Agile development · Capability growth · Idea management · Implementation

The cause and effect clock for agile coaches

I wanted to introduce you to the cause and effect clock as a workshop tool for coaches


Why do you need a new clock thing anyway?

I have been putting together some rough playbooks for agile coaches lately. Not real guides but some rough notes for a couple of groups.

In particular, I have been pushing the importance of being clear on what people need from the coach.

But I have also been using terms like FEC and FOC to explain how to structure coaching worksho

Both FEC and FOC are really the same thing (FEC is “Frame the session, Explore ideas and then Consolidate”; FOC is “Frame the discussion, use Open questions and then Confirm your understanding”).

Anyway, a couple of people asked me to give an example of this.

So I wanted to have provide some people with an example.

Meanwhile I was telling someone about how I miss using step-wise programming and the “CAUSE EFFECT CLOCK”. But they had never heard of it.

The cause-effect clock is something we used a long time ago, last century, before people became super agile and no longer needed to understand the systemic relationship between causes and effects in a system.

So here is an example of the cause and effect clock in action, using a workshop that is made up of Frame-Explore-Consolidate.

What was the workshop about?

I was running a course on agile facilitation and iteration management. The attendees are supposed to be experienced in agile and in facilitating teams. But you never really know in a public course, so “who am I coaching” was rough rather than precise.

I wanted explore the concept of agile with the and also run through a workshop to see how they went and baseline them, while allowing a fairly robust discussion of the topics.

The first thing I did was set a goal for the workshop:

For the class of coaches who want to explore a shared understanding of agile, the workshop will explore our diverse thinking and then conclude with a shared understanding of what a coaching goal might look like when adopting agile in one of our companies.

The next step was to “FEC it up a bit”. Here is what I came up with:

Frame – Hi gang, I want to cover the thinking behind the Agile Manifesto, but not to quote it line by line, rather to use it as a vehicle to explore what you think is important in agile.

Explore – workshop something

Close – So what do you think is important in applying agile here?

Can we expand on the structure a little?

Next, I wanted to expand on the “workshop something” component

I actually wanted two sections

  • Session one – Flush out diverse ideas with a brainstorming exercise
  • Session two – Bring it back to a system view so we can base our next step on a clear understanding and also identify focus areas for improvement. For this I will use the cause and effect clock.

How did the workshop go?

The workshop went really well.

Framing the workshop

I introduced the subject well enough – I wan not very eloquent but people got the idea.

Session one – brainstorm diverse views

Most of the time when I use a cause and effect clock I get a lot of views through an affinity diagram or a similar exercise. But since this is about agile I thought I would use the manifesto principles.

Frame – break into two groups and look at the 12 principles behind the agile manifesto

Explore –

  • You have 8 minutes.
  • Please read and discuss each principle and then capture it in 1-3 words.
  • Write your summary for each principle on a separate post-it note
  • If you find duplicates then just combine them and if you identify something new then feel free to add more post-it notes. But each idea must be on a separate post-it note


  • OK stop work.
  • Now you have about 12 or so separate ideas.
  • Now I want you to cut them back to the top 6.
  • Rewrite them if you need to but you can only have 6 post-it notes, each with a separate idea that is captured in 1-3 words. Good luck.

[Note that there is a hidden agenda here. The Cause-Effect-Clock is a nightmare to facilitate with more than 8 topics. It is also a bit dull with less that 4-5.

This went really well. People had some lively discussions and then they came up with 6 things each. Of course, they have not yet consolidated that to one clear goal or idea.

Session two – bring on the clock

Introduction (Frame) – Now I want you to try an odd exercise.

Introduction framing

  • I will start you off and then I will get you you to do the rest yourselves.
  • Then I will perform a magic trick and you will be able to explain what your teams could do order to become awesome.

Introduction “explore” – any questions?

Introduction implementation (consolidate)

  • Each team has a poster with a cause and effect clock on it. Go over and put your post-it notes in the boxes
  • Come over to team one’s clock and I will start you off.

This is what the teams will see:


Exploring the clock

I walked through these steps with one step on the clock and then had them try

  1. Start at the top (12 O’Clock).
    • Read the post-it note and then decide if there is a relationship between this note and the one at the next note. For example, the team had “validate and improve” as the first card. Then they had “Quality focus” as the second.
    • If there is no relationship then compare the top note with another card. In this case though there is a relationship, so we continue.
    • If there is a relationship between them then decide which causes the other. In this case the team claim that it is a two way relationship – A quality focus will lead to people validating and improving while the process of validating and improving will create a quality focus.
    • Now the facilitator must be BRUTAL.
      • The team can draw a line between the two cards if there is a relationship. But they must choose a direction for the biggest cause/effect relationship and add an arrow to show that direction.
      • If the quality focus will drive people to validate and improve then go with that – or if validating and improving will cause or drive a quality focus then go with that. But you CANNOT PUT BOTH DIRECTIONS, only one.
      • When the group finally agree, tally the in arrows and out arrows next to the notes. In this case the group finally agreed to saying that validating and improving creates quality. So we put a 1 against the “out” heading for validate and a 1 next to the “input” heading for quality
  2. Repeat for each other card
    • It is slow to begin with and then people get faster when they get the idea
    • Sometimes people will want to reword their notes and you should let them if they can convince the group.
    • This process often leads to side discussions where people start talking philosophy in teams or two, so you need to pull them back into line to complete the process.
  3. Once you have been through each note, then
    • Record the post-it note that had the most “out” arrows; and
    • Record the post-it note that had the most “in arrows”
    • If there are two or three notes that came close (eg joint winners for the most “out” arrows) then allow two or three notes to counted as the most in or out winners.

I had to make sure they were reaching decisions and then moving on.  There is a risk of teams debating philosophy for hours.  I also wanted to check they got the process because it can seem a bit complex until you get through the first couple of cards

The teams completed their clocks.  The clocks will usually be messy and this time was no exception:

Consolidating the Clock findings.

I then consolidated the information in the clock

Now it is time for the magic trick.

I prepared a statement that represents the idea or the goal you set out to understand. In this case I had

Agile is way for teams to collaborate effectively so that they can add value

The clock should now provide some understanding of the statement.  The teams have added ideas and looked at the relationships.  Next we discussed the causes and effects they uncovered (perhaps without realising it).

I led them through this

“According to the cause and effect clock these are the topics that had the most ‘out arrows’

There are many things we could focus on the get the value from our teams. Right now we will focus only on our core drivers:

  • For team one this was “reflection, clearly understanding priorities and validate then improve”
  • For team two this was “regular collaboration and adapting to change”

But how do we know these are the right things to drive hard?


  • These are the things (or in some cases the one thing) that has some kind of impact on the rest of the system (the other topics) if we change this, even if we are struggling everywhere, then there will be a gradual impact that flows through everything else. If we keep going then we will be impacting everything until we succeed.
  • If we don’t get these right, then like a giant rubber band, the system will change as we pull harder and harder on it, but it will build up tension until these things pull the system back and constantly interrupt our progress

We also want to measure our progress though, so we could measure these things. But in fact we are not measuring the shift in the whole system, since so many other things will be impacting each other.

Instead we will measure the things with the most “in” arrows.

In order to see if we are making progress, we will focus on measuring these things, since any change (improvement, constraint or decline) will eventually have an impact on these:

  • For team one this is our quality
  • For team two this is “working solution”

This is how it usually goes.  It is interesting that we came to these conclusions ourselves, when they align closely to the thinking of agile people, but maybe the game is rigged.

Since these are the things we will measure and report on, it seems sensible that we should focus on them.

The problem with this is that everything else is distracting and undermining us. So like a giant rubber band, then tension of the system will keep trying to pull us away from our focus and the harder we try the more stress and tension we will create, until we snap. This is not really ideal.

Consolidate the workshop

There were no action items.

The workshop ended well with everyone agreeing on what we could focus on if we were a real agile team (actually the discussion had involved people bringing their experience from multiple teams in multiple organisations).

So we discussed this and assessed whether we had a consistent understanding. We also discussed whether the structure and tools (FEC and the cause-effect clock) had supported our collaboration.

Concluding this article

FEC was a way to help the team focus their thinking in a logical way to deal with a complex concept (agile) and it allowed them to think rather than trying to push them or convince them.

The cause-effect clock is a great tool for understanding complexity and clarifying what to focus on in a situation.

I will not explain this here, but I think it is especially helpful in predicting and acting in a system where the theory of Punctuated Equilibrium is valid. I believe that this is where we often find ourselves as coaches. You will have to contact me to explain that one.

It seems like a magic trick, particularly if you get a star on the diagram. But in face we are using system thinking to try to flush out the core drivers of a complex system we don’t really understand. You can’t predict the outcome but you do always get a view that the team can agree on and almost always it turns out to be something you can focus on.

We also almost always get something that we both want to see (since it is on our list) and also something that is useful to report on or assess, since it identifies changes to the other topics (system components) and indicates that there is change happening in the overall system.

I hope this showed how a workshop might flow when coaching a team, whether you use the same content or not. I also hope you can see that the cause-effect clock is a powerful tool for facilitating and consolidating thinking around a large or complex subject domain, even if it is a little tricky to facilitate.

Let me know how you go if you try to apply all of this.

2 thoughts on “The cause and effect clock for agile coaches

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