Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Interviews Dan Mezick – Engagement

Dan Mezick – Engagement


1. This is Amr Elssamadisy at QCon New York 2013, here with Dan Mezick. Welcome, Dan. So, Dan, tell me about some of the things that go wrong with Agile adoptions and how you can help us not go wrong as much as we do these days?

I think if you look at the typical state of the art in Agile adoptions we probably do not have a very high percentage of rapid and lasting Agile adoptions. So, Agile adoptions are slow to take root and then after a little while they tend to decay and go back and backslide to their previous state. So, at issue is - are we recognizing this, number one, and number two is - if we are recognizing it, what are we doing about it as a community?


2. Ok. So, my experience matches yours. I’ve seen a lot of failures and we have some problems with Agile adoptions and being effective and sticky. So, how are you going to help us solve this? What can we learn?

I think when we analyze the situation it all comes down to engagement. There’s a great many inputs into that, but at the end of the day if people are not engaged you can’t have a lasting Agile adoption. So the real question is how can we jack engagement, where are the levers, what are the tools, what are the patterns and practices that will give us what we say we want, which is a lasting Agile adoption. Focusing on engagement I think is the pivotal point.


3. Engagement of what? Engagement of the people on the Agile teams?

Engagement of everyone involved, Amr, including not just the team members, and testers, developers, but also the managers, the sponsors, the business organizations that touch the teams or orbit near them or the teams orbit around them. The entire system needs to have engagement around the Agile game otherwise we won’t be playing it.

Amr: Or we’ll be playing it and not getting any results, just moving through the motions. I see a lot of disengagement. So, go ahead.

Yes. If you look at the idea of disengagement, Gallop has done a poll that indicates that disengagement is a pandemic in the American corporation, and I think they assigned a value over 3 hundred billion dollars annually is up in smoke with the disengaged workforce. So, this is actually a bottom line issue for rational business people throughout America and the world, not just the Agile space.


4. So, this is business, people are disengaged in business. So, how can you help us get more engaged, where can we learn more about engagement and how to make ourselves and our teams and our executives more in?

I think if we look outside of Agile, at what others have done with engagement we can get some very useful tools. So if you look at the computer game community, they have a very special problem right. They can’t test their game until it’s completely built and that’s at an enormous cost, therefore the cost of finding out if you’re wrong is astronomical. It’s a huge risk to create a game. So they try to manage the risk by basically getting the users into a hyper-engaged state, to almost try to addict them. So they have applied positive psychology and other methods to the act of implementing computer games and we find out that a clear goal, a clear set of rules, a good feedback system, that these are essential to a good game and that the fourth property, again this is coming from Jane McGonigal and her book Reality Is Broken, the fourth property opt-in participation is a major input into overall engagement into gaming. Now, if we look at Scrum, we could argue that it is a kind of group game and that we could jack engagement, for example, not just in Scrum but in most aspects of Agility, by inviting people to come and play, to ask them to opt into the activity instead of mandating or prescribing the activity.

Amr: You’re telling me that the folks in the gaming community have figured out through psychology how to make things engaging, almost addictive. We’ve all seen the kids that don’t sleep and play forever.

Right. So let’s imagine if we can create a world where the actual activity of organizational learning is an addictive activity, what would that world look like? If every organization had a 99.99% engagement in the act of organizational learning, we would probably get tremendous results in a very short period of time.

Amr: We’d be much more productive and we’d have fun doing it.

Yes. So an issue is how would we do that.


5. Yes, so I am interviewing you, so how would we do that, how do we get engagement?

Usually, Agile adoptions are mandates. So if the leaders go before the folks and say “we have problems, we are facing serious issues, our market share is declining, our profit margins are decreasing, we need to do something, we think Agile can help. What we need from you is the best you’ve got in writing the story about how we are implementing agility, come and play this game with us as we learn how to implement agility in our company”. That kind of invitation is just a radical redesign of how we do Agile adoptions today, normally Agile adoptions are a mandate and is it any surprise that people are not engaged in what amounts to a mandate?


6. The fact that the way we have done Agile adoptions over the past 15 years or so, has been forced, has been basically “we are going to do this, here, let me teach you how to do it, get on the ball” is causing a lack of engagement?

Yes, it is. So, let’s look at Jane McGonigal’s game definition. She says that a great game has a very clear goal, uniformly applied rules, a great feedback system, and opt-in participation.

Amr: So, Agile has a great feedback system. Yes, it does. Now, if we look for example at Scrum; Scrum has a clear goal, working software. Scrum has clear rules.

Amr: Very, very clear rules and responsibilities. And then it has a great feedback system with the daily Scrum and with the sprint review.

Amr: Correct, and the demo.

It’s a great game at the level of group, what’s missing in the way we implement it is …

Amr: Opt-in is not part of it.

Yes. So this is the piece that’s missing, so when we look at what’s wrong with Agile adoptions it’s usually that we don’t ask the folks what they think and feel before we start.

Amr: So, if we don’t have those four things we aren’t going to get engagement because we don’t have a good game.

Correct. And we know from the financially inspired, financially motivated computer game community that a good game has those four properties.

Amr: Extremely successful, yes, a good game is extremely addictive.

So, we are actually, in some sense, dragging around a huge impediment, a kind of boat anchor by making it a mandate.


7. If I am sitting here listening to this interview online, I’m thinking “alright, I need to get engaged, the missing part of my Agile adoption is opt-in engagement”. How do I do that, do I just go around and ask people “hey, do you want to do it?” What if they say no? It’s kind of scary for managers.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, Amr, and in my book The Culture Game I explain that meetings are games and that great meetings are great games. Now, if you look at Open Space, it is a meeting format and it has a very clear goal in the form of the theme. It has very clear rules in the form of the one law and the five principles and a few roles and a few other things. The whole message of Open Space is come and play. The invitation itself, you are not required to attend. Once you get there you are not required to do anything. The basic boundary or constraint is the theme itself, which is a fairly loose boundary. So folks are able to just go in there and exercise their agency. Now, if we convene an Open Space meeting at the start of an Agile adoption…


8. What do you mean by exercise their agency?

In scientific terms, agency is the exercise of your liberty or your freedom as an independent actor in the system. So social systems are populated with people, people are individuals, they do what they feel like doing and what they are willing to do.

Amr: And that’s certainly true in Open Space, where we can very comfortably and safely do what we want to do.

Right, you just said the s-word, Amr, and safety itself is what Open Space creates. So, when we talk about holding the space, what we really mean is holding the safe space open for the duration of the meeting. So, when that happens at the beginning of an Agile adoption the meeting itself is a kind of signal event that signals to the people that certain conversations are legal from the beginning of this meeting to the end, and oh by the way, then after that we are going to generate proceedings to prove this thing actually happened.

Amr: We’re going to document it.

We’re going to document it and then that documentation becomes a bridge from the meeting dialog to the act of deciding and moving in the direction of addressing and going to work and rolling up our sleeves. So the Agile adoption is served by the Open Space meeting.

Amr: So, what I hear you telling me is, one of the best ways we can do this is before commencing an Agile adoption, we need to get off on the right foot, so to speak, and the right foot is to get opt-in participation.

Yes, because the people who are in an Agile adoption basically come in three broad categories. There’s supporters, who are openly vocal, pro-Agile. There’s tolerators, who have a wait and see attitude, but who kind of come along. And then there’s resistors. So, in my experience in formulating this Open Agile Adoption process using Open Space I have learned that resistors will convert, not all of them, but many, will convert to tolerators and many tolerators will convert to supporters.

Amr: Just by convening the Open Space and giving them the opportunity to choose for themselves instead of having it shoved down their throats.

Yes. And for example, in Open Space you have this butterfly role, they don’t attend sessions, they don’t convene sessions, they are not required to do anything at all. The butterfly is usually found hanging out by the food and the beverages. When people get that message that even if you attend this meeting nothing is imposed on you, something wonderful happens, people start to exercise their agency. There is almost a built in “if you tell me to do this, I’m not doing that”. When you take away that “I’m telling you to do this” people have a wonderful way of showing up and opening up.


10. Or the majority even?

Or the majority even, right. So, actually the reality of this is that we’re engaging in radical honesty in the Open Space, we’re living a better life by telling the truth. So, the whole idea that people aren’t coming, wouldn’t you, as the leader, want to know that sooner instead of later so that you can now inspect and adapt? Isn’t that 10 times better than having people come kicking and screaming with very low levels of engagement and you spend a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand, three hundred thousand, even a million dollars…

Amr: And then throw it on the ground because it doesn’t stick.

And it’s just up in smoke. Wouldn’t you want to know upfront if this is even doable; in Agile don’t we do a viability test of software before we commit to the whole show? Why wouldn’t we do the same thing in an Agile adoption? Let’s sample the sentiment of the people, let’s see what they have to say and let’s inspect that and adjust our plan accordingly.


11. If they don’t want to do it, let’s assume the worst, they don’t want to do it. What you’re suggesting is we come away from that and say “alright, you guys are the experts and we’re just going to back off this Agile thing because you’re uncomfortable doing it”?

No, I am not saying that Agile is an option in an organization. What I am saying is as leaders, and as executives, and as people who write checks, and set the direction of the company… It’s almost like you go in front of the people and you say “we have problems, we think this can help, we’re basically writing an Agile book and we need people to write the chapters because we don’t quite know how to do this. So, do you want to come in and write the story of how we adopt Agile? I invite you to come help us write this story, and please bring the best you’ve got because we need the best ideas on the table from everyone in this organization to pull this thing off and to do it our way.”

Amr: And you still get engagement and you don’t risk the idea of either looking like an hypocrite or not doing Agile, you’re actually doing Agile, but now you’ve engaged everybody to say “ok, help me figure out how to do this in our context, in our organization”.

Yes, and furthermore if we adopt an Agile practice like Kanban, let’s have an attitude of experimentation and if it doesn’t work for us let’s inspect that, adjust, inspect it again and if it still doesn’t work, let’s throw it out and let’s try something else.

Amr: Ok, Dan. So, give us the whole story, put this all together from beginning to end, for us please.

Engagement is the fuel of successful and lasting Agile adoption, if you want to get a rapid, effective and lasting Agile adoption you need to have your people continuously engaged. If you open up the conversation to find out what people think and feel while framing it within a wider context, you have a much better chance of getting an effective Agile adoption and Open Space is the primary tool for doing that.

Amr: Well, thank you so much for sharing this with us, Dan.

Thank you very much, Amr.

Those who want to learn how to do this can find more details and resources at

Jul 19, 2013