Organisational Change With Beer

I do a lot of coaching at large companies. Big, monolithic, and often very conservative organisations. Organisations like that are very difficult to change. They have become big and successful by being conservative and risk averse. There is a lot of resistance and inertia. They may recognise the need to change. They may recognise the benefits of change. Actually making that change though, means taking risks and they just can’t quite take that step. They will fiddle around at the edges and do some cosmetic stuff, but actually changing into an organisation that embraces innovation and risk is just a step too far.

So how does a coach actually implement change in an organisation like that? By making a small change that changes the behaviour of the organisation in a way that drives more change. Let me explain –

I am also a fanatical home brewer and craft beer drinker. As such, I am often in a position where I am trying to introduce a lifelong New or VB drinker (Bud for the Americans out there, the European equivalent would be Stella)  to craft beer. They have heard about these great beers being produced. They like the thought of really good beer and may even recognise the fact that what they drink now is basically chemical-filled, flavourless swill. But as anyone who has been in this position knows, actually getting them to give up their beloved VB is a real challenge. The problem is that they know VB. They are comfortable with it. They know it's not great but they know they like it (or at least they know they don’t dislike it). These other beers are all unfamiliar. "I might like them… but what if I don’t? I fear change. Another VB thanks."

So what do I do? I buy them a beer. By buying them a beer I take some of the risk out. They have no money on the line. The choice of that initial beer is also very important. I don’t buy them a big American style IPA (for those who don’t know what an American IPA is, imagine being smashed in the mouth by a 10 kilo block of hops… that’s an American IPA).  IPA’s are probably the most popular style of craft beer in the world right now so why wouldn’t I choose that one? People into craft beer love them. Problem is, this guy isn’t into craft beer… yet. An IPA is just too different. It's challenging and scary and unfamiliar. Instead I’ll pick something like a blonde ale, or maybe an Amber or possibly a German Lager. These aren’t hugely popular styles with the craft beer crowd. Many craft beer people sneer at them. But every brewery produces one. So why those styles? For the same reason that every brewery produces one – they are a gateway beer.

They are just different enough to be interesting and a bit daring, but not so different that a VB drinker would run screaming. It’s a risk, but it’s a small one. It's almost a VB but with some flavour and character. It’s a beer that a lifelong VB drinker can accept pretty easily. The important thing is not what style of craft beer they drink, but that they can now drink craft beer. They are drinking beer with flavour. Once they get a taste for beer with flavour they will start to seek out beers with more flavour – bitters, pale ales, Pilsners and yes, finally IPA. By making a small change you can change a behaviour in a way that encourages more change.

Organisations work the same way. If you can give them a little change that’s not too scary, and they like the results, you can drive a behaviour where they go out and seek more change. This is where frameworks like SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework for enterprises) or any of the similar "enterprise agile" frameworks floating around come in (I have even written a few such frameworks myself for various organisations). They are the gateway beer of organisational change.

They are often showered with scorn by agile people as being “prescriptive”, “not agile enough” or “too waterfall”, but they provide a safe (see what I did there?) entry into agile thinking for an organisation. Being a pre-made framework, they don’t require much investment or thinking by the organisation – it's like being bought a beer. It appears in front of you and you drink. Also, just like a gateway beer, they are familiar enough to be non-threatening but just different enough to start driving change. Once the organisation develops a taste for change, the prescriptive frameworks can be relaxed and the organisation can start changing itself.

So, if you have an organisation that that can’t make that first step, why not buy them a beer?