Thursday, October 12, 2023

Introducing our new collaboration - Shaping Agility

In 2015, Martin Burns had a vision.  A passionate agilist and early adopter of and advocate for SAFe, he felt strongly that the community needed a way to come together and collaborate to shape the evolution of the framework.  With the help of his wife Lucy and the support of Scaled Agile Inc, he activated this by creating and hosting the first SAFe Leadership Retreat in Crieff, Scotland.  He was seeking “An event that brings experienced leaders together to build the community and creatively take SAFe forward.”  

Given the general application of SAFe in large enterprise and the prevailing ‘partner consultancy’ based model, creating an environment where both consultants and practitioners came together to transcend boundaries and share was no mean feat.  But Martin’s seemingly boundless energy made it a reality.  Forty people gathered for 2 days of unconference and amazing collaboration and friendship building.

Photos courtesy of Phil Gardiner, unofficial Retreat photographer

We regathered in Banff, Canada in 2016 and then returned to Scotland for 3 days in Edinburgh in 2017.  The conversations were rich, the friendships deepened, and the sense of community continued to grow.   The influence on the framework was also tangible – Essential SAFe being a great example of something created in a breakout session entailing an intense discussion about how much you could remove from SAFe without breaking it. 

Sadly, in 2019 Martin passed away and the world lost an amazing human being.  Although the SAFe Leadership Retreat disappeared without Martin’s energy, the community he’d inspired lived on.  At every SAFE Summit, SPCT or Fellows gathering you’d find clusters of people who’d formed community at a Leadership Retreat gathered, sharing in deep conversation, reminiscing on the retreats, lamenting their absence in our lives and talking about how bring it back to life.  

The first post-COVID SAFe Summit in Denver last year was no exception.  One of the retreat buddies I reconnected with was Wolfgang Brandhuber.   He had been doing a lot of work on Large Solution and wanted to share some of his thinking about a structure somewhere between an ART and a Team called a Solution Area.  We found a spare flipchart, and an hour later we’d figured out this was almost identical to what I called an ‘Agile Release Tram’ and agreed that we should leverage the fact COVID had taught us virtual collaboration and keep the discussion going once we got home.  We started weekly calls, and it was fun.  We were back to the types of conversations we used to have time for at the Retreat, but without the 24 hours on a plane!   Saahil Panikar started to join us, and this series culminated in the events I shared in my ‘Emerging from Seclusion’ post in May.    

As I wrote the ‘seclusion post’ I was sitting in Mexico on a writing retreat.  What I didn’t mention was that I was spending a couple of hours a day chatting to ‘fellow FellowEric Willeke.  I’d been so energized by my collaboration with Wolfgang and Saahil that somewhere on the train between Munich and Prague I’d dreamed up the idea of deliberately creating a collaboration community.  I didn’t know what it looked like, but I did know it involved a Discord community server and lots of collaboration and creation.  Serendipitously, Eric had reached a point in his ’year of not working’ where he was starting to think about what a return looked like.  We’d both shared the Leadership Retreat experience, both enjoyed engaging with others who could stretch our thinking and both felt very values-driven in our creative intent.  Further, if there was one person in the world I knew could challenge my thinking on pretty much anything in the world of Enterprise Agility it was Eric!

What quickly emerged was the idea of creating a community which provided a shared platform to enable collaboration between thought leaders.  The backdrop to our conversation was an amazing book Eric had pointed me to: Jacqueline Novogratz’s ‘Manifesto for a Moral Revolution’.  We knew the community needed to be purpose-driven, even if our purpose paled in comparison to “changing the way the world tackles poverty”.  Eric’s purpose of ‘Creating a stress-free world of work in pursuit of a kinder, more abundant world of humans’ aligned incredibly strongly with my ‘Create a world where people are excited to come to work and fulfilled by the outcomes they’re a part of creating’, so we had a foundation for the journey ahead.

In true agile fashion, we embarked on an iterative process.  We wanted a ‘collaboration rather than a company’, so we began by testing our ability to generate routine collaboration and generative discussion via our Discord community.   Novogratz suggests that “if you are a change agent, then you are by definition a nonconformist”.  Eric and I both love to ‘live on the edge’ teasing at the boundaries of ‘SAFe Canon’ and our other founding members Wolfgang and Saahil were no strangers to living on the edge either so when it came to picking a name Eric’s ownership of the domain made life easy – we became ‘Shaping Agility’.  

Next came livestreaming.  We didn’t want to share polished content, we wanted to share the process of creation.  In 'The 5th Discipline', Peter Senge suggests that the discipline of working with mental models “includes the ability to carry on ‘learningful’ conversations that balance enquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others”.  This was what we wanted, not just between those of us in the inner community but between us and the broader community of change agents and practitioners.  

We started with a Shaping Agility channel on, the dominant streaming platform in the world of e-sports.   This was brand new territory for me, and I’ll confess I learnt more from my two daughters (who both stream their gaming) than my more traditional forms of research.  We’d been holding a regular Saturday session with whoever could make it and we started streaming them.  My daughter Sammi is an audio engineer by day and helped us figure out the technology in between giggling at my ineptitude and after a couple of sessions where she was our only audience and we struggled our way through managing both the stream and the conversation it felt like it was starting to gel.  

Next came persisting the broadcasts.  Balancing the Australian/European/US timezones meant our conversations happened at very weird times and we needed a way for people to ‘catch what they’d missed in the middle of the night’.  So, we created the Shaping Agility Youtube channel and after a few video editing tutorials I started editing out the glaring flaws in our streams and posting them.  We shared them with a few friends and colleagues for feedback and our community started to grow.

Two things were happening for me over this time.  Firstly, I was loving the learning journey of bringing this community to life and our learning cycles on making it work.   We could feel a high performing team emerging even though we all ran our own companies with our own separate offerings.  We looked forward to our conversations, we laughed, we debated, we learnt, we improved.  

Secondly, the creative energy was flowing back into my personal work.  I’d created a one-day experiential course back in 2015 called ‘Experiencing SAFe’ and despite many good intentions had created nothing bigger than a workshop since.  All of a sudden I was in the thick of creating and delivering a ‘Lean Portfolio Management bootcamp’.  I’d be in a discussion with Eric and he’d reference a book I hadn’t read and I’d race off to read and fill the gap.  The process that began in May is now most definitely running at full steam.  Meanwhile Eric has launched the pilot of his cohort-based mentoring program for leading change – Unleashing Scale.

As I write this, we’re shaping the next iteration.   We're playing with ideas for extra shows for the stream.  Wolfgang is preparing to launch a 64-part series on Large Solution, while Michael Casey and Dave Eva joined Eric, Wolfgang and I this morning for the first episode of a weekly bookclub study series on The 5th Discipline.

The decision to go a little more public also prompted a big backlog refinement session.  Among other things, we're going to need a website rather than a redirect to twitch and an approach to engaging more broadly with those who have feedback on the ideas we stream.  We had a bare minimum of stuff we needed to articulate more clearly before this post went live, assembled it on a Miro and decided that the lightest weight version of it was a stream to share (and a learning lesson on audio levels for Eric's first time being the host).

I hope you'll enjoy joining us on the learning journey as much as we're enjoying learning together.

In memory of Martin Burns, sorely missed and never forgotten!

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