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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Agendashift Part I

Q&A on the Book Agendashift Part I


Key Takeaways

  • Change feels very different when it is outcome-centric
  • Don’t fall for the false choice between respectful and ambitious change
  • Clean Language is awesome!
  • Just as for development, a genuinely open Discovery process is a good way to avoid prematurely fixating on solutions
  • Review unvalidated experiments frequently

In the book Agendashift Mike Burrows describes an inclusive, non-prescriptive, values-based, and outcome-centric approach to continuous transformation. He explores several lean and agile techniques that can be used in workshops and coaching to do lasting change.

InfoQ readers can download a sample of Agendashift part 1.

InfoQ interviewed Mike Burrows about how to apply Agendashift in a lean or agile transformation, using Clean Language and Clean Questions in discovery, the Agendashift Values-based delivery assessment, visualizing a possible transformation, finding solutions to do the wanted changes in the organization, and experimenting with change in organizations.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Mike Burrows: There are some similarities to the situation to the one behind my first book, Kanban from the Inside (see the 2014 InfoQ Q&A). Back then, the driver was the values-centric model I had developed to describe the method. The opportunity to flesh the ideas out properly was just too good to miss, and I knew I would end up with something unique since the perspective was one that hadn’t been taken before.

However, with Agendashift, the core idea didn’t so much start the process as crystallise out of it. I had the Values-based delivery assessment and a client workshop. It was the integration of Clean Language that made the difference – already I was adopting a determinedly non-prescriptive attitude to Agile transformation, but with Clean Language Agendashift became a much clearer demonstration of how a change process could be genuinely outcome-centric rather than the more traditional approach driven by practices, process adoption, and so on.

Outcome-centric participation is the element usually missing from top-down and bottom-up change, models for change that I would now describe belonging in the 20th century, not the 21st. The choice between the top-down and bottom-up models is completely false, and neither should anyone be forced to choose between respect and ambition. Combine a participatory and outcome-centric approach with some Lean thinking and the result is a model not just for one-off change projects, but for continuous transformation.

With both books I was driven by the simple need to get written down ideas that were already working well for me and others curious enough to try to reproduce them. With hindsight, however, I can see that even the first book was a constructive reaction against prescription. I’m gratified but not surprised that it resonated with people, and I’m glad now to have the opportunity to make this purpose more explicit.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Burrows: The majority of its readers will describe themselves as practitioners of Agile or Lean-Agile in roles associated with change – many of them coaches and consultants. Then comes a significant minority of people who are in management positions, involved in change either directly or as as sponsors.

Outside of Lean-Agile there’ll be readers also from the communities whose work I have drawn on, in particular the Clean Language, Cynefin, Lean, and Lean Startup communities. Integrating these different sources is a privilege: there’s the unexpected that arises when you combine things, and the deepening respect for what people have already achieved when you look at their work from different perspectives.

Regardless of where they’re coming from, I expect that most readers will be interested to read something quite practical. It includes a number of exercises that can be used standalone – in retrospectives, for example. For people using or considering using the full, integrated set of tools there will I think be some relief that it has been documented.

InfoQ: What is Agendashift?

Burrows: Agendashift is:

  • An inclusive, non-prescriptive, values-based, and outcome-centric approach to continuous transformation
  • An integrated set of online, workshop, and coaching tools
  • A centered community of practitioners, open to new ideas and techniques, and committed to respectful and contextual application

InfoQ: How can you apply Agendashift in a lean or agile transformation?

Burrows: That’s a big question. I’m fortunate to get invited to help organisations get started in their transformations, to transfer knowledge to practitioners, or some combination of both. In a single (and intense) day, we’ll go through:

  1. Discovery: Identifying the transformation’s major themes and motivations
  2. Exploration: Debriefing an Agendashift values-based delivery assessment (set as prework), clarifying scope and approach
  3. Mapping: Building a transformation map (essentially a story map)
  4. Elaboration: Generating, framing, and developing actions
  5. Operation: Organising for continuous transformation

That’s Agendashift as kick start; whether it goes on to make a lasting difference is down to follow-through. Not only do we not take that for granted, we also find this same structure useful as a model for coaching:

  1. Discovery: Working with the client or sponsor to identify the strategic goals and needs that the engagement must address
  2. Exploration: Identifying key opportunities, obstacles, and outcomes with the client, thereby defining the scope, objectives, and priorities of the engagement
  3. Mapping: Establishing the right breadth and depth, keeping the coaching process fed with fresh and important challenges to investigate
  4. Elaboration: Using a range of models and tools, supporting the client as they generate options and develop actions
  5. Operation: Through appropriate transparency, mutual accountability, and feedback in the coaching relationship, ensure both the follow-through on actions already agreed and the flow of new ideas

It helps that this structure is itself recognisable as a Lean-Agile process; it means that we’re modelling good behaviours and concepts (eg collaboration, hypothesis-based change, just-in-time, etc) from day 1.

InfoQ: How can you use Clean Language and Clean Questions in discovery?

Burrows: It’s remarkable: Agendashift significantly predates my awareness of Clean Language but now I can’t imagine Agendashift without it! To illustrate, here are just two questions of the five or six that we use most frequently in Discovery:

  1. What would you like to have happen? – which if asked in the context of an obstacle is likely to be answered with an outcome
  2. Then what happens? – which if asked in the context of one outcome is likely to generate another, the outcome behind the outcome

We start with strategic goals to give relevance to a simple but engaging vision:

  • People able to work at their best, individually and collectively
  • The right conversations happening at the best possible moment
  • Needs anticipated and met at just the right time

We then use those clean questions (and three or four others) to explore a landscape of obstacles specific to their current situation and outcomes that describe how they would like things to be. Some of those outcomes will represent immediate opportunities; others long-term aspirations. Between those two extremes will be some intermediate outcomes that will tell us that we’re making good progress. The use of clean language ensures that all of these outcomes are articulated by participants rather than the facilitator, minimising the risk of fixating on solutions prematurely and provoking resistance unnecessarily.

InfoQ: What's the Agendashift Values-based delivery assessment?

Burrows: It started out as a set of ‘what next’ bullet points from the last chapter of Kanban from the Inside. I released it as a spreadsheets shortly before publication in 2014, and it was picked up and experimented with by several people independently (a couple of times directly from the book). I worked with Dragan Jojic to make the text less dependent on the book, and over many iterations we evolved the current style: inclusive (statements beginning with “We” or “Our”), present tense (not out of reach), and non-prescriptive (allowing multiple approaches). It is now maintained through community effort (mainly in Slack) and has been translated into seven languages.

Its six headings are the values Transparency, Balance, Collaboration, Customer focus, Flow, and Leadership which you may recognise as the titles of the first six chapters of KFTI (Understanding, Agreement, and Respect got folded into Leadership). There’s nothing Kanban-specific about the assessment though – right from its earliest days it has been used with Scrum teams, and we now know that it works well even outside of IT.

Of course we found out very quickly that surveying people by emailing spreadsheets was horrible for all concerned and I put it online. There’s now a free ‘mini’ version available  and a full version used by our partners.

InfoQ: How can you visualize a possible transformation? What’s the benefit of doing this?

Burrows: When I first facilitated these workshops I took people through the process without much emphasis on producing artefacts. There was plenty of agreement generated at the time (that always seem to happen very naturally), but would they remember what they had agreed? That’s quite ironic when you think about it: here’s someone who talks about the value of transparency and who wrote about ‘making the agenda for change visible’, and we neglect to visualise!

My first attempts at a ‘transformation map’ used the values as headings. That seemed quite natural to me, but I found that people struggled with it. Inspired by story mapping, I realised that this structure lacked any sense of narrative flow, which in turn meant that people were unsure how to read it or where to start. To fix that, I turned to Reverse STATIK, another model that has its origins in Kanban but has much broader applicability. Our maps now have these headings:

  1. Refine existing work management systems
  2. Improve the service experience
  3. Manage the knowledge discovery process
  4. Balance demand and capacity
  5. Address sources of dissatisfaction (and other motivations for change)
  6. Pursue fitness for purpose

You could say that this starts with the basics, ramps up the sophistication, and finishes with a flourish on bigger-picture organisational challenges and behaviours. There’s a strong enough sense of direction there that the disorientation problem is solved.

To populate these maps we use a process similar to the one used in Discovery:

  • Prioritise assessment prompts
  • Identify obstacles in their way
  • Identify the outcome behind each obstacle with What would you like to have happen?
  • Identify outcomes behind outcomes with Then what happens?

For fans of dodgy mnemonics, I use POWT. You may prefer POOO :-)

InfoQ: How do you find solutions to do the wanted changes in the organization?

Burrows: I find that problems and potential solutions are often both pretty well understood already. There are both positive and negative implications to that statement:

  • There’s a lot of knowledge in organisations already
  • Many organisations are very bad at follow through, and (almost by definition) this weakness is a big obstacle to adaptability

We start the process by generating multiple options – ie different ways to approach the outcome we want. This gives opportunity for that internal knowledge to be leveraged and for expert input to be provided if it is needed and wanted. The most promising options are re-framed as hypotheses (Lean Startup style) and then developed with A3 (Lean style).

There’s lots of good technical stuff there (options, hypotheses, assumptions, risks, etc) but key to effective follow-through is engaging the right people. We make a point of identifying all the various constituencies involved so that they can be involved in the solution process.

InfoQ: Which suggestions can you give for experimenting with change in organizations?

Burrows: For the past six or seven years I’ve been sharing my experiences about validation – how that making this an explicit final step can have a profound effect on development processes. The majority of Agendashift assessments (client-specific or public) suggest that even in 2017, this would still be a very good change for many teams to try!

Fixing this for change processes could be just as powerful. Follow-through is a huge problem, and regularly reviewing unvalidated changes (in those terms) can be a good place to start. It provides some defence against changes that have been imposed or ill considered too. Try framing your next change as an experiment – describing its expected impact as well as the detail – and agree to monitor its progress regularly.

About the Book Author

Mike Burrows: is the founder of Agendashift and author of the book of the same name, author of Kanban from the Inside (2014, Blue Hole Press), consultant, coach, and trainer. He has been the interim delivery manager for two UK government digital "exemplar" projects and consultant to public and private sector organisations at home and abroad. Prior to his consulting career, he was global development manager and Executive Director at a top tier investment bank, and IT Director for an energy risk management startup.


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