The Agile Organisation Experiment: genesis of a life changing model

Since fifteen years or more likely all my life, I love to experiment with things. I love to understand how things are working. I love finding easy tricks giving a colossal impact.

Agile is one of those things that stuck in the back of my head, asking for freedom.

Before agile, I worked in the Kaizen and System Thinking domain. When I discovered Agile, I got that release in my body telling me “Yes, ‘that’s it”. And all the puzzles in my mind are coming together, making a fantastic picture.
How to share that picture? Most of the people acting in the agile area are just speaking about software engineering or project management, and when I came with my view, nobody understood me. That moment was a dark period, and I was confused by the comments “Pierre, this is high level” or “this an abstraction” when in mind this was concrete and sense-making.

In the meantime, it was 2011; I was attending some conferences around the Agile topic like Agile Tour, Lean Kanban and one very intriguing unconference called Play4Agile.

Knowing some organizers from Play4Agile, I went there opening eyes, ears and chakras to absorb all the knowledge that I can grab in such a place. That experience was excellent and, indeed I went there one year later for the second edition.

I had the same enchantment with a drop of interrogations. The second time you always can compare from your first experience, and you are starting to look at the surroundings and see what improvements can be done.

I ‘couldn’t attend the third edition and I left my seat to my friend Yann who came back with the same stupid smile of his face that I have years before.
In the period between the editions, my mind was almost boiling with ideas of improvements. I was starting to think about how to bring into Luxembourg where I lived at that moment.

The registration of the next edition has started on Twitter. Yann and I were sitting in front of our computers to register precisely at the second the registration opened. What happened?

Nothing happened. Everything was already booked. The organizers send a message that we have to provide a video showing up our motivation.
This process was too much for me. This way was not how my brain understands agile. My French-German blood boiled…a couple of seconds. And Yann telling me, “‘let’s do your idea.”

The idea

We didn´t want to create competition; we wanted to create an evolution of that awesome unconference.
All the useful parts we liked have to be kept such:
- the open space format
- the serious game topic
- the 2,5 days format

and some needed to be improved, like:
- not agile only
- embrace diversity even challenges and competition
- no rock stars
- no conflict of interest
- coming to people and not asking them to come
- multiple locations and a couple of times per year
- building a family-like community

That is the concept. But we need to be more than two to create the project. Yann invited his friend Cedric to join, and at this moment, Play14 emerged.

The last five years, Play14 has grown from Luxembourg to London and Beirut, to Madrid, Barcelone, Porto, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Basel, Berlin, Hamburg, Milan, Bari, Bologna, Timisoara, Sydney, Mexico, Kuala Lumpur, Gruyere, Vienna and projects in Mongolia, Sofia. Slovenia, Costa Rica, Argentia and Uruguay.
The awesome when you attend one of the events in any cities is that you understand how that works. And you embrace the local interpretations, the spice that makes every event unique but part of a whole.
The founders do not manage all this; it is the results of engaged and passionate people getting support from all the community (Play14Family) with straightforward rules to follow. We do less and less and try to empower every city to be independent.

But I have to be honest with you here; there is a little bit of science behind it.

The science behind Play14

When creating Play14 with my colleagues, I was researching and consulting on the initial phases of agile organisation design.

The concept was to create a structure allowing a complex behaviour. That structure has to be a safe-to-fail container supporting self-organising agents (people) dynamic. That concept might be a draft of what could be an agile organisation model.

I had three marvellous tools in my box:
- Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology as a structure (system design)
- Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model as a dynamic system process
- Jane McGonigal’s Gamification approach as system influencer

What is a system influencer? It is a soft way to “manage” a complex system. By nature, a complex system cannot be managed at all; it stops the expected dynamic. But, I discovered that gamification could increase the impact of a complex system. That is not during the complex dynamic, but before and after. The whole agile dynamic is more effective when it’s playful. Curious.

The process

The first half-day is socializing only. You learn who is there. We make ice breakers or stupid games for fun, and it is the moment when we explain how we organize the next days.

While explaining the open space rules, the organizers are asking who, in the audience, wants to facilitate the marketplace for the next day so that the organizers can step back and become participants.

Once done, everyone is taking dinner all together (that´s important) in the main room where the open space will take place the next day.

The second day is an open space. We start with ice-breakers again than we open the market place. Once the market is over, everyone attends or deliver whatever he wants. All sessions have a particular rule in it: you have to ask for feedback; as a facilitator, you must explain for what this is good for at the end.
At the end of the second day, we debrief all together. We make a small retrospective. We call for a facilitator for the third day.

The third day follows the same process than the second day, but in the end, the organizers are coming back to review and cheer.

The main difference is the attention given to socializing. The socializing part welcomes warmly and reduces fear. It creates a confidence zone where you are free to make stupid and funny things or more pressing matters. It creates a sense of intimacy, even if you are eighty. It gives straightforward rules to avoid collision and the direction to point out (the time).

And because the open space rules are so simple, it isn´t necessary to control. Some attendee tried to manage in the past: but it never worked at all because the system can regulate itself.

Closing that story

As I mentioned earlier, I use Play14 to test the concept of an Agile organisation that lead me to the development of AO. Having people attending Play14 with an agile background and telling me that Play14 was for them the first agile experiment they make, was and always is for me a massive moment of joy.
Until today and with that story, nobody knew that they were a Gremlin in the box.

Cheers

Pierre

On my business card, I wrote Agile Coach. My Agile coaching is an evolution of systemic coaching putting myself in the system and not as an outstanding observer