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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Daniel Mezick on Open Agile Adoption with Open Space

Daniel Mezick on Open Agile Adoption with Open Space


1. [...] Do you want to us tell a little bit about how you got to this point?

Shane's full questions: Good day, this is Shane Hastie with InfoQ and we are still here at Agile 2013 with Dan Mezick, and this is the second in the series of interviews. Dan, we have spoken about the design of meetings and gaming and so forth. One of the things that we spoke about off camera was the concept of OpenAgile Adoption and you specifically mentioned invitations versus mandates. Do you want to us tell a little bit about how you got to this point?

Yes. In late 2010 I was actually doing some coaching at an organization who had done an Agile pilot with one team, liked the results and than were looking for a coach to roll it out to seven or eight other teams. And I came in and I worked like every other day, two and a half or three days a week for about three or four months. So actually four months all together. And part of that engagement was that I insisted that I must leave after the four months was over. The idea here, the hypothesis, is that if the people know that the coach is leaving, they will take up responsibility for their own learning, leadership will emerge and there will be a formal and informal hand off of authority, to do the work of championing the Agile adoption.

So I was willing to play with this idea, the client liked the idea too, and we went off to coach these seven or eight teams. Something interesting happened during the coaching process. Some teams kind of went off the reservation. They started doing some things that weren’t really in the plan, they argued that this is Agile, we don’t have to do documentation, we don’t have to do much planning. This is about self determination, we are self determining and here we are. And then the sponsor who brought me into the engagement, basically – we have been talking about values, specifically around Tony Hsieh’s book “Delivering Happiness” and the ten core values of Zappos and how important they are to an organization’s culture – and he called me to a lunch meeting and he wanted to talk with me about an epiphany and this was late in the adoption, about two and a half months in. And he said: “You know, I thought that the four values and the twelve principals of the Agile manifesto, that the value was self evident, that these are great values to hold and that it’s obvious that they bring health and wellness to an organization in IT.” He said: “I found out something. Not everyone values these things. Not everyone values the same things and because we never had that discussion up front, I now realize that our Agile adoption is kind of listing or kind of going sideways, sort of, almost like a sail boat with only one sail.” Than it hit me, that I am party to a mandated Agile adoption. And that’s the beginning of my journey into OpenAgile adoption.


2. So what is OpenAgile adoption? Is this just another framework?

OpenAgile adoption is a technique for getting a rapid and lasting adoption, that is based on invitation, play and leverages open space to bring those two concepts to the front of the room. So the concept here is that people who are in Agile adoption are smart problem solvers, they are creative thinkers and they tell themselves that story. And when we bring a mandate to them, not just the Agile direction but also the specific practises, we are literally torpedoing a healthy Agile adoption by being prescriptive and issuing a mandate, instead of being open and issuing an invitation. Sometimes I would hear some murmuring in the hallways or in the bathroom at this engagement that I was at. And I was sure that one of the people had an IQ that was like 125 or 130. And I marvelled the fact that were somehow alienating this man. Someone who continued to complain, which meant that he was still in. He had something to say and no one was listening to what he had to say. And what he really wanted to say is, how we can make the thing work. Because the concept is, that if the folks are still complaining they still want to buy from you.

Shane: So they want to fix it.

Yes, so that experience combined with the conversation that I had with the sponsor lead me to bring Open Space into the adoption, specifically it was the last engagement day.


3. Could you tell us a little bit about what you did using the Open Space to do that?

Yes, what we did was: first I called a meeting of what I call the willing and able. I grabbed 20 of the people of who I knew were in, out of about 70 in the situation. I invited them to a meeting to discuss taking the Agile adoption forward, beyond the next two weeks. 12 people showed up. I brought a book with me, six or seven copies of a book with me, and I explained to them that I am leaving in two weeks. We are moving forward, we are doing this Open Space meeting in a couple of weeks, we had socialized it for about two weeks up to that point. And I invited them to take up the leadership of the championship of the Agile work there and suggested that they might want to read all this book together. And I went on to tell them that this will be the first and last meeting of the willing and able that I will be attending. And I got up and left – leaving them a half an hour to figure it all out for themselves.

Shane: To self organize.

Yes. And than two weeks later we did the Open Space and it was very remarkable. We did the canonical form of the Open Space. We spent five or six weeks socializing the invitation and the theme. The theme was picked by the organization itself and the theme that they chose was: How can we help each other? And it was a remarkable moment for me, because I had a whole range of insights that came out of that.

Shane: And you were standing back and this team were running it.

Yes. The sponsor, the fellow’s name was Mike, Mike stood up and said: we have problems, we are facing direct business challenges by our competitors. We know Agile can help us out. We don’t know exactly how to get there and I am inviting you in, all of you, to help write the story of how we are going to do this. This room is ours for the whole day, there is the food, and now I give you our facilitator and, by the way, I did not facilitate the open space. And do you want to know why?

Shane: Yes.

The reason why was because, by that point I was in their family. And it was not really an effective spot for me. So what I did was, I brought in a friend, who was a skilled facilitator. He facilitated the meeting and I operated as a butterfly in the meeting. I believe, that if I had facilitated that meeting, it would not be effective.

Shane: Because you had been so deeply engaged and you were part of the team, or part of the group.

Yes, they all know the Dan object and they all know Dan’s jokes and they know Dan’s interfaces and now here is this other fellow coming in, let’s call him Ralph. Nobody knows were the levers are, the interfaces on the Ralph object. So he is coming in to serve this group as an outsider and I think it was quite remarkable in effectiveness. Yes.

Shane: So that was a mandated Agile adoption that seemed to switch.

It did switch and it was the last engagement day for me. And I received e-Mails and phone calls for weeks and months afterwards about how well it went for them after I left, because of that meeting. We did a few things wrong. We were late in getting the proceedings out. If I had done the whole thing over I would have a friend help me get the proceedings out within a day. But that whole thing had a remarkable effect in turning that adoption around.


4. So, is it OK to mandate a move to Agile?

It is. That’s the proper role and function of leadership, is to name a direction and to give a vision of how good things can be, if we get to that place. Getting from here to there is the job of everyone else. And leaders need to, I think, straddle the fine line between a mandate and an invitation regarding practices. Naming an Agile direction is great, but let’s separate that out from naming practices. Mandating practices in my opinion, you might as well call it mandated collaboration. I think it’s misguided.


5. What is this, mandated collaboration? Can you mandate collaboration?

Well, I know I can’t. I have never seen anyone do it successfully and so I wonder, if mandating specific Agile practices and expecting people to do them is actually a form of folly, especially with highly intelligent, introverted, creative problem solvers, who are dying to solve problems and who are also not going to tell you anything unless you ask them. So by using invitation, specifically the Open Space, it’s to bring them into the story, not bought into the story, located in the story. That’s a big difference. Writing the story, with others. Right? When leadership sends that signal, now we can bring in all the resistors and we can convert them to tolerators, or even supporters, simply because we respect their right to make a decision as a sovereign individual.


6. One of the things that you have talked about there is the value of that Open Space event. Is this essential for a lasting adoption?

I believe it is. Leadership is actually in the business of signalling. So if you look at semiotics, it’s a science of signals and signs and symbols. And leaders are continuously being polled or sampled for various kinds of information and everything that a leader does is a signal. So when the leader stands up there and says: “We have all day to do this meeting. You are free here to participate or not as you see fit. And we have pressing problems in our time frame for action is yesterday, and we need the best collectively that we have to offer to get the best idea on the table to get this adoption done”. That is a signal that sets the stage for an open culture. An open culture that’s says, everyone is going to get a hearing regardless of how dumb their idea sounds, because we might be able to improve that idea, or refine it in some other way and get to the point where we can have a very good and healthy adoption. Jeff Sutherland once said to me, that there is no standard Scrum implementation. And that was a very profound statement.

What he was really saying, I learned later, when I talked to him, was that Scrum itself has no context and it’s not real until it has a context, which means it needs to be tailored and customized. This goes for any set of practises, I believe, that honor the manifesto like Scrum does. So that tailoring and customization needs to come from the people that are closest to the work, not from authority. And when that happens something magic happens, like the engagement levels spiral up, everyone is happy to be at work. We have got the front of their mind and the back of their mind, when they are at work and when they are not at work. And everyone is in, because everyone is choosing to be in. And there is just a much better vibe, very better tone and tempo. I think, what is going on right now is, we are at the end of the mandated Agile adoption style. It might not actually be cresting right now, in sort of peaking, but I think in a few years we are going to be telling stories about how Open Space is an essential element of every successful adoption.

Shane: Are there not, though, some mandated things that organizations have to do, maybe regulatory compliant and stuff. We can’t ignore those.

Yes, that’s the case where like the compliance issue Shane, the authority in the organization can’t even opt out of that, right? So what we need to do is, we need that to bring to everyone and say, what are the best ideas around honouring this compliance mandate. How can we do it in the most minimal way, effort wise, with the maximum impact and again, let the people come in to solve the problem, because the people that are close to the work want to solve the problem and want to be in. And we know this from Daniel Pink’s work, his book about autonomy, mastery and purpose (Daniel Pink: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, 2009). When we issue a mandate to knowledge workers, we are actually asking for trouble.

Shane: We are taking away their autonomy.

Yes, which is what creative problem solvers actually live for, right? So, if you take that away, you are actually going to build resentment and ultimately disengagement.


7. You talked about the Open Space event in this process as a signal event. What does that really mean?

The meeting itself, so the idea is, that actions talk louder than words. So we can talk till we’re blue in the face about openness, or we can execute an Open Space event in the canonical form as described by Harrison Owen in his book The Open Space User’s guide and demonstrate to the people what openness is, and invite them to come in to that Open Space and literally play. Now we, a sanitized term we use for play is experimentation. Well, we are going to do an experiment and than we are going to inspect and adapt. But in truth, what we are really doing is playing. And there is not nearly enough talk about play in the Agile vocabulary. We talk about serious games and we talk about different kinds of, you know, work that we do in retrospective that might be playful, but the work itself, if it is approached in an open way, in a playful way, will become joyful work, the kind of work that everyone wants, and after a delay there will be all those metrics that we want to see going up, right? So the idea is, if you want better productivity, let’s take a shot at engagement and than productivity after a delay. So the Open Space meeting is a signal by leaders, that the game has changed and that it is now more open and the previous elephants in the room, that we did not discuss, are now topics for discussion.

Shane: What if we don’t actually make that cultural change, where it is safe to talk about the elephants. Because, you know, I have certainly seen situations where the managers come in and say: “Yes, yes, everything is on the table”. But every person in that room knows, that if you mention the relationship with HR, you are dead.

Yes, yes, so I want to make it really plain. I am now in the experimentation phase with OpenAgile adoption. I don’t have any huge body of case data. I worked with three or four, now five organizations doing this technique. I am getting great results with it. But I am in that spot, where it is experimentation. So now let’s talk about this piece. What if we can’t open the space? That’s a function of leadership’s willingness to open the space. So as a coach, what I do is, that I put them on a test of willingness to use the OpenAgile adoption method. I explain to them exactly what it is, that they are giving and receiving when they engage in this technique. And that becomes kind of a litmus test of just how open it is going to be in this adoption. And if they aren’t willing, I move on to the next progressive company. Yes, and it is OK for the space to be closed. We know that you can do good work around Agile techniques and get 15 to 25% improvement in everything that you are measuring. And for many organizations that’s great. The organizations that want to have an order of magnitude improvement, have to do something different.

Shane: So they have to make that cultural shift.

Right. It is on the premise of hypothesis, that human engagement powered by human beings drives everything. But people power the practises, not the other way around. And you can’t have people powering practises unless they are engaged. So the issue is, how do we exactly engage the folks? And the best way I know now is the Open Space meeting, which is a signal event about openness and about inclusion and about belonging and about not just being bought into the story, but to be literally writing the story and to be located as a character in that story.


8. Ok, so we’ve had this signal event, this meeting. What happens next?

What is supposed to happen next in the canonical form of Open Space, Shane, is proceedings need to be immediately generated to actually punctuate the fact that this meeting happened, that it was real and that it wasn’t a mirage. If you have ever been to an Open Space meeting, and those of the listening who know what I am talking about, you have a warm feeling about the organization and the people in it.

Shane: Oh yes.

And it is a high moment. It is a little bit crazy actually, right, about how good it can feel. And than the next day we might actually feel recoil. So Jim McCarthy, you know the core protocols guy, and Michelle McCarthy they talk about recoil. When you have a peak moment emotionally, you might not feel worthy, you might feel like it never happened, like it was a dream or something. So the proceedings make it real, because it is a physical artefact in the here and now that comes forward. And it is also a bridge between what we would call the dialog phase, which is the Open Space meeting, and the action phase, which is after the meeting. Those proceedings come forward and than they become literally actionable. And now it is on the leadership to actually do what they say they wanted, which is get a healthy and well, rapid and lasting adoption, by moving on those action items, that the people closest to the work said, need to happen for us to move forward.

Shane: OK, so if those action items aren’t followed up on, it just dies.

It just dies. And the proceedings punctuate the fact, that it really happened and here are the action steps and what are we doing about it.

Shane: Dan, thanks so much for talking to us. I look forward to our next conversation.

Thank you very much, Shane.

Dec 03, 2013