At the dawn of 2015, the Agile internet resounded with clashes about #NoEstimates. Similar debates about whether people should be “invited to participate” or “made to adopt” Agile were beginning to rear their heads.

Paul and Derek observed the conflicts between both sides in these debates, and noticed that they seemed to be fueled by underlying assumptions not easily explorable in Twitter’s 140 character limit.

In late 2015 Paul held a small “un-conference” called Agile Dialogs to uncover some of these assumptions. Through facilitated discussion, participants shifted their entrenched clashes about #NoEstimates to insightful conversation.

Encouraged by this success, Paul opened a session at Agile Coach Camp the next year to discover additional topics for the next Agile Dialogs. Derek joined in, and together they invited participants to investigate their hypothesis:

Are there other “thorny” topics on which conversation gets just as “stuck”?

As the session flipchart rapidly filled with topics, it became clear the answer was “yes.” Further, the group noticed that they ranked topics as “more thorny” based on how quickly they polarized dialogue into entrenched positions.


Paul and Derek at Agile Coach Camp 2016

This led to the realization that such topics are potential barriers to Agile — a business problem — because of how much waste they tend to create. The worst topics create cultural costs out of proportion to the gains of implementing either side. Derek thought of an analogy in healthcare: sepsis is a condition which can arise from any number of necessary clinical procedures. It can start subtly but quickly escalate to become life-threatening.

As Paul and Derek debriefed their session together, they realized that while their initial exploration of underlying assumptions was useful, they had discovered an unmet business need. Like hospitals detecting sepsis, organizations could benefit from an instrument that would aid in detecting when certain topics were “going toxic” and drifting into wastefully polarizing positions.

Derek and Paul pledged to try to create one. Their first step was to test their next hypothesis:

Can meaningful “symptoms” be identified to help in early detection of these entrenched positions?

Together, they selected 4 of the “most thorny” topics from their session. They invited Coach Camp participants to take a side in any of the topics and engage in mock debate, using representative “sound-bites” — statements they had actually heard at work. As you can imagine, the discussions got rather spirited…

Reviewing the sound-bites they had collected, Paul and Derek saw that there were indeed patterns of “symptoms” for each of the topics. And they realized that detecting thorny topics wasn’t enough. Hospital clinicians have tools not only to detect sepsis, but also to intervene before extreme measures are needed  — and to detect if the patient is recovering.

This led them to their last two hypotheses:

  1. Can proven facilitation theories be made accessible enough to be effective interventions for thorny topics?
  2. If so, can patterns for a detecting a successful intervention be expressed by example?

Derek and Paul prepare their experiment at ACCUS16 to capture “symptoms” for thorny topics.

They created the facilitation pattern of “polarizing topic, symptoms, interventions, recovery signs.” They renamed the whole pattern as a “Bramble” to stick with the “thorny topic” metaphor. They’ve collated the Thorns (symptoms) from their work to date. They applied David Grove’s Clean Language and Chris Argyris’ Action Science to the topics to provide some accessible Pathways (interventions). And they’ve gone out on a limb a bit and postulated some likely Fruit (recovery signs).

Now it’s your turn.

Derek and Paul invite you to try out the Bramble facilitation patterns. When you see these polarizing topics come up, see if the Bramble pattern can help you identify signs of entrenched debate. Use it to try to move people away from arguing each side’s merits and toward an exploration of all options.

Record your experience in the Join the Dialogue section below each Bramble. Share your successes and challenges. What other Thorn sound-bites did you hear when a group was in an escalating clash?  What were the results of trying the Pathway intervention statements?  Did you hear other shifts toward positive dialogue that should be recorded as new Fruit?

Agile Dialogs will continue as an un-conference. It will continue to uncover assumptions, but more importantly, it will explore and test new intervention strategies. These strategies will be posted here on AgileBrambles.org to help you defuse binary thinking.

To revisit the clinical metaphor: Agile Dialogs is clinical training, Agile Brambles are your clinician guides. Both can help protect your organization from getting stuck in the poisonous thorns of entrenched debate.

Conflict isn’t inherently bad. Most Agile initiatives can realize valuable gains from exploring these topics… as long as exploring them creates more insight than waste, and the conversations move from wrath to work.

Clashes and crusades make for good reality TV, but curiosity and conversation make for good Agile business.