All change! As you were!

In the last week, change seems to have been a theme in my conversations (notably attending a workshop about agile transformation at Simply Agile, Andover) and I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned about guiding change (manage implies too much).  I well know that thinking there’s going to be a change and there being one are not the same and so I’ve made use of supporting frameworks designed to get you there (I like John Kotter’s 8-step model).

However, my title is intentional.  In two short sentences this sums up many change initiatives:  people start out with great ideas, great intentions and great hope, and yet somehow the energy wanes and a lacklustre result is achieved.  Or we simply go back to where we started.

“Change” is something that happens constantly.  In my experience, this month’s position has rarely been comparable with last month, and, if the rate of change is high enough it’s difficult to even recognise the ‘old’ team’s position and context.  That’s the normal state in complex IT that many of us are familiar with; we move on.  What’s more, as humans we are very good at changing and adapting, and we even admire people who stretch out of their comfort zones and become more than they were. 

But despite it being constant, when most us think of (business) change we infer something much bigger (Transformation! Revolution!), much harder and prone to failure.  We think of executive initiatives with strong project managers assigned to ‘see it through’.  We imagine meticulous reporting of Time/Cost/Quality matrices, detailed new job descriptions and risk plans.  And with big top-down ambitions, we see people seizing control, allocated ownership and blame erupting as things go wrong – “people don’t like change” or “Scrum doesn’t work”, say. (I do realise I’m being dramatic).

For change to stick, we need behaviours and beliefs to align through a business, so surely the answer is somewhere between?

With teams of people that are already changing, adapting and improving all the time (we’ve hired humans), isn’t it best to guide their focus towards the goals of a transformation?  And if a team develops a better way of working, produces superior results or otherwise adapts to deliver something amazing, isn’t it the organisation’s duty to rally in support of their change?

I’ve believed this for some time.  I’ve achieved greater and more sustainable success when I have invested my time in openness, listening and pulling people to a why rather than pushing them to a what (an example being a team self-organising and delivering against all the odds).   When I haven’t done that, or I’ve assumed that people already understand the goal, I’ve failed to get the results I could have (in my case a department that reorganised on paper only).

If you are about to lead a change, or are on a journey right now, here are some questions that I ask myself.  If these are difficult for me to answer I know I risk missing my goal, so hopefully they’re helpful for you.

  1. Vision.  What is the vision?  What is it we’re doing, and why?  What’s going to be different?  What’s the desired result we want?  How will things look and feel if we get there? How will people be behaving?
  2. Communication.  Can I clearly describe the vision to someone in 60 seconds (or better, one simple diagram)?  Is my vision written (or at least being communicated) with different contexts in mind?  Can members of my team describe the vision with accuracy, true understanding and commitment?  Do I have a schedule for awareness, training and listening sessions?  (As Daniel Priestley says in his book, Oversubscribed, “People are drowning in ideas…you could give people the blueprints for a stealth bomber and they would lose it in their ‘downloads’ folder”.  Share often!)
  3. Team.  Is it clear who is guiding the change?  Who is sticking their neck out?  Do they have air-cover from me so they can act without fear? Is the team make up correct based on what we’re trying to do?  Do the team have enough space to deliver? Have I setup regular group and individual conversations? If the teams are cross-organisational, have I agreed the above conditions with the other leaders?

These questions do take some energy – especially if the answers aren’t what you want to hear – but pay dividends in creating sustainable change.

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