We all know that change is hard, but most often we see it in other people. I see you visualizing all those stubborn people that did not listen to you and kept doing it their way or just “didn’t get it”. While to be very honest, change is the hardest because we need to change to tackle it. Especially if we are in leadership positions. There are no silver bullets in life or work, there are no shortcuts. Even if we have years of experience depending on the context our solutions may not work at all. Unlearning is the hardest challenge.

Are you willing to change? Cartoon on change, found on the web: credits unknown

Let’s talk about organizational change. I’ve been working in various sized companies and witnessed a few transformations. I am a consultant and I frequently notice a similar pattern: companies get external help in hopes that their teams will become more effective, high-performing, and deliver faster. Beautiful goals, but a lot of times the expectations are that the employees will be changed and get more productive excluding the leaders who arranged that project. So what are some of the main points we should think of when we are trying to transform an organization?

Organizational transformation has to include management and leadership roles, too

If leaders of the company are not on board, there’s a huge chance that the change will end up with the company going back to the ways they worked in before. Conway’s law is a great example of that: organizations tend to design systems which are a copy of their organization’s communication structure. I did not fully grasp it until I saw it in practice - change has to include communication structures. We have to talk about the enablement of teams, managers, leaders, not only the delivery. Is the leadership of the company also willing to change? Or are they just spectators?

In organizations where leadership is still working in “old” ways, but teams experiment with “new” ways - you may hit the ceiling. For example, some new ways of work may not be possible because of organizational limitations, the architectural coupling of services (which depicts Conway’s law rather than a nice product slicing), or organizational politics.

For change to work the whole company has to embrace the learning and playful culture

I have some tricks up my sleeve as a QA consultant that I can often suggest to the teams I join. An example would be suggesting tiny rituals like story kick-offs (developers who are to work on a story gather with business analyst, quality analyst, and anyone else interested in it to refresh the knowledge on a story and shortly summarize what will be the expected result once the story is done) or desk checks (a fresh pair of eyes joins developers to do a short guided code or functionality review) take place in the teams. What I have learned, though, is that not for every team certain practices work. For one team having desk checks were not necessary and not as helpful, for another one it’s a vital part of the team culture. I had to adapt - and that is extremely hard, it may seem even personal at times if something does not go the way I planned. However, the most effective teams are willing to learn, experiment, find their own ways of work instead of going by some “best practices” guide. A possible inspiration list “High-Performance Team, Management, and Leadership Behaviors and Practices” by Steve Bell and Karen Whitley Bell can be downloaded from Accelerate book resources under “Overall research program and high performance behaviors and practices”.

For all the experimentation that teams may go through, the company’s leadership also has to get into questioning their own status quo. There is no one way that things can be done, there may be failures and some of the other company’s success stories may be a failure story for the company they are suddenly applied to. Leaders have to be aware of that. And most importantly, if they want to have a learning culture - they have to show an example by going on a journey themselves. For example, if standups are introduced to teams who never did it before - are leadership levels also having those? Or are they having controlling behaviors that were there before? If you want to understand your organization better and how change may be tackled, let’s talk a look again at the Westrum typology of organization culture which summarizes the impact on the teams (I first mentioned it in my book impressions of Accelerate). The most effective change can be in generative organizations. If it’s not a generative organization, it can be extremely challenging to transform a company without changing the organizational typology to become capable of embracing the change.

Westrum organizational typology model The Westrum organizational typology model: How organizations process information (Source: Ron Westrum, “A typology of organization cultures”)

Change needs play. We need to have an open mind to do all those learning experiments. Play cannot be forced - it needs to come naturally. This can be encouraged by playful leadership that drives connection and playfulness. Portia Tung has a playful leadership program that could be a great starter for leadership to let go of controlling style and learn how to inspire employees to suppress their fear factor and promote repeatable learning processes. Best leaders should find time for play, so that when the disaster happens - the teams would react creatively and with an open mind. An example of practice to encourage is having a regular disaster game day - in a safe-to-fail environment teams can regularly “play” what would happen if everything would go the worst way possible. What if we need to restore all data? How would we do that? Let’s simulate it and get ready for a possible real disaster.

The goal is continuous improvement, not one solution

There is a time and place for a tool or a practice. Things that work for a team/organization right now may not have worked before, or may not work in the future if the structure or needs change.

It may sound idealistic, but I strongly believe in “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” from the Agile manifesto. I have worked with various tools, but when asked what tools I would suggest - I will not give an answer out of the blue without knowing the context, constraints, and the needs of the team. Also, my beloved tool may not be something that works for the team or company, and I’m willing to accept that.

A company striving for changes has to learn to accept the criticism and questioning - if that is pushed aside, there is hardly any room for innovation. This is especially true for leadership levels - if they hire people like themselves, how can there be change? One hint if the leadership is not ready for change is checking how they embrace questioning - how do they respond? Is it a defence or excitement with an open learning mindset?

Organizational change is extremely hard and complex. It cannot happen just to a part of the company - it has to involve all levels of it. This is why I’d love to give a book like “Accelerate” to the executives of organizations who want to transform. It’s not just teams that suddenly have to become Agile/DevOps/YouNameIt, it’s an experimental continuous improvement journey that may be unpleasant, challenging, and frustrating, but very worth it in order to have an authentic culture where people are encouraged to be their best, most effective selves.