What if “Agile” is nothing more than the dynamic of a system?

As an agile coach, it is utterly annoying to be considered as an evangelist or whatever guru. This role is perhaps a mark of respect, and that’s fine, but when you are working daily with teams this becomes weird while trying to help, and people see you as another “Moses” and not as a helper.

Every year new agile coaches are emerging, and they are doing the same that I and some of my friends did a decade to 20 years ago. Genuinely this is okay, and it is like when your five years old child is showing up it is drawing. You are amazed by this mix of curves and stripes because you acknowledge the effort. But in fact, you have to admit that your child isn’t that great artist. That’s all to say that every year’s new people are coming with the same ideas, the same old ideas and even hijack the original sense of a concept without improving the early concept or worse transform very tiny subparts and develop their thoughts like a syllogism. So ‘let’s try something new.

In 2011, I attended the seminar of Leading in Complexity by Dave Snowden in Frankfurt(Germany), and it was a blast for me. The explanation of the Cynefin framework helped me to understand how systems are behaving and how to act on it. Much later, in a very passionate conversation on LinkedIn this year, I discover that my understanding is a bit different from the average mass of ‘Snowden’s fan, maybe ‘I’m wrong, but I want to explain how different it is.

Most of my colleagues are using Cynefin like a static measure to understand how a system is. The problem, this is an assumption, this is an observation from somebody outside of that system. You have to know that every observer is impacting them, and the only choice you have is to be part of that system.

What is happening in the system from the Cynefin perspective?

credits www.cognitve-edge.com

On the borders of the Cynefin diagram, you can see links and dots. The dots are related to the agents in the system (can be a bunch of things, but in my case, it will be people). The links are representing how the interaction of those dots (people) is in a particular domain:

Since 2011, I considered the yellow dot like the representation of leader or manager or authority and the black ones like “team members”.

Then I translate the Cynefin model slightly differently:

credits Dave Snowden, Cognitive Edge

This learning loop was for me a second blast even I do not fully agree on that picture. My pain point is on the crossing of “Disorder”, the black hole in the middle. “Disorder” is the unknown and is like the “0” in numbers, and it helps to define “Chaos” and another form of dynamics and not as an anonymous form. I don’t like it because it gives credit to take actions in a system which we have no data (unknown). A bit contradictory but I’m pretty sure there is a perfect answer on that.

Anyway, from my first interpretation and while using the Learning representation, I started to design a facilitation process called PLöRK. This model works like that:

This demonstration sounds easy. Once I made a train-the-trainer session in an insurance company because they wanted to know more about PLöRK. The first two stages worked well, and I brought the crowd into the Complex. Then I saw that one member was answering emails on his Mobile Phone. I waited until the student was finished and told the crowd that I had forgotten something. I pulled them out of Complex to Complicated. I had to explain the goal of that exercise again, and I ensured that all phones are moved away, and relaunch the loop with better results.

credits Pierre Neis

Here is the model. If we take a scrum as an example, it looks like this:

So, let’s assume that you agree with my demonstration. What happens if someone asks a team member during the sprint to do something not aligned with the sprint goal? What happens if someone interrupts the sprint like a manager making an unplanned All-hands meeting? Or are you having a visiting agile coach?
It happens to like my student answering email during my class. The dynamic broken and you have to relaunch the loop.
To ensure the adequate dynamic, the scrum master has to care about that. I say scrum master for that example, but it can be the Process Manager (in Kanban) or an Agile coach. The responsibility for those roles is enormous because they have to care about the system created by the team. They are part of the team and protect the system from external threats. They can’t be an authority (yellow dot), in fact, no one in the order is an authority, and it managed on its own (self-management principle).
In my example, I used scrum to tell a story about agile system dynamics. I believe that scrum brings the minimal organisational setup with just enough roles to ensure a great dynamic with less “authority” impact.
At the early stages of agile, a team is on its way to complex adaptive system behaviour but cannot fulfil the expectation of a complex adaptive system due to the strong result oriented context. In parallel, R&D tracks are working in a sufficiently complex mode with the only constraint to show up monthly their findings like below (complex-complicated-complex dynamic in fact):

credits Pierre Neis

The Cynefin model isn’t enough to understand agile systems dynamics. The core principle is to build a system allowing “agile behaviour”. And that behaviour is emergent (empirical). Emergent means that the system learns by itself while experimenting (praxis) and discovering his abilities allowing to modify its boundaries: tight enough to see its limits, large enough to have the freedom to progress. D. Snowden is often using the metaphor on the 8th child birthday party, and here I have to consider all the birthday parties of a growing child (this is the purpose of the retrospective in scrum).

credits Pierre Neis

By adding Flocking behaviour theory with the Cynefin model, then your scrum looks again a bit more different and exciting:

I agree that this can be an obscure explanation, but I will sum it like this:

credits Pierre Neis

Simples rules applied to scrum and agile:

How does scrum looks alike when applying Agile Systems Dynamics then?

You take the basic rules defined in the scrum guide and improve it with these nine principles:

Scrum X, core principle
Scrum X, set the stage
Scrum X, everything is not an option
Scrum X, Decide
Scrum X, no never ending stories
Scrum X, human relations
Scrum X, balance is everything
Scrum X, what do you realy want?
Scrum X, set the pace

Now, you have all the tools to move on into agile and take care of:

Scrum X, from mechanic to dynamic

As a conclusion, I didn’t address how to build a system in this post and nor what a system is. One thing for you to take into account that the system works when decisions are bringing into the system and not outside-in. If you are a scrum practitioner and your Product Owner isn’t part of the team. He or she is not in the system.

Heidelberg, May 1st 2019


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