Facilitating Organization Change

Random thoughts on organization changes

Because “It’s there” is not a good reason to pursue agility!

I’m seeing increased similarities between online hype surrounding agile and the marketing of weight loss products. Losing weight or being agile are being promoted as the main objective when both of these are just a means to an end.

We don’t invest significant effort and cost just to lose weight. We want to feel better about ourselves, look slimmer for others or gain health benefits.

Similarly, agility should never be a goal until itself – we need to define what we are hoping to realize by achieving a higher level of agility.

This is an important distinction.

If our focus is purely on becoming more agile, it can cause leadership teams to define overly ambitious time frames for achieving certain objectives or demanding unrealistic levels of capability given their industry, culture or other context. This is similar to someone who doesn’t attempt to connect their weight loss desires to specific achievable outcomes. Over time, this can cause the individual to engage in obsessive dieting behavior which might leave them worse off than before.

A traditional, multi-product large company undergoing an agile transformation should always aspire to reaching a higher level of capability, but it is doubtful that they will ever be as agile as a new, small startup. I enjoy playing golf and try to set achievable goals for myself each playing season but comparing myself to a PGA tour professional will demoralize me and eventually cause me to give up the game.

When managing projects, it is wise to understand what the relative priority of the constraints on a given project are. If a sponsor indicates that delivering on time is most important, then cost, scope, quality and other constraints could be subordinated to schedule.

With an agile transformation it may be advisable for the supporting leadership team to prioritize their objectives before getting started. Are they primarily focused on increasing customer value, is it about improving quality, cost containment or increasing the engagement and happiness of their team members? It can be very educational to have each senior executive rank a predefined list of such outcomes individually and then have the leadership team compare the differences in perception. This exercise might help to avoid misalignment issues at a later stage of the transformation.

If we don’t know where we are going and why we want to get there, no road will take us there.


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Helping functional managers through an agile transformation

A lot has been written about the challenges caused by functional managers when their company undergoes an agile transformation. But with this emphasis on what they shouldn’t be doing, not as much gets published about the specific activities we should be doing to help them through the change.

Here are four questions to ask when considering this key role.

Are they learning?

To support a change you need to understand the change. Delivering training focused specifically on what functional managers need to know about agile which includes scenario-based learning to understand what sorts of behavior changes are expected when faced with common situations will help. But it is also important to identify which managers have already shown evidence of having embraced an agile mindset and recruit them to help support their peers who will have a harder time with the transition. In the absence of such internal support, coaches could be hired to create a critical mass of change advocates among middle management.

What are they measured on and what are they measuring?

Metrics aren’t the sole driver of behavior but they do draw a lot of focus. As Tony Robbins would say, “Where focus goes, energy flows“. If we haven’t updated performance measures for functional managers and their staff, it will be much harder to encourage them to change. If existing metrics are focused on how well team members and their managers achieved certain objectives but didn’t also consider how those objectives were achieved, deadlines and budgets will continue to dominate rather than collaboration and engagement. These measures need to be augmented with ones specifically assessing stakeholder and team member satisfaction to understand whether the “how” was as good as the “what”.

Who are they hiring?

I’ve written previously about the importance of adjusting job descriptions and hiring criteria but it is equally important to train functional managers on how to leverage these changes. If the job profile calls for servant-leadership but all the functional manager asks about is what a candidate accomplished, the risk of hiring people who are not aligned with the new way of working will persist. Pairing functional managers with properly trained HR staff for panel interviews is one way to address this.

How are they supporting their staff?

Team members will be experiencing many of the same fears and doubts that their manager has about the transformation so it is important that functional managers meet regularly in both one-on-one and team settings to address these concerns. Managers play a critical role in helping their staff gain the confidence to take their first baby steps towards self-organizing and becoming T-skilled. To do this, managers must cultivate a psychologically safe environment within their teams so that their team members feel safe about expressing themselves and taking chances both in the project roles and in their functional ones.

Buy-in from middle management is necessary for any successful organization change, and even though you might think that the sandwich approach of committed senior leadership and enthusiastic front line staff squeezing out compliance, actively guiding and supporting functional managers will be essential to a sustainable transformation.

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Are we marketing the right metrics?

Recently, I’ve been experiencing frequent brief loss of Internet connectivity issues at home. I live in a major urban area, no internal or external home renovations have happened which would affect cabling, and my cable modem was recently swapped. Thankfully, the technician who swapped the modem did provide me with his mobile number and recommended that I call him if I had further issues within a few weeks.

We have all heard that the Internet is becoming a critical utility and hence we should demand the same reliability as we do with power, water or our telephone dial tone. While this is a reasonable expectation, few Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have focused on this in their marketing campaigns to the personal market. Commercial customers are a different story – they enjoy real SLAs but at a higher cost. Most of the ISPs who service residential customers will hype their transmission speed or capacity in their advertising. While those are important, guaranteed up time would be a more welcome benefit in the long run, and would likely contribute to greater customer loyalty. ISPs are under pressure to scale their infrastructure to support greater speeds at lower costs, but the side effect of this “arms race” might be reliability.

This situation brought to mind the challenges we face when communicating delivery metrics as part of an agile transformation.

Many of the leaders I’ve worked with focus on schedule metrics: reducing time to market, lead time, time between releases, and so on. While these are important, an overemphasis on reducing lead time may unconsciously encourage delivery teams to kick quality concerns down the road. Having effective Definition of Done working agreements can help, but these can also be diluted to favor speed over quality. Defect reporting and customer satisfaction surveys provide opportunities to identify whether there is an unhealthy focus on delivering faster, but these are lagging indicators.

This is why it is so important that the communication campaign supporting the transformation, including the sound bites from top-level executives, reflect an equal footing for speed AND quality. And mid-level managers need to walk this talk in their daily interactions with their teams.

Don’t sacrifice quality at the altar of speed.


Categories: Agile, Facilitating Organization Change, Project Management | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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