By: Ciro Sbarra, Chapter Member
It is not rare to find companies requiring, at some point, a transformation or change of its organization, such as its culture, technologies, and its ways of working or internal processes.
A Change is, typically, triggered by internal or external factors: the drivers for change.
Such drivers can be categorized under the PESTLE Factors, which are:
Political (e.g. Government stability, policies), Economical (Growth and business cycles, major downturns), Social (users and customers attitudes, major events), Technological (new technologies and disruptive innovations), Legal (new regulations) and Environmental.
Sometimes the scale of the required change can be huge (affecting the whole organization's strategy or beyond), in others the change can by more limited, involving a single team or group of users.
Programme (and Project Managers), Business, Change Managers/Agents, and Agile Coaches are some common roles that deal with change, at different degrees, via the management of projects and/or wider initiatives.
This article aims at highlighting a series of aspects (not exhaustive) I have personally learned to be critical for enabling change successfully within companies.
While changes can be of different nature, this article focuses most on implementing new ways of working and processes.
1- Picture the present context
Before attempting to any change, take your time to clearly picture the present by assessing the current situation.
Who are the relevant stakeholders? What are their drivers and interest related to the change? What are the current processes and ways of working?
Tip: A good technique to summarize this information is Context Mapping, visualizing the overall present situation. In other words, making it 'transparent' to stakeholders.
Context Mapping is defined as a “generative technique”, initially developed at the faculty of Industrial design engineering at Delft university of technology. It is described as a
"a procedure for conducting contextual research with users and stakeholders, where tacit knowledge is gained about the context of use of products or services. It aims to inform and inspire design teams, where users and stakeholders actively participate in the design process to ensure a good fit between the design and the use of a product.”
Although Context Mapping was initially born as a product design technique, it can be extremely useful in initiatives characterized by deep exploration, such as organizational changes. In particular, it can help give deeper insights in implicit stakeholder needs, supporting the elaboration of the future Vision (see point 3 below).
2- Look at the past (how did we get here?)
What are the reasons that led to certain choices of the current context (e.g. its ways of working)? If there are drivers for resistance, what is causing them? Also, what are the drivers for change?
Organizations ways of working are, usually, a result from numerous iterations of changes (natural, unnatural, formal and informal, planned or unplanned), that evolved into its current identity. Some examples are: merge and acquisitions with an international company, succession of original founders, employee generation change, acquisition of big projects or investments that ended up shaping key company processes, etc.
Understanding the past will help identify key risks, either threats or opportunities, to be addressed in order to be successful, in the desired change or transformation.
Tip: A way I personally find useful to approach this is to visually map the organisation's recent history in a high level timeline.
Your goal here is to respect the past and avoid reinventing the wheel.
3- Define, agree and share a clear Future Vision, then inspect and adapt towards it
Once the present situation is transparent (and commonly understood), in order to enable change you need a clear (and commonly agreed) direction ahead. We call that direction 'Vision'.
A vision is a postcard of the better future, after the desired changes have occurred, and it is typically communicated via a Vision Statement.
MSP(c), one of the most well known programme management methodologies, defines the vision statement as the 'outward-facing description of the future state following programme delivery; it will describe the new services, improvements and innovative ways of working with stakeholders, or any combination, and it should be used to engage and gain commitment from as many stakeholders as possible'.
SAFe, the Scaled Agile Framework, also describes the “Vision” as
..a “long view:
- How will our future solution solve the larger customer problems?
- How will it differentiate us?
- What is the future context within which our solutions will operate?
- What is our current business context, and how must we evolve to meet this future state?”
Tip: involve stakeholders and teams in the elaboration of the Vision Statement. This needs to be a participative process in order to have “buy-in”.
You want to trigger Teams to start thinking about how to apply their strengths in order to get there.
Note: If you want to know more about MSP, I recommend reading the book: Managing-successful-programmes, by Axelos. For SAFe, visit the website:
4- Actively listen and let the team propose changes: be a facilitator!
It is easy to fall in situations, when managing change, where your personal cognitive bias gets in the way while proposing solutions and defining the future Vision.
However, it is the stakeholders (e.g. Users, teams etc) perspective you are looking for, and not yours.
Having a personal bias is natural, and everyone can fall into it to some degree. Biases can be caused by different personal aspects (such as age, culture and relevant past experiences) and can lead to decision-making and judgement problems. We want to mitigate any risks coming from this.
Tip: There are useful debiasing techniques that help reducing and avoiding biases in different ways. For example by visualizing how a certain situation looks from someone else’s perspective.
Facilitation techniques can also help get the teams, directly impacted by the change, to come up with ideas themselves that support the desired Vision.
Remember: Change, in order to be successful, needs to be part of a participative process.
If you are interested in more info on debiasing techniques, I recommend reading "Thinking, Fast and Slow", by Daniel Kahneman.
5- Start small and think in single change increments
Organizational change initiatives are one of the most uncertain types of efforts out there. Therefore, it requires continuous iterations, incremental delivery of solutions and continuous feedback loops from Users.
One of the worst things I personally saw happening, in change initiatives, is where too much change happened, and in short time, causing team disorientation and, consequently, high resistance.
It is important to leave enough time to make the single change increments 'stick'. So starting small (not over doing it) with single, short, increments is key to success.
Tip: This topic is also addressed particularly well in the Lean Start-Up approach.
Lean start-up concepts—such as “minimum viable product (MVP)” and “split-testing", can be of aid here. Lean start-up favors experimentation over elaborate planning and over-predicting up-front, as well as customer feedback over intuition and assumptions.
The Lean startup concept is based on the assumption that when companies invest their time into incrementally building new products or services, the company can reduce market and ROI risks by minimizing the size of product (or services) launches, therefore reducing the time required to enable benefits and customer feedback. Consequently, reducing the risk of big failures, based on assumptions way behond the horizon. This concept can be considered valid for any particularly uncertain effort, from new innovative products, services to organizational changes.
Note: If you want to know more about Lean Startup, I recommend reading: The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries.
Organizational changes are one of the most ambiguous and uncertain initiatives out there.
It usually involves stakeholders with extremely contradicting voices and desires.
This article aimed at highlighting a few key aspects I believe are important to be addressed, in order to increase probabilities of success.
These points can be summarized in:
- Make sure the present is properly assessed, together with its gaps;
- Look back at the past and understand the causes of the current situation;
- Have a clear, shared and agreed future Vision, the inspect and adapt towards it;
- Avoid personal bias while leading change. Be a facilitator;
- Start small: move ahead in small increments (and frequent feedback loops).
There are many aspects to the complexity of organizational change management or transformations. The ones above have particularly touched me in my personal experience.
I would be happy to learn other lessons from you aswell! Let’s learn together how to make sure changes are effective, therefore successful :)