Open Agile Adoption: Why It Matters Now

This is a note to organizational leaders and my friends in the Open Space community, folks who want to bring Open Space to every organization that is stuck, and every organization that needs help in getting movement towards a more open culture, whether they actually know it– or not.

Open Agile Adoption and the Current (Uninviting) Workplace

Lifeless work with no meaning is a recipe for depression or worse. We all seek meaningful connection to each other, and our work. An inviting workplace connects us to the work… and each other. People all over the world are signaling that they are not longer willing to tolerate an uninviting workplace.

Creating an inviting workplace is a game. The best move now is to exploit any available entry points.

Where are these opening located?

A perfect and readily available entry point is the now-mainstream adoption of Agile software development methods. The perfect tool for cracking open the world of work is Open Space. By using Open Space meetings inside mainstream Agile adoptions, we can crack it wide open. This is because the Open Space meeting format is super-effective at generating engagement. Open Space meetings, as used in the Open Agile Adoption method, are attended by many key business people who are patrons and sponsors of IT. My experience doing numerous Open Space events inside Agile adoptions shows that from 50 to 65 percent of the attendance is business people with some connection to information technology.

Does that shock you? What might this mean?

These are the facts:

  • Organizations need IT to be more responsive, and correctly look to Agile adoption as a solution
  • Most Agile adoptions are far from robust. That’s the polite way to say it. The way these Agile adoptions are currently implemented does not produce rapid and lasting improvement. Many Agile adoptions are train wrecks.
  • Agile is going mainstream even as traditional ways of implementing Agile are producing marginal-at-best results on a repeatable basis
  • Open Agile Adoption (OAA), based on invitation (instead of mandates) creates at least the potential for much more robust Agile adoptions.
  • OAA is built upon the Open Space meeting design, a design that optimizes increasing levels of engagement.
  • Business people connected to the IT department attend the Open Space meetings via the Open Agile Adoption technique. These people can and carry back very positive and uplifting stories about what is going on in IT into the wider organization as a whole. They will carry and spread the open culture/ Open Space meme.

Open Space Small
This is the secret leverage point: once the business people experience the inviting vibe of Open Space and the good results that can come from a rapid & lasting Agile adoption, the cat is out of the bag.

The horse is out of the barn.

The genie is out of the bottle!

The wider conversations that need to be taking place actually start happening. Beyond the IT department!

The business people who attend tell very positive stories about that meeting.

Open Agile Adoption (OAA) with Open Space is the technique to help you make this happen.

OAA is a tactic in a wider strategy, a means to an end.

Our cover story is that OAA is about Agile adoption, when in fact Agile adoption is actually about cultural change.

Therefore, OAA is about igniting the start of enterprise-wide cultural change, starting in the IT department.

This is where it starts!

OAA addresses the crisis in IT, and the now-mainstream adoption of Agile methods, to usher in a new era of openness in organizations, using the IT crisis as an opportunity, and using Open Space to address it.

If We Cannot Do It Here, It Ain’t Gonna Happen

Now, what this means is very simple: if we cannot successfully bring Open Space into the huge opening created by failed Agile adoptions, it is unlikely any headway can be made whatsoever.

Agile has gone mainstream. Meanwhile, the crisis of weak and failing Agile adoptions represents a huge opening to bring in a new way of implementing Agiity. If we cannot exploit this opening, we probably have NO SHOT at bring more openness into the wider enterprise as a whole. We need to execute well in Agile adoptions if we are to have any shot at the enterprise as a whole.

On Wider Ambitions

We need to do this in steps. I’ve been talking to people who want to just flip some kind of switch, skip the 1st 10 steps, and change the world with Open Space. That just is not going to happen until and unless we are able to routinely get good results using Open Space in the obvious opening: the crisis of failed Agile adoptions. Which is occurring just as Agile itself is going mainstream!

We need to recognize this wave, and ride it.  Harrison Owen’s book Wave Rider pretty much spells this out. We need to identify the waves, and ride them.

If we can routinely improve weak and failing Agile adoptions with the Open Agile Adoption technique, the Holy Grail of enterprise-wide transformation (with Open Space) might be within reach. But: if we fail in using Open Space to successfully reform the way Agile adoption is currently done, we have NO SHOT at the enterprise.

For typical organizations with soul-sucking culture, Open Agile adoption with Open Space represents our best step now for beginning a wider process. A wider process of creating rapid and lasting enterprise-level change beyond software.

To be clear: the OAA technique is a tactical play, and a mere means to an end. It is the right way now, to get the right conversations going, across an entire enterprise. OAA has the potential to reliably and repeatedly bring rapid and lasting change into IT departments in organizations around the world.

Agile adoption as currently practiced gets very weak results, because culture change is hard. Open Agile Adoption represents a different approach: a people-first approach based on invitation… using Open Space. As such, it has the potential to get much better results than current approaches are getting.

It is very hard to argue with great results.

There is an Agile adoption wave. We can get on, and ride it. Right now.

Open Agile Adoption with Open Space is the way to get on.


Related Links:

Open Agile Adoption Home

Open Agile Adoption Explained

Deviation from the Norm

Wave Rider (book) by Harrison Owen









The Open Agile Adoption Handbook

The week of September 09, I finished the first version, version 0.90 of THE OPEN AGILE ADOPTION HANDBOOK. I later announced that the 1st public update, version 1.1, would be available on Amazon not later than January 22.


The new ship-date is 2/22/2014…because a bunch of good things are happening:

  • I’m working with super-progressive clients who are getting amazing traction with this. Since actual implementations are the name of the game, this is a priority
  • I am receiving experience reports (stories) from other coaches who are using it and getting great results. We can all benefit by seeing some of these stories in the book
  • I have received absolutely amazingly insightful questions from coaching colleagues and friends from all over the world. We can all benefit from the questions and answers being in the book in the form of a FAQ section
  • I want to update the existing diagrams and add some new ones, as well
  • The book needs that final fit and finish in terms of editing, back and front cover etc


I’ll probably be able to complete the print and Kindle versions before 2/22/2014. For now, you can visit the Open Agile Adoption web pages and also investigate these pre-release video previews of some of the book which are published on

  • Making Meetings More Effective with Opt-In Participation (link)
  • On OAA with Open Space (link)
  • On Creating Communitas (link)
  • On Engagement: (link)

In addition there are some text-based previews of the book in INFOQ:

  • Better Agile Adoptions (link)
  • Open Agile Adoption: The Exec Summary (link)
  • Open Agile Adoption in Theory (link)
  • Learning and Liminality in Agile Adoptions (link)

These resources can get you started. If you want to use OAA with clients by all means call or email me via and I’ll give you all the help I can by answering your questions, providing guidance etc.


The Open Agile Adoption Handbook

It’s a book you can use to quickly understand, explain and implement Agile using the Open Agile Adoption (OAA) technique. You can learn more about the basics of OAA at

I printed about 300 copies of the 0.90 release of this book and distributed them at public sessions in Paris, Quebec City, Philadelphia, and Boston in 2013. Friends and those who attended keynotes in 2013 received a copy in 2013.

…I need to make it plain: ANYONE can get a rapid & lasting Agile adoption by bringing Open Space into an Agile adoption. And anyone can implement the OAA passage rite and get traction right away. ANYONE can DO IT.

Implementing a passage rite that begins and ends in Open Space brings much higher levels of ENGAGEMENT into your Agile adoption. This is true if you are just starting, or already well into it and experiencing some problems.

Open Agile Adoption is flexible, and works with what you are doing now. It can be used at any time to bring more energy into your Agile adoption.

And it’s simple!

It’s NOT difficult!

The following things have happened since the Sept 2013 Global Scrum Gathering keynote:

  • We have received feedback from readers
  • We have more direct experience implementing Open Space in Agile adoptions
  • We now know that storytelling is 100% essential to any rapid & lasting Agile adoption

In light of the foregoing, the 1.0 version of the book shipping January 22 has the following:

  • A whole new section on storytelling, with some help from my friends who have passion around storytelling (namely, Michael Margolis and Oana Juncu)
  • A detailed FAQ on OAA with questions from super-knowledgeable coaches and Open Space facilitators (namely Shyam Kumar and Diane Gibeault)
  • New content to how to implement OAA inside in-flight and troubled Agile adoptions

I am very grateful for the help of the people mentioned above. Without the help of the following people, the whole idea of introducing [invitation] into Agile adoptions has no legs. I am grateful for the help of the the following people in getting this work to the DONE state…the list is in alpha order by last name:

Daigle, Suzanne

Elssamadisy, Amr

Fink, Ralph

Gibeault, Diane

Hastie, Shane

Juncu, Oana

Kasperowski, Richard

Kumar, Shyam

Little, Joe

Margolis, Michael

Marinescu, Floyd

Östlund, Marie Ann

Owen, Harrison

Peha, Steve

Pernot, Pablo

Petit, Patrice

Richman, Robert

Santillo, Valerie

Seykota, Ed

Warzee, Xavier


I am sure there are others I am missing. Will you please forgive me for missing your name if it does not appear above at the present time, and let me know?

I will add your name as we go along…

…this Open Agile Adoption idea belongs to EVERYONE who has helped make it happen. I am a mere facilitator…

These preview chapters on INFOQ can help you get oriented:


For now, here below is also sample of the book: The Introduction. I hope you like it.






The Purpose of This Handbook

Welcome to the Open Agile Adoption Handbook. The purpose of this handbook is to serve as a handy reference and pocket guide for those who are adopting Agile, or otherwise using the Open Agile Adoption technique to bring strength and vitality to their Agile adoption effort.


Who This Book Is For

This book is for anyone who is interested in creating more rapid and lasting Agile adoptions. The list of people who can best use this book includes company executives, directors, managers, team members, and the consultants and coaches who serve them.


Preparing To Use This Book

This book assumes the following about you:

  • You have a basic understanding of Agile methods, and how they can help your organization
  • You have a basic understanding of the Open Space meeting format
  • You are ready, willing and able to try the Open Agile Adoption technique to improve the results you are getting


About the SPIRIT Book

It is important for all readers to understand that the Open Agile Adoption technique is inspired by the work of Harrison Owen and specifically his book SPIRIT: Development and Transformation in Organizations. That book is a great and mighty work. It is full of keen insights and actionable ideas. The SPIRIT book is of strong interest to anyone who is serious about culture architecture and culture design.

The SPIRIT book is available as a free download, in PDF format. I recommend that you download this book, print it out, and get it into a ring binder so you can mark it up as you read it.

You can find it here:

The back of the book contains a Bibliography of additional books on topics related to Open Agile Adoption; if you are interested in some of the related topics it is a good idea to examine the titles listed there.

If you are seeking training in Open Agile Adoption or additional help in the form of consulting, you can also find that information in the back of the book. You can also learn more at


Why Open Agile Adoption?

Open Agile Adoption is a technique based on invitation, not mandates. A hypothesis of Open Agile Adoption is that mandates reduce engagement, and that invitation and opt-in participation increase it. Another hypothesis of Open Agile Adoption is that engagement is essential for a rapid and lasting Agile adoption, and that Open Space tends to invite engagement and thereby increase it.

Typically, Agile practices are implemented as a mandate. Prescribing practices makes no allowance for what people want, what people think, and what people feel. The prescription reduces engagement and causes the intelligent and creative people who do the work to “check out” and disengage.

Usually, the following pattern is used to implement Agile methods, usually after a small pilot test of Agile with a small team:

  • Authority says we are all “going Agile”
  • Authority says we will be using a specific practice, like Scrum, or Kanban, or some other Agile practice, method, or framework. The message is that this is not negotiable.
  • Authority selects a coach on the basis of his or her expertise with the prescribed practices. Typically, Scrum skills. The coach is imposed on the people, just like the prescribed Agile practices.
  • The people who do the work are triggered to disengage by the experience of a low sense of control and a low sense of inclusion and belonging. They learn that the new game is vague, and participating is definitely not opt-in. The Agile adoption is not an enjoyable game because the game is not well defined, and there is no opportunity to opt-out.

Participation in the typical Agile adoption is not an invitation but rather a mandate and a prescription. This is a recipe for a failed Agile adoption. Recall that a hypothesis of Open Agile Adoption is that mandates reduce engagement, and that invitation and opt-in participation increase it. Also recall that another hypothesis of the technique is that engagement is essential for a rapid and lasting Agile adoption.

The people who create software programs typically have these characteristics, especially compared to the general population:

  • High level of intelligence
  • A tendency to be introverted
  • A self image that includes these stories:
  • “I get paid to solve problems”
  • “I am smart and creative”
  • “I get paid for my technology expertise”

Mandated Agile adoptions tend to be repulsive to the intelligent, problem solving people that do the work. One reason might be that these folks literally love to solve problems, including “process problems”, like “how to implement Agile at our company.” Now, since most of the folks are introverted, if we do not ask them what they think, something really terrible happens: they do not tell us.

Often, the very people who do the work, these problem solvers, have an opinion or an idea that can help. By not asking them for help and instead issuing a prescribed mandate, we miss an opportunity to receive help, and also create the potential for considerable resentment. This is a double-barreled negative outcome.  We miss what might be the very best ideas, and we miss a huge opportunity to engage.

A core hypothesis of Open Agile Adoption is that engagement is essential, and that invitation can increase it.

Instead of issuing a mandate of specific Agile practices, Open Agile Adoption employs this pattern, based in invitation:

  • Explain the business case for moving in the Agile direction. Explain the challenges the business is facing in terms of competition, pricing pressure, obsolete products etc.
  • Make it clear the enterprise is heading into an Agile direction. Explain that the Agile direction is definite.
  • Invite everyone involved into the process of writing the Agile story. Communicate that leadership does not have all the answers and is looking for the very best ideas people have to make the move to Agile genuine, authentic, rapid, and lasting.
  • Make it plain that everything that is tried as an Agile practice is an experiment, and is optional, and is going to be inspected, and is not set in stone. For example, if the org is giving the Scrum framework a try, it is an experiment, and subject to later inspection. If an off-the-rack practice like Scrum cannot be tailored and customized to fit well, it will be discarded, and we will try something else that might work. We might even “roll our own” practices, using the Agile Manifesto as our guidance.

By doing it this way, the people doing the work can engage, and have a strong sense of control and of belonging. These are some of the most fundamental building blocks of basic human happiness.


Open Agile Adoption Terminology

The following terms and words are employed in this book, so you might want to take a moment to examine these definitions:

Liminality: A stressful state of being created by transitions. Agile adoptions create liminality.

Passage Rite: A ritual for handling the stress of change inside a culture. Passage rites help handle the liminality created during changes in status.

Communitas: The spirit of community. Open Agile Adoption creates these feelings of belonging and inclusion.

Master of Ceremonies: An essential role in a rite of passage. The person occupying the Master of Ceremonies role during a passage rite functions as a kind of referee, a keeper of “the rules of the game”.

Chapter of learning: In Open Agile Adoption, a unit of organizational learning with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Chapters of learning occur between occurrences of Open Space meetings.

Open Space: A meeting format with a specific structure and containing specific elements. Periodic Open Space meetings are an essential and core aspect of Open Agile Adoption.

Open Space Proceedings: Documentation of the events contained within an Open Space meeting. Proceedings contain a summary of the events in words, diagrams, and pictures.

Open Space Sponsor: A person in the organization with enough authorization to convene an Open Space meeting of at least one day in duration.

Open Space Facilitator: In the Open Space meeting format, a person authorized by the Sponsor to assist in the execution of the meeting. Open Space facilitators help to create an atmosphere of openness and “hold the space” open throughout the Open Space meeting event.

Coach or “Agile Coach”: A person hired by the organization to assist in the implementation of Agile methods and practices.

Beginning Open Space: In Open Agile Adoption, an Open Space meeting that begins or opens a Chapter of learning.

Ending Open Space: In Open Agile Adoption, an Open Space meeting that completes and terminates a Chapter of learning.

Leveling Up: In the gaming community, the term is used to describe a change in level or status in the game. “Leveling up” means progressing or graduating to a new level of competence.

With these terms and words introduced, we can now examine Open Agile Adoption concepts and facilities.










Open Agile Adoption Explained

The following is a brief executive-level summary of the Open Agile Adoption process.


Skip to short video interviews from people who have DONE this


Open Agile Adoption (OAA) is a repeatable technique for getting a rapid and lasting Agile adoption. It works with what you are currently doing, and can be added at any time. It incorporates the power of invitation, Open Space, passage rites, game mechanics, storytelling and more, so your Agile adoption can take root. A hypothesis of Open Agile Adoption is that increases in engagement drives increases in productivity, after a brief delay. The purpose of Open Agile Adoption is to increase levels of engagement on the part of everyone involved.


The core concept of OAA is the rite of passage, or “passage rite”. A passage rite is a cultural event (and a kind of social game) that helps people who have membership make sense of complex social transitions. Agile adoptions are complex social transitions.


These are the key events in the passage rite:


1/ The Opening: An Open Space meeting

2/ The Middle: With experimentation, play, and storytelling

3/ The Closing: An Open Space meeting



 Figure 1: The Open Agile Adoption Timeline; the Rite of Passage view


OAA implements a formal rite of passage of several months duration, which begins and ends with an optionally attended Open Space meeting. In between, in the middle, all work is framed as experimentation. It is framed as playful experimentation that will be inspected by everyone involved, in several months, at the ending Open Space event. In other words, in the middle phase, the teams are encouraged to “play” with specific Agile practices, and to “suspend disbelief”  and “act as if” these Agile practices can actually work.

During this phase they are reminded that another Open Space meeting is planned and that everyone is invited to attend,  and most importantly, to speak their mind.


The beginning and ending Open Space events are essential, and form the containing structure. This structure has clear boundaries and helps to reduce the anxiety generated by cultural change.


Inside the middle phase of the passage rite between the two Open Spaces, additional components of Open Agile Adoption are used. An Agile coach functions as the master of ceremonies throughout. Executive storytelling is employed frequently, to help define what is happening and to remind everyone about the goal of continuous learning. Game mechanics are used to help convey clear goals, rules, feedback mechanisms, and reiterate that participation in the Agile adoption game is optional.


This last point is essential: Open Agile Adoption is a technique based on invitation, not mandates. A hypothesis of Open Agile Adoption is that mandates reduce engagement, and that invitation and opt-in participation increase it. Another hypothesis of Open Agile Adoption is that engagement is essential, and that Open Space helps to increase it.


The end of the passage rite is punctuated with an event: the closing Open Space meeting. This closing meeting is the formal end-point in a “chapter of learning” in the life of the organization. It is also the opening of the next chapter.


In Open Agile Adoption, the coach assisting you plays an important role by providing guidance and teaching. The closing Open Space meeting is the place where the role of the Agile coach changes. At the closing the role of the coach must change. The coach may exit the organization, or move away from coaching teams and towards coaching executives. A new coach may replace the current coach. In any event, the status and authority of the coach must decrease. This reduction in coach status (and coach authority) is practical and symbolic.


In practical terms, the organization is now thinking much more independently, and is much more responsible for it’s  own learning. In symbolic terms, this change in coach status is essential, and emphasized throughout the passage rite process, to underscore the fact that the organization is in fact making progress towards actually weaving (integrating) Agile ideas into the cultural fabric of the organization. This progress is taking place with less and less reliance on the coach, with more and more self-reliance coming from the organization itself.

Cultural Integrations

The last aspect of Open Agile Adoption is the twice-yearly Open Space meeting event. Held in January and July, these events are important and essential. They are anticipated by the organization as a whole, and serve as a place of cultural initiation for new hires.


 Figure 2. The Open Agile Adoption Timeline; Annual View.


By instituting these recurring cultural events on the organization’s calendar, the risk of dependency on any one leader is greatly reduced and might even be eliminated. So long as policy authorizes the Open Space events on the January and July calendars, Agile is integrated into the company culture and is not leaving anytime soon.


A typical failure pattern in the adoption of Agile occurs when a highly authorized sponsor and progressive leader exits the company. The ‘safe space’ necessary to do Agile well departs with him or her. By instituting these recurring, twice-per-year Open Space events, the process of Agile transformation can and will continue, regardless of who is currently occupying the formally authorized leadership roles.


In the final phase, the organization moves to mastery. In this phase the culture is open, and being in the culture feels like being in an Open Space meeting.  In the open culture, the organization values and understands how to sense and respond. When this phase arrives, the Open Space meetings are no longer scheduled on a regular cadence. Instead, Open Space events are arranged as needed.

Only a few enterprises actually reach this phase.


Skip to short video interviews from people who have DONE this


Related Posts:

On Invitation

On Liminality

On Communitas

On Passage Rites

On the book, “SPIRIT: Development and Transformation in Organizations”











On Communitas

Agile adoptions thrive on strong feelings of communitas. Communitas is “the spirit of community”. When the spirit of community is “up”, the space is open, and the feeling of communitas is strong. When the spirit of community is “down”, the space is closed, and the communitas is weak.

And you know exactly what I am talking about. If you love going to work, the spirit is “up”. If you cannot wait till Friday, the spirit is “down”.

With respect to Agile adoptions, communitas is essential. It comes from clearly understood and uniformly applied rules. It comes from a sense that everyone is engaged. It comes from a sense that we are going through this together.

During Agile adoptions, everyone is being triggered. What is my role? What are the rules? When does this end? What does this mean for my status in the group? Executive leaders are triggered. Managers are triggered. Team members are triggered. A new game with new rules is stressful. In a no-mans land of new rules, new roles and unfamiliar ways of working, is it any wonder Agile adoptions routinely fail?

Passage rites can help generate communitas– the very spirit of community. Cultural anthropology says that people going through a passage rite do in fact have the same status during the passage. Participants have widely varied status, going in.

Then the communitas kicks in: all are coming from a known place, and going to an unknown place. All of them make the difficult and even dangerous passage, together. And after it is over, all have changed from what they were, to what they now are. Passage rites can help manage the liminality of transition.

Passage rites are intentionally designed cultural experiences. Repeat: intentionally designed cultural experiences. They are cultural-experience designs. Passage rites are designed to create feelings of community.

Agile adoptions generate a steady stream of stressful liminality, because the learning in Agile is constant. “Continuous improvement” is the goal. That generates a ton of stress on your culture. Learning is change, and change is stressful because it produces liminality. The passage rite is a cultural device for managing liminality.

Passage rites bring communitas, and communitas brings comfort. All the participants going through the passage rite experience a beginning, a middle, and an end. They experience it together. As a community. As a tribe.

This structuring of the unstructured is very comforting, and reduces worries– and stress. Passage rites are extremely useful devices for helping you obtain a rapid and lasting Agile adoption.

Open Agile Adoption is a repeatable technique for getting a rapid and lasting Agile adoption. It works with what you are currently doing, and can be added at any time. It incorporates the power of invitation, Open Space, passage rites, game mechanics, storytelling and more, so your Agile adoption can take root.

Related Links:



Passage Rites

Open Agile Adoption

Back to Open Agile Adoption home















What’s Your Open Space Story?

As you may know, I am grateful and honored to be keynoting the Global Scrum Gathering on September 24 in Paris France.

The theme of the conference?!? CULTURE.

It’s sold out! However, you can expect to receive lots of  news after the event. People will be Tweeting there in a big way. You can learn more about the event via this link.

Now: Have you, or has ANYONE you know, used Open Space in some way inside an Agile adoption? ANY Agile adoption, EVER? If so, I am very keen to learn more.


What’s Your Story?

If you have a great story, I am here to help you TELL it. If you have a great story, I am eager to tell the world about it, at the Global Scrum Gathering on September 24 in Paris France. The use of Open Space in Agile adoptions is an idea whose time has come.

The Paris Scrum Gathering event is the place where the party gets started!


The Facebook Group

Story or no story, if you are a fan of Open Space, you are invited to join the Open Agile Adoption group on Facebook. Here the link:

Explore (and maybe join) the Open Agile Adoption group on Facebook

This group is set up as the place for all of us to post questions, provide answers, post case data and experience reports, tell stories, innovate, and have fun learning with others, in service to rapid and lasting Agile adoptions using Open Space.


Tell Me Your Story

Do you have a great story about using Open Space in your Agile adoption? Please consider posting it to the Facebook group, and contacting me if you are interested in having me tell the world about your experience.

Interested? You can find ways to reach me (email, phone, etc)  at:


Related Links:

Description of the Paris Keynote

Open Agile Adoption Facebook Group (anyone can join)

Open Agile Adoption Explained

Back to Open Agile Adoption home











People, Then Practices

There is quite a stir these days about enterprise Agile frameworks. There’s a sudden rash of them with various names: Disciplined Agile Delivery, Scaled Agile Framework, and so on.

Any set of practices is fine, including those named above, assuming the people who actually do the work are choosing to use them, and they are not imposed.

So says Martin Fowler, in 2006, in the essay, “Agile Imposition” [2]:

“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. Written 2006, the “Agile Imposition” blog post

Question: Have we asked the folks who do the work what they actually think? No, we have not. Instead, we routinely accept the idea that issuing a mandate can work to motivate highly intelligent, creative, problem-solving knowledge workers.

Has this actually ever worked well?

The poor results of imposing a mandate are predictable. I’ve described this previously in the essay, Mandated Collaboration [1]. That essay is based on thinking that Martin Fowler explained in 2006 in his essay, “Agile Imposition”.

At the time, apparently no one was listening:

“Imposing an agile process from the outside strips the team of the self-determination which is at the heart of agile thinking.” -Martin Fowler, Agile Manifesto signatory. Written 2006, the “Agile Imposition” blog post


We Are Done With Mandates

The era of mandating specific Agile practices is probably over.

The new wave is probably based on sociology and invitation, rather than methodologies and mandates.

SAFe, DaD, MOM, YourFramework, Scrum, FrameworkDuJour and Kanban (et al) are all perfectly OK, provided the people who do the work get a legitimate INVITATION to discuss with everyone else….

a) …what the business problems to solve actually are, and
b) …what Agile techniques and tools might actually help, and
c) …what experiments are next, to see what can actually work.

If the folks are invited into that wider conversation, and invited to help write the story about solutions, and invited to experiment, great. Otherwise, WE ARE ISSUING AN AUTHORITATIVE MANDATE which we know does not even remotely associate with anything good, or with anything even remotely Agile.

“… imposing agile methods introduces a conflict with the values and principles that underlie agile methods.” -Martin Fowler, Agile Manifesto signatory. Written 2006, the “Agile Imposition” blog post


We need to be done with mandates. Can we stop right now, please?

Mandate-of-practices is the culprit here– not any one framework. Mandates reduce happiness by eliminating the freedom to choose. No one wants to play the “mandate-game”, precisely because it is not fun [4].

The mandate-of-Agile-practices wave, now over 10 years old, is probably peaking right now. This cresting of the wave may hard to see right now. That said, it is probably quite over. The results are in and they are not great.


The Next Big Wave

The next big wave is based in the sociology of INVITATION. The next wave puts people first, rather than practices.

“You know as well as I do that if the team really doesn’t want to use a methodology, IT WON’T WORK. (emphasis added.) Let them make their own assessment.” -POWER OF SCRUM book, page 31 (page 37 in earlier versions)


OpenSpace Agility

OpenSpace Agility [3] is a sociological technique that uses invitation instead of mandates to get a good and lasting Agile adoption. It focuses on people, THEN practices. It incorporates invitation, Open Space, game mechanics, storytelling and most importantly, a “rite of passage” structure to help actively manage the substantial fear and anxiety that comes with new ways of doing and being.

Any technique you want to use is OK, provided you show respect for the people who do the work. That usually starts with an invitation. If you issue mandates, you are asking for trouble.

If we mandate SAFe, you are asking for trouble.

If we mandate Kanban, you are asking for trouble.

If we mandate Scrum, you are asking for trouble.

“[A leader’s] responsibility is to make clear to the team that THEY should be in control of there own work processes, and show them how to do that.” -POWER OF SCRUM book, page 31 (page 37 in earlier versions)

You might be thinking I am off by a mile. If so, realize that these quotes are coming from Agile Manifesto signatories. Just saying !

The OpenSpace Agility technique [3] can be used at any time to improve your Agile adoption results. It can be used with any and all practices and practices frameworks. It’s based on the hypothesis that engagement & good results are correlated, and that ENGAGEMENT is the name of the name.

We can use it for free, get good results now, improve it, and make it better.

We can choose to avoid mandates, because they are in conflict with genuine Agile thinking.

“So I hope I’ve made clear that imposing agile methods is a very red flag. ”-Martin Fowler, Agile Manifesto signatory. Written 2006, the “Agile Imposition” blog post


Let’s focus on people, and then practices. Any set of practices are OK to try… unless we are mandating them.

Related Links:
[1] Mandated Collaboration

[2] Agile Imposition (Martin Fowler)

[3] OpenSpace Agility

[4] Gaming Happiness

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On Passage Rites

Transitions are tough, and serve as a kind of bridge from here to there. Adopting Agile is a big transition that always means lots and lots of new learning. And learning is stressful, because it generates liminality.

(NOTE: If you are new to liminality, please examine this link first.)

All genuine learning in adults creates instability- liminality- until that learning is integrated. The primary way to manage liminality in a social system is to institute a passage rite.

A rite of passage provides a structure. This ritual has a structure that provides a beginning, a middle and an end to a transitional experience. Designing a passage rite is an exercise in experience design.[3] Passage rites contain and thereby reduce the highly destabilizing feelings of liminality. This is important, because liminality causes stress that can lead to all sorts of problems, including deep anxiety, fear, panic, depression and even various forms of neuroses.

When you study passage rites, you learn that they usually include at least one very scary experience. For example: a member of a tribe in Africa going through a passage rite from boyhood to manhood might have to kill a dangerous animal, like a lion or a hyena. You might be wondering if this passage-rite notion is a such a good idea. Do we really want to put people though super-scary experiences?

Here is something to think about: culturally speaking, what comes first: the highly stressful transition, or the passage rite?

Passage Rites for Handling the Liminal State of Being

The highly stressful transition comes first. Passage rites are a cultural response. Passage rites serve to contain the scary experience of transition. They are established by a culture in response to the need for the handling of the highly stressful liminality. The transition comes first; the creation of a passage rite comes later, as a cultural mechanism for defining and smoothing the transition from here to there.

In other words, a passage rite does not produce liminality. Instead a passage rite handles the liminality that shows up during key transitions in the life of the group…and its members.

The stressful and necessary transition- for example, the transition from childhood to adulthood- is present BEFORE a passage rite was instituted.

The primary task of of a passage rite is to help smooth out the stressful liminality created by a transition.

The primary task of an Agile adoption is to produce a cultural transformation. This is a huge transition that in theory never ever ends, because it is focused on continuous learning and improvement.

We currently do not manage this very HUGE transition as well as we might. Passage rites can help.

And that is what Open Agile Adoption is all about.

Key Points:

  • Big transitions in the life of a group produce liminality;
  • Liminality is stressful. It can make you anxious and fearful;
  • Passage rites do not produce liminality, instead passage rites are cultural devices that handle the liminal state of being, so the participants can get through… and go where they need to go.
  • Agile adoptions are transitions and produce considerable anxiety, worry and the liminal state;
  • A formal passage rite– a certain kind of cultural ritual– can help;
  • Open Agile Adoption works because it acknowledges these dynamics, and institutes a rite of passage that helps all the participants in an Agile adoption get from where they are… to where they need to go.

Related Links:

[1] Blog Post: Liminality 

[2] Wikipedia: Passage Rites

[3] Wikipedia: Experience Design

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On Liminality

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 are presumably going, liminality has the potential to drive you and your organization crazy.


Learning and Liminality

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.

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. In my coaching, I notice that 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

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 managed, and the best way to manage it is to institute a passage rite.

The purpose of a passage rite is to manage 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.


Stability in the Liminal State

The hypothesis of Open Agile Adoption is that introducing Agile into typical organizations creates liminality at the group level. If this liminality is managed with a passage rite, there is potential for a rapid and lasting Agile adoption.

The core idea behind Open Agile Adoption is that the active management of liminality reduces worry, anxiety and fear, creating at least the potential for a rapid and lasting Agile adoption. The primary way this is accomplished is by leveraging the ancient practice of the passage rite. A passage rite creates a structured experience for participants….with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Open Agile Adoption is a repeatable technique for getting a rapid and lasting Agile adoption. It works with what you are currently doing, and can be added at any time. It incorporates passage rites, game mechanics, Open Space, storytelling and more, so your Agile adoption can take root.


Related Links:

Quick Overview: Liminality explained

Detailed Essay: Navigating the liminal state

More Information on: Open Agile Adoption

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The Global Scrum Gathering Keynote: Paris 2013

I am grateful to have been invited into (and have accepted) the opportunity to deliver a plenary (keynote) address at the Global Scrum Gathering in Paris, France. The event runs from September 23-25 and the keynote is scheduled for Tuesday, September 24. I am honored to be part of this event with Henrik Kniberg and Dario Nardi, who also are delivering keynote addresses on Sept 23 and Sept 25 respectively.

You can learn about the 2013 Global Scrum Gathering in Paris here. If you click the [Keynotes] tab and then the right-arrow, you can examine the three keynotes, including the description of my talk.

I also list it here, for your convenience:

Open Agile Adoption 
The Agile journey may be best characterized as a rite of passage. Those who are taking the next step always do so as a group. During the journey, all the participants share the same basic status. Successful participants find themselves in a new and very unfamiliar place. And lastly, anyone who wants to complete the journey must also be willing to leave many things behind.

  • In tribal societies, passage rites from start to finish are facilitated and in fact led, by a “master of ceremonies.” What has changed?
  • Is the modern journey into agile actually a passage rite… for modern tribes?
  • Is the Scrum Master in fact the master of ceremonies in a modern rite of passage for teams and organizations?

In this session, together we explore the surprising answer. We also explore how to specifically leverage Open Space as a tool for helping to create authentic and lasting Agile adoptions.

I plan to explain Open Agile Adoption, an approach to implementing Agile that I have developed over a three-year period during which I have coached inside over 20 organizations. I have coached Agile since late 2007 and began experimenting with new approaches in 2009. At that time I noticed how some very intelligent people became disengaged during Agile adoptions. I began to ask why.

I began experimenting with the use of Open Space to help encourage more engagement, in service to rapid and lasting Agile adoptions. These Open Space experiments  generated some very surprising results. I’m grateful to the many organizations in and around Boston that have allowed me to experiment with sociological approaches to solving the Agile adoption puzzle.

Sociology First, THEN Practices

For my part, I value practices…because sound practices are very important. Yet solid, sound practices implemented with disregard to what people want, what they think and what they feel is, at best, misguided. It tends to generate disengagement.

I have learned the hard way, through experience, that the people who do the work are telling themselves a story. And that story is:

  • I get paid for thinking, and
  • I get paid for solving problems, and
  • I get paid for being creative.

That’s the story. This is one reason why it is essential to value sociological factors: if we mandate specific practices, the thinking and the problem-solving and the creativity that people bring to work is suddenly dampened. Squelched. Discouraged. Even killed off. Further, and more importantly, any sense of control is diminished. A sense of perceived control is essential for any sense of well-being.

Result: The prescription of specific practices becomes a topic for resentment…and eventually, disengagement. In my experience, it doesn’t take too long for people to “check out” on mandates and prescriptions. This disengagement is death to any honest attempt to bring improvement to an organization.

In Paris, I plan to tell you the wider story of Open Agile Adoption. The story includes many interesting people…and more than one courageous leader who took a legitimate shot of greatness with their Agile adoptions. I’ll tell the stories, and present several case studies. I’ll also provide a toolkit, free to the world… that anyone, anywhere can use to repeat the Agile adoption results I am getting.

I hope to see you in Paris. If you cannot attend, you can follow the Open Agile Adoption story on Twitter and here on my blog. As we head into September, I’ll explain more and more about the concepts and facilities of Open Agile Adoption. I’ll also explain the specific components, which are firmly rooted in sociology and cultural anthropology. On September 24 in Paris, I’ll present the actual case data and experience reports, and numerous testimonials on video.

More importantly, on September 24 2013, the date of the Paris keynote, I will make available to you and everyone, worldwide, a free, comprehensive, open-source toolkit for implementing a rapid and lasting Open Agile Adoption.

Frank Zappa, the offbeat musical genius, once said: “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” I believe he is correct.

I hope you will join me in learning more and more about the details of the Open Agile Adoption technique, incorporating Open Space Technology, as we head into September. You can stay up-to-date on my writing about it by bookmarking this link.

Deviation From the Norm

It’s obvious that the Agile movement is not producing the kind of transformative results that are entirely possible. If current approaches actually worked well, then by now, thousands of organizations would have reached a state of self-sustaining, “freestanding” agility.

Clearly, that is not the case.

Stories abound about typical failure patterns.  Organizations that seem to start well eventually slide back to waterfall practices. Organizations employing coaches spend millions to obtain a mere 25 to 30% improvement in whatever they are measuring!

And they seem happy with that!

Meanwhile, the Agile-obtainable multiples of 2X, 3X, even 4X improvement in those same measures is not even discussed. It’s just left on the table.

Coaches in some cases are setting up camp for years in large client organizations. Organizations never actually realize the benefits of rapid learning and adaptation that the Agile approach purports to deliver. Clearly current coaching methods are not delivering lasting agility. If they were, we’d be celebrating hundreds– even thousands— of successful and sustained Agile transformations.

Clearly this is not happening.

Yet it’s possible. And almost within reach.

Software development at scale is a very difficult undertaking. The Agile mindset and related principles, patterns and practices can help tremendously. At issue is how to achieve this. What’s clear is that no one knows how to repeatedly generate long-lasting & sustained improvement at scale. How is this actually done? Who actually knows how? As a consulting and coaching community, we have failed to deliver the promise of Agile to our clients and the wider world. We are stuck.

Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible. Frank Zappa (click here for 20 second video)

Without deviation from the Agile coaching norm, Agile progress is simply not possible. Coaching is the leverage point. Something has to give.

We need to throw out current “best practices” in Agile coaching and question everything we are doing. Because what we are currently doing is not creating any lasting progress. If it was, we would all know where to find hundreds, even thousands of case studies that document how organizations are sustaining genuine agility… long after the coaches leave.

The time has come to begin a new story…a new dialogue…a conversation that assumes nothing…and questions everything. A conversation that stops asking “why”…and starts asking “how“. A conversation that focuses on how to minimize coaching days…not increase them. With all due respect to “agile enablement firms” and well-established tools vendors, we need a better way. We need deviation from the norm. We need a new deal for organizations. A deal where they can take a legitimate shot…at rapidly reaching a state of self-sustaining agility…an agility that does not require an army of coaches to be lasting and sustainable over time.

One approach is to focus organizations on principles over practices.  And this is a difficult undertaking. It doesn’t sell well. Practices sell. Organizations and coaches are very happy to begin using practices without grounding them in the principles of the Agile Manifesto. With the practices-first approach, everyone is happy. And it does not last.

Likewise, coaches and client organizations are all too happy to convey way too much authority to external coaches while conveniently sidestepping the difficult business of making sure that the organization itself takes 100% responsibility for its own learning.

We need a principles-first approach that places responsibility for the organization’s learning within the organization itself, not on some external authority named “coach”.

Related Post:

Perfect Agile Coaching

Open Agile Adoption: The empirical path to a rapid & lasting Agile adoption