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Ep. 83: Agendashift


The episode delves into Mike Burrows' book "Agendashift," praising its practical, human-centered approach to organizational change and emphasizing its utility as a guide for facilitators looking to drive meaningful outcomes through empathy and customized strategies.

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podcast recording


In the most recent episode, Peter and Dave engage in a thoughtful discussion on Mike Burrows' book "Agendashift". They highlight the book's unique consolidation of practices and experiences that Burrows has accumulated while working with clients. They particularly appreciate the book's straightforwardness and how it almost reads like a how-to guide for those facilitating conversations.

The book focuses on emergent approaches that can be tailored to an individual organization, rather than a one-size-fits-all framework. They appreciate that each chapter includes exercises, underlying principles, and theories. Peter and Dave also acknowledge the book's emphasis on the human behavior side of things, which can be easy to overlook during transformations.

This week's takeaways:

  • How do you create outcomes that are relevant?
  • Empathy is a change agent super-power
  • How to Guide- Facilitator driven


We love to hear feedback! If you have questions, would like to propose a topic, or even join us for a conversation, contact us here:


[00:00:00] Peter Maddison: Hello, and welcome to another exciting episode of Definitely Maybe Agile with your hosts, Peter Maddison and David Sharrock. How are you today, Dave?

[00:00:07] Dave Sharrock: I'm doing fantastic, Peter. It's been a long time that we've actually taken the time out to record a conversation. I think we've had plenty of conversations, but actually taken the time to record something. We've certainly been thinking about how we can pull some ideas together and I think the format that will be leaning towards will hopefully even more valuable for our listeners.

[00:00:28] Peter Maddison: Yeah, exactly. And we decided we would try and kick this off and see if people were interested in hearing us talk about some books. And maybe bring some people in and have some other conversations. These are the kind of things we're thinking of experimenting with a little. This week we've been busy reading. We have a book topic to talk about, right?

[00:00:45] Dave Sharrock: We're always reading, of course. This is how you stay ahead as any sort of coach or consultant. As we pulled our list of books together, we are trying to look at something that might be relevant when we're thinking about digital transformations or any sort of organizational transformation. Mike Burrows has been in this space for many years. He's obviously, a very well recognized author and practitioner in this space. I think his book Agendashift really gives us a great place to start.

[00:01:11] Peter Maddison: I think so too. It's a book, and a practice, that I've known for many years and I've used quite a lot of the exercises in it with many of the clients I've worked with, quite effectively. So I think it's a great place to start and have a conversation about it.

[00:01:24] Dave Sharrock: In Agendashift, Mike Burrows has consolidated many of the practices and the experiences that he's had working with many different clients and spelled it out in a pretty short book. It's a nice and straightforward read. There are so many books that start at that high level of principles, and you have to work hard to actually apply it in your context. What I really appreciated about Agendashift is that it almost reads like a how to guide for those of us facilitating these conversations. It's not a framework that you're going to go and cookie cutter. It's how do you emerge the right approach in your organization.

[00:01:59] Peter Maddison: Yeah. It's nice the way that he's laid out each chapter. Here's how it would go, and here's the method, here's the exercise. Then the second part of the chapter is here's some theories, principles, other exercises, things you might try. What's underlying this? What 's the reason we chose to do this, at this point in the sequence.

[00:02:15] Dave Sharrock: When I think about the conversations that we've recorded over the last few years, we're often walking that fine line between consulting or guiding as a coach, versus trying to achieve significant steps forward in an organization, while at the same time being respectful of the human aspect. As a reminder to me, it brought back the basics of open space technologies, of liberating structures, of care to take with the language and the questions that we use. If we think of the many transformations that we've been involved with in the last few years, I think that reminder of working with the human behavior side struck home to me.

[00:02:57] Peter Maddison: Yeah, there's definitely a lot of empathy in the writing. It's about that generative concept, but with very much the idea of focus on the people. Focus on what they're bringing to the table, and help people through that. It's very powerful in that respect.

[00:03:11] Dave Sharrock: There's a great quote in there that is just one of those tweetable quotes, which is "Empathy is a change agents superpower". You can step into an organization and it's very easy to see a solution or see a path forward and try and bring people to that path, to that realization, to effectively take a me first approach. Where we need to go, and trying to persuade people to see the same thing that I'm seeing. So many of the exercises are a reminder.

[00:03:36] Agendashift doesn't give you the answers. It's not telling you, this is the framework and this is what you have to do, and this is what you need to impose in your organization. It's giving you a generative, human-centric, conversational, identify where you need to spend time. How do you come to the right outcome-based approaches? If you're going in there for a framework, you're not going to come out with the framework that you were thinking you were going to come in for.

[00:03:59] If you're going there with, "How do I get buy-in? How do I bring people on that journey?". Now I think you're talking. There's some really powerful, simple phrases. The thought given into the questions and the language is just tremendous.

[00:04:12] Peter Maddison: It is. And I love some of the key pieces that he's bringing to the table. It's not about a specific set of obstacles or outcomes. It's about how do you create outcomes that are relevant to you? How do you start to analyze that, bring it together? How do you explore what those might be? How do you come up with your solutions?

[00:04:31] Dave Sharrock: Yeah, absolutely. We should also recognize, there's a range of different templates. And again, from a tools perspective, it's a really great resource. There's templates, there's surveys, there's a number of different references. There's also a very complete reading list. I was actually looking this thinking, if I'm an Agile Coach or a transformation agent, building up experience, this would be one of those dogeared books that you're using for a few years as you hone your skills in front of clients.

[00:04:57] Peter Maddison: Yeah. I have found over the year, I've used quite a few of these exercises, myself. I think the ones that I've used most are the ones at the beginning. The opening ones, the discovery exercises, the good obstacle, bad obstacle. So, thinking about things in more positive terms, essentially.

[00:05:12] Dave Sharrock: Yeah. There's a number of key things. Take a look at it and put some of those ideas in practice. If you're familiar with a lot of the facilitation practices, you'll see a very deep understanding, and very strong application of those. If you're not familiar, trust the wording in the page and follow through.

[00:05:29] I spend a lot of time with leadership, trying to help them explain some of the things that they're looking at. The option approach mapping piece, is something that leads to some fantastic conversations. A number of conversations I'm having right now, where organizations have to begin understanding the problem space that they're working on. How they can translate that into actions. There are two realizations that I thought were really powerful, and I want to focus specifically on one, which is the left-to-right, versus right-to-left. That is, if I'm going left-to-right, I'm starting off with planning things, understanding what the gap is between where we want to go and where we are. It's what we are taught from school onwards, right? Sit down, think about things, plan it out. Left-to-right. Now, what's interesting, there's a lot of security around that, as you move from left to right. But of course, from an emergent perspective, from putting the customer needs front and center. Working from outcomes on the right hand side, and then looking to the left, to see what are the areas that we need to improve, change, build. That's right-to-left thinking. I thought that description was a really powerful way of immediately understanding some of the friction that we get in any organization when we try and introduce complexity thinking. Try and introduce outcome-based thinking. Just simple things like product versus project thinking. Product being right-to-left, project being left-to-right, as an example.

[00:06:52] Peter Maddison: Yeah. I find that very powerful too. When he is talking about Kanban, we look at the board from right to left. We don't look at it from left to right. And then walking people through why that is. Understanding how that works from a systems perspective, how that causes work to move forward. He uses it here, both in that sense, and in that strategy sense, as you're saying.

[00:07:10] Dave Sharrock: That one, I'll continue to noodle on because of course there's no straightforward answers. We know there isn't. It's a complexity piece in and of itself. What that led to is being able to reframe some of the challenges that we see in organizations. Legacy structures modelling legacy behaviors so strongly that they impede rather than support, transformation. And it's really difficult, you can't call that out because people will fight back on it. They're going to say, "No, hold on. We understand where we're going. We'll adjust our legacy structures and adjust our legacy behaviors". We are always going to do what we always know how to do. We feel safe, we feel comfortable with it, and it actively prevents the transformation happening.

[00:07:51] Peter Maddison: I think the missing piece out of that is the incentives. You need incentives and behaviors, and structure as the support. And incentives isn't just necessarily monetary incentives. Incentives can also be power structures in your organization. Incentives can be what is causing the behavior that you see. You see this a lot in the middle where the top of the organization is saying, "We are going to go agile. We're going to change, and we're going to be faster, and better, and customer focused". They say all the right words, and the folks at the bottom go, "Yay!". And the people in the middle go, "Uh, okay, but you're still asking me to hit those numbers. What I did last year allows me to hit those numbers. So I'm going to do the same thing I did last year". And nothing changes.

[00:08:32] Dave Sharrock: There's a lot of these different plays. Again, there's some great models in a Agendashift for us to start investigating, and reading about, and applying. This is something that we've talked about a lot. We need to start a transformation through emergent activities. We've got to get buy-in. We've got to co-create the understanding of where we are, and what we need to change. Once that change has been set in motion, how do you accelerate it? This is one of the key things, is you need both. You need that co-creation. But, how do you push the button accelerate and standardize some of those changes? DevOps, for example, tends to do that really well because it lends itself to it. There's a lot of technology, a lot of automation, a lot of tools that allow you to consolidate some of those decisions and allow you to accelerate that change. Harder to do in some of the other examples that we've shared around, digital transformations.

[00:09:20] Peter Maddison: As we always say, as you need to start with the people first. Then get to the tooling that's going to reinforce that set of behaviors. So having the right pieces in place, but there's always this chicken and egg situation there. It isn't either or, we need both. But we do need to get the people on board first with the idea of where we're going, so that we're successful with introduction of the other pieces.

[00:09:39] Dave Sharrock: Any other kind of standout pieces that you drew from that reading?

[00:09:44] Peter Maddison: I like the option approach. The whole tie-in Cynefin and how he presents that information. I've used that actually as a reference in a recent course I recorded on value stream management.

[00:09:53] The relationship between Option Relationship Mapping and Wardley Mapping is interesting to me as well. The relationships between options and visibility, which is interesting, right? I found that one quite intriguing.

[00:10:06] One of the models that I feel I need more time to go away and digest is that taste X Matrix. I read through that and went, "Oh yeah, I'm going to have to come back to that, and think about that a little bit more."

[00:10:16] Dave Sharrock: Yeah. There is a lot of moving parts in that. And recognized some of the challenges with scaling it.

[00:10:20] I think part of what we're talking about here, and this is something we've got to remember, that sits behind Agendashift, but also a lot of Mike Burrough's work, is the impact Kanban has on organizational change. Sometimes we come at Agile from that view of teams and how teams behave. Kanban at an organizational change level is very powerful. And is underrated perhaps, or at least not talked about as much as it could be. And I think that underpins many of those conversations that we're hinting at here.

[00:10:47] Peter Maddison: Agree. I had this conversation the other day, with a new client and the way they introduced their knowledge of Agile was Agile equal Scrum, and DevOps equals structure. A little bit more to it than that...

[00:10:59] One of the other pieces in there I quite liked was the two MBM piece as well. Just as a nice genomic around meaning before metric, and measure before method.

[00:11:08] Dave Sharrock: That's clever. Don't you hate it when somebody comes up with a mnemonic like that! Joking aside, we're in a world where everybody's talking about OKRs. Everyone's talking about some sort of metrics, and delivery. And I think it's important we need to start bringing that back into the conversation. Meaning before metric, or measure before method, absolutely. Think about what you're trying to look at and understand it before targeting the metrics.

[00:11:30] And we've had this conversation many times where we'll talk about focus on cycle time, focus frequency of release. This is just that reminder of, it isn't ubiquitous. We need to sit and understand it. It reminds me of a great article recently in Harvard Business Review about Toyota and how they've built queues to manage uncertainty in the supply chain. Which is the opposite of what anybody who's thinks at that introductory level. It depends where you are. What problem is he trying to solve?

[00:11:57] Peter Maddison: What they're doing there is, they're utilizing the data. How they consume within the system. There's a hundred thousand parts that go into a car. They identify the 200, that if they're not available, will slow down the entire system, and they build the cues of those.

[00:12:12] Dave Sharrock: Yeah. That's interesting, but what I even better about that article, was the way they said that it's seasonal as well. They just accused based on the risk associated with bad weather. That's a level of understanding about what influences your ability to deliver, so far beyond.

[00:12:31] Peter Maddison: I was impressed by the amount of attention to detail and knowledge about how your system works, to be able to do that is.