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Shifting the Agenda on Business Improvement

Updated: Mar 12, 2019

In our role as consultants, we get a lot of inquiries for help with business improvements. In many cases after a one-hour meeting, we get asked if we can provide a proposal. On the surface of it, it seems like a reasonable request, but the implications of proposing a long-term support strategy based on this one meeting poses some non-insignificant risk for our prospective clients. While the one-hour long meetings typical go well, and we uncover lots of great context – it’s still missing a lot of clarity around the business' goals and, just as importantly, what obstacles are in their way.

I’ve written in the past about hiring agile consultants and cautioned about the trap of hiring them as full-time supporters for your delivery teams. Proposing a plan at this stage, essentially puts you into this mode. It is unlikely that, given what you know at this stage, you have sufficient clarity on how to best support your client.

At SquirrelNorth, we believe we need to find pragmatic ways to support our client’s existing company's processes, culture and marketplace challenges. We want to identify where you want to be & the obstacles that are currently preventing you from being there. It’s from there that we focus on equipping you to evolve how you work, at your pace.

Over time we’ve evolved an approach to solve this engagement-start problem through what we call our “Engagement Design Week". We've been adapting this approach as we continue to evolve and improve it. The most impactful development for us, has been the inclusion of an approach called Agendashift, developed by author and consultant Mike Burrows. Agendashift at its core looks to bring clarity to business problems by uncovering and focusing on business outcomes. Clear and specific outcomes are a great platform for any consultant to develop an appropriate approach for support.

Three steps in one week

We structure Engagement Design as one week, as it’s sufficient time to organize a series of workshops into 3 major parts:

  • Part one is about establishing our coaching relationship and developing potential business outcomes.

  • Part two shifts our stance to teaching, in this case we teach a little bit of the Kanban Method to develop a common language and introduce new tools that will be used in the third and last part of the week.

  • Part three is about aligning on the longer term goals and then shifting focus on a set of initial pragmatic outcomes. Options to support those outcomes are developed by leveraging the mid-week training. From there change plans are created.

We aim to get to a clear set of outcomes that the client will be working towards by the end of the week. In doing so, we create the conditions where we can then propose how we can support their achievement of these goals.

So why one week and not one month? More time would certainly help develop more insight to challenges and develop more outcomes or actions for outcomes. However, we are trying to keep the change “batch size” relatively tight. More than a week can introduce the risk of making this a Big Design Up Front activity and we want to leave room for future options and the ability to pivot.

Part One – Engagement Agreements, Discovery & Assessment

Engagement Agreements

Frequently the client who has called us in, wants us to work with their team to support their change agenda. And so, it is very rare that the client is also the sole coachee. The implications are a relationship that is more triangular than direct. The Engagement Design Week needs to include the leaders (“those who take responsibility”) that the client believes will be a necessary part of their change journey.

Given the triangular relationship, there are three relationships paths to be developed and agreed upon. These questions will need to be answered: What information will be shared between us? How will we treat confidentiality? How often will we meet? Who is responsible for what? What values should we expect?

At this point in the week, as we are just kicking off, we don’t ask our clients to finalize their thoughts on this. We just introduce the concept and remind them about it throughout the week. At the week's end we revisit this and seek to come to an agreement.


Starting with the Celebration

There isn’t much that we changed from Agendashift in this initial discovery step. This part serves as the initial invitation to think about outcomes and attempts to describe it using the 5Ws: when, what, who, where and why? This is something that ideally goes on a flipchart that we can easily reference throughout the subsequent days – for example with calibrating questions like “you said you would be celebrating in 3 months, can you get what you've proposed done in that time?”

The Celebration serves as a catalyst for what comes next: developing obstacles. These obstacles in turn leverage the clean-language techniques in the “15-Minute FOTO” to convert obstacles to outcomes. When organizing these outcomes on a board, they are put into 4 complexity quadrants (under the covers but not explicitly discussed with your coachees is the use of Cynefin in this step). An interesting observation when doing this is, is that it reveals something about the current maturity of the organization you are working with. For example, traditional “deterministic” thinking organizations tend to have self-identified more items in the Obvious and Complicated domains.

Delivery Assessment

At this point, we’ve developed and organized a number of potential outcomes. Our experience has been that this is usually just the tipping point. You’ve harnessed the raw thinking in the room, but there are likely a number of important obstacles still missing, and the alignment in the room has not been put to the test. This is where the Delivery Assessment survey comes in.

The Delivery Assessment starts with a survey that asks the client group to rate themselves across six dimensions, with a rating from 1 (poorest) to 4 (best). We have found that conducting the survey in person rather than offline works the best for two reasons: you can provide context and explanations for each question and also, as with any large group, there is always going to be a handful of people that don’t do their homework – life got in their way!

We also adjusted this part of the process to have the survey answers written on sticky notes. And most importantly we added an additional sub question to the survey for each survey question: “what was the reason for this score?” This idea was borrowed from our extensive use of the Fit for Purpose framework for our surveys. It’s valuable as it gives you insightful context as you analyse the answers before the debrief and also becomes a quick generator for further obstacle identification later on.

Our observation has been that for any survey question answered with a 1 or 2, the “what was the reason” is almost always written as an obstacle.

The next day we debrief the group on the results of the assessment; identifying areas of strength, weakness and divergence. With their permission, we help them identify areas they wish to focus on. And here is where we bring back the stickies from the survey and build a histogram on the wall to act as a source of further obstacles to review.

Respondents are asked to clarify the obstacle they rated as 1 or 2, and in this step the facilitator uses the “15-Minute FOTO” technique to help the group generate further outcomes. We now have our 2nd pass of outcomes.

Part Two – Training

If you were to follow standard Agendashift’s flow, you would might be continuing with Exploration and Mapping at this point; but we make a slight detour by diving into training first. The reason for this is that we've observed that the actions developed later have some challenges: the language describing them is not clear to everyone and the action plans can repeat existing failed patterns of work.

SquirrelNorth uses the Kanban Method to give leaders new tools they can use to achieve both a common language and an effective approach to achieve their outcomes. This is the best time to introduce some training, as the training is needed to complete the work as it will be immediately actionable as we move into Mapping and Elaboration steps at the end of the week.

Although we do this with the Kanban Method, it's likely that any approach you use would ideally be trained at this point.

Part Three – Longer term goals and a pragmatic sets of initial outcomes

With all of our desired outcomes identified along with our new Kanban Method skills, we start to complete the work by focusing on organizing the bigger picture into an initial set of outcomes.

Outcomes are mapped into 6 categories. At this point you may wish to ask the group if all categories should be worked on, and if there is sufficient balance? If the group wishes to fill out empty categories, you can revisit obstacles from less-focused areas of the Assessment Survey to generate further outcomes.

Most groups, without facilitation, will attempt to try to solve for too many of their problems all at once. Reflecting back on the Celebration 5W statements and also introducing the concept of Improvement Kata helps temper this. Improvement Kata allows you to frame up the changes as a series of ongoing Target Conditions.

Supporting the concept of a Target Condition, we reintroduce Kanban concepts we covered earlier: we ask the group to treat all outcomes as options and to determine which ones we will commit to. These committed outcomes will form our initial Target Condition which we will use to focus our initial set of change actions. How the group determines which and how many as their initial set of outcomes is varied, but it is important to discuss the implications of large batch sizes during this process: does this group want to achieve less more quickly or take on more but at a slower pace?

Visualizing the commitment point on a whiteboard allows the group to treat this as a 2-column Kanban board flipped on its side.

Once the group has committed to a more reasonable set of outcomes, it’s a good time to go over an experiment-based approach for change. Co-developing a few A3 templates with the group will get them more comfortable and familiar with the process before you invite them to complete more A3 templates on their own. It is important that each of these A3 templates has at least one clear owner in the room and this owner(s) should explicitly acknowledge their accountability.

A closing question to ask would be: “when do we regroup to review the progress on these actions?”

This is our segway back to the coaching agreements discussion we tabled at the very start. When should we regroup, and what will be the nature of everyone’s relationship to each other? Because we use Kanban, we may offer, if appropriate, some options for specific Kanban Cadences at this point.

A real engagement proposal

By the end of this week, our client has already achieved some real progress. The challenges and obstacles have been identified, their outcomes are now clear and they have an action plan along with new skills developed to do something about it. As consultants, trainers and coaches, we can now provide out clients with a pragmatic plan on how we can support them achieve their goals!

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