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Almost a year ago now, Tripwire acquired nCircle and overnight our R&D Department became half again as large. I didn’t know much about what would happen next, but I did know that everybody’s work would become more complex. There would be more people to interact with and our department would now be spread across two locations on the opposite coasts of the county.

Would our communication channels and tools for making decisions scale to accommodate the “New Tripwire”? Who were these new people and how did they do their work? How could we work together given geographic and timezone differences?

I looked for help in discovering the answers to these questions and discovered something called the Human System Dynamics Institute.

No, it’s not something out of a Orwell novel or a Frank Zappa song. It’s a group of experts in organizational design who have applied concepts from complexity science and chaos theory to human “systems” such as corporate organizations navigating sea changes in their markets, non-profit groups working to change the world, and large governmental entities seeking to operate effectively within huge bureaucracies.

As it turned out, Glenda Eoyang, the founder of the HSD Institute was coming to Portland to lead an extended workshop on HSD and I immediately signed up for it.

Despite sounding (and, in some cases, being) rather academic, HSD has a series of models that are very congruent with many of the Agile tools and techniques that I employ in my role as a Scrum Master. I’ll describe a couple of the HSD models that have helped me as I’ve navigated the “new Tripwire”. If you’d like to learn about other topics and concepts in HSD, I highly recommend their wiki:

A couple of HSD models helped me get into the mindset for approaching complex situations like forming a new Team that was spread across four locations and three time zones. “Standing in Inquiry” helped put me into an empathetic state of mind as I turned judgment into curiosity, disagreement into mutual exploration, and defensiveness into self-reflection. I also found the “Four Truths” to be helpful as I worked to understand others’ points of view and reconcile them with my own:

  • The objective truth is simply something that is
  • The subjective truth is the story that I tell
  • The normative truth is the story that we tell
  • The complex truth is the combination and synthesis of the other truths. It’s what we deal with when we work with people.

Well, that sounded really fluffy, didn’t it? After I finished singing Kumbayah to myself, it was time for me to get work. When forming my new multi-site, multi-timezone Team, I applied the STAR model from HSD in which, as a Team, we discussed:

  • How are we the same as each other and how are we different? Which differences really make a difference?
  • How do communicate? How do we talk and listen?
  • What are we doing? What is our authentic work? What does success look like?
  • What is our reason for being here? What motivates us?

And, finally, as we’ve evolved the Team over the last six months, I’ve used Adaptive Action to help us evolve our tools and process to overcome impediments to our success. In Adaptive Action, you answer three questions to figure out what steps to take next:

  • What is the current situation? What are the facts? What events led us to where we are today?
  • So, what is really important? What problems need to be addressed first?
  • Now, what actions do we take to address our more important problems?

While Human Systems Dynamics may sound a little academic, it has some very solid theoretical foundations and offers many practical tools for dealing with complex situations. For those of us who practice Agile software development, HSD’s principals and models make a great addition to our toolbox for helping our Teams navigate the ever-changing world of building software.

More information about HSD can be found at I also highly recommend the Partnerships and Possibilities podcast hosted by Diana Larson and Sharon Buckmaster, two of my fellow HSD Practitioners.

How does your organization resolve it’s “sticky issues”? Have you found some good tools for kicking off a new project or breathing life into an old one? Post a comment to share your experiences with navigating complexity in your organization.


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