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Is your change process Agile or fragile?

Brian Søgaard

This article is not about how or why to become more Agile. It is about how to become different – with success. How to transform your organization to work differently, or implement any other change process, and how to improve your customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction at the same time. No matter if you want to improve by introducing Agile principles or something else, you can run the change process itself with great success by using Agile principles. What you change is not the big issue, it’s how you do it.

Why is this relevant?

Organizations need to be more adaptive to meet new demands from the market, from employees, and customers. They may even need a turn-around to survive. Now, the question is: how do you change to be more adaptive and create a foundation for a turn-around, without risking customer or employee satisfaction or an economic surprise on the project budget?

First, it’s key to understand that a transformation or change process will never end. There is no deadline, there is only a constantly moving target. However, you can fake a deadline, such as defining the goal as ‘when the new Program Board had performed four successful iterations” or “when the quarterly employee satisfaction survey indicates a 10 % increase.” Although such measurable goals are great, they can only be seen as milestones in a never-ending journey. If you stop focusing on doing things differently when such milestones are met, you put your organization at high risk of turning back to its old habits. When that happens, you risk losing the improved satisfaction, the support, and the new energy and positivism in the organization. Instead, your mindset should support an understanding of the need for constant change and optimizing to be able to adapt towards the moving target.

An organizational transformation process, towards Agile or anything else, is to a great extent about cultural change and effective change management. You cannot enforce a cultural change by use of a command-and-control approach, with no cost to employee satisfaction or motivation. The key to success is involving empowered stakeholders who – with the appropriate training – are engaged to collaborate to achieve an easily understood and clearly communicated purpose and goal. Thus, due to the nature of the Agile mindset, an Agile approach to the transformation process itself can be highly effective.

A new way of dealing with change processes

A typical command-and-control based approach to such major changes in an organization is risky, as you might never get the support of the organization. As such, the transformation process gets more fragile than Agile. Often, a command-and-control driven change process is kicked off at a large meeting, where a CxO explains how bad the situation is for the business and how everyone needs to change to make the company survive. The manager is describing a burning platform and tries to use fear as the sole motivator for engaging the organization in the process. However, recent research of human behavior and brain science disproves this to be an effective approach. What happens is that the brain ‘shuts down,’ minimizing the ability to reflect, be creative and open for new ideas. The exact opposite of what you want. What you must do instead, is to create the understanding of the purpose of the change, a clear picture of why to change to what. Your task as the manager is to engage your organization to define how you get there. That’s the tricky part.

Even John P. Kotter, father of the well-known eight-step change process and a highly quoted guru within the field of change management, recently changed his mind on how to create a real readiness to change:

“Traditional hierarchies and processes, which together form an organization’s “operational system,” do a great job of handling the operational needs of most companies, but they are too rigid to adjust to the quick shifts in today’s marketplace. The most agile, innovative companies add a second operating system, built on fluid, network-like structure, to continually formulate and implement strategy. The second operating system runs on its own processes and is staffed by volunteers from throughout the company.” (John P. Kotter, Harvard Business Review, November 2012)

A fluid, network-like structure with volunteers across the organization who continually formulate and implement the strategy. Dear fellows, this is Agile – and a huge change of what earlier was seen as the single right approach to change management.

It’s a well-documented fact that teams and individuals who understand the purpose of their job and daily tasks are much more likely to succeed, compared to those who only focus on making their boss satisfied in the short-term. The value of involving and engaging people in the process is extremely high, not to say necessary. You do not ‘involve people’ by asking them questions. Instead, you should be listening. Carefully! Without involving and listening to the whole organization, no one will engage in the process and support it.

My four principles of improving the possibility for success

I do not believe you can make a “model” or a common, detailed description of such a transformation process, Though, I do believe we can raise the possibility of success by following four principles when we start the change process:

  1. Define the goal: Communicate an easily-understood purpose to create a common vision
  2. Create ownership: Continuously involve and engage all stakeholders at every level to ensure shared ownership
  3. Prioritize training: Train and educate all affected participants to meet the new expectations
  4. Delegate power: Delegate real decisions to the organization to motivate for support and engagement

As I mentioned above, an organizational transformation process never ends. You are never ‘done.’ However, it is important to be able to measure some kind of progress – and do so frequently – to ensure you are moving in the right direction. How you can do this is out of scope for this article, but please keep it in mind anyway. Maybe I will get back to that in a future blog post.

Ad 1: Define the goal: A deep understanding of the real purpose of the job performed highly influences the motivation. The management role in a change process is roughly limited to communicating this purpose to the organization and create the optimal conditions for employees to engage. A common vision and people’s understanding of why makes it possible for them to help define how.

Ad 2: Create ownership: Just like any project, you cannot successfully define your specific needs in detail beforehand; the process must support a change in needs, maturity, knowledge, self-awareness, market conditions, economy, etc. Engaged people – working in an iterative approach that supports such changes – is indeed a necessity. Or like Kotter describes it: they must continually formulate and implement it. Engaging people in the way they want, when and how they want, really creates motivation and a shared ownership of the tasks performed. Suddenly, the change process is not “Management’s project” but “Our project.”

Ad 3: Prioritize training: What greatly demotivates people is the lack of needed skills. A change process always in some way changes the organization’s needs. New roles and area of responsibilities are often a direct consequence of such a change, which directly affects the necessary skills of the employees. We have seen this specific issue ignored by many organizations. Training is often deprioritized against the daily short-term tasks, leading to resistance and demotivation. Now you know, and now you have no excuse to replicate this common mistake.

Ad 4: Delegate power: You know it already; it is hard not to support the decisions you have made by yourself. You are much more motivated for proving you are right, or changing a decision that you later find out is wrong, than in supporting another person’s decision you cannot influence. When this is so obvious, why do so many even modern managers totally lack the ability to delegate real decision making? By real I mean important, relevant, and critical decisions with a consequence. The best decisions are made by the people who have the most relevant, up-to-date information. Rarely that’s at the top management level, due to the huge flow of information and specialized staff in most organizations today. You need leaders in your organization, not followers, especially when dealing with major change or a turn-around. (If you disagree, please read Turn the Ship Around!: How to Create Leadership at Every Level by David Marquet. That will probably change your mind.)

 

As I mentioned above, I don’t believe in a common descriptive model of change management. We are dealing with people with real problems and interests, not zeros and ones. Instead, try to be adaptive and trust in a few principles. To describe why I believe in the four specific principles mentioned above, let me map them to my earlier statement about how to ensure success:

The key to success is involving [2] empowered stakeholders [4], who – with the appropriate training [3] – are engaged to collaborate [2;4] on achieving an easily understood and clearly communicated purpose and goal [1].

 

You may have a great time and good luck with your Agile-based change process.

  • Martin Vinther

    Hey Brian, Thanks for this great post. I fully agree with you.

  • Ole Jepsen

    Great thinking and reflections, Brian. I like, that good old Cutter is waking up and re-thinking his somewhat fear-based urgency-centric model