Building Awareness Using Constellations

by Tim Meyer, Agile Rising

Building awareness or surfacing differences within a small team isn’t that difficult or time-consuming. It can be as simple as having the team go around the table (or zoom meeting) and have everyone state their case or thoughts. Or you could choose to use various activities from liberating structures. But how can that be done with a larger group of 100+ people?

This is where constellations can be used. Constellation coaching activities can be used for a large group to quickly build awareness of existing systemic issues. But how does this work? Here is an example of how I  used constellations to help an Agile Release Train (ART) build awareness on how the team is handling all the changes within the organization.

First, for some background on the ART – which is a team-of-teams that works together to provide value to customers or clients.  Ideally, all the teams within a value stream are within the same ART. The ART that participated in the constellation had just been reorganized a couple of months prior. The first version of the ART was created about a year prior based on assumptions on how work flowed through the system. After a year, it became apparent that the assumptions were incorrect and that new teams needed to be added. Some of the existing team members also moved from one team to another.

These two significant organizational changes were causing some unseen conflict within the system. By listening carefully to the system, an observant person could see something was going on, but the full extent of the conflict was unknown. The constellation exercise was used to help bring the full story to light. Since SAFe has an ART level retrospective built into the framework, I used this opportunity to conduct a constellation exercise. 

This exercise was conducted completely remote using a whiteboard tool called Mural. (Any virtual whiteboard tools could be used). The activity started by explaining the Kubler-Ross change curve to the group. The Kubler-Ross curve covers the “five stages” of grief that people go through when presented with change. Once the group had a basic understanding of the change curve, everyone was asked to identify where they presently are on the curve. All the ART members utilized a visitor link to the mural board to anonymously move a dot onto the curve to represent how they personally felt. The curve ended up looking like this.

After giving the group time to move a dot, they were asked what they saw on the curve. Several people chimed in, saying that they were surprised that so many people were in the depressed phase of the curve. The group was also asked what it was like to be in that space. During the debrief, many people thought they were the only ones in the category and were unwilling to bring it up in team meetings. This discussion was beginning to build awareness with the larger group.

The group was then asked the following questions. “Think three months in the future; where do you want to be?”  Like the first question, everyone was given time to move a dot to where they want to be in the future. The curve ended up looking like this.

Again, the group was asked what they see. They were also asked to talk about what it would be like to be in that spot.  Several people again shared their thoughts. By sharing this information, the group began to see a group vision of where the ART wants to be. 

But just having a vision of where you want to go doesn’t do much if the vision is not followed by action. This led to the third part of the exercise. The group was asked the question “Based on where the group want to go, what do the group need to do to get there?”. Since the group was over 100 people, the attendees broke out into 4 groups to start a brainstorming exercise on what changes they would like to see. Each of the groups was reminded to remember the constellations exercise.  At this point, the question has made a subtle shift. Instead of asking the attendees to brainstorm ideas of personal change, we asked them to come up with ideas that would help the ART toward its goal. This allows the attendees to look at the systemic issues that can be addressed within the ART. The brainstorm ideas from the breakout groups were consolidated and voted on to be used at the input for the I&A event.

The purpose of a constellations activity is to help build awareness within the system. Through this awareness, systemic issues that might seem hidden below the surface can come to light. Once the organization has the awareness, the organization can proactively choose to address the issue. This way, the organization can intentionally impact the system instead of hoping something will change.