Change. Chapter 5. The AWA playbook

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This chapter provides a high-level overview of the AWA approach. In later chapters we go into more detail with examples.

“People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing” — Dale Carnegie

Do we need a playbook and is this another Agile framework?

This is not an agile framework. The reason I start this chapter with this statement is quite simply to differentiate this approach from the host of framework led approaches that is the prevalent method of trying to achieve some sort of agility.

If you have read the previous chapters, I hope you will understand that creating a centralised big narrative creates the same problems we are looking to solve. The huge benefits that every leader who is paying for the change hopes for, will never be realised by the centralised top-down framework approach.

The AWA playbook is needed because it provides a practical step by step approach to move from a grand central narrative that defines the vision, problems, and potential solutions, to a decentralised and emergent meaning-making organisation that uses multiple localised experiments to iterate continuously towards optimum outcomes for the whole organisation and those in it.

Many people use coaching, and many people understand agility, but very few have combined them in a step-by-step systemic approach to leverage the full potential of the power of the people in and around the organisation.

The playbook takes into account that most leaders are not yet ready to lead an agile organisation and most organisations don’t have the skill sets needed to create good experiments.

Many leaders still want to know exactly how the organisation will change when this information cannot be known at the outset. This Playbook gives the confidence to leaders that there is a solid approach that can be well articulated that results in the best possible outcome. It gives leaders who crave a sense of certainty that the organisation is following a step by step approach with clear measurable outcomes.

I will discuss more on what leaders need to be able to do and the data behind my statements in the chapter on Leadership in this book.

What is the playbook?

The AWA playbook for organisational agility

The playbook is a systemic coaching conversation with the whole organisation. It is a pattern that is completely non-prescriptive.

It is a step-by-step guide on how to rapidly change an organisation so that everyone works together to solve the real hidden problems that stop an organisation from making the most of its opportunities.

We are not seeking agility for its own sake, instead, we are seeking to create better organisations that are able to adapt and thrive in their markets with engaged staff who are motivated to make a difference.

The playbook does not give us roles, processes, or structures. These emerge naturally for a perfect fit for whatever industry, context, or culture the organisation is in. It works because we are all human beings. It is a human approach to change that is based upon getting outcome-based business results.

What can you expect if you follow the playbook?

Change is the essential process of all existence.” — Spock

With our clients and those that have used the playbook in their organisation, we have seen and expect you will see

  • cultural (behavioural) changes,
  • strategic (effectiveness) changes,
  • and tactical (efficiency) changes

across the organisation that results in less risk, specifically:

  • business risk — you will be more likely to sell it
  • technical risk — it is more likely to work
  • social risk — staff are more likely to be able to collaborate and work together on it
  • schedule risk — you are less likely to run out of money before it works

You will also see structural and process changes that result in

  • short iterations — faster time to market
  • smaller pieces of work — less risk if it goes wrong and faster value to customers
  • faster return of capital
  • better data to make decisions and faster decision making
  • ability to change direction with new information at a lower cost
  • better quality of products and services
  • more skilful relationships — leveraging everyone’s ideas with higher ownership of results
  • less dependencies between teams results in less complexity in delivery

When is this playbook useful?

This playbook is useful when the organisation

  • needs to thrive through innovation and pro-activity
  • no longer meeting the demands of the marketplace
  • stuck in a cost reduction death cycle
  • not meeting the expectations of its staff, customers, or stakeholders
  • needs a solid step by step approach that is not installing an agile framework but results in agility

It is most effective when

  • pressure on leadership is high
  • leaders and managers will engage with their own self-development as part of the change
  • the need for change is obvious

A single instance of the playbook is best suited to

  • teams of people up to 150 (we explore larger numbers later)
  • groups of people who need to solve complex adaptive problems

When is this playbook not useful?

This playbook will not help you if:

  • you do not have the influence to change the way people are grouped and report to each other
  • you are not able to change the way people operate with each other and their work
  • the only stance you are able to show is the consulting or the expert stance. You or your coaches must be able to use professional coaching and advanced facilitation skills in the meetings
  • You fundamentally disagree with the 3 agile mindset beliefs as described earlier in this book.

Pre-requisite skills needed

Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations. — Peter Drucker

Leadership

Every organisation is affected by the quality of its leadership. This makes logical sense. The quality of leadership is the most lacking skillset in our organisations today. It takes a totally different leader to build a learning organisation with a balance between a global and decentralised narrative than it does to tell everyone what their vision is and expect everyone to be motivated by it.

In practice we have found that usually there is one or two good leaders in a senior leadership team with others who are not yet ready to make the internal shift that is required. This is usually why we have been asked to help even though it is rarely articulated in this way.

The playbook does not require leaders to have the internal skills or mindset belief at the outset, but it does require that leaders are willing to undergo a series of coaching and mentoring sessions, usually after a confidential assessment. We run these leadership upskilling programs as a mixture between individual coaching and a leadership team cohort program over 6–9 months.

Coaching and facilitation

A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be. Tom Landry

The playbook uses advanced systemic coaching. For the last few years, I have been encouraging as many Agile Coaches, Scrum Masters, and Managers as possible to learn basic one to one professional coaching. Professional coaching is an extremely powerful way to help someone to grow themselves.

We have seen a huge increase in coaching skills in the industry due to the work we at AWA and others in the industry have done to combine coaching with agility. To be able to use this playbook effectively, it is necessary to have people who have coaching skills and experience. At AWA, we run Agile Team Coaching and Enterprise Coaching courses, as well as a new coaching course that we hope will soon be ICF certified, that can provide the skills needed, as well as free evening events to upskill as many people as possible.

The AWA approach allows everyone to have a voice and for people to find their own purpose within the wider organisational purpose. It is also designed to counter the ‘I am right’ and ‘expert’ mindset that dominates many organisations and stifles creativity, collaboration, and openness.

The way we tackle these challenges is through both teaching coaching and running coaching-based facilitation sessions that help everyone quieten their own need to be right, encourage opinions as partial truths, and to resolve conflicts through combining the best approaches from both sides.

Coaching and facilitation skills are also absolutely necessary to provide the space needed to safely bring out the ‘elephants in the room’ or the real issues, that are stopping high performance, accidental privilege abuse, and fear of collaboration.

Therefore, there is pre-requisite on coaches that have done the inner work on themselves and have incredible skills in one to one, team, and systemic coaching and facilitation. Over time these skills are taught and distributed throughout the organisation.

Agility

The AWA approach follows the emergent practices for solving problems in the complex domain. These are in the form of experiments that everyone designs and runs for themselves in a consistent and cohesive manner.

Agility is a large subject, however there are foundational heuristics that can guide participants to create the most effective experiments.

A deep understanding of batch size, flow, quality, work in progress limits, continual improvements of product and process, etc are required.

Using the Agile Mindset given in this book is a good start, as well as learning about the various frameworks. My intention for the reader here is not to implement any of the various frameworks and models but to understand why the framework creator chose to design it the way they did.

A good Agile Coach should be able to facilitate and guide the teams to design good experiments that move the organisations towards its outcomes.

A walk-through of the playbook

Step 1: Entry

Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible. — Francis of Assisi

Entry — maximise your chance of success

The concept of an entry ‘phase’ comes from the field of organizational development (OD). OD became popular in the 1950s and arguably reached its peak in 1990s although the merging of OD and HR continues to this day. Classical OD tended to be rather linear, hence the word ‘phase’ which reminds me of the 4–5-year change plans that plagued organisations before agility took hold. (Although some organisations still think moving towards agility can be done with a pre-planned fixed budget program!).

I liked the idea of Entry as often there are activities that happen only once at the beginning. I adapted the concept of entry to be about relationships, enthusiasm to change, and maximising the change of success from the outset.

Usually, organisations start with a grand narrative that has been carefully designed and crafted by senior leadership. We always meet people where they are, and this is a great place to start. As we take this grand vision to the teams, we can start the process of emerging the team’s visions and purpose and making both the macro and many micro purposes transparent for everyone to make sense of.

The problems identified at the beginning of the move to agility are rarely the real problems, but this does not matter. Everything will come out naturally with the process.

The elements of Entry in the AWA playbook are:

Gather together who you are working with

Urgency is required

Work with the sponsor to define what problem you are solving and what the desired business outcomes are. This is written as ‘Pressure from market’ in the Playbook. Gather together the leadership team and interdependent people that are responsible for this problem and any resulting solutions.

· Create an Alliance
Create an alliance or ‘ways of working agreement’. The idea for this living document comes from the professional coaching world and there is called a coaching contract. The word contract causes many problems in organisations and in the agile community, so we don’t use this word., instead ‘Ways of Working’ lands better.

This document defines how our behaviours will be, how we want to interact with each other, what happens when it goes wrong. The first draft of this document is often shallow and improves over time and with use.

· Run an interactive diagnostic
Many organisations entertain the idea of an Agile Maturity Model or some sort of agility assessment. I cannot stress more strongly what a bad idea these things are. If you are doing an Agile Maturity Assessment you have already failed and will need to a radical rethink.

Instead, the AWA approach is a user generated multi-view systems approach. Through a series of facilitated sense-making workshops, either at scale or many smaller workshops, the organisation is able generate many current views through different lens of their organisation’s current state. With a very deep understanding of the current state, it is very obvious what the next steps towards the business outcomes are. In fact in most cases, the process makes the real business outcomes much clearer and more real to everyone.

· Create experiments
The final step literally emerges out of the diagnostic because everyone is enthusiastic to make changes. Everyone wants real tangible actions to come from the diagnostic and it is the job of the Agile Coach to shape these ideas into experiments that are safe to learn from. I will cover experiments in much more detail in a later chapter.

Step 2: Improvement

As stated in the third belief in the Agile Mindset, improvement is relentless and continual. The world outside our window and the one inside our heads never stops changing. The Playbook uses sustainable continuous incremental improvements.

Improvement is represented in the diagram in two cycles. The first is a macro cycle of Leadership > Structure > Culture. This macro cycle is powered by the second cycle of experiments. This second cycle is the engine of the playbook and has four elements: Start with now > Define experiments > Action research > Test (or validate).

These cycles are described in more detail in this chapter.

Step 3: Exit

Exit is formal ending of external help. The necessary coaching, facilitation, and agility skills should be now embedded in the part of the organisation transitioning through Exit.

This is started and runs in parallel with many cycles of improvement. Trained and experienced coaches train and slowly hand over the one-to-one and systemic coaching, facilitation, and mentoring to leaders within the real team (more on what a real team is later).

Everyone involved needs to be comfortable with the process of experimentation, understand clearly what success looks like, or more important what is not a failure, and be able to write good testable experiments. More on this later too.

External vs Internal

When I say external coaches, at AWA we’re a consultancy, so we are external, but it could also be people working inside an organization from a central coaching group. It is vitally important that an organisation has a strategy around coaching and coaching supervision. Coaches from a central group are external to the team and the same logic applies for Exit as above.

Left loop: Leadership, Structure, Culture Cycle

The three elements in the cycle at the top left-hand side of the playbook are:

  • leadership
  • structure (teams, reporting lines, and processes, etc.)
  • culture

Important point: Change is hard precisely because these elements create a reinforcing loop that keeps the status quo. This loop represents how our leadership, structures, and cultures are tightly bound so that change becomes very hard or impossible. Any change must be systemic to work.

Often, we assume that leadership has the ability to change structural elements such as process or reporting lines but often they don’t. The reason they don’t is twofold. Firstly, the culture of an organisation holds the leadership to certain expectations and behaviours, and it is often too risky for any leader to step too far outside of the culture in case something goes wrong. Secondly, a large part of the culture is defined by the aggregate behaviours of leaders which is a direct consequence of the skills that the leaders have. Most leaders do not possess the skills needs to lead a sense-making organisation.

Culture arises from the structure and how people relate to each other to get things done.

If we want to change culture, which is required in achieving any form of agility, we must change structure, and we need leaders to change structure, but leaders can’t change structure because of the culture; we are in a catch 22 situation.

However, this loop is not the whole story. The outside world is changing so rapidly that the organisational culture and resulting innovation and adaptability (or lack of it) forces a sense of urgency that cannot be ignored. This is represented by the words ‘pressure from market’ and the arrows pointing towards leadership at the top of this loop.

Leaders find themselves in a jam because they need to change but don’t know how. It is this sense of urgency that allows us to incrementally break the negative impacts of the reinforcing loop.

This loop is a really important part of understanding why organisational transformations are so hard. I have dedicated a whole chapter to understanding the elements and their interactions.

Right Loop: Experiment cycle

The four elements in the right-hand loop are:

  • start with now
  • define experiment
  • action research
  • test

This cycle is the dynamo or the engine of the playbook. It is a short cycle that repeats again and again and results in the structural, process, and leadership changes that are required.

Rules

I don’t like rules. They are however necessary because not everyone will understand the depth of the playbook and how all the elements interact with each other and how this affects everyone being coached. These rules are required because I have seen first-hand how the desire for action creates a lack of patience for learning theory in coaches and executives alike. Most people have not put the work in to understand why the playbook works like it does.

Not following these rules means you are not following the playbook. These rules are the essence of the approach, missing out one of them means that you are not using the right mindset and this will lead to results that are not likely to be in alignment with your business objectives.

I am emphasising these rules because it is a mindset shift that one needs to go through to realise that these are important and too easy for people to skip them in order to speed up the approach to change or avoid the difficult conversations about control.

If you skip these steps the change program will most likely fail. Not immediately, but after about 6–9 months. This is way more costly than following the rules.

1. Start with now is conducted with systemic coaching and advanced facilitation and includes what people feel (important) as well as what people do. We teach people how to do this on our facilitation, coaching, enterprise, and leadership programs.

2. Advanced coaching and facilitation cannot be faked, it needs to be done by experienced coaches.

3. No one can write an experiment for someone else who is not part of the creation process.

4. Everyone who is expected to change their way of working must be included in the design process.

5. Experiments are actioned by doing. The learning is achieved by doing. Doing is the learning.

6. Those who are in the experiment gather and use their own data, no analyst or coach does this for them.

7. The only way to fail is not to test the hypothesis.

8. If you don’t show up, you don’t get a say; no meetings are repeated because someone didn’t show up, especially managers who are too busy to attend.

This 4-step cycle is discussed in more detail in the chapter on experiments, at a high level, the process is as follows:

  1. Start with now

This is a whole group facilitated workshop that is run by people with systemic coaching experience. The purpose is to align everyone who will be writing experiments on where they are now. The outcome is a working model of the current state that includes emotions just as much as it does process.

Often this is a large-scale facilitation event but can be a series of smaller team sessions using a single shared model. Everyone from the different teams adds to the living model so that there is a common story and demonstratable understanding. This is used to sense-make and emerge the experiments.

2. Define Experiment

Defining experiments can be done in the same large-scale session as ‘start with now’ or can be done separately if the model was created in multiple sessions with smaller teams. Everyone who is expected to change something as part of the experiment must be included in the session to define it. However, if people miss a session, then the group can proceed without those people on the understanding that they will need to go along with the experiments given. People missing meetings must be their own choice or personal circumstance such as illness, not because they were not invited!

3. Action Research

The group or team runs the experiment by changing the way they are working. This is the experiment. The experiment is to actually make the change.

4. Test

Some pre-defined time later, usually no longer than a calendar month, the group reviews the experiment and determines whether the hypothesis was correct or false. This is often done at the next ‘start with now’ meeting and used as part of the data to determine the current state.

Results

Iterating through this loop results in the changes that matter most to the organisation, the team, and the individuals. The people have complete autonomy to choose how they want to work. Alignment with others is always guaranteed because no one is allowed to change anyone else’s way of working. This includes dependencies that are in other teams or within the leadership team.

There is always a balance between the overall desired business outcomes and the day-to-day work because both leaders and workers are co-creating the models and experiments.

Values

The values that are defined as part of the playbook form the values part of the Agile Onion. These values are not exhaustive but have been added as a baseline. I believe this set is required to enable the organisation to solve complex adaptive problems with large numbers of people.

The base values are:

  • Respect
  • Inclusion
  • Diversity
  • Equal voice
  • Willingness to emotionally self-manage

Adding more values works ok, removing any of these generally results in failure.

All of these values are based upon a deep introspection into privilege.

High trust culture

The playbook is designed to incrementally move a set of people from wherever they are to a culture of transparent and humble curiosity that enable large groups of people to solve complex problems.

It is necessary for the whole team to feel safe and listened to. It is vital that people are able to offer suggestions and ideas as this is a precursor to innovation and problem-solving. Without a high trust environment, we end up being machines delivering work for the sake of it. We must be effective as well as efficient.

CEO and Founder of the community of practice, training, and coaching company: Adventures with Agile.