Alexandre-Frédéric Joly and I had quite a lot of fun on his Dare Real Agile Business Agility Podcast, covering a lot of ground in a marathon podcast conversation last year. Here are some segments that might add some color to the ideas shared elsewhere in this website.
5:00 – 15:00 How I got here, learnings and biases, connecting agile, open space, turbulence, self-organization and more.
4:00-13:00 – Connecting Open Space (self-orgnanization) and Enterprise Scrum (all-at-once management), the hurdle of visualization, and the natural flow of prioritization, commitment, delivery and retrospective.
15:00 – On lineage, practice and learning for ourselves.
I met Kent Beck, one of the original 17 Agile Manifesto signers and the creator of Extreme Programming, at the Agile/XP Universe conference, the precursor to the Agile Alliance 20XX series of conferences.
One of my favorite memories of the conference is the two of us and some others sprawled on the floor in the middle of the open space circle and Kent peppering me with questions about open space. I remember him in that moment as one of the most intensely focused learners I’ve known. Great fun!
You know what momentum feels like. You can feel it in any group or crowd, that lift, when everyone starts to move together. Facilitating self-organization in open space meetings with hundreds of participants, I learned to navigate by that sensation, in the room and even in the larger conference space.
When I started coaching new agile/scrum teams, what I’d previously applied to a three-day event got stretched out over weeks and months. It’s still self-organization. I’m still inviting people to take direct responsibility for their experience. I’m still inviting and sensing for and wanting to feed that “lift.” But the longer timeline let me refine my sensing and distinguish seven layers of momentum, a continuum of development, each wave building atop the previous ones.
That said, no team or organization builds these momentums in an orderly, linear way. It’s more a shifting of the center of mass, or the center of learning, a kind of pulsation in their learning edge, if you will.
They are presented here in what I think is their naturally arising order, which implies that none can really be skipped over and ignored. Indeed, if we take the example of Scrum and self-organization in software development teams, much of what goes wrong will often be traced back to having skipped the first step: a momentum of good personal experience.
Too often organizations fail to build the kind of momentum necessary for what Scrum focuses on: Learning, Planning, and Delivery. As a result, teams struggle with those and never get to even try for Organization, Customer and Systemic momentum.
So here is what I think it takes to develop great teams and organizations:
A momentum of personal experience. This starts with voluntary self-selection, when people choose to be part of the game, when they feel safe and valued, and when they see the purpose as meaningful. The simplest way to communicate and achieve this momentum is through invitation. We can measure this in terms of engagement, the six criteria, happiness/joy, and so on, but the bottom line is that great work can only be done and sustained by people who CHOOSE for themselves to do that work. Not just when they take the job, but every day. Remember, everyone is fully engaged on their first day of work, and then, too often, it’s all downhill from there.
A momentum of learning (and improving). Once people have some choice, feel safe and valued, they can be honest about gaps. They can suggest improvements without sounding sour. They can dare to experiment and fail. Learning builds confidence for everything else.
A momentum of planning (and refinement). Once teams start learning and improving together, they can be more honest about how much they can do in a cycle, about what they don’t know, about how long things will take. Even if it’s not as fast as they want, at least they know that they’re getting better.
A momentum of (committing and) delivering. Once teams can be honest about what’s possible, and make reliable plans, they can start delivering dependable results.
A momentum of organization. When teams start delivering more and better, and more dependably so, the groups around them take note. The spirit, learning, planning and delivery momentums seep into these groups and challenge them to improve their own work.
Momentum with customers. In software, one of those surrounding groups is often a marketing or sales group that controls access to customers. When they sense the previous momentums building, they more readily facilitate direct connections with customers, so the team can learn even more and faster. And deliver better.
Systemic momentum or… A momentum of momentums. The holy grail. When these various waves start crossing each other, turning up new patterns and opportunities, feeding on each other in virtuous cycles. Or, if you like, the whole system is lifted by the same great swell.
How to use this perspective?
First, start at the beginning. Take care of personal experience. EVERYTHING else always depends on that. Inviting matters.
Then, as the working, learning, planning, etc go on, keep sensing for where the team or organization is on the continuum. What’s their learning edge? What’s their most important obstacle? Tend to that.
In Scrum, for instance, if planning is the breakdown, is it the refining, the sizing, or sprint planning? Again, pick the biggest obstacle and work on that. Identifying, prioritizing and targeting the most important blockers of momentum, just like we’d normally prioritize features to build.
But in my experience, it works this way everywhere. Every team. Every organization. If a team’s not amazing, track your way backward from Systemic, see where things breakdown, and work from the level that precedes it. Build from what’s working, not from the breakdown.
Open Space gets people – and ideas – moving. It’s not uncommon to generate 100+ pages of notes from one meeting. But then what? How to process and work with all of that information? And all of the NEXT info and ideas sparked by what’s in the document itself? How to keep going the learning, working, and spirit high?
First, let’s notice that three kinds of issues typically come out of an Open Space meeting or summit event, particularly those that are long enough to allow for the production of a decent set of notes and some action planning/prioritization time at the end:
Things that got Done, often these don’t show up in the notes. They just happened, everybody saw it, knows it, and they’ve moved on. This includes tacit agreements and alignments that surfaced or got created.
Things that got Started, these are most obvious as Next Steps, where the foundation has been laid and the conversation is moving into actions that are generally pretty clear to everyone.
Things that are still “clear as mud,” not well known or not agreed. These are going to take more conversation. Maybe a whole new, focused, open space meeting. The good news is that now everyone knows how to do it. New gatherings or just new breakouts can be called by anyone, on any issue, with learning, contribution, notetaking and reporting done in the spirit of the original gathering.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the things that get done are often hard to track. The effects are small, many and widely distributed. They just happen. The second group can be identified, managed, tracked and are more likely to be noticed when they move to “Done.” To make progress on the last group (and beyond) requires some attention to sustained practice(s).
Here’s a quick sketch of the sort of process and practice(s) that can keep the most important conversations going and the work advancing from murky to done:
Put all the issues back on the wall, on individual sticky notes.
Sort them, if it makes sense, into clusters or constellations, which might be overlapping
Scan this document for any major themes that might run through many issues but haven’t been surfaced as a specific, issue.
Read this document, as a team, in order of issue priority. Read for actions, large and small. Refine each issue into a set of possible actions.
Begin sorting the actions into the themes, clusters or a canvas (e.g. Enterprise Scrum canvas, Business Model Canvas).
Keep reading, refining and sorting, in priority order – restating or even restarting your overall framework as needed to continue to make sense of what you’re surfacing – until you get EVERYTHING that matters on the wall (even if they’re BIG things).
Prioritize within groupings. Pay attention to synergies and dependencies.
Notice obstacles to be overcome. Add those as additional actions.
Choose a cadence (e.g. bi-weekly, monthly, quarterly cycles) and break actions down into pieces that can (1) deliver some real value and (2) are small enough to be completed in not more than about half of your chosen cycle length.
Start each cycle with identification and commitment to a set of actions that can reasonably be accomplished in just that one cycle. Adjust the commitment, cycle after cycle, until you hit your cycle goal dependably.
After each cycle, review, update and improve the organization of everything on your “board” or wall. Celebrate “done.” Target blockers. Refine large pieces of work into small. Prioritize and re-prioritize based on real value.
Somewhere along the way, consider some strategic coaching, to help refine essential practices, roles and artifacts. Because, simple as these things sound, really easy is often quite difficult, especially across multiple teams or new events.
This must be my most frequently shared bit of OS practice guidance. These rules were developed at University of Kentucky Rural Medical Center and reported by Lloyd Kepferle in Harrison Owen’s Tales from Open Space (pdf).
They are a good reminder that Open Space is not just way to have better meetings, or even better organizations. It’s a better way to BE IN organization with others, if we will make the sort of simple shifts suggested here.
In the last 20 years, especially in pandemic time, they’ve become less strange than when they were first written.
Eliminate constraints on the following:
Who can call a meeting.
The type of problem or opportunity that is being addressed.
The availability of time to have a meeting.
Who may attend a meeting.
The availability of information necessary for a group to work.
Personal empowerment is constrained by the following:
When a problem or opportunity is to be discussed, there must be wide notification of the meeting time and place so that anyone who is interested can attend.
Proposed solutions/ideas must be broadcast widely so that they can be acknowledged as organizational policies, programs, or procedures, or, if they are contradictory to organizational rules, another solution can be sought.
Proposed solution cannot be hurtful to anyone else.
Proposed solutions should channel limited resources so that they have maximum impact on achieving organizational goals.
Accomplishing the work for which people were hired takes precedence over the group work. However, if the right people (those who really care) are involved in any topic, they will find a way to make sure their work is completed and the work of the group is brought to a successful conclusion.
Through these simple (ongoing) practices and procedures, any ordinary organization can transcend (not replace) its old ways of being and include and embody (more fully and consciously) this thing we call Open Space.
This question comes up a lot lately. Here is one instance that came by email, from the shores of the Mediterranean, which gives me the chance to share my reply:
…before the Corona crisis, we were planning an event for the school community, using the Open space method, in order to deliberate the goals of our school in the upcoming years. Now, with all the Corona restrictions, we like to perform the event on Zoom, using the principles & ideas of Open Space. We want to learn from your experience: Has it been done before? Do you have special notes how should we plan and perform it? The event is planed for the second week of July, It will be great help for us to get your thought & recommendations.
Hello, and thanks for your message.
Open Space has absolutely been done online – and it’s really not that different from opening space onsite. We did a “virtual” Open Space on Open Space practitioner’s gathering as early as 2015, with many dozens of people scattered around the world. In the closing, one of the participants told us we should not call such events “virtual” – because it was “real!” Another pointed out that wherever the technology got a little difficult for someone, people stepped in quickly to help. This, we all agreed, was part of what made it feel like real Open Space.
So i’d encourage you to think about the event you were going to have and then simply look for options to do the same functions online. To do online Open Space well, first do Open Space well. See my Inviting Leadership Guide for details on good practice.
For your onsite meeting, you were going to need an invitation that set a theme, posed a question, or otherwise set the broad need and challenge. You still need that. And then you still need an invitation list. Distribute the invitation to everyone who cares or is needed to meet the need or challenge. In schools, I always look into whether students can be included. In businesses, does it make sense to include customers or colleagues from up, down or across value streams. So this much is all the same.
Now we come to logistics. You were going to pick a meeting venue, one with a large room for the main circle. Online, that might be Zoom, Skype, Google, etc. or it might be Qiqochat.com where you can use Zoom video but also have a suite of tools to support a “Circle” of colleagues. Think about how easy each one is for your people to access. Are your people able to overcome the hurdles of joining this place or the other? Is there a place where everyone is already present?
Next, you’ll need to create an agenda and post all the topics for everyone to see. Google Docs is a workable, simultaneously editable option. Google Sheets lets you put a bit of organization in, a little graphic, grid, sense. But of course you can also paste a table into a Google Doc. The important thing is that everyone can see and edit the doc at the same time. SharePoint doesn’t work well, for instance.
Once the agenda is created, you’ll want to breakout into discussion groups. My video preference is Zoom, so I’ll describe the two options there. One is to have multiple Zoom meetings/rooms, one for the main circle and one for each breakout. You can post the links to those right in your agenda doc, at the top of each spreadsheet column, for instance. If you choose this option, you’ll want to be sure that the Zoom sessions area all set to allow participants to enter directly, no waiting, and no host required. Sococo.com adds an interesting twist: a wide range of on-screen floor plans that makes everyone’s movement visible to everyone.
Alternatively, you can use Zoom’s breakouts function, but you’ll need people to help the movement between sessions. (One way is to assign everyone as ‘host’ so they can move themselves. Another is for them to raise hand or change their name to indicate their room preference. But these both take extra tech skill and don’t scale very easily.) Also, it’s not easy to subdivide a zoom breakout further, so a single group can’t do things like “have a chat about this with the two people closest to you and then we’ll all come back together. While not a common form, it does happen in some onsite meetings. But it’s not supported inside of a Zoom breakout space.
Once the groups are able to meet, you’ll want a place for them to take notes. Qiqochat.com has some tools to support this and also allows linking to Google tools and other places. (But it will take some time to learn your way around.) Consider creating a folder of Google Docs and posting the links in the agenda, right along with each zoom room link. That way, the notes can be taken collaboratively and transparently. People can click into the video and the doc at the same time. Then, toward the end of the sessions, you can update the agenda to point to the next, clean doc for each room. There are a number of minor logistical issues, like making sure each doc gets a meaningful title, perhaps with time and zoom room # specified, so the aggregating is more straightforward. Depending on the size, timing and tolerance of your group, you can probably learn your way through these as you go.
There are lots of other little things to remember about working with Zoom or other platforms, like muting for background noise reduction and turning video on/off to signal “leaning forward/back” in a large group, and turning video off if someone’s signal gets weak. But those you’ll mostly figure out along the way, especially if some of your participants already have some experience with video meetings. (And isn’t everyone learning fast on this already?) Some of the technical bits will go better if you have not just one facilitator, but a technical lead as well.
You’ll want to make sure you have a backchannel that is different from your main platform, so people can contact your tech lead to help them with any connection issues. Use phone, email, or whatever else is already easy for everyone. This way, nobody gets inadvertently locked out. And sometimes you might have to get creative. I helped a family funeral happen a month ago. One cousin joined us on Zoom per the plan, but when her father couldn’t manage the tech, so they used Facetime. He was able to see and hear all of us on her laptop, as she aimed her phone at the screen. In these small ways, the people will find ways to make the coming together work. Even online.
I think that leaves only the opening and closing circles, which happen in a single video call. These can work much the same as onsite, depending on your group size and attention span (passion level). Your session will be simpler than some, because everyone will be in the same time zone. Still, there is the option to do the closing circle as a writing exercise first, and then share shorter comments aloud, if the group is large. The opening usually goes pretty much as it does in onsite gatherings.
Finally, notice that working online will release you from some constraints imposed by meeting onsite. You can spread your breakout sessions over several days or even weeks, for instance. I’d recommend doing the opening and at least one round of breakouts, just to get into the groove; two if possible. Allow some extra time for gathering, especially for the first time, if your people are new to the platform you’re using. Invite, encourage and support people visiting video spaces and shared docs before the event starts, as a pre-work task. And please don’t fall for any temptation to post session topics before you actually gather. Being together, seeing everyone, and hearing the same opening invitation briefing, at the same time, still matters for getting hearts and minds moving together.
Remember, as ever, to be prepared to be surprised. The Four Principles and One Law will be fully functioning online. So just be patient, with yourself and the group, as you find the tools, rhythm and practices that work for you.