Open Space Agility

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to attend an Open Space Agility Workshop taught by Daniel Mezick.  I wanted to provide a synopsis of the ideas from the course, and point out what really resonated with me.

Open Space Agility (OSA) is is a repeatable technique for getting a rapid and lasting Agile adoption. The premise is that many so-called Agile transformations are a mandate from leaders on product development teams — Agile is imposed on them.  Martin Fowler explains the notion well in his blog post on the Agile Imposition from 2006.

imposing an agile process from the outside strips the team of the self-determination which is at the heart of agile thinking.
OSA Big Picture

Daniel wrote a lengthy article last year based on some of these ideas, regarding the Agile Industrial Complex. OSA is a way to start to solve these problems. OSA is a technique that involves 1) 60 days of coaching leaders and preparing the organization up front 2) an Open Space event, called OSA-1 3) 100 days of experimentation and organizational learning 4) another Open Space, OSA-2, and the organization is off and running!

OSA is specifically designed for Agile adoptions, but it can really be used for any organizational change. The open-source Prime/OS model provides more information.  (If you want to learn more about Open Space, send me a note.  I am enthralled by this facilitation technique and I have been aggregating resources for some time). Here are some of the salient points from the course:

Engagement gives twice the results for half the effort. The idea is that with an invitation we can get more engagement and potentially twice the results for half the effort.  Recent Gallup surveys in recent years show us that 75% of employees are disengaged at work.  Imagine if we could get even a majority of engagement creating an invitation and allowing people to choose to participate (opt-in). Through invitation we are sending someone a request to go somewhere or do something, and giving them the ability to decide yes or no. Decisions are engaging. And from the invitation we can start to collect data about people — whether they accept or not and how they react to the invitation.

All the good results of Agile come from self-managementWe also discussed how any good agile adoption will result in two key things: 1) refactoring of the authority distribution within the organization and 2) awkwardness. Indeed, the elements of self-organization and self management, along with adopting new roles, responsibilities and practices will cause a shift in authority dynamics. Additionally, introducing radical transparency, inspection and adaptation, will result in a new kind of truth telling that will be very awkward for many.

Every Agile impediment can be related to an authority problem. Self-managed teams know how they make decisions, and this is probably the most important kind of work that a team can do.  They are also highly engaged and know what they are authorized to do.  Authority is “the right to do work”, and the ability to make decisions and exercise authority will create new kinds of friction.  There are five types of impediments: 1) things people are already authorize to do, but are not doing 2) easy to remove [small, P1] 3) hard to remove, but possible [medium, P2] 4) very difficult, big and hairy 5) impossible. So, with an agile adoption we have self-management, engagement, and invitation (known as the deciding function).

The game of collaboration. In fact, through invitation we are asking people to come play a game. In the course we talked a lot about game theoScrum Guide- rules of the gamery, and discussed how so much of the working world and life in general has elements of a game. Every game has: 1) a goal, 2) rules, 3) progress [and feedback on it], and 4) opt-in participation [it is voluntary].  Scrum is a game. Take a look at the subtitle of the scrum guide. Alistair Cockburn also wrote about the game aspect of Agile Software Development in his book by that title.  So, if Scrum is a game, maybe it would be a good idea to invite people to play.  Through an invitation to the play game of Scrum, we invite people to explore what embracing agile values andagile software development principles can mean for them. And if they are not initially interested, figure out what it would take to get them in. So, we are not imposing agile, but rather creating an invitation with open space to provide a forum for everyone in the organization to experiment with Agile. As Martin Fowler elaborates in his 2006 blog post,

Imposing agile methods introduces a conflict with the values and principles that underlie agile methods.

Everyone needs with human needs satisfied.  A fundamental element of humanity is the feeling of control. This gives us a feeling of well being in that we can adjust the environment to meet our needs. John Boyd posits that our goal as humans is to improve our capacity for independent action (more to follow on Boyd’s work in a later post). This gives us a feeling of progress, and sense of belonging.  We can provide all of these with an established game and a clear invitation.  If we have 1) a goal 2) rules 3) feedback 4) opt-in we can provide fundamental human needs of 1) control 2) progress 3) belonging.

The ancient art of rituals. At the core of OSA are two open space events, OSA-1 and OSA-2 that provide a ritual for the organization to experience as a whole. Ritual is an ancient idea, as hold as humanity itself. Ritual provides a way for people to come together.  In cultural anthropology we refer to the spirit of community as communitas.  The OSA technique provides a 100 day game, where participants are invited to experience communitas and liminality together, where the are in the middle of a ritual. In this liminal stage, there is tremendous opportunity for experimentation, storytelling, and innovation.  The master of ceremonies role in OSA is vital during this time, as when people are in the middle of OSA, furthest from either open space event, they will have the most anxiety and questions. However, once they emerge they have an incredible sense of belonging and a new sense of status.

Leaders must be prepared for open space. This is a key element of the OSA technique, and the one that I have the most trepidation about.  For the open space events to be successful, leaders have to be prepared to authorize the event and then transfer authority to the facilitator and then on to the whole group.  The coach has to be able to manage expectations and explain all aspects of the open space event.  Here are some tips:

  • With OSA we must agree to a new game for 100 days.  The primary goal is learning, delivery is secondary. There will be a J-curve of learning.
  • If there is concern that a certain topic will be discussed that shouldn’t be —the elephants in the room or the taboo topics–this has to be addressed head on. Chances are, people are already talking about it anyway.  Get the leaders in a room and have a lean coffee (a form of tabletop open space) to discuss it.
  • Sponsors must commit to addressing the proceedings (output) of the open space, and the organization has to be able to work on them together.  If something comes out of proceedings that was not foreseen, just be honest about it.
  • Sponsors will likely ask you tell them exactly what to do. Use this.
  • Proceedings are important, but we need to have passionate responsibility, shared leadership. We trade 1 unit of authority for 100 units of engagement.
  • Leaders use ritual to punctuate their authority. A Dining-In from the military is an excellent example.
  • Teach leaders to “work with the willing.” Move resistors to tolerators, and tolerators to supporters.
  • Teach leaders that “leaders go first.” Leaders set example, and behaviors trigger stories.
  • Teach leaders to “mete authority out”.  Allow the organization to experiment and play.
  • Teach leaders to create space: social, emotional, physical.
  • Leadership is actually game design — leaders define the whole environment.  Consider an experience stream map to craft the game you want the organization to play.
  • Story triggers — highly authorized people send signals all the time, and they don’t realize it.  Convert his from “a bug to a feature.” Teach leaders about semiotics and signalling.
  • Address the idea of leadership storytelling and to “saturate the space with story”, or else others will do it for you with gossip, fear and doubt at the water cooler or coffee machine.  Do not invalidate the past — it got us here.  The past is full of mythos and that is powerful as well (“yes. . . and”). Focus on present stories — celebrations, learning, collaboration. Future stories are visions. So, frame stories with past, present and future.
  • Have a theme crafting meeting with sponsors, invite all connectors in the organization
  • Issue the invitation for the open space event at least two weeks in advance.  Be enticing, and allow it to be socialized across the organization.
  • The second open space event will not be as well attended as the first. Continue to coach leaders in that the second event will be even more insightful, after 100 days of experimentation and storytelling. It provides an opportunity to inspect and adapt.
  • The coach leaving or moving on to another part of the organization is key providing a sense of progress.
  • When leaders say “no”, reduce the ask by half.
  • Use the A1 Meeting to invite leaders to learn about: 1) opt-in 2) Agile Manifesto 3) Open space.
  • Work with leaders to do work in an agile way (iteration, backlog, daily meeting, demo, retro)

The OSA Workshop was a truly great course.  I cannot wait to find an organization willing to use this technique for a large change initiative (Agile adoption or otherwise).

Until the Next Iteration . . .


share your thoughts?