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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Why Good Agile Adoptions Go Bad

Why do good Agile adoptions go bad? The reason is very simple.

Someone or a group of people with enough authorization decide to create a genuine Agile adoption. And they do.

They create a “space” where it is safe to tell the truth, to say what you feel & think. Safe space.

The result is absolutely awesome Agile. Big “A” Agile. Loads of group learning is the result.

Shortly after that, great business results ensue.

This goes on for awhile.

Then, most of the people who created it, the highly authorized “champions”… the people with enough authorization to create this “space” and keep it “open” and “safe” ….they leave the company.

For any one of several reasons.

Then everything unravels.

What is the solution?

This is a riddle.

The answer to the riddle is found inside the book SPIRIT: Development and Transformation in Organizations. An amazing book. From an amazing author, Harrison Owen.

The book is a free gift; you can download it for FREE. Right now.

If you examine this book carefully, you can solve this Agile riddle…and many more.

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SPIRIT: Development & Transformation in Organizations

Open Agile Adoption is a technique for success with Agile. It is an approach that encourages (and in some ways makes obvious) what it takes to get a rapid and lasting Agile adoption. Open Agile Adoption uses Open Space Technology as the primary tool for achieving this goal.

Open Agile Adoption is a sociological approach to Agile adoption. It is not a set of Agile practices but rather, a tool for “opening space” for the right conversations. It assumes people power Agile practices, not the other way around. Open Agile Adoption is based on the hypothesis that people need and require a sense of control and sense of progress to feel good at work and in life generally. It assumes that people want to (and in fact need to) express what they want, think and feel. Open Agile Adoption leverages the Open space meeting format to deliver a sense of control and to create a safe and open place for people to bring the very best they have to the task at hand.

We all want rapid and lasting Agile adoptions. At issue is exactly how to do this. We know the current practices-based approach of mandating specific practices is probably harmful. All we have to do is inspect the results to see what I am talking about.

Spirit: Up… or Down?

Harrison Owen has written many books on Open Space. When I was first forming my ideas on Open Agile Adoption, I started Googling around and eventually I came across an absolute gem of a book called SPIRIT: Development and Trasformation in Organizations by Harrison Owen. Not only is this book amazing, but it is also FREE for the taking as a PDF download.

In this book I picked up many interesting and useful ideas. It’s over 200 pages so stop right here if that’s too long for you to commit to. This is a deep and dense book. When I examined it I found that my pattern was to read maybe 10 pages and then try to integrate them. I went along this step-by-step way for quite a while the first time around. I’ve read the book 3 times and I still find myself reading it in this manner. It’s deep and wide, like a big, old river.

Here are some of my key takeaways from this book. Some are covered in the book, others are personal insights derived from a careful reading of it:

  • The spirit in an organization can be ‘up’ or ‘down’.
  • The culture is in the stories people tell. You an plot the culture in graphical form, using a mythograph.
  • All change is grief. People enter into a grief pattern which includes anger and (especially) denial.
  • Open Space can tip a group of people from denial to hope in one shot, if and when they are ready to move
  • Open Space can provide just the right set of conditions in time and space to create action and movement in the minds of participants
  • The entirety of reality is self-organizing. This means all social systems are self-governed.
  • Leadership is a essential function of a healthy social system. It is an emergent property of a smooth-functioning self-organizing system. The social system supplies leadership to itself. Leadership is not a role.
  • Likewise, management (of feedback) is essential and a self-supplied function of a social system. Management is a function, not a role.
  • All change is grief. All learning is change. Therefore, all learning has at least the potential for some grief. One (familar) way of thinking is dead or dying; another, largely unfamiliar…is being born. Something is dying while something else is being born.
  • Facilitators of development and transformation in organizations are servants. They serve a group of people in the here and now, in pursuit of the group’s aims. Facilitating this process is about serving other people. Without a heart of service, you have no shot at being helpful in this context.

Where’s The Book Review?

You might have started reading this post looking for a book review. I am not providing one here.

Instead, I offer you an opportunity. SPIRIT is a difficult book to read. Give it a look.

It’s not for everyone. That said, this book unlocked many mysteries for me. The focus on self-organization and the self-organizing universe helped me to understand the nature of both social systems (in general) and the specific dynamics of change in organizations. And so, the opportunity is to give it a serious look if you like what I am saying.

One of the biggest takeaways for me are the dynamics of grief that are evident when change is introduced to an organization, be it a team, department or entire enterprise. The hypothesis that all change produces grief is an extremely powerful and useful idea. If you sit with this concept for a while, you may find yourself questioning the wisdom of your current approach to Agile adoptions.

And so I invite you to examine this book. Will you examine it?

I do believe a careful and thorough reading of SPIRIT is a very leveraged use of time for any serious student of Agile coaching. For practitioners of Open Agile Adoption, a complete and careful reading of this book is required. That’s because the thinking, tools and techniques found in the SPIRIT book are informing the entire Open Agile Adoption approach.

We all want rapid and lasting Agile adoptions. The Open Agile Adoption technique (OAA) can help. The OAA technique is drawing deeply from the book SPIRIT by Harrison Owen. It’s an amazing and even essential book for any person who is serious about achieving a rapid and lasting Agile adoption. In a very real sense the book SPIRIT by Harrison Owen, first published in 1986, is the first (and perhaps the only) book written on how to achieve a rapid and lasting Agile adoption.

I have written this book for friends and colleagues, known and unknown, who find themselves in the midst of a transforming world, and are resolved  to look beneath the surface to the underlying source of change. This source, which has become manifest in the form and structure of our organizations, I call Spirit. – Harrison Owen, Prologue, SPIRIT: Development and Transformation in Organizations. (Circa 1986)

Related Links:

[1] SPIRIT Book: (PDF link)

[2] Open Agile Adoption technique (link)

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Tribal Leadership: Is It a Game?


The book TRIBAL LEADERSHIP lays out 5 stages of culture. The 5 stages are basically stories that people tell themselves…and others.





Here are the 5 progressive stories:

  • Life Sucks
  • My Life Sucks
  • I’m Great!
  • We’re Great!
  • Life is Great!

What I have come to realize is that the content of this cultural self-talk is related to games.

Games have 4 properties:

  • A goal/set of goals
  • Rules
  • Ways to get feedback on progress
  • Opt in participation (you can opt-out)

My current belief is that the 4th property, “opt in participation”, is an absolutely huge factor. It is highly correlated with levels of joyfulness, satisfaction, feelings of well-being, and overall life quality.

When you are forced to play a game, it is almost never fun.

When you opt-in to play a game, things get interesting!

Here is a summary of what I think is going on with these stories. These five stages of TRIBAL LEADERSHIP are actually stories and related self-talk, and are actually about the ability to make choices, about game structure, and about control, progress, belonging and meaning:


TL Stage Your Story The GAME connection
Stage 1 Life sucks! I’m forced to play games I do not want to play and/or do not understand. I have no options. I have absolutely no sense of control.
Stage 2 My Life Sucks! Some people play enjoyable (opt-in) games, but I don’t. I’m forced to play and cannot opt out. I get it, yet I have a low sense of control and almost no sense of progress.
Stage 3 I’m Great! I’ve figured out how to win. Further, I now define MY game, and now you have to play it. You ARE playing it! I’m now in control & now making great progress!
Stage 4 We’re Great! I opt-in to play a bigger, cooperative, goal-seeking game, with others. I now have a sense of belonging.
Stage 5 Life is Great! I opt-in to play a bigger, cooperative goal-seeking game, with others. And this time, we play big and intend to change the world. I now have a sense of higher purpose.



In my book THE CULTURE GAME, I explain the concepts and facilities available to create a good-game structure at work, a game where the enjoyment is so great that the distinction between work and play is minimal.

My current belief is that we are not nearly focused enough on using know-how about game mechanics to debug the problems we face at home, and work and in the wider world.

Culture, as it turns out, is a game.

Jane McGonigal gets it right: Reality IS Broken. And Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh also gets it right in his book, DELIVERING HAPPINESS: we all want to experience a sense of control, a sense of progress, a sense of belonging, and a sense of higher purpose and meaning. Good games deliver substantial happiness. The 5 stages of culture as described in the book TRIBAL LEADERSHIP do appear to confirm this hypothesis.


The Relationship to Effective Agile Adoptions

Agile adoptions are typically implemented as a mandate. This is acceptable so long as leadership sets out the clear direction and stops short of mandating specific practices. My current hypothesis, which appears to be valid based on experience, is:

  • Mandates of practices in an Agile adoption amounts to a game without the essential opt-in feature
  • People have needs. The mandate quickly reduces the feelings of control, progress, and belonging that are basic human needs
  • Resentment and disengagement are the natural and predictable results;
  • Disengagement is death to any attempt at a rapid and lasting Agile adoption.

The solution? Check in on what people want, what people think and what people feel BEFORE embarking on the journey of Agile adoption in your company. Open Agile Adoption is one way to do that.



For a deeper dive into these concepts, you might consider taking a look at these resources:

Blog Post: How Games Deliver Happiness And Learning

Blog Post: Open Agile Adoption

Audio Book, absolutely free download: Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan and co-authors










Mandated Agile, Part 2

I have a lot of heat around how Agile gets implemented in typical organizations. I’ve been ranting about the evils and oxymoronic nature of mandated collaboration [1]. Let me explain.

When I say mandated collaboration, I mean the prescription of both Agile adoption and specific practices.

I am clarifying my messaging here: naming a clear Agile direction is OK. However, stop right there. Prescribing practices as non-negotiable mandates and prescriptions is not OK, precisely because it kills engagement, the very fuel of progress….

…businesses are facing all kinds of pressures. The pace of change, driven by technology, is speeding up. So not just lots of change, but the velocity of change itself is intensifying. This is making is essential for enterprises to become highly adaptive. Right away. This means lots of group/team/org learning or what I call Tribal Learning has to be taking place all the time. AGILE CAN HELP.

So: when I say mandated collaboration [1] is dumb, I am NOT saying mandating an Agile direction is dumb. FAR FROM IT. This is exactly what leadership needs to do.

Leadership actually needs to do several things:

  • Explain the business case for Agile. Explain the challenges the business is facing in terms of competition, pricing pressure, obselete products etc
  • Make it clear the enterprise is heading into an Agile journey– an epic adventure. This part is not optional.
  • 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 at the start is an experiment, and is optional, and going to be inspected, and is not set in stone. For example, if the org is giving Scrum a try, it is an experiment, and subject to inspection. If an off-the-rack practice like Scrum cannot be tailored and customized to fit well, it will be THROWN OUT 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 progress [2]. Prescribing practices makes no allowance for what people want, what people think, and what people feel. It reduces engagement and causes people to check out and disengage.

So leadership makes it plain we are moving into an Agile stance as a company. So far so good. Next: Leadership then frames the initial use of ANY practice as an experiment, one that will be inspected for usefulness and effectiveness in service to the stated aims of the Agile adoption.

This is the exact opposite of what usually happens. Usually, the following happens, usually after a small pilot test of Agile with a small team:

  • Authority says we are going Agile
  • Authority says we are doing Scrum, or Kanban, of SAFe, or some other method. The message is that this is not negotiable.
  • A coach is selected by authority on the basis of expertise with the prescribed practices. Typically, Scrum skills. The coach is imposed on the people, just like Scrum.
  • Workers are triggered to disengage by the experience of a low sense of control and progress. They learn that the goal is fuzzy, the rules are fuzzy, the way we track progress is vague. Participating is not opt-in. The Agile adoption is not an enjoyable game because there is no opportunity to opt-in, because it’s not an invitation. Far from it. Agile and Scrum (for example) are a mandate and a prescription.

Folks, this is at best misguided. I’ve explained why in previous posts [1].

It kills engagement, the very fuel of a rapid and lasting Agile adoption.

The good news is, we can prescribe and mandate Agile without mandating collaboration. Leaders can frame the move to Agile as a necessary direction, and then invite everyone to bring the very best they have into the game, and help write the story. Authority can and must frame Agile practices as trials, and as experiments, which is code for saying that initial practices are not prescriptions from authority, and that everyone gets a hearing and will be asked what they want, think and feel about the experience of using of specific practices.

If we do not do this, we can expect the very poor results so-called Agile adoptions are getting after 12 months, 18 months, 24 months. The role of the coach is huge here. We need to stop being party to mandated Agile practices, and…

“Build projects around motivated (opted-in) individuals, give them the environment (the safe space) and support (the authorization) they need, and trust them to get the job done. [4].”

Related Links:

[1] Mezick, Daniel J. Mandated Collaboration: The Recipe for Botched Agile Adoptions. Blog Post. (link)

[2] Mezick, Daniel J. How Games Deliver Happiness. Blog post. (link)

[3] The Agile Manifesto Principles. Web page. 5th item listed. (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