Deliberately developmental organisations: The Agile organisations of tomorrow

Imagine that everyone at your workplace supported each other’s intentions and were committed to building on each other’s ideas. Imagine that you could choose how you would like to develop at work, and that all your colleagues were devoted to your chosen development. Not only development of your skills, but to your development as a whole person. Imagine that this workplace also was one of the most successful in its area, and that the success was sustainable. Chances are that you have imagined a Deliberately Developmental Organisation as described by Robert Kegan and Lisa L. Lahey in their book, An Everyone Culture.

Deliberate Developmental Organisations

In this article, I will give a brief summary of what Deliberately Developmental Organisations are. Then I will share a short discussion of how this relates to the Agile mindset and ways of working. I propose that the “Agile movement” is heading in the direction of both personal growth and organisational development. I believe that Deliberately Developmental Organisations are the Agile organisations of tomorrow.

What are Deliberately Developmental Organisations?

A Deliberately Developmental Organisation (or DDO) is an organisation who sees the personal growth and development of its employees as an interdependent part of growing and developing their business. By designing their organisational structures and processes towards people development in a business context, they unlock more and more of the workforce potential. The organisation’s capability to take on increasingly more complex ventures is enhanced. They are able to adapt quickly to market needs, and drive innovation. DDOs put the development of their business and the development of the individual as their focus every day for everyone in the organisation. A way to sum up their strategy is to say they are not only trying to improve, but they strive to get better at getting better.

As with Agile organisations, DDO’s can look very different at the surface, but they share a set of values. They also have three defining elements necessary to sustain them being deliberately developmental. These elements are also called dimensions;

1.    Edge – Developmental Aspiration Oriented to the growing edge.

This dimension holds the drive to challenge deep personal assumptions and overcome personal limitations and blind spots.

2.    Groove – Developmental practises and tools

This dimension holds the structures, routines, processes, and tools to interact with each other, to support the developmental journey and ground the work in the day-to-day business.

3.    Home – Developmental communities to provoke and hold vulnerability

This dimension describes the psychologically safe work environment that is necessary for individual development. This allows for the employees to both truly support and challenge each other.

Edge, Home and Groove are woven together. All are necessary in order for a deliberately developmental culture to grow and be sustained.


The Edge is the edge of your capabilities, where you will need to focus in order to grow. You will know that you are working on your Edge when it feels really uncomfortable. When you feel like you are out on a limb. When it is important that you get the work done and you don’t feel like there is a safety net. What you will experience is the pain of stretching beyond your capabilities, in order to develop you further.

Many will recognise this as being outside your comfort zone. Notice that it is not taking a step out of your comfort zone and then back again. In DDOs you work outside of your comfort zone. In a psychologically safe environment, this development work will not only give you accelerated learning. It will also develop your ability to hold more perspectives and complexity. You are developing your mindset, the way you see, think and believe about the world and how it works. You will develop your capabilities to self-direct and lead people more successfully. I like to think of the Edge as the dimension that holds you sharp and continuously getting better to adapt in our ever-changing and complex world.


Everyone who has worked successfully with change and development in individuals or systems knows that this kind of development and personal growth from the Edge dimension, need a solid and psychological safe environment. Coaches are experienced in co-creating this kind of environment with their clients, be it individuals, teams or even a larger part of an organisation. People experiencing such a safe environment will feel supported enough to explore their Edge:

  • their thinking patterns
  • their feelings
  • the deep assumptions and beliefs they currently hold

They will accept being challenged on their own defence mechanisms. And find new ways and behaviours to more skilfully solve their own problems and move towards their goals.

In a DDO it is not only coaches who will hold such a safe environment. It will be held by the community in the organisation, which is called Home. In this community of people, you will experience that you are deeply valued and accepted as the person you are, giving ground for psychological safety. You will at the same time be treated like an adult, held accountable and challenged for your thinking and actions. Your community will assume good intentions in what you do. They will expect that you are able and willing to learn and develop from your mistakes.

I like to think of Home as the community where things are always real. You are held accountable, so there is nowhere to hide. But why would you hide your mistakes, or even hide your vulnerabilities if you are always welcomed and always accepted, just the way you are?


The Groove is how we move, how we dance together. It is the practices, structures, processes and tools. In other words, the Groove is the design of how we carry out our work and the tools we use. These practices will not be the same for all DDO’s, but the common denominator is that they are all designed to develop and grow the employees in the day-to-day activities they do in order to achieve business results. In a DDO you always practice developing yourself. And as with practicing dancing, you are never done, but you will get better the more you practice. And that brings us back to a key strategy for DDOs, constantly “getting better at getting better”.

The number one factor for highly effective teams

There has been a focus on psychological safety in the Agile community for a while. More and more organisations are taking onboard practices to build this into their teams after Google’s Aristotle project identified psychological safety to be the number one factor for highly effective teams.

Amy Edmondson, who coined the term team psychological safety, defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”. In other words, the whole team needs to believe that it is safe to show vulnerability and make mistakes and that they will be accepted as they are. The level of psychological safety we look for in Agile teams is very often around being able to:

  • interact well
  • challenge the status quo
  • be comfortable with failing in safe-to-fail experiments in order to learn

In successful Agile organisations, you look for a level of safety for what you do and how you interact with your team.

Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.

Amy Edmundson

In a DDO there is a need for an even higher level of safety, since individuals also are expected to get challenged and grow out of their current way of thinking and way of dealing with the world. The practices in DDOs are designed to challenge and develop you through your daily work. Some even make your vulnerabilities and growth edges open for all. We see that the high level of safety needs to extend to the larger community of which you are a part. And not only within the boundaries of your team. In a DDO you need a level of safety not only for what you do, but also for being honest with yourself and open with others about who you are, and who you will become.

The pillars of Scrum

The Agile framework Scrum is based on the pillars of Transparency, Inspection and Adaption. These underpin an emergent process design that stays relevant to the changing complex environment while keeping the focus on producing business results without unnecessary extra effort. With high transparency, everyone involved will be able to understand the purpose of what they are doing, openly see the decisions being made and have access to the state of the work in progress. When in psychologically safe teams, we can easily hold the desired future results alongside what we are doing now. And then create a natural pull towards self-organisation in order to build that shared envisioned outcome. 

As humans, we have a drive to close the gaps between what the current state is and what we want. I believe that everyone also has an innate curiosity to inspect how things work. Especially if it doesn’t work as well as we expected or if we think we can improve it. Given the opportunity, we then make adjustments to see if we can get even better outcomes than what we have. 

In Scrum, we can easily see this through the two different improvement cycles embedded in each work iteration (Sprint). The first is the product improvement cycle. It starts with well-defined business outcomes that are prioritised and planned for the upcoming Sprint. The team then collaborates daily using tools to keep the work visual for everyone. At the end of the Sprint, work is inspected and adaptations/changes are suggested for further sprints. The second is the process improvement cycle. This is where the team at the end of a Sprint inspects and reflects on how they have worked and collaborated together in order to find ways to adapt and improve their process.

Scrum and DDOs

Coming from a ‘Scrum world’ you will quickly spot the three pillars in a DDO. However, you will also probably feel that the dial is turned up to eleven. Radical transparency can be seen in practices like 

  • recording all meetings and making them available to all employees,
  • registering your growth edges in an app, where everyone can give feedback to you, and everyone can see this feedback and any response you give. 

The transparency also goes deeper when considering that your community and your colleagues will challenge your beliefs and assumptions to help you see more of yourself and how your thought patterns work. This radical transparency not only visualises the work and the process of work. It also works to constantly reveal the system to itself, and reveal our inner processes to ourselves. 

When we see ourselves truly and are able to inspect what is holding us back from getting better outcomes, we will seek to grow and adapt to our new way of thinking and dealing with the work and world around us. This journey requires effort and is sometimes painful, even in a supportive and safe environment like Home. However, the personal and business rewards are game-changing. In addition to this natural inner motivation to grow, there are several practices and principles in a DDO that support the inspect and adapt cycle. There are daily check-ins with a supervisor or peer, to reflect on what they are currently learning about themselves. 

A developmental improvement cycle

In a fifteen-minute practice called ‘daily case’, employees will reflect on a given case and ask how they would deal with it and why. This gives everyone a shared curriculum that can give the organisation a view on different approaches to the same situation. It also reveals the thinking behind different behaviours. This is a developmental improvement cycle, that is an addition to the product and process improvement cycles mentioned above.

In a complex world

Agile is an approach to help solve complex challenges. Over the years Agile has grown from the Agile Software Manifesto into an Agile Mindset not only for product development but also as the basis for organisational change. Simon Powers, the founder of Adventures with Agile (AWA) has defined the Agile Mindset as consisting of three beliefs:

  1. The Complexity Belief
  2. The People Belief
  3. The Proactive Belief.

We will need to hold all of these beliefs and live by them, in order to sustainably thrive in a complex world.

An implication of the Complex belief is that since we cannot predict and analyse our way to solutions for our complex challenges, we need to inspect and adapt our efforts, preferably in short iterations. A single expert or leader cannot hold all of the complexity of an organisation and make timely good decisions. So we need to enable teams and even our organisations to deal with it all successfully. Powers suggests a coaching approach to organisational change, seeking to enable teams and organisations by including them in an emergent process design.

The Enterprise Change Pattern

Simply put, we can say that this Enterprise Change Pattern is based on increasing transparency by revealing the system to itself, facilitating ways for the employees to change their ways of working, and repeating by following an inspect and adapt cycle. It is an important point that the employees affected, the people doing the work, are included in this process.

By looking into the People belief, we are reminded that in our organisations and teams, we are mutually dependent on each other to solve these complex problems. Realising this, that as an individual I am part of a ‘we’ with a purpose, I will tend to start thinking and optimising for the larger systems of which I am a part. If we also are able to build psychological safety in this ‘we-space’, we will start to align our efforts, challenge and hold each other accountable, while showing deep acceptance and respect towards our peers.

When talking about the Complexity belief and the People belief, I often get so enthusiastic that I almost forget about the importance of the Proactive belief. With a strong focus on both Complexity belief and People belief, being proactive seems like a given. The Proactivity Belief demands a drive to always wanting better results. It can be about getting higher effect for less effort, or it can be about building more sustainable practices. A way to recognise proactivity is when the work processes have built-in mechanisms to improve.

The DDO is the “single best means for meeting adaptive challenges”

DDOs not only hold the Complexity belief, complexity is their natural habitat. Kegan and Lahey argue that complex “adaptive challenges can only be met by people and organisations exceeding themselves” and that the DDO is the “single best means for meeting adaptive challenges”. Backed by research in adult development, they point out that many leaders and employees need to develop to a later stage of development (at least self-authoring mind) for their organisations to thrive in an increasingly complex world.

In the Home dimension in DDOs, we recognise that the building of a psychologically safe community is creating the necessary “we-space” for people to optimise around their organisation’s purpose. DDOs are naturally purpose-driven, and an integral part of their purpose is human development; not only as a means but also as an end in itself. As we have explored earlier, peers in a DDO will both challenge and support each other, believing that we all are resourceful and able to grow our capabilities. They accept that we all make mistakes, but hold each other accountable to develop and build on our own and our peers’ failures and successes.

The proactive belief we can see in the Groove dimension, but also in the concept of Deliberate Development itself. A DDO evolves through its members constantly practising to develop as humans. While we can say that a process improvement cycle is about getting better at creating outcomes, the improvement cycle of being deliberate developmental is about getting better at getting better.

So is Agile up to the task?

Agile is a great approach when trying to deal with complex adaptive problems. Through the years we have found better ways of working and become better at handling complexity in our organisations. With the short comparison of DDO and Agile done here, I will argue that the Agile Mindset and DDOs are heading in the same direction. The fundamental difference is that a DDO is explicitly and inherently working on developing individuals in order to increase their own, and the organisational capabilities to handle complexity. DDOs not only follow the science of adult development, but it is able to scale it to include everyone, every day.

A lot has happened in the Agile community with the introduction of Coaching. Working with a coaching approach, like the AWA’s Enterprise Change Pattern for nurturing growth and enabling change, we can support an organisation closer to what DDOs are capable of. Another trend in Agile communities now is the “Inner Agility” and influence from spiral dynamics, which really is looking at human development. So perhaps in the near future, the Agile organisations of tomorrow will be DDOs.

Inspiration to a way forward

If you would like to learn more about DDOs, I recommend that you check out the inspiring book ‘An Everyone Culture, by Robert Kegan and Lisa L. Lahey. You might also want to dig into Adult development or Leadership development stages, in order to more fully understand what development will look like.

AWA Norge is committed to become a DDO

At AWA Norge we are committed to develop and become a DDO. In our small organisation, we have introduced some practices already. We started with exploring our own growth edges using the Immunity to Change approach from Kegan. Every day we reflect on how this edge is showing up and interacting with our work. We then look for ways we can grow and improve on these fronts. We openly share these reflections with each other, and also provide feedback in a SBI (Situation, Behaviour, Impact) format. In the beginning, this felt somewhat embarrassing. But after only a few weeks, we have grown not only to accept this radical transparency, we see how we have better and more effective arguments by reducing destructive conflict patterns when we strongly disagree or even feel hurt.

In addition to building a DDO, we seek to build psychologically safe environments in our engagements, be it with clients or boards we sit on. We both regularly go to coaching to grow even more, and we are exploring how to build and support communities around us that are safe enough for its members to explore their own voice and development. One community I am part of is the Innovation and Leadership Mastery program run and created by Simon Powers. This kind of learning environment is a way of meeting up with peers and looking into how we can develop as leaders. And it is also looking at how we can then bring our new ideas into the wider world, challenging our own fears is a great way to stretch towards higher capability and impact.

Deliberate Development Circle

At the time of writing this, I am also co-creating something we call a “Deliberate Development Circle”. This is where we are currently exploring how we can develop ourselves in addition to having a social impact. We are finding ways to support each other and at the same time challenge each other’s thinking patterns and behaviours.

My purpose in sharing this with you is that I have a strong belief that we are within reach of overcoming our challenges in our society and in the world. But in order for this to happen we need to help each other develop and grow our communities to become psychologically safe so that we release the great potential energy that currently frustrates, creates discontent and even resentment for our fellow citizens. I think Agility can support us towards this. And I think building DDOs of our current organisations will completely change the game.

Curious about Agile ways of working? We answer your most frequently asked questions here.

Are you a Change Agent or Coach looking to take the next step to live and breathe your purpose and realise your power? Breakthrough stuck patterns, grow yourself so you can inspire others with our Deliberately Developmental Training.

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