Social Complexity and Agility

Impressions of #Stretchcon

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so moved by a conference that I felt I needed to blog about it, but it happened last week at the Stretch conference in Budapest. It’s not that the other conferences I attended recently weren’t also good – both Decepticon in Cambridge, organised by Sophie van der Zee et al., and Agile Tour Vienna, organised by Christian Hassa, Ralph Miarka et al., were excellent conferences. Stretch, though, was something different. It might be because I’ve gotten so used to attending software and psychology conferences that a leadership and management conference was a refreshing change.

Stretch is an annual conference in Budapest organised by Prezi, UStream, and others. For me, it felt like a smaller, more intimate version of TED. The speaker mix was typical – fly over some American big names, find a few interesting Europeans, and fill with local talent. I was invited by László Csereklei, who I met a few years back after a talk I gave at Ericsson. I wasn’t sure how I would fit in to such a conference, and was worried up until the point I went up on stage. As it was, things turned out quite well.

Stretch was held in the Urania theatre in Budapest, a beautiful building with gold and red velvet reminding one of the last age of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy, and was structured as a number of presentations with an open space in the middle. Talks were limited to 40 minutes (more or less), with a 5-minute Q&A session afterwards. As the theatre seating was quite narrow, passing around microphones for questions from the audience would have very difficult to deal with. As it was, things went very well, as the conference organisers used what is one of the coolest software apps I have seen recently, ( This web app allows people to log into the conference site via hashtag, post questions, and allows others to upvote the questions. I don’t know how long it’s been around, but I hope to see it used more often, especially since it’s also valuable for avoiding the creeping-death start of large open space sessions.


Due to prior commitments, I only arrived in Budapest on the evening of the first day, and since I had to fly back home to Switzerland after lunch on the third and last day, I didn’t catch all speakers. There were a few of them, though, who moved and impressed me.

Doc Norton gave a talk entitled “The Experimentation Mindset”, in which he showed that there needs to be space and willingness for people to try things out, at the risk of failure, for any real innovation to occur. Although his focus came from a different direction, his ideas resonated so well with my complexity-based thoughts that I constantly felt like I needed to put up my hand, either to add a thought or to high-five him.

When I read the title of John Blakey’s talk – “The Trusted Executive” – I thought it was an oxymoron. This was the focus of his heavily “Matrix”-based talk – what is trust, and how can it be earned. His main point was that, in order to be trusted, you have to be trustworthy. How to do that? According to John, trustworthiness = deliver + coach + be consistent + be honest + be open + be humble + be kind + be brave + evangelise. I strongly agree with, and I will try to be, one of a new breed of  leaders, ones who prefer the power of trust to the trust in power.

Anne Loehr’s talk went in a similar direction. Although advertised as discussing focus and purpose, her main focus was on values. This fit in nicely with John Blakely’s emphasis on integrity, and was very useful to me. I’m currently in the process of looking for new challenges and re-positioning myself in the market, and had the chance to talk a bit one-on-one with Anne after her talk. Her personal question to me to not ask “what do I want to do”, but ask “what do I value”, has been occupying many brain cycles since then. Thanks, Anne!


Someone in the organising committee must be a fan of Holacracy, since there were (in my opinion) too many talks about it at Stretch. As preparation for the conference, I read Laloux’s book, needing a bit more time than Dave Snowden’s one hour (I needed two, but I was multi-tasking), and studying various materials available on the web. My opinion, which was confirmed by the talks I heard: from a scientific point of view, Holacracy has very little to do with complexity and self-organisation. It is a process and toolset (think Agile Manifesto here), an ordered-systems approach that attempts to impose on an organisation a structure that might potentially emerge in a socially complex system. It borrows terminology from complexity without really understanding what the terms mean. Holacracy might work in some situations – there was a talk from someone using it in a school in Berlin – but it’s not something I would want to have to deal with.

Other things

Many years ago, when I first met Martin Haussmann and introduced his style of visual facilitation to the agile community, I never could have imagined how popular it would become. One of the highlights of Stretch was the excellent live graphic recording of the talks. I was presented with a sketch of myself and with 2 full pages of drawings from my talk, and am happy and proud to have them now hanging in my office.

Finally, I’d like to thank a few people who made my time at Stretch very special. István Tóbiás, who organised everything having to do with my talk. Anna Budai, who took good care of me during my time in Budapest, and was an excellent conversational partner.  And last but not least, Medea Baccifava. After my talk, I mentioned to her that I liked the conference a lot, and would love to come speak again some time. 10 minutes later, she came back smiling and told me “We just freed up 30 minutes in the afternoon. Could you speak some more?” I will never forget that.

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  1. [...] For a review of the STRETCH Conference, visit Joseph Pelrine’s blog: Social Complexity and Agility. [...]

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