Is Blue-print Thinking Limiting The Potential Of The Agile Community?
An exploration of the color theory of change, and how it illustrates a bias in our community that may explain our failure to enact meaningful change
Do you start a new Scrum team by explaining the roles, artifacts, and events? Do you rarely consider how to build coalitions and persuade people in power to support your work with Scrum? Are you not initially thinking about the psychological needs of people and how to motivate them to work with Scrum? You may be engaging in a bit too much blueprint thinking.
Our Agile profession is filled with frameworks. Scrum, SAFe, FAST, Scrum@Scale, Nexus, LESS, DAD, unFIX, and the list goes on. Each framework is created as a response to a perceived gap in what existing frameworks provide. We also see this in the prevalence of framework-oriented classes and certifications.
Although each profession has its frameworks, it seems that ours is abundant with them. I think this is problematic. Not because one framework is better than others. And not because frameworks are categorically bad (they aren’t). But because there is a hidden belief system at work behind the concept of frameworks that constrains our understanding of what “change” actually is and how it happens.
This is an opinion piece. Although I draw from academic sources, my argument isn’t grounded in anything stronger than my personal experience and viewpoint. It's also a bit philosophical and not quite practical. But my hope is that this post creates a productive debate.
What is a framework?
A framework is a blueprint for a process. Mirriam-Webster defines it as “a basic conceptual structure of ideas” or as a “skeletal frame”. In our practice, we understand them as an overview of roles, events, artifacts, and principles. This is also what is taught in certification classes. And I’m sure that most readers have taught this to teams and organizations at least once in their lives, and probably far more often than that.
A framework basically prescribes who should interact with whom, about what, and when to achieve a certain desirable outcome. Agile frameworks aim towards increased responsiveness and customer value, and each is basically a variation on the same theme: autonomous teams that work closely with their stakeholders to deliver more value frequently.
The hidden assumptions of Agile frameworks
There are at least three “hidden” assumptions behind frameworks. The first is that they make a causal claim. When you implement the structure of the framework, you will achieve desired outcomes. The strength of this claim varies. Some frameworks claim that you need to do all of it or (basically) suffer the causal consequences. Others are more flexible.
This brings us to a second assumption, which is that frameworks in our profession prescribe how things should be in order to achieve those desired outcomes. They are highly normative, sometimes in an all-or-nothing fashion. Frameworks don’t have to be prescriptive at all. They can also be used to provide a simplified representation of a complex reality. But we don’t see such frameworks in our profession very often.
Third, frameworks make an ontological claim in that they assert they exist independently of the messy social, political and psychological reality of organizations. This leads to the belief that a framework is valid and can be understood without that context. This is precisely why we have so many certification classes that teach frameworks, as well as assessments based on theoretical knowledge. This is also why transitions towards some Agile framework typically start with a training that is aimed at understanding the framework first. This has become such a prevalent practice in our profession that nobody wonders how odd it is that we begin a profound change of a living organization by learning theory seperately from the lived-in reality of that organization and the needs that exist there.
We can summarize these assumptions as blue-print thinking. After all, a blueprint provides an abstract solution for a practical problem. That problem will be solved once the blueprint is completely (or partially) implemented. While frameworks are certainly not unique to our profession, they certainly appear far more prevalent. Blue-print thinking comes with its own belief system about change, as we will explore next.
Blue-print thinking: Structure and Plans
The term blue-print thinking was coined by the management consultants and academics Vermaak & De Caluwe (2018). It is a mode of thinking that assumes that change follows structure; behavior and belief systems change when you change the structure. These changes are preferably implemented by experts, specialists, or certified professionals. In these change processes, the focus lies on blueprints, scripts, and recipes, as captured in comprehensive guides with tailored terminology.
Blue-print thinking is evident in how professionals and organizations approach change as the implementation of a different framework. Words like “implementation” and “rolling out” imply a deeply mechanical process. Morgan (1998) describes this as a “mechanical metaphor for change” that ignores culture, people, and their relationships. It also shows in blog posts that compare one framework to another divorced from specific organizational contexts, or make the argument that one structure is better than another. And it shows in the proliferation of Agile frameworks that compete with each other, and how training classes almost exclusively focus on structure, roles, and process.
There is nothing inherently wrong with blue-print thinking. I am biased towards it myself. But blue-print thinking comes with its own belief system about what change is and how it happens. This perspective is but one of many. But due to its dominance in training and discourse, I sometimes fear that the others are so out-of-focus that it compromises our understanding of change, and in effect our ability to enact change with our clients.
Other perspectives on change
At this point, you may wonder how else we can think about change? There are many great resources for this. Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization (1998) is a book that comes to mind and provides an academic overview of different ways to think about organizations and how they change. The first metaphor that Morgan tackles is “the machine”, and it is very similar to the blue-mode thinking described here. Morgan goes on to describe other metaphors, like organisms, as a state of flux, as chaos, as brains, as cultural systems, as political systems, as dominating systems, and as mental prisons. Each metaphor brings with it another perspective on change and draws attention to other aspects. A downside of Morgan’s work is that it is quite philosophical and academic, which not all readers appreciate. Fortunately, with “The Colors of Change”, De Caluwé en Vermaak (2003) brings a more accessible approach that is also quite compatible.
In its simplest form, De Caluwé en Vermaak (2003) offers a “color theory” that primarily uses five colors to describe five perspectives of change. Each color represents a different belief system about what organizations are and how they change. This is not a black-and-white model where people fall squarely into one of the colors. However, we tend to be biassed towards — or attracted by— one of the perspectives. The point here is not to think “colorlessly”, but to recognize your own bias and the limitations of that bias.
So what are the different colors, and the perspectives they represent? Although I offer a brief summary of the other colors below, I gladly refer interested readers to Vermaak & De Caluwe (2018) for a more detailed overview and background. My point with this post is not to exhaustively discuss the perspectives or their limitations, but to start a debate around the bias in our professional community toward blue-print thinking and what else is possible.
Yellow-print thinking: Power and Politics
The yellow-print perspective sees change as something that happens as a result of shifts in power. Change initiatives succeed when they are backed by people with formal or informal power. As a consequence of this, the yellow perspective brings into focus the need for coalition-building and mandate, for politics, and for negotiation between powerful players. Instead of the structure and the process that is at the heart of blue-print thinking, yellow-print thinking is all about discovering who needs what and how to balance those needs effectively.
Red-print thinking: People and Motivation
The red-print perspective sees change as something that happens as a result of motivation. Change initiatives succeed when people feel the motivation to change their behavior and beliefs. As a consequence of this, the red perspective puts the focus on finding out what is necessary to create this motivation to change behavior. In some cases, motivation can be found through the proper external rewards, like a salary raise or a bonus. But motivation is more likely to come from intrinsic rewards, like being part of a community or social group or from personal growth and development. Or even by finding a common enemy. Two of my recent posts about cohesion and motivation tap into this perspective.
Green-print thinking: Learning and Growth
The green-print perspective sees change as a consequence of learning. Change initiatives succeed when people are able to frequently and openly reflect on the current situation and identify potential alternatives. The green perspective brings focus on how to create a proper learning environment where people can safely and openly learn. Concepts like evolution, culture, psychological safety, learning organizations, and powerful questions are integral to this mode of thinking. Work by Chris Argyris on learning, and types of learning (single-, double- and third-loop) are very relevant here.
Although blue-print thinking often establishes learning structures to create learning opportunities, it is often more concerned with moving people to a new structure through these opportunities than an actual open exploration of other possibilities.
Whiteprint thinking: Change as a Constant
The whiteprint perspective is often the most confusing if you’ve never thought about it before. At its core, this perspective sees change as something that happens all the time and at its own pace whenever people interact. Change is not towards or from something; it happens all the time. Change is also subject to all the forces we described under the previous colors, and thus unpredictable and chaotic. As a consequence of this, the white perspective puts the focus on identifying the right moment to accelerate change that happens naturally and to guide it in helpful directions, or slow it down. Concepts that are central to this perspective are self-organization, self-determination, and paradoxes. Liberating Structures are a great example of an applied white perspective; especially structures like Ecocycle Planning, Panarchy, and Wicked Questions.
Back to frameworks
With these five perspectives in mind, it is interesting to review some of the guides for Scrum, SAFe, FAST, Scrum@Scale, or unFIX. While you will find a lot in these guides about structure and process — or blue-print thinking — you won’t find much from the other perspectives. And that makes sense from the perspective of blue-print thinking. It assumes that blueprints can exist on their own as platonic ideals, independent of any organizational context.
But the reality of behavior in organizations is far murkier and messier than frameworks suggest. Practicioners should recognize this from experience. Behavior does not change as a result of picking a new framework or a new methodology. Regardless of how much training you provide, and how many certificates you award, how people behave is a result of the interplay between many different forces; political, psychological, social, and economic. A closer examination of those forces reveals far more potent sources of resistance or support:
- Is the change sanctioned by people in a position of power? Or are they completely unaware of it? Or even opposed to it? (yellow)
- Do people in a position of power set the right example so that others are motivated to do the same, or do they undermine it by sticking to business as usual? (yellow & red)
- How are we motivating people through reward systems? Or are those systems actually counteracting the change by rewarding the opposite of what we need? (red)
- Are we bringing people together to reflect on how they work now and how they could work in the future? Are we openly exploring possibilities? Or are we simply telling them what to do? (green & white)
- What are good opportunities to reinforce the core intentions of a change? What moments should be celebrated? (white)
- Which people seem intrinsically motivated to change? How can we expand their influence? (red & yellow)
- If we look at just the principles of the Agile manifesto, what makes sense in our context to realize some of that? (white & green)
These are just some examples to paint a larger picture. Frameworks generally don’t provide any answers to these questions, even though the answers are far more important to the outcome than which framework you pick. Without that guidance, any Agile framework is just another variation on the same theme.
The power of principles
For all this talk about frameworks and blue-print thinking, I find it intriguing that the root of all this isn’t blue at all. The Agile manifesto does not prescribe roles, events, and structure. It merely states intentions through principles. The rest is contextual and up to people to figure out together. By doing so, it taps into red, green, and white perspectives.
People who have a talent for blue-print thinking see this lack of practical guidance as a weakness and developed idealized frameworks in response. Some of those frameworks remain high-level, like Scrum, whereas others are more specific in how to apply them, like FAST or SAFe. But they are not the answer to behavioral change.
I do not mean this as a criticism of frameworks. Frameworks have their place. Unfortunately, the strong focus on frameworks in our community pushes all other perspectives aside. And that may explain why so many implementations fail completely or never hit their mark. It may explain the frustration of Scrum Masters who see a big gap between the idealized Scrum framework and their messy reality. Or the many Agile coaches who are unable to effect actual change.
In this post, I express a worry that blue-print thinking is too dominant in our profession. There are exceptions. But much of the professional discourse is focused on frameworks, processes, and structure — independent of the messy sociological, political, and psychological realities of organizations. In this post, I explored how this bias leads to blind spots. I believe it also explains why so many framework implementations fail. I shared insights from the “Color Theory of Change” by De Caluwé en Vermaak to illustrate this in more detail. We also explored other perspectives on change.
My hope for our professional community is to bring more attention to other perspectives on change — the other colors. Perhaps we should talk less about frameworks, and more about politics, motivation, when and how to accelerate or slow change, and how to learn (single-, double- and third-loop). Some have already attempted this, like Management 3.0, Lean Change, Spiral Dynamics, and various coaching programs. But we still need to talk more about how to motivate people to actually change behavior. We need to talk more about politics and power structures in organizations, and how we can leverage that to drive change. We also need to talk more about how to make change a gradual evolution rather than a “before-after” implementation.
Can we do better?
P.s. I am fully aware of my own blue bias in this post. You may recognize yours too as a result of this post. Or you may recognize that you’re biased towards a different color. I’m not making a blanket statement about everyone in this community — how can I? But I am noticing patterns :)
Morgan, G. (1998). Images of organization: The executive edition. Thousand Oaks, CA.
Vermaak, H., & de Caluwé, L. (2018). The colors of change revisited: situating and describing the theory and its practical applications. In Research in organizational change and development. Emerald Publishing Limited.
De Caluwe, L., & Vermaak, H. (2003). Learning to change: A guide for organization change agents. Sage.