Organizations are complex systems. They are made up of many layers, components, and elements that interact in unexpected and unpredictable ways. This interplay guides and shapes our behavior and what is possible. Systems Thinking offers a perspective on how we can influence complex systems. It invites us to look for patterns in the entire system and identify potential leverage points. Once we find the proper leverage points, even a small push can trigger a big change.
The purpose of the Liberating Structure “Panarchy” is to help Scrum teams, stakeholders, and supporters understand how their system works, find leverage points and trigger (big) change. Rather than doing this alone or with a small group, the complexity is exactly why you want to include as many perspectives as possible. This exercise helps your Scrum team(s), stakeholders, and their supporters to diagnose, inspect, and improve how to use Scrum more effectively.
Panarchy is part of the repertoire of Liberating Structures. It strongly relies on the concept of the Ecocycle, and the related structure Ecocycle Planning. Its purpose is to analyze the full portfolio of activities and identify obstacles and opportunities for progress in a markedly non-linear way. That makes it an excellent way to periodically reflect on your work together and decide what to focus on next. It is based on the life cycle in nature, as shown on the right:
Panarchy is part of the repertoire of Liberating Structures. It strongly relies on the concept of the Ecocycle, and the related structure Ecocycle Planning.
The material which we included in the product kit comes with more than 20 factors, like “Refinement”, “Psychological Safety” and “Responsiveness”. Obviously, you can also create your own factors. Together with your team, stakeholders, and supporters, you can plot them on the Ecocycle where you think they are:
Renewal represents all the factors that you think would be useful to you as a team, but that you are not doing at the moment.
Birth represents the factors that you have just started doing as a team, or that you’ve been investing in. Although they are not fully valuable yet, and probably take effort and discipline to do, they will become increasingly valuable as you keep doing them.
Maturity represents the factors that are comfortable and valuable to you as a team. It doesn’t take much effort or discipline to do them. It’s become part of your rhythm as a Scrum team.
Creative Destruction represents all factors where the practices to keep them alive have become stale and boring. Factors in this category require re-invention or re-discovery of how to practice them well.
All factors flow through the Ecocycle. But they can also get stuck. Factors that you know are important but are never invested in, get stuck in the Poverty Trap. Factors that you keep doing, but aren’t really adding any value any longer, are in the Rigidity Trap. By plotting all factors across the Ecocycle, you can identify patterns that tell you something about where you are as a team. Look for the following patterns in particular:
A healthy Ecocycle is balanced. There is innovation taking place, as evidenced by factors on the left of the model, and there are factors that are mature, as evidenced by items on the right. Furthermore, teams are continuously reinventing how to do things and become better, as represented in what is in Creative Destruction.
Factors that are in the Rigidity Trap and Creative Destruction are prime candidates for reinvention in how they are practiced. For example, you may discover that the way you do “Refinement” is ineffective, and you need to creatively destroy how you do it.
Invite your Scrum team(s), stakeholders, and supporters. By supporters, we mean people from the supporting organization, like management, external coaches, and so on.
Create largely, shared Ecocycle Plannings on the floor or the wall, or in a virtual workspace. We recommend one for each Scrum team, one for the stakeholders, and one for the supporters. You can also combine all Scrum teams in a single Ecocycle if you’re more interested in patterns across teams.
Use the Ecocycle Planning cards to mark the various quadrants of the Ecocycles.
Provide every Ecocycle with a full set of cards with the various factors that match their role (Scrum team, stakeholder, or supporters). Also, give each Scrum team a set of impediment cards. The cards contain the factors shown on the poster about the Scrum team’s effectiveness. Obviously, you can also create your own cards.
If you don’t have enough, either make copies or put them somewhere visible so people can copy them (or just the unique identifiers on the cards).
Bring empty pieces of paper or hand out notebooks so people can draw an Ecocycle for themselves.
(5 min) Introduce Ecocycle Planning. Explain the metaphor, and the quadrants and give some examples to help people understand how it works, roughly.
(5 min) Introduce the three types of cards with the various factors. There’s a different set for Scrum teams, stakeholders, and supporters. Provide the groups at each Ecocycle with a set of relevant cards. So each Scrum teams get a set of cards for “Scrum team”, the group of stakeholders gets a set of cards for “Stakeholder” and the group of supporters gets a set of cards for “Supporter”. Also, provide everyone with an empty piece of paper.
The product kit “Unleash Scrum In Your Organization” contains physical and digital cards with the factors that determine Scrum team effectiveness.
(15 min) Invite everyone to draw an Ecocycle on their piece of paper for personal reflection. Give them time to silently distribute the factors across their drawn Ecocycle based on where they think they are for their Scrum team. Stakeholders and supporters create an Ecocycle based on the Scrum teams they work the closest with and/or know most about.
Optionally, present the group six prompts for everyone to complete on their Ecocycle Planning illustration. After each prompt, pause to give them time to write down their answer in the specified quadrant, with their current team in mind or the team they work closest with:
> Top-left (Gestation): “A factor that my team is unaware of or hasn’t started using is…”
> Bottom-left (Birth): “A factor my team recently started using or investing time in is…”
> Top-right (Maturity): “A factor that provides lots of value for my team is…”
> Bottom-right (Creative Destruction): “A factor we are currently rethinking, changing, or creatively destructing is…”
> Middle left (Poverty Trap): “A factor, we consider valuable, talk about a lot, but somehow don’t invest enough time in is…”
> Middle right (Rigidity Trap): “A factor, we keep doing, despite we know it doesn’t generate much value anymore is…”
(10 min) Then, invite the people at each Ecocycle to share their reflections and to place the factors from the set they received on their shared Ecocycle to reflect those patterns. So if most people put “Refinement” in “Maturity” in their personal Ecocycle, then place it there in the shared Ecocycle for this group. Encourage people not to overthink it; we’re looking for broad patterns.
Invite the people at each Ecocycle to share their reflections and to place the factors from the set they received on their shared Ecocycle to reflect those patterns.
(10 min) Now, use a quick “1–2–4-ALL” to ask the people in each group to reflect on their group’s Ecocycle. Ask: “What do you notice about the distribution of factors in our Ecocycle? What jumps out?”. You can help draw out patterns by noticing where most cards of one color appear, whether or not the Ecocycle is balanced, and which items appear in the traps.
(5 min) Then, invite the Scrum teams to use the “Impediment” cards to mark the 3 factors that are most impeded for their team. A factor is impeded when there are blockades or problems that make it hard for them to do well on this factor, but that lies outside of their control to resolve. In the meantime, the stakeholders and supporters can continue their conversation from step 5 if they want.
(10 min) Now it’s time for shared reflection. Invite everyone to step back and look at all the Ecocycles that were created. While they walk around, ask everyone to silently reflect on how the levels might interact: “What patterns do you see across the Ecocycles? Where do the levels connect, strengthen, or impede?”.
Invite everyone to step back and look at all the Ecocycles that were — in this example, digitally — created. What do you notice about the distribution of factors in our Ecocycle? What jumps out?
(15 min) Then, use “1–2–4-ALL” to invite people to identify opportunities for change across levels. Ask: “Where do you see opportunities for the patterns in one Ecocycle to strengthen or reinforce those in another? Where can the elements of one Ecocycle positively disrupt what is happening elsewhere?”. Capture the most salient opportunities with the whole group.
(15 min) Now, use a final “1–2–4-ALL” to capture improvement actions. Ask “What actions can we take immediately to invest in these opportunities?”. Ask each group to share the 2 or 3 most promising and actionable ideas with the whole group.
Optionally, you can use a Liberating Structure like “Shift & Share”, “1–2–4-ALL” or “15% Solutions” to develop action plans to work on the selected items, and “What I Need From You” to express essential needs from others.
How to run this exercise online?
In a virtual session, you can use a virtual whiteboard like Mural, Miro, or Google Slides to provide a similar experience. You can set up your canvas as shown in the screenshot. If you have multiple groups, copy the canvas a couple of times so that each group has its own canvas and sets of events and activities.
Use breakout rooms to move the conversations into smaller groups. Our preference is to change a 1–2–4-ALL into a 1–3-ALL. This is way simpler to arrange.
Optionally, download the set of factors for Scrum teams, stakeholders, and supporters, which is included in the product kit. Make sure to have enough copies of the set (virtual or physical) so that you can divide the total group of participants into small groups, each with its own set. Or, create your own set of factors.
In this blog post, we described how the Liberating Structure “Panarchy” can help Scrum teams, stakeholders, and supporters understand how their system works, find leverage points, and trigger (big) change. Although you can create your own material for this exercise, it’s also possible to use the digital and physical material we included in the product kit “Unleash Scrum In Your Organization”. Why don’t you give it a try? Feel free to share the results. Let’s learn and grow, together!