Pirate Canvas – a quintessential Business Agility practice

Published by arkenchoust on

It was Sunday evening. As usual, Rachel Bates, an analytics director at North Star Power, a successful national interstate traditional energy company, prepared for the week ahead. This time was different, though. A growing clarity over the last year was now impossible to ignore. She felt overwhelmed, even threatened. One recent event was the final piece in the puzzle. She was 35 years old, she’d been married for five years, she and her partner had a three-year-old son together, and they were planning to have another child. She’d been with the company for almost ten years and had no plans to quit. But that Sunday evening, she felt her future was at play, both professionally and personally. Rachel took a deep breath. She knew what to do, but she also understood that it would be the most challenging task that she would ever undertake. 

A week later, Rachel Bates was present at the monthly leadership meeting at North Star Power with CEO Keith Maxwell and the whole group of C-level directors. It was time for the analytics reports to be presented. Rachel was well prepared. After having gone through the preliminaries, she asked for the full attention of everyone in the room. She went on to document that the company’s market position was under substantial threat from growing market trends in the digital space. Not only that, this was about to escalate because of a recent merger between a large energy company comparable to theirs and a relatively new and innovative player in the green energy sector with substantial investor backing. The new company, Greenlight AI Energy, is reimagining the energy sector and has the potential to dominate the market completely, she said. She explained their innovative business model, their existing and possible future products, their digital strategy, how their potential to attract customers far surpassed theirs, and most importantly, how it could affect the business of North Star Power. After her presentation, the leadership group was silent, lost in thought, some looking at each other, some just looking away. It was easy to see the confusion and fear in their eyes. Rachel suggested that they think about the situation for the next week and meet again for an extraordinary strategy session to decide how to respond to the problem. 

Rachel Bates had a good idea of how the strategy meeting would play out. What was needed was a new way to respond to, and take action towards, the imminent threats to their business. However, she was sure that the company’s traditional way was managing strategy, and strategy execution would be what the company settled for. This would yield a predictable outcome, too much time, money, and effort into solutions that were too little and too late. Rachel felt strongly that the timing was perfect to put her Business Agility knowledge to secure the company’s future and allow her to become part of the solution. The company had little prior exposure to and experience with Business Agility, so she assumed that she had to be careful with her approach to reaching them with her arguments. From the perspective of most leaders, North Star Power was an agile company given that most teams were using either Scrum or Kanban, and they had a pool of ten agile coaches. This resulted from a recent three-year agile transformation project that was viewed as a great success by most company leaders. A year ago, she learned about the Business Agility Institute, their Domains of Business Agility, and the first Business Agility Report. She found she was particularly interested in the domain of Strategic Agility, and especially Emergent Strategy, because she saw a direct link to how data-driven insights can fuel the need for strategy sessions and guide the theme. This led her to complete an online self-study course called Pirate Canvas. She was convinced that this XSCALE practice would be suitable for the situation that the company was facing, and she was excited at the thought of finally being able to use it practically. 

At the strategy meeting, everybody could feel the tension in the room. Mainly because of the seriousness of the market threat, many directors knew that these types of conversations carried the potential to be career-changing. The CEO Keith Maxwell and Operational Director Ralph Morgan, at North Star Power, led the meeting, and they confidently presented how the company should solve the problem they were facing. The company would invest substantially in defining and implementing a new market strategy using a market-leading management consulting firm over the next two years. They referred to the agile transformation project’s success as one of several references to why this would be the best approach. Each director was allowed to provide their point of view, but there were no suggestions of a nature that would make the CEO change his mind. Rachel Bates asked before the meeting to be the last person to present her ideas. There was a consensus among the other participants before it was her time to talk that using the management consulting firm was the way to go, even though it was prohibitively expensive. 

When it was Rachel’s turn to speak, she was nervous. How would she convince this group to consider other alternatives?  How would she convey to them the fallacy of divesting their leadership responsibility to someone else? How could she argue that the answers to their problems were there to be found in their collective intelligence? 

The threats they were facing were real and present, and they didn’t have two years, nor could they truly afford the exorbitant fees for essentially outsourcing their strategy. She also wanted to point out that while the agile adoption effort was considered a success, it didn’t meaningfully make the impact they had all hoped it would make from a business agility standpoint. She would have to tread carefully here as the leadership team was quite proud of their accomplishment.

Rachel found herself in the front of the room, ready to make her case. She started by acknowledging the great work and commitment that leadership had demonstrated in supporting the agile adoption effort and pointed to some of the successes it spawned. She then asked, “How has the agile approach changed the way we respond to and adjust to market shifts?” Several people pointed out that the agile teams could deliver better quality products, and had generally performed better than before. However, no one could answer the main thrust of the question, which was a question about Business Agility, the capacity and willingness of an organization to adapt to, create, and leverage change for their customer’s benefit.

She acknowledged the positives from the agile adoption and talked a little bit about her journey over the past year. She recalled her self-study into the domains of Business Agility, the importance of process agility (agile adoption) to the overall ability for an organization to adapt and respond to changes, and also honed in on the lack of focus on the other domains of Business Agility, the impact of which wasn’t clear.  

The group leaders seemed interested and participated in the discussion, specifically with questions about the domains and how they applied to their situation. Rachel was excited as this was more than she expected; the leaders’ questions were insightful and prompted Rachel to reveal more about her journey and where she thought she might face resistance.  

She leaped and asked, “How can we, as a leadership group, come up with an adaptive strategy that leverages the collective intelligence of our most prized and valuable asset; our people?” The leadership team answered as predicted, “Well, our management consultant team will help us!” said Ralph in a somewhat exasperated tone. He continued, “What’s the point of all this?”

Rachel asked for a little patience and explained Emergent and Adaptive Strategy and the XSCALE practice of the Pirate Canvas. She provided a brief background on XSCALE and its founder Peter Merel, and that it was an extension to the Agile Manifesto geared to organizational agility. She elaborated on how the Pirate Canvas allows for strategy to emerge by taking an ecosystem thinking, breadth-first approach to understanding where the organization’s bottlenecks are and how best to address them. When thinking of an ecosystem, it enables thinking beyond the company. It engages thinking about customers, suppliers, partners, etc., essentially the ecosystem the company operates in beyond the boundaries of the company itself. 

Rachel made it a point to talk about her experience with the simulation, which was a part of the Pirate Canvas course, and how for her, that was the moment of awakening. This is where she saw the potential to change how her company could leverage people’s power truly. This naturally led to how combining the Pirate Canvas with an Open Space facilitation approach is truly a game-changer in helping align, galvanize, and catalyze the company’s best minds to collectively create the business solutions can lift the constraints currently holding them back. The company had already invested heavily in agile ways of working and were, in principle, proponents of Theory Y motivation of people. However, in practice, management was struggling to adopt these methods.  

She argued forcefully that the company should not invest the millions of dollars necessary to engage with an army of consultants. Instead, they should rely on their best people with just 2 XSCALE coaches to help them leverage their collective experience. She argued that the most significant change needed was speed, and the Pirate Canvas method would provide them results in as little as two months, as opposed to two years. She pointed to evidence of other companies using this approach and how it helped them move much faster than they ever had in their past. Realizing that the constraints may be both cultural and structural, she anticipated resistance to these methods. And she was not wrong!

Ralph bellowed, ”This will never work here! We’ve always used Miller & Stone Associates, and they know us; they’re our partners!” While not as forceful as Ralph, Keith also chimed in and supported the notion of using consultants from Miller & Stone. He seemed troubled, though, and Rachel noticed him thumbing through the presentation she’d given everyone a copy of. No one else spoke up, whether they agreed or disagreed with Rachel was not evident, as they were too afraid or non-committal to speak their minds.  

Rachel saw this coming, of course, and was prepared! In many ways, the approach she’d laid out was completely new and uncharted terrain. They’d never done anything without consulting and without an army of management consulting partners, and she knew that suggesting anything that didn’t include them would be tough to accept. She did have an ace up her sleeve, though, and she was sure that now was the time to use it!

Rachel said, “Do you remember Ross Barker, CEO of Blueline partners”? Most of the participants had met him at an industry conference as he headlined a keynote on the importance of business agility and a data-centric approach to understanding your customers, competitors, and the competitive landscape. He was well-liked for his presentation style. He was not a direct competitor in a related commodities trading business that traded in energy and other commodities.  

Rachel continued, “I have Ross ready to share with us his experience with the Pirate Canvas. He’s ready and waiting to dial in if you all are interested…what do you say?”

Keith was the first to respond, “Sure, wouldn’t hurt, we can give him 15 minutes.  He piqued my interest at the conference.”

Ralph seemed a little perturbed but went along with it anyway.  

Rachel sent Ross the meeting invite and waited for him to dial in. While they were waiting, she mentioned that they’d both gone through the Pirate Canvas course together and that Ross had implemented his company’s approach. By the time she was done, Ross was on. After exchanging pleasantries, Ross began to describe his personal and professional transformation from using the Pirate Canvas. He spoke eloquently about its impact on his people, the collective intelligence that it awakened in his team, not just his leadership team. He described the lean, emergent, and adaptive approach to strategy that it enabled, and the ownership mentality that it cultivated amongst his team and most importantly, the outcomes it produced in terms of alignment, autonomy, and tangible business results. They were able to identify the major constraints in their business and lift those constraints measurably. Yes, the constraints moved elsewhere, which is why an emergent approach to strategy was required. He shared that his “Pirate Team » as he called them, met monthly to just talk strategy and what they had learned from the Epic Landscape they had prioritized, and most importantly, how to adjust. They had indeed become more business agile with their willingness and capacity to shift, change, and adapt to market changes. It was now much less about the strategy session and more about their willingness to question their assumptions and decisions.     

The leadership team was quiet for a stretch. Ross asked, ”Hey, are you all still there? Did I scare you off?” Keith was the first to answer, “Ross, this is all so new to us, but for the first time in a long while, I am both nervous and excited about the future.”  

Turning to his team, Keith continued, “I think what we heard just now has convinced me that we need to think differently and not rely on the old tried and true methods.  While they have served us well in the past, the future is uncertain, and we don’t want to be disrupted! We need to think of ways to transform ourselves to confront the challenges and infuse new ways of thinking and working into our company, and I am especially intrigued with what was it you called it Rachel? The Collective Intelligence approach?”  Rachel replied yes, and Keith continued, “I love the idea of capturing and harnessing the collective intelligence of our team.  We have the best and brightest people on the planet working for us. It only seems natural that we go this way.”

There seemed to be a palpable change in the mood of the team after Ross hung up.  He truly had changed the dynamic, and Rachel was incredibly proud of this team and their capacity to pivot so quickly and embrace the idea of change. It was a long road ahead, but they had reached a significant turning point. While Ralph may have harbored some resentment with how things unfolded, he didn’t seem to show it. He appeared as enthusiastic as the rest of the team! Keith made it a point to thank Rachel and asked her to take the lead in planning and to organize the next steps, including taking an instrumental role in facilitating the Pirate Canvas event.  

Six months later, Rachel reflected on all that had happened and how that one meeting had changed the course of her life and quite possibly had reversed the fortunes of her company. Life was quite different at North Star Power as the Pirate Canvas had created a new way to visualize, align and take action on the most critical strategic imperatives and had done so in a manner that involved the people most able to make an impact.  

Rachel was most proud of this fact; employee morale and engagement scores were up significantly, and turnover, which had been a problem in the past, had stabilized and was starting to trend downwards. The company had already prioritized some of the most impactful and essential work as identified by the Pirate Canvas sessions, and the data coming out as a result of the work was very encouraging. All departments were trained in the Pirate Canvas to identify and address their bottlenecks and constraints, which led to even greater insights and improvements in Business Agility. Leadership as a Service was used extensively to help leaders and their teams come to quick consensus decisions, which led to ever greater clarity and alignment across the organization.  

The two coaches with experience in the XSCALE practice patterns that Rachel brought in worked hand-in-hand with the leadership team facilitating, coaching, and educating on the patterns and practices that are part of the XSCALE framework and other complementary frameworks. As part of their engagement, the coaches ran a six-month program in Business Agility that included a combination of self-study, live sessions, group work, and assignments that brought the work they did to life. The focus was on imbuing a Business Agility capability and mindset for everyone going through this program and to a large extent, it was successful.  

Keith submitted this to the Business Agility Institute as a case study in Business Agility, and both Keith and Rachel presented their story at a BAI conference. And, last but not least, in a CEO succession planning meeting, Rachel Bates was elevated as the top candidate to succeed Keith!

Co-written by Kjell Tore Guttormsen Continuous transformation | Leadership | High-performing teams | Individual development

and Kumar Dattatreyan Leadership/Executive Coach | Change Catalyst | Learning Facilitator

Categories: Business Agility


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