Incremental Organisational Change

Last time we looked at some of the challenges around organisational change and the need to flip the system from one attractor to another. But where does that leave us? We know organisational change is hard. We know that we need to change the state of the system. We know that traditional approaches run out of steam and the system settles back to where it was before (often after thrashing wildly). We know we still want to change organisations. But how? How should we be doing organisational change?

Traditional approaches fail for a few reasons - they try to do a massive change all at once but don't add enough energy to push the system into a new state, or they add so much energy that the system breaks completely and descends into chaos, or they go the other way and try to do a low energy change but they can't sustain for long enough and they don't manage to shift the system. So what do we do?

I think the problem here is that we are trying to do organisational change in the first place. Organisations are big, rigid, inflexible beasts that are really hard to do any sort of change in, let alone a major structural change like agility. We shouldn't even be trying to do organisational change. What we should be doing is not trying to change organisations but working to make organisations changeable.

What on earth do I mean by that? If we try to apply specific changes to an organisation - make it agile, make it lean, do devops, whatever, we will fail. Traditional organisations resist change. Your change program will fail. What we need to do instead is focus on making the organisation more changeable. Once an organisation is changeable, we don't need to apply an "agile" change, the organisation will naturally change to adopt a model that suits it best, whether that's agile or something else.

OK...but how? First, take agile, take lean, take processes and frameworks and throw them out. They will get in the way. As soon as it becomes about agile, or lean, or anything specific, it's doomed. The organisation will break you or you will break the organisation. The organisation doesn't need that stuff. What the organisation needs is flexibility. The ability to respond to change. How do we give them that?

I think we need to start with problem solving. Most organisations have a very good idea of the problems they have (or the people working inside them do...even if the organisation as a whole doesn't) but don't really have any way of solving them. There is no problem solving built into the system. No one has time to fix problems because they are so busy dealing with the problems. The system tends to trundle on, aware that it has problems but unable to change because there is no mechanism for change.

So the first thing an organisation needs is a problem solving mechanism. Some way to identify, analyse and fix the problems they have today. There are plenty of problem solving mechanisms out there - lean change, Toyota Kata, and plenty more. Pick one. Pick one that handles small problems, not just large ones. Pick the one that resonates best with the organisation. Start using it.

Start using the problem solving mechanism. Start showing people how it works. How to identify problems. How to analyse them. How to fix them. Make sure they have to time to do it. If they can't fix the problem, escalate and make sure it ends up with someone who can fix it. If they need people from another group to help fix the problem, make sure management gets them involved. Teach them to see systems rather than individual pieces. Start fixing problems.

As problems get fixed, people will start to see things improve. It's not like an agile change where things tend to get worse before gradually improving, things will get better straight away. People will start to see that working together in groups they can make a difference to the way they work. They will start to see that by working with other groups they can solve bigger problems.

The great thing about solving problems is that it's like compound interest. The more problems you solve, the easier work gets so the more time there is to fix more problems. It's a virtuous cycle. All you need to do is get it started. Things will start off small, fixing the minor niggles that make people's lives difficult every day but once that noise starts to clear, someone is bound to start wondering about some of the major structural issues they have and introduce them into the problem solving process.

There are two obstacles to getting this working and they are both management issues - people won't have time to participate in the process and proposed changes will be blocked. The first is relatively easy to fix. You need a commitment from management that people (including management) will be given time to participate in problem solving. Sell it as an efficiency measure. 10% invested now will lead to huge savings later. Do some analysis of current process effectiveness to support the case.

The other problem is harder. There will be resistance to the proposed changes. Particularly as the problems they are tackling get bigger and start to impact things management have traditionally seen as their areas of responsibility. This is where you really need to make sure that management has been engaged in the process from the start. If they are engaging with their teams, seeing the early successes, seeing the effort that is going into analysing and fixing problems, they will be less likely to say no. It will also need a lot of coaching and mentoring of management, but that's what they have you for.

Once the organisation starts to be able to change itself, they don't need agile change, or lean change, they have change. The ability to look at the way they work, work out a solution and change. They will invent or adopt whatever they need whether that's agile or something else.