Where “change” can sometimes sound scary and the fear of the unknown easily prevails, it is actually a state we, to varying degrees, find ourselves in throughout our entire lives. Buying a home, changing jobs, moving to a new city.
Privately, we often find change natural, but when it comes to our working life, change is often seen as something darker. Many people associate them with some form of negative effect on themselves, something that often stems from shortcomings of those responsible for the change to convey the “why” and effects of the change in a clear way.
Often these changes are more complex than changes at the private level as they involve many more wills, demands and perspectives. Where we in our private life often have a clear “why” before we start any change, it is a challenge to clearly convey the same when you instead talk about a change that could affect 100+ people.
During our latest course at IHM Business School we got to tackle the subject of Change Management. The art of how to identify needed change, structure it, convey the purpose of it and not least to see and coach the people through the change. For me, perhaps due to my background in Agile and years of genuine interest in the people in the process, a lot of the things felt “common sense”. But you only had to scratch the surface, look at changes conducted at ones work place, to quickly understand that even if many of these things are “common sense” we fail to do them time and time again.
As part of the course we got to go through the material and get certified through ChangePortalen (the Change Portal). There and throughout the course literature, we have highlighted three success factors that needs to be addressed in order for a change to have a chance of being successful. These are Purpose, People and Structure.
As part of the examination of the course we were asked to explain why agile organizations might have an advantage when it comes to working with change. What follows below are some of my thoughts from that assignment.
I would start by saying that I consider that many of the agile principles and methods already strives to meet the needs of these success factors as part of the daily work. This in turn makes it easier for the organization to take on change as they do not have to deviate from their natural state to the same extent as may be the case for a more traditional and hierarchical organization. I believe that herein lies part of the answer to why an agile organization has an advantage when it comes to succeeding when working with change.
If you want to get your employees engaged in change, they need to understand the purpose of the change. They need to understand the “why” of change. In a traditional organization it is not unheard of that change is often determined and planned by a limited group of individuals who, when they themselves have mentally processed the change and come a long way in their change journey, present the decision in the form of a giant colossus. They often fail to put focus into helping the employees’ understanding the “why”. Not seldom is this because everything is so clear to those who drive the change that they can not even understand that it can be unclear to the other staff. The fact that they have already spent a lot of time processing the “why’s” of the change and that is why it is so obvious to them and that the rest of the employees’ are just now starting their journey is easily missed.
Due to most people’s need to to have a “why” in order to relate to and form feelings and convictions about the change the lack of focusing on helping employee’s through this can lead to people beginning to identify personal “why”-s to help them relate to the change. The risk here is that you get a lot of different employees with a lot of different personal reasons that may end up not being compatible at all.
In agile we instead have the desire to be transparent, to convey and clearly make employees understand what we do and why we do it. We believe that transparency enables understanding and understanding enables engagement. From this observation alone it would seem natural that an agile organization would emphasize not to miss this when working with change. Another fundamental part of agile is the focus on value and part of ensuring that you create value is to make sure that the things you put energy and time into are things that actually contribute to this. As part of this we have also come to understand that the people closest to a given thing, be it a process or customers, are likely the ones who know most about the matter in question. At the very least they possess valuable insight and information.
With that, a natural instinct is to try and avoid to make decisions over people’s heads. People who will be affected by the decision, the introduction of a new process, the purchase of a new system or the remodeling of the office are instead people whos input, insight and knowledge we care about as part of our decision. Sure, we might form a hypothesis based on personal ideas and beliefs but we don’t then spring into action and hope that all the assumptions we made are true. Instead we take our hypothesis as a starting point and have a dialogue with those affected. People working in the help-desk probably have good insight to give into our idea of replacing the service desk platform for instance.
With this approach to decision making, the employees are not only informed but can also be involved in shaping the purpose of the change instead of only having it presented to them after it has already been decided.
Unfortunately, many traditional organizations fail to guide people through their journey of change. Seeing and understanding that different individuals embrace change in different ways and that they can be at different stages in their journey of change is incredibly important in order to be able to support and respond to people in the right way.
To often, some management team for the change has gone through their own personal journey of change, perhaps over months of meetings and discussions in isolation. They now see things as obvious and all of the things that initially felt hard to grasp for them are now crystal clear and makes sense. Here is where the “announcement” takes place. What has taken them a long time to grasp, digest and embrace is now dumped onto those who will be affected by the change. “We have worked hard on this and thought everything through. From the 29th, everyone will work according to these new processes”. Job done, * mic drop *.
What ends up happening is that here, with perhaps days or weeks until the change is set to go live, the affected scramble to start their journey. They must try to understand the change, why we do it, get behind the “why”, embracing the change and feel they can and want to contribute. Hopefully all affected people go through all of this at the same speed so all are done by the time the change goes live.
This is of course seldom what happens. Instead some people immediately get stuck in denial, perhaps some even in panic. The people responsible for the change, for whom everything was so clear and made so much sense, never saw it coming. Some leaders will ignore this, push through and except people to simply adapt. Some will try to explain and get people on board. But the main problem remains, this should have been done a long time ago. Not when you are on the final stretch and mentally thought the change was “done”.
Here again, I believe that the agile organization’s striving for transparency, involvement and influence from the individual employee helps to create conditions to illuminate and capture at what stage in the journey different people are. People who have the opportunity to influence and be heard are more likely to contribute and feel involved. They can then serve as inspiration to others who are at earlier stages in their journey of change.
Where people in a traditional organization are to often something you forget, or with a little luck at least remember to communicate to, they are a cornerstone and driving force behind every change in agile organizations.
Structure is probably one of the things you can not blame a traditional organization for lacking. However, it is not uncommon for the structure or process to take precedence over humans, or the creation of value. Instead of adapting to people’s needs, we all too often demand that people adapt to the process. In change or other projects we are so focused on getting through our process. Things we discover doesn’t “feel right”, things we might actually need to change, are left for after we have crossed the finish line.
Here, agile has a completely different approach. Of course, we have a work process and structure that makes people know what to do. But we put people and interactions before processes, we welcome changed requirements and have a focus on not only reaching goals but actually delivering value.
During the course I several times saw changes I had been affected by in a new light. Where things felt “off” before I now had tools and instruments to explain why they felt off.
I don’t want to go into details and identify any given company, but I have seen large, company wide, changes decided in secrecy and announced to all the affected people with days to spare. Changes that affected peoples roles, work environment, team members, customer contacts and on and on.
Needless to say “why” was absolutely not clear to people, People were thrown into the start of their change journey with days left until this whole change would go live. A year later, there were still plenty of problems left from this poorly implemented change.
Although I was frustrated with how poorly managed this change was, I feel that today I have the tools to ensure that I myself do not make the same mistakes if I were to ever be responsible for a similar journey.
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