2 Things that are Killing Your Transformation

In my last post I referred to a few studies that show only 30% of change initiatives are successful.  The US Air Force recently cancelled a 6-year program that cost in excess of $1,000,000,000.

One. Billion. Dollars.

Seriously.  One.  Billion. Dollars.

So naturally I expect the reaction to range from “what a bunch of idiots” to pundits speculating why this massive program failed with little to no data or insight into the actual problem.  Who knows, maybe they were only ‘doing Agile‘ when they should have been ‘being Agile‘.   Disclaimer, I have no insight into whether the US Air Force uses Agile methodologies, I simply thought it would be funny to take my usual jab at the useless endless ‘being vs doing’ arguments.

I have no doubts there were tremendously intelligent people at the Air Force working on this program.  I’m sure many, or at least some, of them throughout the 6 years wanted to stop the program because of the high risk and un-certainty.  Inertia is a hard thing to stop. I remember trying to stop a resume-building project at a small company that for some reason we just couldn’t kill.  And we all thought it was useless.  It’s hard to let go of that sunk-cost plus how crappy it feels to think you’ve just wasted a chunk of your life doing something.

Anyway, because I like to solve problems I want to find out why only 30% of change initiatives are successful.  My latest stance on this problem came from a bunch of discussions at LESS 2012 this year.  What are these 2 things that are killing your transformation?

1) A Name: Putting a name on your transformation almost certainly takes the focus away from transforming and puts it squarely on a performance scorecard that, while designed with good intent, is actually working against your transformation and organization. After all, people have proven they are to be distrusted and must be measured, that’s the only way they’ll do the right thing right?

Why is it working against your transformation?  Well, because most people know the traditional organizational scorecards designed to ‘measure outcomes‘ are bullshit.  Employees despise those annual rituals where you compare what you thought you’d accomplish a year ago with where you are today.  Then you justify why you didn’t get to where you thought you would, complain about it and then do it all over again because, well, that’s the process.

I’ve spoken with many folks who are mandated to create those performance programs and they don’t like them either.

The solution?  STOP DOING THEM.  Duh.  And yes it’s that simple, the only thing you need is an Exec with the stones to throw them out and find something that works better.  Management 3.0 has a whole bunch of options.  If you’d like, I can run a class for you.  😉

2) A Deadline: Putting a deadline is effective for setting a target but remember you cannot control implementing a massive transformation by attaching some magical date somewhere in the future that sounds good.  That will certainly undermine your efforts as people figure out how to game whatever ‘metric’ you’ve put in place to ‘ensure’ the deadline is met.

The solution?  Think of deadlines as targets.  And set shorter time horizons for those targets.  If you need help with that, check out The Rockefeller Habits.  If you’re undertaking a large transformation and think you can plan (upfront) your way through it, you are out of your mind.  Either that or you should buy a lottery ticket because you have some gift for seeing the future.

So what’s with all the snark in this post?  I guess I’m sick and tired of hearing “we can’t do that because <some bass-ackwards policy> says we can’t” or “it’s out of our control…we can’t do anything“.

Let’s be clear, YOU and the people in your organization make those policies.  Change them.   Those are the speed-bumps on the road to your transformation and they’re not the problem.  The actual problem is the status quo that has led to responses like “we can’t do that because…”  People in your organization have been beaten down by the system so many times they stop questioning it.    I think some nut named Deming has something to say about that.  Google it.

Well, what have I accomplished with this post?  Will people read it and feel inspired to start questioning the system and status quo?  Hopefully.  Will it piss some people off?  Probably.

That’s what great and what sucks about being a change agent.  You get stuck on a named transformation with a deadline that you can’t control and a lot of your work ends up being waste because you cannot control what will happen in a complex system when you introduce a change.  Often the change agents get the blame, well at least from my experience that happens.  I’ve been fired before and many of my colleagues have been too.  It’s easier to do that than figure out why the ‘transformation‘ didn’t work.  Since all employees are bad, someone has to be blamed.

The only solution I can come up with, that will of course create more problems, is to focus on whatever process or rule is mentioned when someone says “we can’t do that because <this stupid process> says we can’t.”  Forget the name, forget the deadline, start fixing that problem and see what happens.