Sunday, March 1, 2015

Patterns for Living Organisations

My brother-in-law is an architect. Lucky me. Not because he helps us design changes to our house (which he does) but because he owns a great architecture book that has inspired not only architects but also numerous authors: A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.

I first heard about it when discussing software design patterns and the famous gang of four book (Gamma, Helm, Johnson, Vlissides: Design Patterns) with colleagues. Then it crossed my path again when reading the most excellent book Fearless Change by Manns and Rising who also mention it as inspiration for the pattern language in their book. I decided to check out Alexander's book but it has unfortunately taken some time again until I finally borrowed it from my brother-in-law.

You see, I have been thinking about patterns lately again because I am often confronted with the whole 'scaling agile' discussion (SAFe or LeSS or purist or ...) It occurred to me that, of course, all approaches are wrong for many situations but all definitely have valuable pieces. And these pieces can be applied in different scenarios, different combinations, different systems, different organisations. And sometimes you do not know which piece works best when and where.

So, are these pieces patterns? I think so. At least some of them qualify. And  I know there are many more not yet put down in words or pictures within frameworks or books or other presentations.

But scaling agile is actually too narrow a focus for me. Of course, we all want to figure out how to build products or run projects with multiple teams, multiple POs and many stakeholders involved. But true scaling of the agile principles means changing other aspects of the organisation beyond the (mostly software) production aspects, like HR, finance and similar services.

Now bear with me as I tell you about a documentary I recently watched called 'Augenhöhe'.

We will come back to patterns soon enough.  Augenhöhe shows six organisations that have somehow created or changed their structures and cultures and behaviours in such a way that the members of the organisation have much autonomy in their decision making, that hierarchies are not in place to assert power or reflect superior knowledge or competence and where it seemed that the employees were engaged in their work and indeed found enjoyment at work. I recommend watching the film here. Currently only in German, though. I believe an English version is coming, or at least English subtitles.

The film is meant to be an inspiration, and I believe it achieves this purpose. It basically shows that there are companies that try (and partially manage) to create living organisations rather than well-oiled machines. What the film does not do is give answers how to achieve this change. I kept on asking myself - what did they do so that they are how they are now. Which - wait for it ---- patterns did they apply? And it became clear to me that I want to find (distill?) these patterns out of the behaviours/methods/ideas of successful organisations and make these patterns accessible to everyone. Maybe this will help create more living organisations such as these.

And this is where the we come full circle - Christopher Alexander and his Pattern Language book will help me to find a blueprint on how to describe patterns. And the patterns in his book (250+ of them) are good examples of what to look for in organisations. Actually, I think some of the architectural patterns may be usable for organisational structures as well!

What needs to be done? Firstly, describe the language (i.e. how are patterns specified). Here I plan to steal and tweak from Alexander and Mann/Rising. Then just start by finding categories for patterns and offer examples for each category. Finally, I hope to get others on board to help me find more and more patterns and find a good place (maybe a Wiki?) to collect them and where everyone can retrieve them to use the appropriate ones in their particular organisational challenge.


  1. Ah, Christof, I love your mind :-) Thanks for writing this post. And, from my heart, thanks for writing it in English, bringing the momentum of the Augenhoehe film phenomenon into the broader community!

    Alexander's book is lovely, isn't it? In it he talks about "a timeless way of building" and "quality without a name " (shortened to QWAN in the software patterns community :-) Alexander wrote: "This quality in buildings and in towns cannot be made, but only generated, indirectly, by the ordinary actions of the people, just as a flower cannot be made, but only generated from the seed." (TheTimelessWayOfBuilding, p. xi).

    Pattern languages, i.e. groups of patterns working together, are "generative", that is to say: they create "virtuous circles" where patterns reinforce and support one another, and from which elegant local solutions may emerge. More on that here:

    I think the Augenhoehe filmmakers were clever, to focus simply on finding and presenting some examples, without jargon or explanation, from which we could start to see patterns and eventually generate our own solutions. Their "film+dialogue" program around the movie is not accidental: they intend to spart generative dialog!

    You are, I believe, right: pattern languages are an elegant, constructive way to capture and share learning about human endeavour. Patterns help us get beyond the competetive my-method's-better-than-yours, distilling out the elements that work and, more importantly, the contexts in which they do and don't work, and the interaction of these patterns (pattern languages). I, too, have thought about how patterns might be a good way to capture what we are informally learning here. And you may find other eager and well-prepared collaborators for such a project within our community.

    (due to length, this post continues in the next comment)

    1. (Part 2: ... continuation of my previous comment)

      You probably know that Scrum was first formally documented and presented as a pattern language? That original language is detailed, and new patterns continue to be developed, on the ScrumPLoP wiki: . (Iirc there is an active ScrumPLoP community in Germany).

      GroupWorks is another pattern language actively under development, led by people in the Art of Hosting community, I believe: Group Works: A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings & Other Gatherings (a website, plus downloadable & physical card deck). The community is documenting pattern languages that already work, including Open Space Technology & others. Patterns are alive and well in organisational design work: you may find other active organisational pattern writing communities online!

      Did you know that patterns are not written like fiction, but more like research? Patterns are first collected or "mined" from real life, then "refined" in disciplined writers workshops. More here:

      Agilists, led by Kent Beck & Ward Cunningham, have been mining and writing patterns of human behaviour for decades! Their home base is The Hillside Group (Note: Hillside Europe, based in Munich runs a conference where pattern writers workshop their patterns: EuroPLOP )

      People have found that, once the initial excitement wears off, patterns can be hard to digest: as a "distilled material" they are quite dense! To help with this, there is a guide to studying patterns in a group (written, of course, as a pattern language :-) called A Learning Guide to Design Patterns. In fact, some of these would be useful for organising any Stoos satellite!

      And, finally, about the Fearless Change patterns, which you also mentioned - they are useful for Stoosians, by design! People can get a taste with our downloadable FearlessJourney card decks (in 6 languages) ... but be aware: the book is rich and the cards are only a taster! And: Linda and Mary Lynn have just published a follow-up book!

      Keep me in the loop on this, please!

  2. Deb - great stuff. Thanks so much for all the information you provided. Gets me even more motivated to move on with this! Oh - as you may know already, I use Fearless Journey all the time in my Management classes. People always love it! Great game based on a great book!

  3. Thanks, Christof, interesting article.Two quick links

    1/ English subtitles for the Augenhöhe Film already exist. Just go to or the linked vimeo page and click on the grey or blue "CC" symbol on the lower right of the embedded media player. The subtitles cannot yet be downloaded, but the Augenhöhe team will soon upload another mp4 with embedded subtitles on vimeo.

    2/ Frederic Laloux attempts to extract the patterns of companies like those shown in the Augenhöhe film in his book "Reinventing Organisations" which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this subject of new forms of organisation. The original book is published in English, but there will soon be translations to German, French and Dutch ... and probably a few more languages later on.

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