Friday, February 28, 2020

SORT Canvas - Focusing change discussions

Often, everyone in the room has a different perspective on what could and should be done, and discussions go in circles. How do you facilitate the discussion to move forward?

I have created the SORT Canvas to discuss high-impact change initiatives. Its main area of applicability is complex, systemic long-term change, i.e. organizational change initiatives. 
It can also be used for Team Retrospectives, although that's not its main focus.

This simple canvas allows you to steer discussions about change initiatives towards agreement and first results. Plan 2 hours for a full canvas session.

An example use case for the canvas might be SAFe's "Inspect and Adapt Workshop", when the trains needs to discuss more than small changes.

Discussion Ground Rules

  1. Have everyone in the room: Make sure that all parties contributing to the situation and the potential solution are in the room. This doesn't mean all people - representatives suffice.
  2. Choose a topic: Pick a single topic, and focus on that topic. Agree to de-scope topics that are only borderline relevant or unrelated.
  3. Use abstractions: Complex environments have a lot of nitty-gritty details. When discussions get into details that aren't relevant for the group as a whole, abstract.
  4. Align perspectives: Every person has a different perspective when the discussion starts. Instead of having people elaborate their own perspective, focus the discussion on "What do others need to know?" and "Where is my perspective different from that of others?" in terms of the four topics.
  5. Move sequentially: Explain the four segments of the discussion (Situation, Objectives, Roadmap, Tasks) - and decouple the steps. Do not pre-empt by jumping between the four sections. Have points in the discussion where you explicitly ask, "Can we move on to the next section?"
  6. Write it down: As early as possible, write down a point. Move as quickly as possible to answer the question, "Can we all agree on this?" - if not, make sure disagreement is heard.
  7. Stop circular discussion: When we return to a point that's already written down in the current section, stop.
  8. Clarify the goal: The goal is to come up with a common understanding of what problem we currently have, what we are going to do about it - and how that will help us reach a better state.

S - Situation

The first step is to come to a common understanding of which situation we are currently facing. Especially in larger organizations, people have vastly different perspectives - more so if they come from different departments and experience a clash of interests.

Describing the situation usually starts with a short description of either the main problem we face or the main change we want to make.

For example:

  • an initial problem description could be: "IT doesn't deliver high quality" versus "Business is too vague on Acceptance criteria". The conflict is obvious - the solution isn't.
  • an initial change description could be: "We want to move from specialist teams to cross-functional teams."

Neither of these are workable, and there are typically a lot of reasons why the situation currently is like it is. Note down the key problems, such as unwanted side effects or unfortunate long-term outcomes along the way. The description of these will help us focus the discussion for later steps.

Techniques like Five Why, CLD or Fishbones could be used to guide this discussion, although that may already be method overkill. Most discussions are sufficiently focused.

Try to get the most critical 5-10 points written down before moving on.

After describing the situation, we can choose to limit our further discussion to a subset of the situation or problem statements before moving to the next section.

O - Objectives

Captain Obvious would state, "We don't want to have those problems any more" - although that is too generic. Let's be specific on what the future would look like: which problems are gone, and how is it instead?

For example:

  • An objective describing the future state could be: "IT and business agree before implementation on what defines high quality" or "A single team has both all the competency and authority to deliver Working Software to Production"

As you noted in my example, they contain the words "and", so they are indeed more than one item, and should be separated out, for example the first item might turn into:

  • "Business agrees that the solution is of high quality when the Acceptance Criteria are met",
  • "Teams agree to deliver solutions that exactly match the Acceptance Criteria",
  • "Teams will pro-actively communicate when AC's aren't clear",
  • "Both parties will collaborate to finalize the AC's before the Sprint",
  • "When teams feel AC's previously agreed upon no longer make sense, they will seek dialogue."

Point in case: specifying an objective without "And" or "Or" ensures that different perspectives are properly discriminated, conflations are resolved - and ambiguity is clarified.

It's entirely valid to have multiple objectives: it means that the change might be more complex, or that only a few of them would be pursued in the remaining discussion.

In some cases, a single change action will create progress on multiple objectives - in that case, it's good to be broad on the objectives. Otherwise, it might be a good time to pick a subset of objectives before moving to the next section.

R - Roadmap

When we know where we stand and where we want to go, it's a good time to start asking: "How do we get from here to there?"

During this stage of the discussion, we should try to find the most effective way to proceed from the current situation to where we want to go.

Simple changes mean that it's a single change, and that would also mean the roadmap is quick and easy. If all participants agree that no intermediate action is required, that's great - and we can move already to step 4.
More likely though, you'll have to iterate and make a series of incremental changes to achieve sub-goals. 
The purpose here, again, is not to make a comprehensive plan for perfection - it's to outline the major milestones on the road to success.

Returning to our example, the roadmap could look like this:
  • "Align Definition of Done with Business"
  • "Business people actively participate in Planning"
  • "Everyone knows how to ask key questions in Planning"
  • "Acceptance Criteria are robust"
While having SMART items on the roadmap is nice, it's much more important that participants agree on the roadmap items, their value and effectiveness. We also need to ask how fast the change would proceed. If we already know that it's going to be years until the objectives are achieved, it's not even important what the items further down in the plan are - what's important is that we agree that the first two or three points are actionable.
We will inspect and adapt anyways.

T - Tasks

Once we know the key milestones on our change journey, it's important to agree on the specific next steps.
To reiterate: the purpose is not to come up with a comprehensive change plan. The purpose of this activity is to get actionable outcomes of the meeting, clear next steps that we'll work on.

When we define tasks, we first need to agree on the most critical milestones on our roadmap - what we want to achieve first, as well as that which has the highest probability to "make or break" the change. 

Here are actions to consider:
  • Moving forward quickly, i.e. "quick wins".
  • Actions that minimize change risk, i.e. "pivoting".
  • Building the groundwork for future change, i.e. "go slow to go fast".
For each action, make sure that everyone agrees they are clearly linked to the objectives and roadmap.

Once you have agreed on maybe a dozen potential actions, decide which are the first three you will tackle. Be specific on what you want to do, who will do it - and when. Ensure that people commit to taking ownership - never assign a responsible person!

The general rule applies that you can't assign tasks to people who are not in the room. What you can do is formulate tasks like "Get buy-in from <person> for <action>" and have an attendee take ownership. Once you have identified that the specific person is necessary part of the change process, they need to be part of further sessions.

Make sure there's follow-up after the meeting ends.
An approach that might come to mind for dealing with following up on the tasks might be the "POPCORN Flow".

Wrapping up

With all participants, agree that the meeting has described a relevant problem, a desirable objective, a feasible roadmap and important actions.
Agree to a future appointment to follow up for an Inspect and Adapt session where the SORT will be repeated - revisiting all four segments.

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