Michael Herman
Inviting Agility

 
 
 

What is Inviting Agility?

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InvitingAgility is my term for skillful mixing of Open Space and Agile practices. Alternatively, InvitingAgility suggests OpenSpaceTechnology (OST) is, in fact, a true and perhaps the oldest (1985) Agile method, even if the authors of the Agile Manifesto were perhaps unaware of it. Not long after the Manifesto was issued, back in 2002, I learned about Agile software development when I was asked to facilitate an Open Space track at the Agile/XP Universe conference. That seems to have been the moment when Agile first met Open Space. My first (and enduring) reaction to Agile was "This is amazing! You're making software in Open Space!"

Consider the following general approach: Invite everyone, all the skills, needed to address some need. Post everything that matters on the wall. Invite everyone to do whatever matters most right now. Periodically regroup and review what's been accomplished and what is coming next. Repeat and improve forever, always looking for one more thing to NOT do. Now tell me am I talking about Open Space? Scrum? XP? Kanban? Yes, of course, I am!

For years (decades!) we've said that Open Space works best when four conditions are present, especially at high levels: complexity of the issues or opportunities to be addressed, diversity in terms of the skills and experiences required, real or potential conflict (meaning people really care), and urgency, a real need to deliver. The basic mechanisms of Open Space are circle, bulletin board, marketplace, and breathing or pulsation (or among agilists let's say iteration). This is all completely consistent with everything Agile. Open Space generalizes, but it also adds something critically important, a difference that makes the difference. Open Space adds the Invitation, the mechanism that allows voluntary self-selection, and also the Law of Two Feet the invitation to move.

Inviting restores autonomy from the very beginning. It makes the people doing the work whole again. It gives them back their agency, their right and responsibility to find and do the right thing, learning and contributing, navigating the territory that they know best. Other agile methods support transparency, iteration, movement, and so on. But none of them explicitly address the primary, foundational need for people to be in charge of their own work from the very beginning. As Daniel Mezick has argued, people need to pull Agile and Scrum for themselves, BEFORE they pull stories into any sprint. Doc Norton says, "It starts with Invitation" and the Modern Agile view says, "Make safety a prerequisite." It's fair to ask if true Agility can ever be achieved without genuine Inviting.

Some years ago, I worked with the industry-leading employee engagement survey practice at Willis Towers Watson. We explained to clients that engagement isn't something leadership can "drive." Engagement is a choice, made every day by every employee. What managers can do is make it easier (or harder) for people to choose engagement. Higher employee engagement survey scores go up is NOT about designing a communication campaign or special initiative, it's simply to do the ordinary, everyday work in more engaging ways. It's about acknowledging that employees have a choice and making it easier for them to bring more of their best energies into their work. Inviting Agility is about making it easier for developers and everyone else in the organization to choose to get more and more agile in their work.

Once we give people the right to choose, leadership and management are suddenly all about Purpose. People are purposeful, and can be ideal-seeking. You may not agree with their purpose(s). You might think they're small, narrow, local, whatever. But they have it, hold it and pursue it. The leadership challenge is about articulating larger, layered purposes that matter, ideals that people can get excited about seeking. Harrison Owen, originator of Open Space Technology, taught me to look very locally for those ideals. "I go in and ask 'What's working?' and when we get a good list together, I ask, 'How do we make more of that?'" Meaning and purpose can be that easy. People naturally want to learn and raise the bar. If your people don't, something unnatural has gotten in their way! That impediment (not those people) need to be removed!

Here are some of the emerging Agile stories that are acknowledging and advancing the importance of Inviting:

I especially like the Weaponized Scrum story because, like other Open Space stories, it traveled so lightly and quickly, immediately effective without any need for certification. Mike and Amy saw me facilitate Open Space at a Scrum Gathering then went back to their company and implemented directly. Similarly, Daniel Mezick called with questions about Open Space, I think the first call lasted three hours. I shared everything I'd learned about Open Space and Inviting. He went away, studied some freely available materials, ran some experiments and came back with a powerful story and practice.

We talk in the Agile community about the distinction between Agile methods and Agile mindset. In the same way, Inviting is something we can DO and improve as a technical practice, but it's also pointing to a way we (coaches, sponsors, leaders, champions, managers, and yes even team members) can aspire to BE. Open Space and Inviting Agility are about moving the whole of your agile practice... forward, deeper, wider (or choose your own end or direction). Part of BEING Inviting as a leader is telling a compelling story about the importance of the work at hand. Leaders say what and why. Teams say how.

Inviting Agile suggests that the most important metric in any agile adoption, transformation, evolution is: Do the people doing the work, all the people, actively choose to be there. And the very simple and affordable test for that is Opening (More) Space at various points, in various ways, along the Agile trail. The greater the complexity, diversity, conflict and/or urgency, the greater the need for Open Space, and greater the benefits to be gained. As Daniel Mezick has shown, the challenge of "How do we become a more agile company?" meets all the criteria, so it's never too early for Opening Space and Inviting Agility. Ron Quartel, Mike Beedle and others are demonstrating that as we advance in Agile practice, we won't grow out of Open Space, we'll naturally grow INTO it.

We know that Scrum and other methods are effective at RAISING issues and opportunities, identifying all manner of technical to cultural impediments. Open Space is a kind of uber Agile practice that invites solutions no matter how large the issue, how new or advanced the practitioners, and how many other methods you might be weaving together. The framework is simple: Invitation (vision/purpose), Invitation List (who might care? who's really needed?), Space/Time? Logistics (when, where, how long, how many sessions, markers, paper, etc), and How to Keep it Going (usually, a plan do capture notes from the conversations). We haven't mentioned Lean here yet, so let's just notice that Open Space is a kind of andon cord for knowledge workers. In Inviting organizations, anyone can and should "stop the line" to address critical issue(s) even when there's not a physical assembly line.

Over the last ten years, Open Space has become popular and widely adapted for conferences and user groups. That's all good, but the need and potential in those situations will always be limited. The really valuable gains will come when Inviting Agility in Open Space becomes widely adapted in the real work of developers and whole organizations. As we catch the next wave, the Business Agility wave, scaling to the whole organization is the central challenge. Agile methods don't really scale, but self-organization runs at every scale. Open Space is Inviting aspiring agile enterprises into real, and hugely scalable, self-organization. Twenty-some years in, the agile evolution is really just getting started. Please join us!

See AgilePracticeLibrary for the beginnings of an InvitingAgility links collection. Do you have a link or story to add here? Are you considering Inviting More Agility in your real work? This is your invitation to contact me... mailto:michael@michaelherman.com

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