Constraints that Enable

Enabling constraints are a key concept for understanding and managing the Complex domain described by Cynefin. Unfortunately the concept of enabling constraints is poorly understood. Many attempts to provide examples of enabling constraints tend to assign some form of “goodness” to the concept.


What are Enabling Constraints

An excellent distillation of the literature on enabling constraints can be found here.

At the 2017 Cynefin Retreat in Snowdonia (In the shadow of Cynefin), Alicia Juarrero introduced the following properties of enabling constraints:

  1. Enabling constraints are context sensitive.
  2. Enabling constraints force alignment of the agents which leads to resonance and this creates a higher order system.
  3. The higher order system provides feedback to the agents which constrains their behaviour and stablises the higher order system.

This philosophical description of enabling constraints based on biological systems is too abstract for many to grasp so Alicia gave Barnard Cells as a simpler “mechanical” example.

The challenge has been to find examples that relate to Agile Software Development.

The first example

Study of approaches to portfolio prioritisation approaches led to an understanding that Cost of Delay is a governing constraint. It is effective providing the portfolio only contains items whose value is in the obvious and complicated domains. Given that technical debt always needs to be included in a portfolio, SAFE manages this by creating a separate technical backlog. The problem is that the portfolio never aligns. Responsibility for technical debt is delegated to technologists, and responsibility for business prioritisation sits with the business. True alignment within the portfolio never occurs and the decision making is always sub-optimal as an unnecessary division exists within the portfolio.. Technology and Business do not align where the entire investment can be focused on either Business or Technology as required by the context. Investment decisions are focused around the process which is always subject of failure rather than a team that is resilient and able to adapt. By definition, Cost of Delay cannot evolve because it is the end point.

Capacity Planning has a different approach to portfolio prioritisation. In capacity planning, the constraint is much simpler.

All decision makers (key stakeholders) need to come together on a regular basis to strictly order the portfolio backlog based on the (team level) constraints.

This constraint causes alignment. The decision makers need to create an optimal portfolio. Initially they may try to create a portfolio that optimises their own outcome. The constraint of having to do this regularly (typically a quarter) means that they move from a two person single iteration of the prisoner’s dilemma to a multiple person multi-iteration version of the prisoner’s dilemma. The emergent behaviour of the prisoners dilemma is collaboration, which occurs faster if its a multi agent version. It is normal for the system to fail as part of the emergence of collaboration (Storming to norming transition in the Truckman model). In the capacity planning constraint, the failure normally occurs with the prioritisation method which changes from iteration to iteration, allowing the constraint to remain. (From my experience, even detractors of the constraint will defend it as it provides stability to the organisation). If governing constraints are used, when they fail, the entire constraint can fail and the process can fall apart (Chaos).

The higher order system that emerges from the capacity planning constraint is the team of decision makers that focus on the optimal outcome for the portfolio rather than their individual outcomes. This team is resilient to changes in process.

The General Rule

Understanding that capacity planning is an enabling constraint, and cost of delay is a governing constraint, quickly helped me see other examples of enabling constraints.

Scrum done properly is an enabling constraint. The rules of Scrum, especially swarming, create high performing, high trust teams as a higher order system.

Extreme programming done properly is an enabling constraint. The rules of XP, especially pairing, create high socio-technical system as a higher order system. The socio-technical system is a technology system and a team that maintains and develops the system.

Kanban done properly is an enabling constraint with a high trust team as a higher order system.

The Cynefin framework when used for sensemaking (Four corners contextualisation) is an enabling constraint where the higher order system is a distributed cognition system with a shared understanding of the contexy.

The Cynefin Framework when used for categorisation (Butterfly Stamping) is a governing constraint.

In Safe, bringing the whole team together at the PI planning is an enabling constraint.

In Safe, constraining the approach to planning (everyone in the room), and prioritisation (Hippo enabled WSJF) are governing constraints.

Enabling constraints are contextual. Governing constraints are not contextual, they are fixed in nature. Therefore the following are governing constraints:

  1. Cost of Delay
  2. Black and White Photography
  3. A safety harness
  4. Haiku

As a practitioner, I look forward to feedback from experts on where the above is wrong.

Governing Constraints

Where there is no uncertainty, governing constraints are the most effective approach. Where there is no uncertainty, use of enabling constraints is at best inefficient and at worst destabilising, and destructive.

If you are operating in a constrained organisation where every investment must be supported by a business case articulated in economic terms, and where the investments need to be approved by a finance function, then cost of delay is the ideal prioritisation process. Getting stakeholders to form a team to cooperate on prioritising the portfolio is unnecessary and inefficient.

We value Enabling Constraints OVER Governing Constraints

Assigning goodness or preference to enabling or governing constraints is missing the point.

Enabling constraints are better for complex domains.

Governing constraints are better for complicated domains.

Saying enabling constraints are better than governing constraints is like saying fish are better than bicycles. Its all about context.

Thank you to…

For the past year, a small group have been discussing enabling constraints with the intention of better understanding them, and better communicating the concept. I would like to thank Marc Burgauer, Trent Hone, Alicia Juarrero and Jabe Bloom for including me in some of their discussions. Most of my understanding of the subject comes from these discussions and the patient socratic questioning of Marc Burgauer.

I would also like to thank Paul Ader and Andrew Webster, fellow authorised Cynefin trainers, who are working with me to create training material for the Cynefin Wiki.


Extreme Care when using Cost of Delay

Last Tuesday I gave a presentation at Flow Con France. Alain Buzzacaro (@abuzzacaro) took this great photo.

Extreme Care

This section of the presentation started with a short introduction to Cynefin (At the Snowdonia Retreat in October, I became an Authorised Cynefin Trainer). A number of  classes of investment were categorised using the Cynefin framework. (Thank you again to Alain).

Cynefin Classes of Investment

“Regulatory” investments are obvious. If you want to continue a business, you need to comply with the regulations. You either comply with new regulations or divest the building. It is possible to calculate the value of the investment.

“Cost Saving” investments normally involve defined cost savings. Analysis will lead to a defined value. They are complicated.

“User Needs” investments involve identifying the often unexpressed needs of customers and forming a hypothesis about the need. It is then necessary to test those needs. Forming and Testing hypotheses is by definition in the Complex domain. Testing hypotheses will lead to learning. The value of the learning outcome is by definition difficult to value. Disproving a hypothesis has different value to not disproving.

“Technical Debt” investments reduce lead time, the uncertainty surrounding lead time and the the probability of a bug in production. Accurately estimating the benefits in these terms is uncertain, expressing the benefit in economic terms is a double level of uncertainty. As such, these forms of investment require either hypotheses or action.

“Innovation” investments require action. By their very nature, there is no data to form a hypothesis.

Whereas “Regulatory” and “Cost Saving” investments can be expressed in economic terms, “User Needs”, “Technical Debt” and “Innovation” investments are more commonly expressed in non economic terms. They are expressed in value metrics such as number of customers or “engagement”. An example of comparing “User Needs” investments with “Cost Saving” investments might be “Fifteen million new customers in Vietnam” versus “Two million dollars cost saving in the United States”. There is no exchange rate to perform this conversion. In fact, the exchange rate is a pure expression of strategy. What is more important to the organisation, short term cash flow or longer term growth.

In order to perform an economic comparison, the investments must all be expressed in the same economic units. This means that “User Needs”, “Technical Debt” and “Innovation” investments are at a serious disadvantage in any discussion focused on economic comparison.

Cost of Delay is fundamentally based on the concept of economic comparison. Therefore, if your portfolio contains a mixture of “Regulatory” / “Cost Saving” investments and “User Needs” / “Technical Debt” / “Innovation” investments, extreme care must be taken when using Cost Of Delay.


  • GIVEN the portfolio contains a mixture of “Regulatory” / “Cost Saving” investments and “User Needs” / “Technical Debt” / “Innovation” investments
  • WHEN using Cost of Delay
  • THEN Extreme Care must be taken.

A shorter Cynefin explanation is that Cost of Delay is a governing constraint that is appropriate in Complicated situations, but is not appropriate in the Complex or Chaos domain. In order to prioritise a portfolio containing investments in all five domains, you need an enabling constraint… More in the next blog.


Introducing the Agile Gantt Chart

Before I discovered Agile, I was a Project Manager. One of the most useful tools at my disposal was the Gantt chart. I used the Gantt chart to provide focus around the dependencies that needed to be removed. Many Project Managers coming to Agile discover that there is no Gantt chart and struggle without this powerful tool. This need for the Gantt chart provides a powerful opportunity to engage with experienced project managers. An Agile Gantt Chart provides Project Managers with the tool they need whilst at the same time aligning with Agile approaches.


This first post explains how to create an Agile Gantt Chart. In a later post I will describe the why and how to use it, and some of the practicalities of implementing an Agile Gantt Chart report.

An ordered backlog

The first thing required is a backlog ordered by the business and technology ( oh, and technical debt is a business concern so only one backlog. no technical backlogs allowed). This provides the relative priority of each (meta-) backlog item (MBI).

For example

1. MBI-103 – In order to retain “ABC” customers, we have to satisfy the need to do “DEF” by the “GHI” users. We need to test the hypothesis that “solution JKL” or “solution MNO” will satisfy the need to do ‘DEF”.

2. MBI-127 – In order to retain the revenue from business “XYZ”, we need satisfy the need to demonstrate effective control of the market by the regulator. We have to build “Blah”.

3. MBI-006 – In order to increase engagement with “JKL” customers, the have to satisfy the need to do “Stuff” by the “golden” users. A first scaled version of the “Nimrod” prototype solution is required.

SWAG estimates for epics.

It is likely that each MBI will need more than one team to deliver it*. An epic should be created for each team** to store the team’s estimate of the work involved. The estimate is a SWAG or Sweet Wild Assed Guess which means no one can be held accountable for delivering against it. It is simply an indication of the level of effort involved. The units for the SWAG is number of stories. The product owner, a developer and QA should estimate the number of stories they expect the epic to broken down into. They should spend five to ten minutes discussion to come up with the epic based on previous work done by the team. Using story count instead of team week as the unit of measure means that the estimate does not need to be revisited if the team capability changes dramatically such as doubling or halving in size.

For example, our super teams called the Avengers, X-Men and Defenders have provided SWAG estimates for the MBIs as follows:

Agile Gantt Swag Estimates

The trick with SWAG estimates is to be consistently bad at making estimates rather than try to improve them. The worst thing you can do is put more effort into improving them. We now spend ten times more effort coming up with our sweet wild assed guesses is as crazy as it sounds.

Date estimates for teams

Now that we have the SWAGs, we can estimate how long it will take for each team to do their bit. For that we simply work out how many stories the team deliver on average per week, and calculate the elapsed time for each epic by dividing the SWAG by average stories per week.

For simplicity, we assume all teams deliver five stories per week. The reality is that the number delivered will vary greatly per team but that is OK because each team will adjust its SWAG estimate according to the size of story they work with. An epic with a SWAG of 10 stories will take two weeks.

To calculate the expected due date for the MBI for each team, we simply order the epics according to the order of the backlog. We can see that Avengers complete MBI-103, MBI-127 and MBI-006 at the end of weeks two, five and six respectively, and so on.

Agile Gantt Team Backlogs

Agile Gantt Charts


We now filter so that we can look at each MBI on its own. We now have an Agile Gantt Chart for each MBI.


Agile Gantt MBI103


Agile Gantt MBI127


Agile Gantt MBI006

This is a presentation of Agile data that a traditional project manager can relate to and feel comfortable with.

So looking at the Gantt Charts above, you get a point for every issue you can see with the ‘plans’ above or a point for every improvement you can suggest to the plan. You get a bonus point if you give your suggestion a snappy name, and you can double your bonus if the name contains the word “Mapping”. Please leave your entries as comments below.

* In large organisations it is almost impossible for a single team of seven +/- two people to cover the technology and business domain knowledge required to deliver something of value. Where possible, organisation will often create those teams but more likely it is not possible without getting a developer named Kal, Kara or Kent.

** In Jira, an epic is needed for each team due to the fact that it is not possible to store a SWAG estimate for each team against a single epic. This irksomeness will be discussed in a later post.

Agile Coach – Agile Canary

In Victorian mines, the miners would have a Canary in a cage. If any lethal but odourless gases were present, the Canary would die and fall off its perch. On a transformation, your Agile Coach acts as the Canary.


When your organisation embarks on an Agile Transformation, you effectively create a new organisation with a new set of values within the existing one. Workers at the coal face have value in both organisations, however an Agile Coach only has value in the new organisation with it’s new set of values and associated skills and experience.

The surest sign of a healthy transformation is an Agile Coach who is a valued member of the team. Those embracing the new values will constantly reach out the Agile Coach for advice or more often a bit of encouragement before they try something new. The coach will help them understand how they can try the new thing in a safe to fail way, often pushing people to take on a little extra risk and stretch themselves. The value of the coach is their experience working in the new way that allows them to empathise with people trying new things. A coach with lots of qualifications but little or no experience is useful to no one other than the consultancies that sell them. In fact, good coaches tend to have very few formal Agile qualifications. A good Agile Coach will have an extensive knowledge of many agile practices and a solid network of other coaches that they can call upon when faced with something unfamiliar. This is a reason that home grow Agile Coaches need to be sent to conferences where they can build a network. The question should be “Who did you meet?” rather than “What did you learn?”.

I know a number of coaches that have been involved in “Transformation” projects where the environment has been toxic to Agile Coaches. The coaches are not valued as their experience and knowledge is not valued. Some transformations are outright hostile to Agile Coaches.

  • One coach was “uninvited” to meetings where they could add value, meaning they were invited but when they arrived, their entry to the meeting room was barred.
  • One coach was told to their face “We do not need any Agile Coaches here” when they turned up for a meeting.
  • One coach was replaced by a tame Agile Coach from the software consultancy, someone with lots of qualifications on their LinkedIn profile…
  • One coach was threatened with physical violence by a software vendor because they dared to call into question the capability of the vendor’s people, the ones with all the qualifications.

In all cases like this, the coach felt unvalued, preferring to be in an organsation that might value them rather than one that definitely did not.

As an executive responsible for an Agile Transformation, you should “Go to the Gemba” to see where the work is done. It might be a complete car crash but if the Canary is happily working with the team, then there is probably movement in the right direction. If everything is “perfect” but the Canary is disengaged, chances are you have problems with no movement or movement in the wrong direction.

The ultimate test of the effectiveness of a transformations effectiveness will be the metrics… business metrics, lead time and quality, however if you want an early indication about whether things are heading in the right direction, “Go to the gemba” and check on the Canary.


Executives and Purpose

Normal employees of an organisation have a responsibility to fulfill the purpose of the organisation. Executives have the same responsibility, however in addition, they have the responsibility to ensure that the organisation has a purpose, make that purpose clear, and ensure that the organisation is aligned around that purpose.

Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 12.56.15

Some executives take an autocratic approach to determining the purpose of the organisation meaning that they decide. Some executives take a facilitation based approach, seeking to use the combined wisdom of the organisation. Regardless of the approach, the responsibility for ensuring that an organisation has the right purpose lies with the executives.

Herzberg’s classic HBR article identified that there are hygiene factors which need to be met otherwise an individual will leave the organisation, and factors that motivate them. Dan Pink’s “Drive” states that individuals in an organisation need Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose to be motivated. Successful organisations compete for high performing, highly motivated individuals as they understand that they give them the edge in the massively competitive marketplace. For high performing motivated individuals, autonomy, mastery and purpose are not motivators, they are hygiene factors. If high performing motivated individuals do not have autonomy, mastery and purpose, they will leave and go to somewhere that they do. Autonomy and mastery are local phenomena within an organisation. It is possible for a leader to create a bubble in which their team have autonomy and can achieve mastery. Purpose however requires the support and commitment of executives.

The worst possible situation for an organisation is where they are meeting the hygiene factors of their employees but their employees are not motivated. No one will leave but they are not motivated to learn or improve their skills. An organisation like this may appear to be healthy but has no long term future.

Purpose and Identity

Part of the Identity of a individual is their position in a network. We have an identity in our family, with our friends, in our community, and in our work. As an individual, we have an identity in many different networks and one of the most important things about our identity is its “value” to the network, or self worth. Self worth is how much we perceive our value in total. We will gravitate towards networks in which we are most valued, or where we can gain knowledge and/or experience that will increase our value in other networks.

The purpose of the organisation determines the value of our activity. If the purpose of our organisation is to create cheap cars that are cheap to run, then it will not value our efforts to build the fastest car possible… unless that effort results in learning and insight about how to make cheap cars that are cheap to run. A person with expertise on creating fast cars is likely to leave a job in a company that makes cheap cars and move to one where their knowledge and experience is valued.

So purpose is another way of describing the values of the company. As Dave Snowden says “101 Anthropology states that as soon as you write your values down, you lose them”. This means that the executives as the guardians of the organisations rules are also the guardians of the stated and unstated (written and unwritten) purpose of the organisation. This means that that they need to give energy and approval to activities that are aligned with the (stated and unstated) purpose of the organisation and remove energy from activities that are counter to the purpose of the organisation. Executives need to increase the value of individuals in the network that are doing the right thing. Executives need to be what Derek Siver’s calls a first followers. They need to understand the constraints that mean individuals that are not aligned with the purpose of the organisation. Once understood, these constraints (often incentives) need to be modified so alignment occurs. This is particularly import for transformation efforts.

The purpose of an organisation determines its identity and the identity (including value) of everyone involved in the organisation.

Identity and Transformations

Every organisation engaged in a (delete as appropriate) [ Digital/DevOps/Agile/Lean/Spotify ] [ Transformation/Improvement/Make Better ] [ Programme/Initiatve ] needs to understand that the transformation involves changing the identity and purpose of the organisation, and the identity and value of everyone within the organisation. It is normal that the desire to change the purpose of the organisation conflicts with the desire of individuals within the organisation to maintain their value and hence identity. It is vital that executives engage in the transformation and create clear statements about purpose (value), reward individuals that are aligned with the purpose, and sideline individuals that are not aligned with the new purpose.

So who are the individuals that are most going to resist a change in identity? Those individuals that have the most the to lose. In other words, individuals that are perceived as high value in the current organisation but will either know they will have lower value in the new organisation, or even worse, are uncertain whether they will have a lower value in the new organisation.

It is important for executives involved in an organisation to help those individuals understand that if they move to the new organisation, they will be more valued than before regardless of how effective they are are in the new organisation. It is important  that the executive helps them understand that if they oppose the move to the new organisation, they will have no value to the organisation.

The worst thing that an executive can do is do nothing. They allow individuals who oppose the change to maintain a high value role in the new organisation. This sends a clear message that the new organisational purpose (values) is not actually valued.

The Role of Executives in a Transformation

The first responsibility of the Executives in a company undergoing a transformation is to create a vision for the new transformed organisation. This is another way of saying they need to ensure the purpose for the new transformed organisation is clearly articulated. An important part of that is to ensure that appropriate metrics (measures) are articulated to indicate a successful transformation.

Second, the executives need to communicate the purpose (and metrics) to the whole organisation. This allows people to opt in to the new organisation at a point that is comfortable to them. In other words when they feel their identity in the new organisation will be more valuable than their identity in the existing organisation. This is a continuous process, and the awkward badly formed communication should gradually improve over time as more and more people join in.

Third, the executives need to engage with those entering the new organisation, ensuring that they are clear on the purpose of the new organisation whether stated or unstated. The purpose of this engagement is to connect with the people in the new organisation so that they can reach out the executives when they need to without having to go through any escalation process. The most effective mechanism I’ve experienced for this engagement is Dan Mezick’s Open Space Agility.

In traditional organisations, executives see a rose tinted view of reality. Everything they see has been filtered through several layers of excel and/or powerpoint. The filtering protects them as much as the people doing the filtering. They have plausible deniability. In the transformed organisation, the executive needs to be able to see an unfiltered representation of the organisation. Rather than use that representation to make decisions, they should use it to identify those place where they should “Go to the Gemba”. The executives should “Go to the Gemba” to support those individuals who’s actions are alligned with the new purpose, and also those who’s actions are not aligned with the new purpose. In addition, they should go to the Gemba to see the reality of any project that is struggling to see how they can assist them.

This is the fourth responsibility of the executive. To “Go to the Gemba”, “To go to the place where the work is done”, to increase the value of those identities that are aligned with the new purpose, and diminish the value of those that are not.

The fifth responsibility is to “Go to the Gemba” to assist. To bypass the escalation process by directly observing the constraints and prioritising resources to resolving the constraint.

Executives are the guardians of the purpose of the organisation. Their responsibility is to actively engage and support the organisation as it moves towards its new purpose. Their responsibility is to “Go to the Gemba” so that they can see reality rather live a life of contentment behind rose tinted spreadsheets and presentations.

A practitioners guide to resilience.

The next Cynefin retreat will be focused on resilience. In preparation for the retreat Dave Snowden has just published a nice article on resilience.


After publishing “Commitment”, Olav Maassen and myself (and Jabe Bloom in the USA) delivered a number of sessions and keynotes on Real Options. Anyone who attended those sessions will know that resilience is a major theme in Real Options and Risk Management. In our presentation, Olav and I present a simplified, practitioner’s view of resilience.

if (timeToRecover > timeYouCanSurvive)


     you DIE!


Which means you need more options!

Don’t waste time, monitor the conditions!

Although our presentation focuses on IT systems, the definition applies to many systems including biological systems. Any definition of resilience needs to consider time as a core measure. The human body is resilient within a certain time scale. Humans can survive massive blood loss or loss of oxygen, but only for a very brief period of time.

Consider some other resilient biological systems. MRSA are bacteria that resist even the strongest of anti-biolitics. MRSA are resilient because some bacteria were either mutants that survived the blast or were at the edge of the assault and survived to give themselves time to exapt, adapt or evolve.

An interesting aspect of resilience is identity. If we consider the financial system during and after the 2008 credit (liquidity) crunch, the financial system survived. However, the identities within the system have changed. Many of the people in the system lost their jobs but subsequently found new jobs with a new identity. A few banks failed, most notably Lehmann Brothers, but in reality very few banks actually failed, or ceased to exist. Rather than fail, many banks lost their identity as they were absorbed into other organisations (Bank of Scotland into Lloyds, Royal Bank of Scotland into the UK Government, Merrill Lynch into Bank of America, Bear Sterns in JP Morgan and many others).

As the Cynefin retreaters gather to discuss resilience, they need to consider the important of time. Reducing the time from a threat emerging to it being detected. Reducing the time from identify a threat to making a commitment (Boyd’s OODA loop). The time from decision to action (Liquidity).

The Cynefin retreaters also need to consider the scale of failure of a system. Whether it is individuals, identities or systems.

As a final thought, the human race currently faces a number of species threatening scenarios of our own cause. Whether its the temperature of the atmosphere, micro-plastics in the oceans, estrogen in the food supply or SAFE and LESS, something could threaten the species. Like our MRSA bacteria, some humans are likely to survive. The ones that do are likely to be the most resilient, the most lucky, and the ones with the most options. The ones with the highest centrality in the network are likely to be the ones to react first, the ones that are most likely to lucky. That assumes that their high centrality means they are not the first to be exposed to the threat, like the MRSA bacteria.

Whenever we think of resilience, we oft hear the phrase… “That which does not kill us, only makes us stronger”. I think that that depends on context.

Exapting Sensemaker to Agile – An Experience Report.

I have been a fan of cognitive-edge technology and techniques for many years. Myself and a small group have been engaged in exapting sensemaker for use on Agile Projects. I did my Sensemaker training with Tony Quinlan. Tony subsequently delivered a fantastic introduction to Sensemaker at QCon which is the material I use when introducing it.

Sensemaker is a fantastic and valuable tool, though its usage in Agile transformations and projects is different to its original context. I will share my experience using the standard report format namely:

  1. What is the context?
  2. What did you try?
  3. What worked?
  4. What did not work?
  5. What have you learned?

Context for using Sensemaker

In all three cases, there was a situation with a lot of uncertainty and the leaders showed great strength by trying something new.

  1. In the first example, a leader heard about sensemaker and very bravely decided to use it to get unstructured 360 feedback from a large group of people.
  2. In the second example, the team had scored “poorly” on one question on a company wide survey and the leaders wanted to understand why.
  3. In the third example, the leader for an Agile transformation (two thousand people) wanted a survey to understand how people in the department felt about the transformation. A pilot with fifty people was run to test the process.

It was only because I had run the first two fairly small sensemaker exercises that I had the confidence to run the much larger (and personally risky) third exercise.

What we did

In all three cases, the leader sent an e:mail out setting the context for the survey and asking for the team to participate. The sensemaker survey they were asked to fill in was a slide in a powerpoint presentation. In the first example, the survey was also printed and handed out in a team town hall. In each case, the leader introduced the sensemaker survey in the townhall or extended leadership meetings.

The responses were all anonymous. In some locations a “post box” was created for the team to post their response. In some locations, team members would send their response to a trusted colleague who would forward them to the person collating the results. Many people felt comfortable enough just to send a response directly.

Unlike the sensemaker method which starts the signifier creation process with a literature search, the triad signifiers were created using terms commonly used in the environment. For the 360 degree feedback, the leader incorporate the six headings in the corporate leadership assessment. For the Agile transformation, phrases common to agile and software development were used (Technical Debt, Architecture, Deadline, Business, Leadership, Culture, Mastery, Autonomy, Purpose, Business Value).

The results were collated manually. Each dot on a completed survey was collated onto a large triad, one per powerpoint page.


The sentiment (positive, negative, neutral) was depicted using colour (red, grey, blue respectively) and strength of sentiment ( normal, very) by shape (dot, circle). Red / Blue was chosen as traditional red/amber/green are difficult to differentiate for those with colour blindness which is common in technology.

The results were summarised. The summary and original survey sheets (or scans of physical paper) were included as an appendix to the summary. The individual stories were ordered by sentiment, and a hyperlink was placed on each summary diagram to the first story of each sentiment to speed up finding the stories.

The results were played back to the leadership team and then to the participants and the wider group. Each was invited to interpret the summary triads for themselves for before discussing them, and to read the stories associated with each cluster.

What worked

Sensemaker works! It provides useful and actionable insights.

One of the key experiences is that sensemaker shows you what people are not telling stories about. The gaps are as telling as the positive or negative clusters. For the first example, the leader was a very accomplished practitioner in the technology, however their other abilities outshone their technical skills. Armed with this knowledge, they were able to “create more stories about their technical abilities”.

One of the most powerful aspects of Sensemaker were the conversations that the exercise prompted each time. It provided a focus for some very difficult conversations that were based on data points (stories) rather than opinion. It enabled the group to make sense out of situations. Many of the things that Sensemaker revealed were already known, however they were difficult to discuss as opinions without “Hippos” closing down the discussion. Getting data to support a hypothesis with a traditional likert scale survey would have been politically unacceptable however the Sensemaker reveals the data without conflict. Once revealed, the stories can be discussed.

When you do a Sensemaker exercise you realise how beautifully it fits with the Cynefin framework. Discussions easily reveal things that are obvious or have multiple hypotheses. Sometimes, the discussions reveal it is necessary to dig deeper or bring in an expert. There were also stories that simply require action without understanding. Sensemaker helped us shape the transformation and resulted in several specific changes.

The three exercises only involved a few dozen stories rather than the massive number of stories that Dave Snowden and Tony Quinlan describe. Even though they numbered a few stories, they still provided valuable insights. Sensemaker works on the small scale as well as the large scale. Within organisations, culture tends to be determined at the tribe level (dunbar number of one hundred and fifty or less) with a dominant individual or group of individuals defining the culture.

Starting small helped me learn about Sensemaker. The first sensemaker exercise was small and fairly low risk. The experience at this level gave me the confidence and case study to refer to for the riskier second exercise. My experience with the first two exercises exercises helped me better understand the issues and provided me with stories that enabled me to convince the leaders for the third exercise. Starting small was safer for the leadership team and let them experience the approach before they tried it on a wider group outside of their area of control. My main practical advice would be start small and grow.

The leadership team said they would like rerun the Sensemaker exercise on a regular basis to track the progress of sentiment in the team.

What did not work.

Although the manual exercise was incredibly useful and valuable, reviewing the results was clunky and required a lot of effort. The manual approach is certainly limited in terms of scale. Above one hundred stories, it is likely that it would start to fail, and it would be necessary to use Cognitive Edge’s sensemaker tool. Ideally I would have preferred to use Cognitive Edge’s sensemaker tool but unfortunately that requires spending money. Spending money is the one thing that managers in large organisations do not like to do. The hope is that sharing the experiences with executives will lead to them to freeing up the funding for larger exercises. This is particularly difficult in an environment where people are used to getting their software for free (open source).

Although the results were insightful and valuable, we got stories from significantly less than half the people asked to participate. I worry that we got the “CYNics”(1) who cared but there is a large silent majority who have a different set of stories and opinions. I suspect the cognitive edge software would help with this.

(1) See the Dave Snowden’s references to cynics.

What did we learn

Sensemaker is a great tool to provide insights into your organisation when you are planning or engaged in an Agile transformation.

The normal Sensemaker approach (e.g. Literature search for signifiers) isn’t necessarily needed when the language of the culture is already well understood.

Sensemaker facilitates difficult conversations and is useful even if “no one learns anything from it”.

Even though Sensemaker and Cynefin are valuable when used individually, they are even more powerful when used together.

Next Steps

The Sensemaker and Scaled Agile Practitioner Community need to do more work together to better refine and exapt Sensemaker and Cynefin usage in the Agile Community. A summit focused on the use of Sensemaker in the initiation and monitoring of Agile Transformations would be very valuable. In particular, packaging Sensemaker with Dan Mezick’s Open Space Agility.