for change and adaptability in a complex world, instead of getting stuck in our own, limited perspective. As Ken Wilber said to us when we interviewed him for the book -- there are two things that, above all else, make real transformation possible -- the ability to take the perspective of others, and the ability to see one’s own "seer". Both of these are fostered by using integral thinking. Doing this cuts through our confusion when we run into the challenges of existing culture and leadership mindsets when implementing agile.

Madore: To add on to what Michael said, a simple definition of integral thinking is the ability to think and act from multiple worldviews.
Why does this matter in the context of agile transformations? The only way we can actually span the boundaries in an organization, the boundaries that are barriers to change - the silos, the divides creating an us vs them mindset - is to be able to think and act from multiple viewpoints. When we use integral thinking, we see where others are coming from; we attempt to look "as" them, rather than just at them. When we are locked into our own biased thinking and limited views, we can’t cross the aisle and collaborate, much less innovate. When you understand what true co-creation is, you understand that it comes from moving away from what I create, what you create, to what our relationship creates. And that can only happen when we operate from a place of openness – of our minds, our wills, and our thinking. Integral thinking gives us the ability to see the complexity of the system. It allows us to see more clearly, so that we can act more effectively.

InfoQ: How can holon principles and tendencies help us to understand what's happening in our agile transformation?

Spayd: That’s a bit of a complex question, but I’ll give it a shot. Holon is the idea that almost everything in the universe is both a whole and a part, just from different perspectives. Within our context, the holons that are important are individual people, teams (composed of individuals, but forming a new whole all its own), programs or departments (composed of teams and individuals), and organizations. Which holon level we choose to focus on makes a big difference in what we see and what we can do. If we only focus on key individuals, for instance, we will get one kind of perspective, one set of information. If we focus on teams, we will get a very different perspective. Focusing on organizations as a whole gives us a more systemic view. None of these are the "right" holon to focus on -- all of them matter; each requires different kinds of skills and consciousness to effectively apprehend that level of holon and be effective working with it.

The four fundamental holon tendencies that Wilber identified across all holons are agency (autonomy; freedom to express self), communion (joining with similar holons; belonging), transcendence (forming a higher/wider/deeper senior holon), and integration (a senior holon embracing its constituent parts/holons). Agency and communion are interdependent pairs (polarities), as are transcendence and integration.

For any given holon -- say, a team -- it has the need to maintain its own agency, as well as to join with other teams to form larger programs that create customer value. For instance, in an agile scaling implementation, the holon principles remind us that a transformation risk happens if a release train program begins dictating to its junior holons (individual agile teams) how to self-organize their work. Or the opposite, if an individual agile team did not respect the integrity of the overall program to coordinate the work between teams, and went off and "did its own thing," that is an example of hyper-agency, which undermines the program holon.

Madore:  What Michael said. And, in summary, the usefulness of thinking about holons in an agile transformation is to give conscious attention to all holons. To be fully aware of the holons at play, know where you are focusing your efforts, and understand that you often shift your coaching stance and method based on the holon level you are working with. As you move more into enterprise coaching, your range must develop; your ability to work with complexity at all "levels" of a traditional organization is critical. At the enterprise level, competencies around working with the hierarchy and leaders at the higher level, to cross over organizational boundaries and do boundary spanning work, need to be developed. This type of work asks you to step into the space of a transformational leader which requires you to go on your own journey of self-awareness.

InfoQ: What are the perspectives that we can take to look at situations in organizations and how can taking these perspectives help us in agile transformations?

Spayd: Well, that in large part gets to the idea of the four quadrants. Quadrants are the fundamental perspectives we can take on the world -- 1st person (I), 2nd person (WE), and 3rd person (IT and ITS). Each perspective has its own set of "objects" that it focuses on or "sees", and its own methodology (epistemology) or way of knowing the world that is inherent to that perspective. We as humans tend to orient ourselves from one or two of these quadrant perspectives, privileging it, and thereby ignoring the others. We thus lose information that could be useful for fully understanding and working with the world from the point of view of that quadrant.

To take an example, looking from the I quadrant, I see "inside the head" of a person (myself or others), so I notice feelings, beliefs, and thinking patterns, and I use methods like contemplation, meditation or journaling. On the other hand, when I look from an ITS quadrant perspective, I see org structures, workflows, organizational policies, and value streams. Methods from an ITS perspective are things like systems thinking, value stream mapping, and network analysis. You can see how different those are, and how only looking from one of those perspectives is not nearly as rich as looking from all of them.

When I assemble an enterprise coach team or a change team, having people who are naturally inclined to various of these different perspectives is a way to maximize diversity and rich understanding. It is a bit like cross-training; working the issue from an I point of view, and a WE perspective, and an IT or ITS perspective means we are much more likely to be effective.

Madore: I would say that in addition to perspective taking from a quadrant view, we are also looking at the altitudes (levels) and noticing how perspectives come in from a person's level of thinking. These are the "colors" in the integral framework. As you "transcend and include" through the levels, you are more able to see and operate from that level and including the prior levels. What we mean by "transcend and include" is transcend the limitations and include (take with you) what still serves you. If we use the Orange to Green evolution, in a healthy move, we have a perspective that "Achieving Results'' is still needed, that goals and results are still important, and we can now see from the perspective that people, values and collaboration allow us to accomplish more together.

InfoQ: How would you define a transformation leader?

Spayd: Well, here’s one of the definitions we give in the book: "A transformational leader is someone willing to be the vessel of change, willing to hold a vision outside existing norms, and willing to personally be transformed in service to that vision." That may appear to some to be strange language to describe a business leader, but if "transformation" is to be more than merely setting up a bunch of Agile teams without really shifting the underlying culture and leadership mindset, it is a significant undertaking for the transformational leader -- they have to be willing to risk something personally, including examining their own vulnerabilities.

Madore: If I think of "any" transformational leader (whether agile or other) in an organization, I might also say that they are facilitators of systemic change. And, systemic change starts with them, as they are part of the system. When any of us put ourselves in the system, we understand that our way of being, our behaviors and our interactions with people, as well as our mindset, are contributing to the patterns that we are experiencing. Transformation requires us to work on our individual and collective beliefs and how we show up to create the quality of our interactions. When we improve the quality of our interactions, we begin to change the patterns that are the barriers to any transformational change.

InfoQ: How can we get insight into the effectiveness of leadership in an organization?

Spayd: The most accurate way to understand the effectiveness of an organization’s leadership is to get 360 data on a group of leaders. We are most fond of The Leadership Circle, but there are certainly others that measure the level of "complexity of mind" of leaders. And this complexity ties very directly to better business results. It turns out that being a great leader is quite similar to being a good person; people are motivated to work for someone who treats them as a person, respects their contribution, holds them accountable, and gives clear guidance on what success looks like.

Madore: Building on Michael’s answer, whatever assessment you use, remember that measuring leadership effectiveness by the success of their business, or bottom-line performance is short-sighted because timing and luck many times play into that. It’s important to use an assessment tool that's a vertical developmental one, which means it shines the light on a leaders’ underlying beliefs and assumptions and gives insights on how they can improve. And, it’s important that your assessment is Integral in nature, meaning it focuses both on the task and relationship.

InfoQ: You mentioned in the book that to succeed in attaining organizational agility through an agile transformation, the place to start is by developing the senior leaders. Why is this, and how can we do it?

Madore:  We touched on this with some of the other questions, but I would say that the senior leaders of an organization bring the weather. We have all seen agile transformations revert back when a senior leader leaves and a new one joins. What do I mean by "bringing the weather"? Aside from their mood and behavior impacting everyone they interact with, in a broader context, their way of leading, the behavior they model every day, what they motivate and reward, what they pay attention to or ignore, guides the organization’s way of being.
For a senior leader to lead an organization through the complexity of transformational change, they will need to upgrade their level of thinking – their ability to lead through complexity. If senior leaders have a high reactive culture, they will react to events from a place of fear and ego. When we operate from fear and ego, from our self-identity and stories about our self-worth, we are in a problem-reacting stance, rather than an outcome-creating one.

Spayd: The gist of what Michele is saying was validated by Frederic Laloux in his book Reinventing Organizations. His finding was that the consciousness level of the CEO and the Board was a constraint on the level possible for the organization as a whole. For example, if an organization had moved to an Evolutionary-Teal level of practice, but then senior leadership was replaced -- with the new leaders more centered in an Achievement-Orange altitude -- the result was the organization as a whole slipped back. This is consistent with my experience.

InfoQ: How does the Integral Agile Transformation Framework look?

Madore: Here’s a diagram:

Basically, this shows the four quadrant perspectives with the relevant names for an agile transformation (I = upper left, IT = upper right;  WE = lower left; ITS = lower right). The circle of colors ("altitudes") are the levels or stages of complexity within each quadrant (innermost is Traditional-Amber, then Achievement-Orange, Pluralistic-Green, and Evolutionary-Teal). Finally, the arrows within each quadrant represent levels of development, and specifically these represent what we called the "Integral Disciplines", which are the single most important vector to focus on within that quadrant domain for transformation to occur.

InfoQ: How can we use this framework in agile transformations?

Madore: The IATF can be used in many different ways in an Agile Transformation. We say that the IATF is a meta-map and a meta-framework for guiding change. It is also a systems thinking tool and an assessment tool. Every agile survey tells us that the reason transformations fail is due to culture, leadership and a lack of understanding about change methods. Since the IATF is a whole systems framework, it specifically calls out the culture and mindset quadrants needed to achieve whole change.
The IATF diagram above depicts what we call "Integral Disciplines" – organizational disciplines, one for each quadrant, and an overarching discipline of evolving conscious change. By practicing these disciplines, like building any new capability or discipline, we are evolving our ability to operate at a higher altitude, one that is more equipped to work with the complexity of today’s organizations. For every Integral Discipline and Developmental Line, there are a multitude of approaches, techniques, tools, frameworks, models, and practices that we can use to guide us.
The overarching Integral Discipline of Evolving Conscious Change is key to success in all of the Integral Disciplines, for when we "wake-up" we listen differently, we respond instead of react, we have a heightened sense of awareness of self and other, of our approaches and our way of working with the system. We are more in tune with all of the dynamics of change, and use approaches that are fit for purpose, and that meet the client where they are.

Spayd: In sum, the IATF helps us accomplish one of Wilber’s prescriptions mentioned above, namely taking the perspective of the other. We as enterprise coaches are frequently asked to help implement agile -- a Pluralistic-Green way of thinking -- in a largely Achievement-Orange corporate world. The IATF shows us the predictable difficulties such a values conflict inherently creates. If we try to "make them more Green," with reflection we can see we are imposing our preference over theirs’, an act of ego that is inconsistent with a servant leader ethic.

InfoQ: What can organizations do to increase the social and communication skill level of individuals to foster collaboration?

Madore: I don’t see this as a one-size-fits-all approach. From a coach perspective, before creating a plan to work on social and communication skills, I would want to have a sense of where people currently land in the spectrum of development, especially in the "I" quadrant where we look at emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal lines of development, to name just a few important lines for collaboration. Having a sense of their current capabilities, helps you to understand what new "muscles" or capabilities need to be built in order to support the growth needed toward a culture of collaboration. A coach can get a lot of insight into this by just observing the dynamics of a team in their meetings. What you observe, and how you observe is key to seeing the system and the quality of their interactions. The leverage in changing the patterns that are antithetical to collaboration is to improve the quality of interactions.
So what can organizations do? The one challenge we have consistently faced in our transformational change efforts is the lack of focus on working with the human aspects of change. If leaders are ready and willing to give conscious attention to this, coaches can play a big role. When people understand that it is less about the content/topic and more about their way of working together in it, they can begin to make real progress in fostering collaboration.
A little over a year ago I began working with a new client who brought me in after they had attempted to go through an organization structural change that wasn’t successful. They recognized their need for a greater level of adaptability and went about making changes to the structure of teams, role & responsibilities (an ITS Quadrant focus). However, how they went through it was what determined the results. All of the other quadrants have to be paid attention to as well. They were working with an "ITS" quadrant shift to a more teal structure, but their leadership mindset ("I" Quadrant) was coming from a reactive stance, their culture ("WE") was still squarely in "Achievement-Orange" and their behavior ("IT") was also coming from an "Orange" way of being.  When I entered the system, I was able to take them through a process of identifying all of their barriers to the change. What became apparent to them was their need to learn more effective ways of communicating and working with conflict. Rather than focusing on whether the structural changes were "right", we created cohorts, had each person go through a 360 Assessment (The Leadership Circle), and have been working for the last year on the quality of their interactions. By doing this, they have been able to improve their social and communication skills not only with their own teams, but with external teams and stakeholders. And they continue to meet in their Cohorts, making development a priority.

InfoQ: What are your suggestions for guiding the change process during an agile transformation?

Madore: In the book, we share five Integral Disciplines as a way to develop your integral thinking and abilities. The overall Integral Discipline is "Evolving Conscious Change" - evolving how we go through the process of change with a higher level of conscious awareness at every point of the change.

The first suggestion is to actually have a change process model. Whatever model you use should focus on a whole system change approach – incorporating the internal and external dynamics of change. It’s also important to remember that change isn’t linear, as linear models aren’t the reality that we experience when going through change.

One of the more useful suggestions I believe I can give coaches/consultants, is to remember the moment you enter the system, you are part of the system. Systems Entry, from a conscious and intentional stance, designing the alliance with the system, is an outcome-creating stance. The pitfalls of not doing this are many, and you will likely soon find yourself in a reactive stance – reacting to what happens, rather than responding.

And the thing I always come back to is YOU; you are the most important instrument of change. To help "Evolve Conscious Change", we must first become more conscious of our own biases and limitations, notice when we are in a reactive stance, when we are below the line rather than above the line, and how we are impacting the system.

Spayd: I love what Michele is saying. The perspective I would add is that organizational change is not a process that we can control, as much as we wish it was, and as much as our clients often insist it must be. Instead, change is a process that unfolds within a complex, self-organizing system. We can influence but not control it. I have been heavily influenced by Glenda Eoyang in this regard (Human Systems Dynamics); paraphrasing her philosophy, an integral approach is not to take people where you want them to go, but rather finding out where they can go, and helping them go there. An Integral Assessment at the beginning of a change initiative can help us know where they can go, from all quadrant and altitude perspectives. Then, we get to decide if their "why" aligns with our why. If the book does nothing but make this need for alignment central to the conversation, then that will be a good thing.

About the Book Authors

Michael K Spayd, is co-founder and principal of The Collective Edge, whose mission is to work (and support others working) at our mutual collective edge, facilitating the evolution of human consciousness in service of anti-fragility, awareness, and love. He has worked in the agile transformation space since 2001, co-founded Agile Coaching Institute, and has taught, coached and mentored many thousands of agile coaches and leaders. And he’s awfully glad this book is now published!

Michele Madore, founder and managing member of Trans4mation, draws on a nearly 30-year career as leader, consultant, coach, and employee to help develop agile coaches, leaders, and organizations. She has spent 15 years helping organizations journey humanely to agility, and has coached hundreds of agile coaches. A Professional Integral Coach (ICCP-2), she applies the Integral Agile Transformation Framework™ to help leaders succeed with their agile transformations.

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