Change Elasticity

Many organizations think Agile is the solution to their dilemmas.  Many try and many fail yet many seem to exhibit the same patterns.  The 3 most popular reasons for failure are lack of management/executive buy-in, general resistance to change and failure to change the organization’s culture.

To me, those 3 answers really mean “I don’t know what happend and why it didn’t work so I’ll blame somebody else.

I experienced on many occasions the excitement change brings, the loosening of processes to accomodate ‘Agile’ and the willingness to learn new practices, followed by a phase I call ‘the honeymoon is over‘ and finally ‘oh crap….panic‘ when results aren’t realized as quickly as they hoped.

After the excitement wears off and results are realized, I’ve seen organizations ‘snap back‘ and feel the need to pile on more rules and process to force people into using these practices for a variety of reasons.  Some of those reasons can be because of the sunk-cost due to the investment in consultants, some can be because the poor fellow who brought Agile in now has a black-mark on his performance scorecard and sometimes it’s just frustrating to see how simple Agile is but how extremely difficult it is to make a shift in thinking and execute.

Change Elasticity
Change Elasticity

I call this change elasticity and some people in the change management and organizational development world have other models that are similar.

Of course, my perspective on this is in the context of using Agile Transformation as a trigger for change.  I’ll explain the diagram.  An organization might have some defined processes for managing work and people that aren’t working so a trigger for change is introduced, in this case an Agile Transformation.  Then the organization goes through phases:

  1. Exciting!!: This is where motivation and excitement can be high and the organization skews their behaviour towards the Individual and Interactions side of the Agile Manifesto.  Lots of training and fun games are happening to teach people what Agile is and people on teams are being given a bit more freedom.   Change feels exciting early on, especially for the change agents and change sponsors who are going to save the organization from the evil waterfall processes and forcing helping others to adopt these new practices.
  2. Oh No!!: I also call this ‘the honey moon is over’ phase.  The change agents (or consultants) realize they can’t force people to change and the change sponsor and managers/executives starts feeling nervous about not getting results.  This usually results in blame being laid and people can start to feel burned out with too much change. The staff can blame the managers, the managers can blame the executives and the executives can blame the consultants.    That’s natural, when people don’t understand why things are the way they are they push blame outwards (because it’s obviously not me right?).   The tendency here can be to snap-back or fall-back on old processes to deliver at all costs.  Another tendency can be to institutionalize Agile and people in the organization fight over what Agile tool to bring in without realize they have to displace a great deal of behaviour to get people to use the new tool.  You might even hear things like “we have to standardize our processes so all teams are doing the same thing!”  The familiar can feel more safe compared to the pain and un-certainty of trying something new.At this point a new change trigger can be introduced.  That could be firing the existing consultant and getting a new one or hiring one if the organization tried to implement these practices on their own.  It could also be a re-org to force a new structure more in line with ‘Agile’.  Either way the feeling is more like “holy moley just do something!!!!
  3. Panic!!: Well, the new way didn’t work and the old way doesn’t seem to be working, now what?  Stress is high, despair starts to set in and some people, typically the early adopters who have realized their organization sucks and they want to find a REALAgile organization to work at, get frustrated and leave.At this point the consultant is surely to be fired…or ask for more money to fix these bad people but, from my experience, the next trigger is usually a re-org and that re-org has nothing to do with ‘Agile’.  The re-org is triggered because the organization isn’t seeing any tangible results.  Managers are shuffled around, new roles are created and most of the time the day to day grind doesn’t really change, it’s just different people doing the same thing…and not getting tangible results.

As organizations change, in the context of Agile transformation, they are going to flow back and forth between the left and right side of the manifesto but, to me, it’s not a case of lack of buy-in or resistance to change, it’s the natural way organizational dynamics work.  The intent is good, the execution, not so good.

I think this is because of how organizations approach change.  Even though the traditional change management world has some great tools and models “to ensure successful change“, they’re primarily plan-driven.   These models use the rights words to help people feel safe.  They’ll use words like ‘ensure’, ‘alignment’, ‘synergy’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘communication’ and it all sounds good because that helps reduce the icky feelings of un-certainty in our brains.  The work of David Rock shows why this is the case.  When stressed our brains react before we do and wanting to feel certain is our brains way of protecting ourselves.

In the next post I’ll go into more details about that.

Back to change elasticity.  This is why I’m a proponent of Lean Change.  It focuses on using Lean Startup principles to execute organizational change.   I think that’s important because today’s organizations are complex adaptive social systems.  The mere whisper of Agile being brought in has already changed the organization before the first training session happens.

I believe that if you involve the people who are being asked to change in the design of the change itself.  Forced change doesn’t work.  There is no starting or end point to change either, it’s constant and Lean Change helps you reduce un-certainty by validating changes before introducing them.  It focuses on forming hypothesis’ with measurable (leading and lagging indicators) results.

There is a natural ebb and flow to organizational dynamics, Lean Change will help you understand the wave in your organization so you can stop trying to budget and schedule change but instead, flow with the natural dynamics of how change happens in your organization.