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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Company-Wide Agility with Beyond Budgeting, Open Space & Sociocracy

Q&A on the Book Company-Wide Agility with Beyond Budgeting, Open Space & Sociocracy

Key Takeaways

  • Addressing the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) challenges requires combining principles from different streams of development.
  • Open Space principles are a catalyst for accelerating the pace implementations Agile, Sociocracy, and Beyond Budgeting methods.
  • Objections during decision-making (by consent) help to make better decisions.
  • Sociocracy principles resolve conflicts in creative and agile ways, providing nimbleness and flexibility to organizational hierarchies.
  • An attitude of probing (or experimenting) enables continuous learning.

In the book Company-wide Agility with Beyond Budgeting, Open Space & Sociocracy, Jutta Eckstein and John Buck combined and integrated principles and practices from general streams of development and created a multi-disciplinary approach for company-wide agile adoption. They named the approach BOSSA nova: B = Beyond Budgeting, OS = Open Space, S = Sociocracy, A = Agile.

InfoQ readers can download a sample of the book Company-wide Agility.

InfoQ interviewed Eckstein and Buck about the main challenges that companies often face when they attempt to apply agile, using open space for agile transformations, the advantages and disadvantages of consent decision making, how the principles and practices of Sociocracy support company-wide agility, and what companies can do to support continuous learning.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Jutta Eckstein: Next to digitalization, companies are facing the challenge today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world implies. There are many attempts to address these challenges, yet those attempts are all either within a given framework (like agile), too specific (like the Spotify “model”), or too generic / philosophical without concrete advice (like spiral dynamics). We discovered that there are a lot of great answers out there, but they need to be combined to really address these challenges. Luckily we’re both coming from different communities or frameworks, that allowed us right from the start to think outside our own boxes.

John Buck: As I’ve been aware for some time that the Agile and Sociocracy streams of development have a lot to offer each other, I jumped at the chance to co-present with Jutta at the Agile 2016 conference in Atlanta. After our presentation, she and I held a retrospective over coffee. We realized that combining Agile and Sociocracy, while helpful, was only a partial solution for companies dealing with today’s business conditions. We eventually combined four different streams of development and named the synthesis BOSSA nova. I don’t remember which of us suggested writing a book about it.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Buck: We intend the book for Herb, the VP of a large international corporation who says, “For our company to be agile requires a broad perspective. If the key managers of our company don’t understand that perspective, we won’t be able to handle current and future challenges well.” 

We also intend it for Dani, a successful consultant and keynote speaker who keeps 10 copies of our book on her shelf to hand out to clients. “I want my clients to understand what kind of transformation they are facing, and at the same time feel more connected to me and my expertise.” 

We also wrote the book with Deborah in mind. She runs a nonprofit assisted living organization with three facilities. She’s an innovator in many ways. For example, the organization integrates dementia patients with the rest of the population and serves organic, farm-to-table food with no sugar ever. “My staff is using sociocracy successfully. We are all interested in our next step to serve our residents even  better.”

There are many more: Angie the business professor who wants her students to be prepared for the VUCA world, and Jack the manager of an agile consultants group in a big international consulting firm who wants his clients to understand what it takes to thrive and not only survive disruption. Another reader is Oscar who works with inner city populations, teaching them entrepreneurial skills. He uses Open Space at lot but he wants something more to develop more resilient and sustainable management skills.

Eckstein: This book is intended for everyone who wants to know what can be done to address the VUCA challenges mentioned above. Definitely it is leaders and executives in companies, but also consultants in the field.

InfoQ: What are the main challenges that companies often face when they attempt to apply agile throughout the company?

Eckstein: What we are seeing is that they “use more of the same”. So, the whole company is just treated as a software project and, e.g., Scrum is then applied in different areas of the company. However, responsibilities like finance, legal, or HR need different answers – just operating with a backlog and having a daily standup for synchronization neither makes a company agile (note: lowercase ‘a’ in the meaning of being flexible, adaptive, responsive, and innovative) nor provides those necessary answers.

Buck: Agile began as single teams and then teams of software teams. But there is no extant theory about how the software teams should be embedded in the overall company in an agile way. Some companies are experimenting with using agile methods in HR, sales, legal, and so on, but how should all these departments be interconnected in an overall agile way? Typical challenges companies face when trying to answer this question include: how to apply Agile’s software-derived concepts to other kinds of work, how does agile affect fundamental legal concepts such as the right of shareholders to have exclusive control of the corporation, what should be the overall structure of the organization - an agile hierarchy, a matrix, a network, something else? How would budgeting and personnel policies work? How can a company of thousands behave in an agile way, e.g., how would one have a retrospective of thousands?

InfoQ: Open space is not something that people might think of as a tool for an agile transformation. What made you decide to include it?

Buck: We favored developments that have been applied in general ways. For example, we are aware that some companies are trying to use Open Space company-wide. In comparison, we are not aware that anyone is trying to use *World Cafe* or *Appreciative Inquiry* as a method for organizing their company, and so did not include them.

Open Space principles give BOSSA nova simple, clear instructions for inviting self-organization emerge. It can be used, purely as a facilitation technique, in large gatherings, and its principles can also be applied with smaller groups in a variety of circumstances to help us get out of our familiar ways, even our familiar ruts. Open Space principles can act as a kind of catalyst, accelerating the pace of other BOSSA nova methods.

Eckstein: Open Space provides the concept of leveraging the creativity and innovation of everyone in the company. This way, Open Space does provide the core of what Steve Denning calls strategic agility (which he described in his latest book The Age of Agile). We know of companies that use the Open Space concept to create completely new products: everyone can suggest a new product (or also new features for an existing product), and if enough people follow that suggestion by telling the proposer of the idea that they are keen in helping putting that product forward – this product is a go. However, if nobody wants to support this new idea, the product will not be built.

In an earlier InfoQ interview on Company-wide Agile, Eckstein and Buck described how you can foster passion with Open Spaces:

Buck: Open space creates a container for cross-functional self-organization. (...) In our observations, inspiration and passion are indicators that self-organization is occurring because self-organization always seems to be accompanied by an increase in energy. And that energy seems to correlate with creativity.

Eckstein: Open Space is based on passion bound by responsibility. This means that people are not limited by their job description but can rather flexibly follow their passion and contribute to the company’s success in ways that are beyond any job descriptions and predefined rules and regulations.

InfoQ: How does consent decision making work?

Buck: In a circle meeting all participants must have an equivalent voice so that accurate feedback can emerge. Making a decision by people who are completely equivalent presents a challenge. There can’t be a single higher leader who resolves different viewpoints. We can’t really expect agreement because we all have different perspectives, and what is agreeable to one person may not be “logical” to another. BOSSA nova solves this conundrum through the concept of consent decision-making. A consent decision is not one that you unite with or agree with but one that you can accept (or tolerate). You consent if you have no reasoned and paramount objection to a policy proposal. All elements of any system must be able to “live with” (function in some way) in the system or the system will not work. For example, a car tire can withdraw its consent by going flat. Sociocratic consent decision making occurs only in circle (policy) meetings and follows recommended processes that have proven effective over time.

Note that while “consent” may sound “almost like consensus,” it is actually quite different. For example, you can never reach a consensus decision with your car’s tire. It is incapable of agreeing to anything. However, as an element in a system, it can withdraw its consent by going flat. For consensus, the typical question is if everyone is in favor of the decision, whereas for consent the question is if everyone “is able and willing to execute the proposed decision” – this doesn’t necessarily imply being in favor, yet accepting the decision (also referred to as having “no reasoned and paramount objection”).

Eckstein: The key concept is to ask for acceptance and not for agreement, as a decision by consensus would. Another important thing is if, for example, I can’t tolerate the decision, that is I’m not accepting it, I explain the objection I’m having. Now in other kinds of decision-making the typical reaction from the group is to convince me of the decision and talk me out of the objection. In consent decision-making the objection raised is both owned and welcomed by the whole group. The objection will help us all to come up with a better decision – because most likely we have overlooked something in the first proposal.

InfoQ: What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Eckstein: The biggest advantage is to have the full buy-in from the whole group without the known slowness of decisions by consensus. A disadvantage might be that once people know about the consent decision-making, they often believe that all decisions should be based on consent. However, all kinds of decision-making are useful in some context no matter if they’re autocratic, democratic, random, or based on consensus. E.g. if your house is on fire you don’t want to make a decision on consent who is taking the kids out of the house.

Buck: Consent decision making lets a group of completely equivalent individuals make a decision as one entity, that is, with every brain clearly participating in the thinking. Such concepts as both-and thinking and uncovering each others’ blind spots are very helpful in this self-organizing process. Many report personal growth from participating in consent decisions making. Another result is the commonly reported observation that, “I feel more energized at the end of this meeting than I did at the beginning.” This energy leads to deep commitment to each other and to the work at hand. It also leads to more subtle and well-rounded thinking than other decision-making processes. The disadvantage is that consent decision making needs training. It’s a new concept and no one learned it as a child.

In the InfoQ interview Using Sociocracy for Decision Making and Learning in Agile

Pieter van der Meché explained how sociocracy can used to scale agile:

Agile software development teams could improve their decision making by using the consent principle and the sociocratic procedures to achieve consent decisions. (...) the biggest opportunity lies in scaling up agile principles to larger projects with multiple teams or to a whole organization. By adding a sociocratic circle structure the normal "cascade" like decision making structure transforms into a dynamic-circular one. In this structure top down and bottom up decision making are integrated and decide on the basis of equivalence on the improvement of their circle processes.

InfoQ: How do the principles and practices of Sociocracy support company-wide agility?

Eckstein: Next to consent decision making, which ensures that all voices get heard, Sociocracy helps to build in feedback in the organizational structure.

First of all, it enables companies to start where they are with their mostly hierarchical structure. Yet, then in order to resolve, e.g., the sandwich position of middle managers (being responsible for implementing the decisions made and communicated top-down and representing the concerns bottom-up), every level in the hierarchy elects a person who will represent that level one level higher up in the hierarchy. That person provides the bottom-up feedback, whereas now the middle manager is only responsible for the top-down communication. This way we have a separation of concerns: top-down uses a different channel than bottom-up.

Buck: Various company hierarchies topped by shareholders, by customers, by ideals and values, or by legal regulations are frequently in conflict. For example, pressure to meet quarterly profit objectives may directly undermine the constant customer focus principle of agile. Inspiration may collide with company policies and rules. Sociocracy offers a vessel to contain and resolve such conflicts in creative and agile ways. In doing so, it brings nimbleness and flexibility to such hierarchies. 

InfoQ: What can companies do to support continuous learning?

Eckstein: The most important thing is to understand the concept of probing. The VUCA challenges can’t be answered by following a recipe but by being open to experimentation. Thus, ensuring everyone in the company can come up with a hypothesis and safely try an experiment that approves or disapproves the hypothesis enables the company to learn continuously and tackle the existing challenges.

Buck: One practice to develop is the habit of having regular periods for reflection and experimentation. You might call it “action reflection.” Agile retrospectives, sprint planning, and time reserved for freeform experimentation are examples of such practices. Open gatherings (Open Space) to have time to think strategically together are another. Other effective practices are in person 360 degree reviews and personal support circles. Also suggested is a company-wide system of publishing experiments in management as well as technical practices, similar to the peer reviewed journals used in scientific circles.

About the Book Authors

Jutta Eckstein works as an independent coach, consultant, and trainer. She focuses her work enabling agile development at the organizational level. She has helped many teams and organizations worldwide to make an agile transition.



John Buck heads a division of The Sociocracy Group, an international training and consulting organization headquartered in the Netherlands. Buck has conducted many training workshops and helped “rewire” the power structures of a variety of organizations worldwide using sociocracy principles.

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