How we make a difference

The following is our generic Teal Unicorn pattern of advancing a client (every instance is different of course). This approach succeeds in the context of advancing Continuous Delivery, or Change Management, or any other improvement context. if this seems too complicated, we have an even simpler secret formula.

Before we begin with the work, we must engage with management first, as the ways of managing are the key to unlock the ways of working.  It is not a sequence of steps so much as a cluster of activities, some or all of the following as reality allows:

  • Engage with the owner or Board Director or CEO, or in rare exceptions the top exec in a division.  They usually are the one who approached us, or we are introduced to them by an exec.
  • Confirm top exec commitment and – dare I say – Openness to change.  We can begin without it, but the immune system will crush us unless we get that top support.  We can succeed in a highly autonomous division.
  • Do some training in Open Management for as many execs and managers as possible.
  • Encourage them to read Open Management and/or The agile Manager (small a)
  • Coach as many managers as are willing in regular weekly or fortnightly sessions.  The keen ones will continue as we proceed.
  • In the process, do some discovery of the situation, not to develop solutions, just to be informed, to talk the talk.
    • We don’t usually do deep discovery (any more).  The answers are within the staff, and they will let them out.  We will learn most that we need to know in order to guide and facilitate, as we go.
    • With those clients wanting to do a lot of change, we may see the need to do two kinds of assessment:

Only once we feel a useful number of managers are on board, say one quarter, we can begin with advancing the work amongst the early adopters, to create proof-points for the rest. (We’ve made that mistake of going too early). Our approach can be summarised as

  • visualise work activity
  • create headroom
  • visualise work flow
  • help managers (at all levels) explore the system
  • promote values and principles
  •  introduce theoretical ideas
  • promote open collaborative solutioning
  • create a machine to advances the better ways
  • experiment and explore 
  • hack the org

In more detail:

֎ Communicate. Get in a room (even with COVID19, we should really get in the same space whenever we can. Virtual isn’t the same, and no written medium will do at all). Develop mutual respect for each others’ challenges and needs. (“When you…. we feel ….”)

֎ Visualise work. Put workload/ activity on a wall (or a virtual one). Not value stream mapping yet, just the overall picture of what work is being done, how much, and by who. Start to get a picture of where the issues are.

֎ Create some headroom to start improvement, with initial tactics to get some breathing space. If people are 100% busy (or more), nothing is ever going to improve until you prioritise improving work over doing work. This is cold hard logic. Don’t move on until the concept of slack is accepted by all who control workload.

֎ No, really. Don’t move on until there is headroom for improvements.  Otherwise you’re all just dreaming.

֎ Visualise flow of work. Develop a common view of the value stream. Value Stream Mapping may produce the first-ever holistic view of the work. Usually, at least one senior person is shocked by how it really works.

֎ Explore the delivery value stream(s) together. Take managers to the gemba, to where the work is done. Develop a common understanding of value flow, where the bottlenecks are (Theory of Constraints view), and where the overburden, inconsistencies, and waste are (Lean view).

֎ Wait for the pennies to drop: management will see places where they are part of the problem (see the first half of John Seddon’s Beyond Command and Control).  Set management to find ways to get out of the way of flow. These are low hanging fruit and very good for morale. (See Gary Hamel’s new book Humanocracy for a sizzling attack on bureaucracy).

֎ Broker a common set of values and principles to work by, at least within the scope of our control.   Who are we? Who do we want to be? What do we stand for? How do we do things around here? We have a long list of examples.

֎ Introduce, and evenly distribute, the ideas of new ways of working, and new ways of managing (especially servant leader/manager). What does good look like. Create a baseline of common concepts and language. .Some evangelizing is good.

֎ Focus on creating more headroom, through:

  • demand management – how to say “no”
  • backlog prioritisation – how to say “not yet”
  • tighter product management collaboration – how to say “after you”
  • low-hanging fruit of flow optimisation – quick wins
  • automation of work – typically pays for itself in three iterations if you share it
  • faster response to fix things
  • reduced failure demand: higher quality

֎ Start experimenting. Start a programme to promote, track, share, and consolidate experiments.

֎ Do Open Solutioning. Run collaborative community rituals to bring people together. Diverge on ideas, then converge on actions.  Start open, end closed.

֎ Apply our Shu-Ha-Ri technique to organise people around skills not roles

֎ Create an improvement “machine” of people and activities to keep continual improvement moving.

֎ Create bubbles of new ways within the broader organisation. Protect them with buffers: white space between them and the rest of the work system. Produce proof points  evidence that new ways work.

֎ Find triads of mutually supporting peers or near-peers. [from the book Tribal Leadership]

֎ Create – or wait for – an executive mandate to develop (incubate) an organisation-wide way of delivering.

֎ Once we have minimum viable version of the new way of working, start an invitational [pull don’t push] movement for wider adoption. Run interference on the organisational immune system: watch out for those who see it as their role to protect the organisation from these dangerous new ideas. Feed back to improve our new way of delivery. Use Toyota Kata or similar to develop it.


We have honed a set of favourite rituals to get results:

  • Daily scrums: 15 minute standup, per team, usually around an information radiator e.g a Kanban board. what have we done, what will we do, what are the impediments. NB: management teams are also teams.
  • Our Teal Space workshop. Some examples with set format:
    • Create an Obeya

Why the organisation exists
Who we want to be
Major works
Portfolio planning

  • Regular review: obeya, ShuHaRi, kanban…
  • Other Community Collaborations (as we call them), mostly:
  • Games. We love games, or if you prefer “work simulations”.  As well as many shorter games to make a point, we use our own games:
  • Weekly coaching for executives for 2 hour at a time, in a group with others from the same organisation or a mix of organisations