Agile Medication Revisited

I recently was asked by a friend to provide a book recommendation for executives that want to learn about Agile fundamentals.

Here is what I offered as guidance. This has everything to do with OpenSpace Agility, which is a method of introducing Agile change that focuses on principles and stops well short of prescribing practices. Here we go: The question from a friend….

“If you were to recommend just one book on Agile/Scrum Methodologies, what would they be?

“This is for a client CEO to give to his senior leaders. Looking for intro to principles and practices especially as it relates to driving innovation, digital UX design, and collaborative, high-performance culture.”


People (and especially those very “busy” formally authorized leaders) often want A-B-C prescriptions that relieve pain, now. The problem of course is that the actual root causes of the pain do remain. Right? This is an especially acute condition across the wider world of Agile today. The focus on practices eventually becomes a very big problem.

If and when the core underlying principles (which actually power those practices) are ignored, expect troublesome side effects. Ditto for the ignoring the Agile values, which power those Agile principles.

Michael, I cannot offer you a design-thinking book however I can tell you that core-values and supporting principles are far more important that practices where Agile is concerned. This is true regardless of the context of where the work is performed (software work, or “agile beyond software” aka “Lean-Startup applications.”)

The core of the Agile thing is expressed in the Agile Manifesto. Teach them that. I’m concerned that if you hand them an Agile-practices book your client will not be served. Practices change. Principles don’t. This teaching is harder to deliver than a practices-gospel. It’s also much harder to receive. In service to my clients I offer them the Agile Manifesto as the definition of Agile we plan to use for the time being. If they are new to Agile thinking, start the discussion here and then lead them to a more mature conversation when they have digested these core fundamentals. The Manifesto is 15 years old and it still applies. There’s a reason for that.

Agile Manifesto

Here are some resources:

Understanding the Manifesto…/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_viewpnt_rgt…

The following book review is typical of those seeking immediate pain relief (medication) via an A-B-C prescription of practices. It just doesn’t work that way. There is no standard Agile implementation. As a leader, you are responsible for doing the hard work of creating a space where your people can define, tailor and customize your own program. That is the essence of effective agility. There is no pill you can take for this.

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See it?
This is the awkward message of OpenSpace Agility: if your Agile implementation is to have any chance of success whatsoever, you and your organization must take total responsibility for it. You must customize and tailor everything to fit your context. This requires some awkwardly honest conversations. The OpenSpace Agility method creates a space where these very awkward and very responsible conversations can actually happen.

Invitation as a Leadership Art

Any framework is OK, as long as those affected are invited, and are actually choosing to experiment with it. As long as there is genuine (and informed) consent from those affected. The framework used is not the problem, but rather the mandate of it… by authority.

Any experience with an approach to change is best framed as an experiment– one to be inspected by the tribe on a very specific date, some 45 to 100 days hence. This process is called Invitation-Based Change or IBC.

At the core of IBC is an invitation, from leadership, to an experiment with new ways of working. This is an invite to participate in what we commonly call “co-creation.”

A more accurate metaphor might be “the invitation”…the invitation to be a character in the new story, and even become a co-author of an exciting and emerging narrative. To be the characters in the story and the co-authors of the new story.

And these participants are not “bought in.” Because, truth be told,  the term “bought in” implies something is being marketed. Something is being bought and sold. Via persuasion. And that’s not what we are doing here. Here, we are not selling anything to anyone but rather, inviting participation. So, not “bought in” but rather, “located in” the emergent story of change.

In Invitation-Based Change, the authentic invitation from leadership includes an explicit and scheduled opportunity to inspect the results, as a group, typically with a fully-authorized, all-hands, enterprise wide, dialogue-oriented “Open Space” meeting. This enterprise-wide inspection of the results usually requires a duration of at least one day. It is a  “gathering of the tribes” from across the enterprise. Everyone affected is invited. What is actually going in this 1-day meeting is the rarest of events:  the genuine and authentic experience of “organizational learning.



Invitation-Based Change requires leaders actually become competent in what we have come to call “Invitation as a Leadership Art.” These concepts are embodied in a method called “OpenSpace Agility.” It is the first of several methods that are emerging inside the wider container of “Invitation-Based Change.” OpenSpace Agility (OSA) is built upon the empty, more generalized “beginning-middle-end” structure called Prime/OS. Prime/OS is the core bedrock foundation of OSA.

You can learn more about these simple, powerful, open-source culture technologies, right here, right now, via these two links:


The Mandate of Holacracy At Zappos

An actual example may more fully illustrate: Let us consider the mandate of “holacracy” at Zappos.

The introduction of holacracy at Zappos was, at best, an authoritative “push” gone terribly wrong.

At worst, holocracy was implemented as a despotic, tyrannical mandate. As push. With forceful persuasion. As coercion. I saw it coming in late January of 2104 and made certain predictions in March of 2014 concerning the predictable result.

The entire unfortunate mess is easily avoided by leveraging the incredible power of invitation. It offers the power to generate co-creation, alignment, and authentic organizational vitality. The Zappos story might have started this way. It did not.
Any framework is OK, as long as those affected are invited to the experiment, and each invitee is not coerced but rather, invited…and is actually choosing… to play the game.

Are you interested in testimonial videos from actual people who have experienced Invitation-Based Change inside real organizations?

You can find testimonial videos here- each is only 15 minutes long:

See also: 

Invitation-Based Change (link)

Invitation in OpenSpace Agility (link)

The Mandate of Holacracy at Zappos (link)

The Shu-Ha-Ri Argument

“These developers have no idea at all about Agile practices. They need to slavishly follow what we tell them- at least for a while. We must show them the exact A-B-C steps. And they must do them. It does not matter if they want to or not. They are in the “Shu” stage of Shu-Ha-Ri. We must tell them exactly what to do, and they must do it.”

Well, OK. Let’s unpack this.

First, “Shu-Ha-Ri” comes from the martial arts. “Shu” is beginner’s mind. “Ha” is the intermediate-stage of competence. “Ri” is mastery. So far so good.

Second, those karate students, those Judo students, those Kempo students….they all WANT to be taught. They want to learn. By being present in the dojo, they are signaling that they are submitting to the authority of the teacher.

So they are willing to be led through learning. WILLING. They are submitting. And they are in Shu-mode.


The situation is completely reversed when you impose teaching about Agile practices on teams, and then make them do these practices. These teams never agreed to submit to anything.

Yes- they are in “Shu” mode but let’s not pretend that they agreed. They did not.

Therefore: the Shu-Ha-Ri analogy does not really make sense, because you are imposing a set of practices on people who never agreed. People who never consented. 

The predicable result is a very unhappy ending. For everyone. This is the main problem with your Agile adoption. You’re forcing it on intelligent people, people who are problem-solvers.

People who are independent thinkers.

People who have a strong need for control.


So stop doing that. And use invitation instead. It actually works!


And please stop it with the Shu-Ha-Ri argument, because if they never agreed, then that argument just doesn’t have legs.


Definitions Are Agreements

Self-management is a game. Like any game, self-management requires very clear agreements.

To play any game, we must all first agree on the goals, the rules, and the progress-tracking aspects.

Since the good game has opt-in participation, the opportunity to play is presented as invitation.



Communication using human languages is, itself, a kind of game.

The goal of the game is the clear sending and clear receiving of clear messages.

The rules include information about what language is used, and the definition of specific words used.

We track progress by the volume, the frequency and the quality of the messages sent and received. We also track progress by how engaging the conversation does (or does not) become. By the progression of topics discussed. By the additional agreements made as a result of the sending and receiving of these messages. And so on.

These ideas quickly become useful when preparing for change in organizations. Let’s apply these ideas now.


Agile Change

If an org is moving in an Agile direction, it is essential to define what “Agile” actually means, and agree to use that definition across the entire set of people affected. If anyone disagrees, we must ask what it takes to get them in. Where definitions are concerned, we must agree if the game of communicating is to be experienced as a good one.

Likewise, if the practices to experiment with include Scrum, it is essential to precisely define what the word “Scrum” actually means, and begin using that definition consistently when sending and receiving messages (communicating) about that subject.

The definition of words constitute important agreements without which effective communication becomes very difficult. In OSA, we define “Agile” to mean the 4 values and 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto. This brings tremendous clarity to the task of communicating. The clear definition reduces one of the many anxieties that come with the liminality that change creates. A big part of the pre-work of any change is to begin the process of agreement on the rules of the game. Within this context the definition of essential terminology is itself essential to a good start.

And so it is, that the precise definitions of essential words are in fact the most important agreements, as they are the foundation of any agreements that follow.

Invitation Based Change

During the OSA Workshop held June 09-10 (2016) in Leuven, Belgium, a participant named Jef Cumps began using the term “invitation based change.” He used it several times (I think) before I actually began noticing. At one point, I noticed this and I asked him to stop, and repeat what he just said.

Invitation based change,” he replied.

This is a remarkable turn of a phrase. It describes everything OSA is doing, and also is a great description of Open Space Technology (OST) itself.

And so: it is now the term we use to describe exactly what we are doing with Open Space and OpenSpace Agility.

Invitation based change is bigger than OpenSpace Agility, bigger than even Open Space Technology. It’s a mindset, the mindset, a useful philosophy of change, and the idea that guides almost any authentic and lasting change in almost any organization. 

Because truth be told, self-management is what actually scales, not your A-B-C prescription or “shiny-infographic framework.”

The difficult truth is that engagement is essential to self-management, and that genuine invitation (aka “opt in participation”) is the primary way to get it. The idea is to frame everything as an experiment to be inspected. When leaders frame new ideas as experiments, to be inspected, something odd happens. Something rather nice.

We, the affected, suspend our disbelief, and actually try it. We engage. We the affected “act as if” it could work, and actually give it a try. Those who might resist suddenly become willing to “pretend” and “suspend disbelief” that the change might actually be interesting to investigate as an idea. An idea that is to be inspected after a period of direct experience. In other words, we approach change in an agile way. Via “committed experimentation.”

Invitation based change converts resistance to support. And more than occasionally. It converts strong (aka “passionate”) resistance from a “bug” to a “feature.” It creates a “double positive.”

Invitation based change is the future of work.

Are you skeptical? Good…

…let’s just give it a little time. Do a few experiments. 

And inspect them.

And go from there.

Special thanks for Jef Cumps, who coined this phrase “Invitation Based Change,” or what we are now calling “IBC” for short.

You are invited to investigate.


Related Links:

OpenSpace Agility (link)

The OpenSpace Agility group on Facebook (link)

Vast majority of employees not engaged- Gallup poll (link)





Discovering What is Possible

We live in a world where a mechanistic, “machine” view of organizations has served for some time. The end of this era is upon us, and the transition to a living-systems view is well underway.

Organizations are more like living things than they are like machines. Without getting into all the details of “why,” this essay assumes the living-systems view is the more accurate view, the more useful view. The view that is actually closer to reality.

In the living-systems view, change is not “managed.” Instead of having a definite end point, the process of change is based more on encouraging a general direction rather than a specific, ultimate destination with a date attached.

Which brings me to the subject of this essay: discovering what is possible. For purposes of this essay, assume the organization under consideration has these properties:

  1. The org is a business entity, organized as a corporation
  2. The org is not focused on selling software. Instead it has a services or products that it sells.
  3. Leaders (formally authorized) are contemplating the “change management” that may be involved in helping the entire org change in some way; presumably to become more effective.
  4. The org employs at least one hundred people and may have thousands of employees.
  5. The “formally authorized leaders” (hereafter, the “FALs”) are entirely well-intentioned even as they may be ignorant of certain fundamentals with respect to the conditions necessary for manifesting an adaptive, resilient organization
  6. The people in the organization are for the most part quite familiar with the current cultural game, and are generally happy with the way things are. They know the expressed and implied goals, the rules, and how the overall culture works.

Given these assumptions, the completely normal pattern goes something like this:

  1. Behind closed doors, the 100% well-intentioned FALs formulate a plan for change. This usually includes the “rolling out” of training, followed by some scheduled “coaching” with the help of highly paid consultants.
  2. An announcement of intent is issued. This is usually in the form of some emails from the FALs to the organization’s employees. These emails from the FALs describe what is about to happen.
  3. The program is initiated, usually with an immediate and pronounced uptick in everything that is being measured. This is reassuring- at least at first.
    1. Typically, measurement is happening in a meaningful way for the first time. Before long the highly paid consultants are busy doing their work.
  4. After a while, things start to wobble. There is some “murmuring” from the rank and file.
    1. Not just the rank and file resist the change. Some people who are in authority also are uncomfortable. Their direct reports sense this vibe and adjust accordingly.
    2. Those uncomfortable with the change do not simply vacate. Instead they serve to thwart the change by subtle moves intended to outwit, outplay and outlast the change issues from “on high.”
  5. The budget for consultants is consumed, and they leave. Shortly after that, the “change” begins the process of reversion to the mean. In other words, a backsliding to the starting point.

Does this sound familiar to you? I certainly hope so. I have not told the whole story, but you get the idea.

After a time, the “coaches” and consultants vacate. When they do, the org reverts back to it’s previous state, or, at a minimum, heads in that general direction immediately. At the end, the org has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a “change management program” that never did actually work.

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The Prime/OS approach short-circuits this by-now-familiar pattern of failure, by discovering what is possible.  By helping the FALs figure out the immediate next steps via quick, short, actionable “loops of feedback” that provide rich data for input into leadership decision-making.



Instead of putting down a bet of hundreds of thousands of dollars with far less than 50-50 odds for success, Prime/OS invites everyone affected to come and discuss the change.

Instead of following a monolithic “A-B-C” plan (typically the “framework” of a consulting firm,) Prime/OS invites everyone into the process of changing. And to write the new story. And be a character in this new story.

Instead of an edict or mandate from management, Prime/OS suggests a series of experiments to be inspected.

One of the goals of Prime/OS is to engage the people affected by the change. To do this, Prime/OS leverages the concept of invitation. Those who are curious and want to explore how to make change happen accept the invitation. Those who like things the way they are do not. In all cases, Prime/OS increases your chance of success by increasing the level of human engagement in the change.

Prime/OS increases the level of engagement in the process of changing and this is why Prime/OS actually works.


Avoiding the “Self Organized” Approach

The idea that self-organization and self-management are messy any chaotic is actually quite false. Groups of people who share a common purpose and organize around it are often called “self organizing systems.” This label assumes that people are the same as birds, insects and fish that “self organize.” This is not strictly true, and I therefore prefer the term “self management” when describing how people self-organize. Where people in organizations are concerned, “self organization” is in fact self-management.

Tremendous gains in productivity are possible when individuals and teams are self-managing.

Self-management is only possible when the people involved are making decisions. Decisions are what engages people, and decisions are essential if the group is to self-manage. Since self-management requires enough authority to make decisions, FALs often freak out at the notion of  authorizing self-managed teams, departments and divisions. The assumption is that chaos will ensue.

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In Prime/OS, the FALs to do not encourage chaos and do not give up “control.” Instead, FALs create the very conditions for self-management by clearly identifying and communicating the following:

  1. The direction of the organization (an example might be “towards continuous improvement” or “towards more efficiency in operations.”)
  2. The “guardrails,” or limits outside of which are considered out-of-bounds. (an example might be a set or principles, or a set of rules for action.)

Interestingly, the FALs in Prime/OS need to avoid defining the practices or “ABC” steps needed to get started. Instead, individuals and teams make decisions about the specifics. To encourage this, FALs stop well short of naming specific practices.  If specific practices must be specified, these are presented explicitly and repeatedly as “experiments with specific practices for a specific limited time”, or “a trial period after which we will inspect results.” The “why” behind this is quite obvious: we need the people who do the work to be making decisions if we are to engage them. The entire hypothesis of Prime/OS (and OpenSpace Agility) is very simple:

 Human engagement is essential for any change to be authentic, genuine and lasting.

Sometimes, the definition of practices cannot be avoided. The solution here is to frame the entire thing as an temporary experiment to inspected. The org will “suspend disbelief” and “pretend” during the temporary/experiment period, confident that we will then inspect the results. This framing-the-experience-as–an-experiment is a way to bring everyone into the story of “inspect and adapt.” This is the way to introduce the idea of a change. The hypothesis is that those who resist the change can in fact assure failure. Experimentation affords those who may resist, with the opportunity to speak their mind after getting some experience with the contemplated change.


A Practical Example for Your Consideration

Let’s take a practical example: say you are a formally authorized leader who is going to be introducing some pretty big changes to your organization soon. Let us assume further that specific new practices are the content of the change. Here is your solution:

  1. Define a period of experimentation
  2. Start in “open space.” Call an enterprise-wide, “all hands” meeting to air concerns and issues. Assure everyone that this is an authentic experiment- that is, one to be inspected, 45 to 100 days hence.
  3. Do the experiment.
  4. End in “open space.” Call an enterprise-wide, “all hands” meeting to inspect the results.
  5. Use the wisdom harvested from this process to “go again” if necessary.

The alternative? Simply announce the change, fire everyone who disagrees, and hire new people who agree to the new “game change” you want to implement. There is only one problem with this: it is traumatic for your organization, and will result in chaos, negative emotional energy, and also poor results for years to come, before stabilizing.

A better approach is to view your leadership as cultivation and stewardship, rather than driving a vehicle or operating a machine. Your organization is more like a greenhouse than a train.

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The Prime/OS approach actually works, if you define success as “reaching extremely high levels of engagement in the investigation of how to change.” It starts and ends in Open Space, a meeting that is optimized on creating the conditions for the highest levels of human engagement possible. A key hypothesis of Prime/OS is that for any lasting change to occur, the humans affected must be engaged. Prime/OS therefore encourages very high levels of engagement. And that is why it uses Open Space.

Prime/OS is very simple and can lead to much higher performance across the organization. But to use it, if you are a formally authorized leader, you must first believe that for any change to be genuine and lasting, the humans affected must be engaged in the process of changing.

Prime/OS is a tool for formally authorized leaders who actually believe this is true.

See also:

The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis (link)

Prime/OS described (link)

70% of USA Employees Not Engaged At Work (link)