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Open Agile Adoption in Theory

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(A note to the reader: This is the third in a series of articles discussion Open Agile Adoption - a different approach to agile transition that is aimed at ensuring longevity and takeup of the new way of working. The first article introduces essential terms, the second article summarizes the method.)

OAA is built on some core ideas from the psychology of games and cultural anthropology. In this article we take look at the gaming aspect. Good games have opt-in participation and this is the reason why invitation plays an essential role in the Open Agile Adoption technique. We also introduce liminality.

It is important to understand some of the underlying theory of OAA before implementing it.

Good Games: Goals, Rules, Feedback, and Opt-In Participation

Happiness at work is a game. If the core requirements for happiness at work are not present, you disengage and check out. If the core requirements are there, you automatically experience fun, satisfaction and potentially, a deeply engaged sense of well being. Open Agile adoption delivers happiness through the intentional design and implementation of good-game mechanics.

Work is BROKEN when it is not fun to play. You are delivering happiness at work by injecting good-game mechanics into the structure of work and meetings.

The core requirements for happiness at work are:

  • A sense of control
  • A sense of progress
  • A sense of belonging and membership
  • A sense of wider purpose and meaning

When viewed in this way, it is possible to more fully game your interactions, your meetings and work itself, so that participating is optimized towards a satisfying, fun and naturally productive experience.

Open Agile Adoption is employs game mechanics to make your Agile adoption enjoyable and fun.


Games have four basic properties. When the values for each of the properties are “well-formed”, the game is enjoyable, fun and satisfying. When the four properties are not “well-formed”, the game is not fun and you either opt-out or, if this is not possible, you disengage (“check out”) almost automatically.

The 4 basic properties of a good game are:

  • A clear goal
  • A clear set of rules that are uniformly applied
  • A clear way to get feedback, to track progress
  • Opt-in participation

Well-executed Agile patterns and practices are usually (but not always) well-formed games. Well-formed games associate with satisfaction, happiness and even joyfulness; poorly defined games associate with disengagement, low levels of learning, and a distinct lack of enjoyment.

Open Agile adoption makes culture change easier by making it a good game. The key gaming component is the invitation, which is used instead of a mandate. Participants are invited to experiment with Agile practices, instead of being forced to use them without being part of the decision making process.

Culture is a game, and Agile culture is no exception. Agile adoptions are games. To make Agile adoptions fun, we must tune up four properties: the goals, the rules, the feedback loops, and the ability to opt in or out of playing the game. In Open Agile Adoption, a focus on game mechanics is essential.

Invitation: Opt-In Participation… Instead of a Mandate

Mandates reduce engagement. They have the potential to ruin your Agile adoption. The mandate of Agile practices reduces the potential for genuine engagement.

Invitation increases engagement by offering options and choice. A sense of control and a sense of belonging are sources of basic human happiness. Opting in or out of an invitation increases the sense of control. Accepting an invitation increases the sense of belonging and inclusion.

Mandating Agile practices seldom works because there is no opt-in feature to the game. This makes it less than fun to play. The game is not “well-formed.” This may seem counterintuitive. Mandates reduce engagement, the very fuel of rapid and lasting Agile adoptions. Invitation is a far better approach, and aligns with the Agile Manifesto’s core principles.

Consider these quotes from Martin Fowler, a signatory of the Agile Manifesto:

A team may choose a totally waterfall, un-agile process. In that case, clearly the process is no more agile than apples taste of strawberries. But agile methods aren’t the best for all situations, and personally I’d rather have a team work in a non-agile manner they chose themselves than have my favorite agile practices imposed upon them. Martin Fowler, Agile Manifesto signatory, the “Agile Imposition” blog post, 2006

Here are more quotes, from that same essay:

“Imposing an agile process from the outside strips the team of the self-determination which is at the heart of agile thinking.”

“… Imposing agile methods introduces a conflict with the values and principles that underlie agile methods.”

“So I hope I’ve made clear that imposing agile methods is a very red flag."

Open Agile Adoption is a good game, in part because of the opt-in feature, which we know is an essential of any good game.

Invitation has the potential to engage the independent thinkers in your organization, the very people who can help create success with Agile. Developers are problem solvers and offering a solution to a problem solver is misguided at best. Smart developers know exactly what is going on with the work, and they are in the best position to know what techniques might work.

The alternative is to continue to mandate specific Agile practices, which we know to be in direct opposition to the principles of Agile itself.

Liminality and Learning

The liminal state is a transitional state of being. The root Latin word- limens- means “threshold”. The liminal state is a no-mans land of transition, confusion, stress and vagueness. It is lacking in definition. No longer where you were, and not yet where you will end up, liminality literally has the potential to drive you crazy.

Liminality is a stressful state of being that occurs in transitions. Agile adoptions are, by definition, liminal in nature. Agile adoptions generate considerable worry and anxiety. Open Agile Adoption uses a well-understood cultural device called the “passage rite” to manage liminality and reduce stress.

The Relationships between Agile, Liminality and Learning

Adopting Agile always means lots and lots of new learning. Learning is stressful, because it generates liminality. All genuine learning in adults creates instability- liminality- until that learning is integrated.

On Mental Models

We know the world through our models. Mature adults hold a model of reality. Genuine new learning challenges the validity of that model. This invalidation of your previous assumptions produces the very unstable, liminal state, until you integrate that new learning.

The introduction of Agile into an organization definitely creates liminality. The introduction of Agile is usually quite triggering for most participants. This “triggered” behavior is based on fear, and is a natural reaction to entering the unstable state of liminality.

Before Agile, everything was well understood. Then: …new roles, new ways of interacting, and a new mindset are all required of you. The learning is constant, and stressful. Agile can be very triggering.

Uncomfortable in the transition, the natural and safe thing to do is turn around and go back to where you came from. And people in organizations routinely do exactly this. We backslide on Agile and return to where we came from. This “going back” reduces the worry, the fear and the anxiety, the core emotions evoked by the liminal state of being.

Rites of Passage

Passage rites have been used for thousands of years to manage stressful transitions in human systems. Open Agile Adoption implements a passage rite that begins and ends with an Open Space meeting event. This brings structure to the chaos associated with the integration of new learning.

Various tribal societies, throughout the world, across different periods of time, and coming from different places, have all come to the exact same conclusion: liminality must be carefully handled, and the best way to handle it is to institute a passage rite.

The purpose of a passage rite is to ease the transition from one state of being… to another.  Tribal societies have been doing this routinely, for thousands of years.

In the modern day, we routinely introduce Agile into organizations, while blissfully ignoring the essential human dynamics of liminality.

This is probably a very serious error.

(A note to the reader: This is the third in a series of articles discussion Open Agile Adoption - a different approach to agile transition that is aimed at ensuring longevity and takeup of the new way of working. The first article introduces essential terms, the second article summarizes the method.)

The next article in this series explores and explains:

  • The dynamics of liminality, communitas and "high play" in genuine and lasting Agile adoptions;
  • The influence of cultural anthropology on Open Agile Adoption theory and practice;
  • The importance of experience design in your overall plans for Agile adoption.

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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