Cause and Purpose, or Urgency for Change?

“What’s the urgency for change?” My experience tells me when people talk about urgency for change, they are asking for a few things…and what they’re asking for is a matter of perspective.

  • The people who have the agile mindset, want their beliefs reinforced. Their urgency is to convince people that agile is better in order to either satisfy their ego, prove they’re right, or to make work better for people.
  • Some people are jockeying for position in the hierarchy. Their urgency might be wanting to be known as the go to person for all things Agile. They may want to satisfy their ego, climb the corporate ladder, or, when Agile is mandated, keep their boss off their back, and prove they’re a good little worker.
  • The people on teams just want people to get out of their damn way so they work without all the noise
  • The CFO’s urgency might be increasing shareholder value
  • Urgency for the business folks might be their year end bonus that is paid when they ship product
  • The urgency for the consultants might be to get the contract extended

Suppose you’re a billion dollar company in an oligopoly. Is saving a few bucks important? Is customer retention important? Is warding off disruption important? Where does the organizational urgency come from? Is the question ‘what is the urgency‘ relevant anymore?

Unpacking this mess is what change agents do. Sometimes it’s fun, most other times it’s like running face first into a train.

Some people in the change world use the decline of the lifespan of the corporation (from 85 to 14 years) as a way to create urgency to an organization. Change or die! Innovate or become irrelevant! People have clamoring on about the death of Yahoo for a decade now. At some point these pundits may end up being right, at which point they’ll shout from the rooftops, “SEE!?!?!? Change or die!!!”

The idea of Creative Destruction purports that the creation of new markets that disrupt and destroy established organizations is better for the economy than if the lumbering dinosaur of that market had remained alive. Kodak is one of the more famous cases of a ‘bad organization’ with ‘inept management’ that died. I’m sure an economist somewhere in the world has a napkin calculation that shows the creation of the hundreds of camera companies employs more people, and contributes more to the economy, than Kodak would have if they were still a powerhouse today.

The days are numbered for large corporations in banking, insurance, telecom and traditional services. I don’t imagine they’ll go away anytime soon (as in over the next 20 – 30 years), but I do imagine their business will look substantially different then. At some point, as old leaders retire, they’ll be replace with new leaders who get it. They’ll get that people want a purpose to rally around versus being fed a corporate value statement that was randomly generated.

Today’s change agents can be a catalyst, or a trigger, to move away from urgency and towards cause and purpose. Urgency, by definition, imposes a feeling of stress. It implies there is impeding doom that needs to be warded off. Urgency feels yucky. Cause and purpose give people a sense of pride, belonging and camaraderie.

What can we do to move away from focusing on urgency for change, and towards cause and purpose for change? First, we need to know how to spot the differences in our organizations. Here’s how you can determine if the people have a sense of cause and purpose, or if they only feel urgency:


  • people talk about metrics and status reports around ‘how agile they are’
  • Ask people at the end of an agile project how likely they would do it all over again and see how many hands go up (hint: less hands is a signal that agile is being used as a carrot or stick)
  • People talk about detailed roles and responsibilities
  • Your sprint team has an agile snitch sitting in on your ceremonies who documents what happens in your planning meetings, stand ups and more in the name of ‘governance’
  • You get ‘grin fucked‘ often.  That means you get agreement to do something in an agile way and the people who nodded their heads in agreement did the opposite after the meeting.
  • Your leaders respond in terror whenever you suggest they lead by example, make their work visible, and take ownership of the transformation…yet they say the right things about why it’s so important that other people do agile.

By the way, those are summaries of what I’ve seen in organizations I’ve worked for. These observations aren’t the problem…they’re symptoms of something else:

  • leaders haven’t figured out what it is they really want by ‘going agile‘ but they don’t feel safe enough to say “I don’t know” because leaders have to know, right? I don’t understand why anyone would want the stress of being an executive in a large corporation. The amount of pressure they people are under is phenomenal. There’s no room for error, no room for saying ‘I don’t know’, and one mistake leads to….
  • The edict from on high isn’t well understood, and people don’t see their execs doing anything differently
  • Agile is being implemented by function ( let’s make project management more agile, testing more agile, dev more agile… If we just get all the parts working, it’ll work.
  • People are too afraid to disrupt get the status quo for whatever reason.
  • learned behaviour after years, or decades, of working in hierarchies have made it extremely difficult to colour outside the lines.

None of these are necessarily bad things, and the people aren’t idiots, they simply don’t understand something they haven’t experienced before. I don’t know how many times I’ve worked with an organization that said “well, Jason’s been this before…let’s listen to him” and then they ignore everything I say, learn the hard way and either say “OH!! That’s what you meant…” or “stupid consultant, why didn’t you tell us, you’re fired!!!

On the other hand, a sense of cause and purpose looks completely different:

  • Your senior leaders walk the big visible walls and asks people about the work
  • Your senior leaders looks at the list of mandated agile stuff, tells the teams to do whatever they need to in order to deliver, and shields them from the political backlash that happened as a result of not following the standardized practices
  • Leaders attend internal lunch and learns or lean coffees, or external events on their own time
  • Transparency means transparency, not transparency that appeases the office politics
  • Cross functional communities of practice take precedence over role specific ones
  • Senior leaders attend the team liftoffs and/or demos and observe and provide constructive feedback to the teams. Once I threw out a statement in a liftoff that the team will not produce a PowerPoint, if their leaders wanted to know what happened, they’ll have to come down to the team room. And they did!

This can mean a few things:

  • Leaders are interested in helping a better system of management, and work to emerge
  • Leaders know that they go first, and then people will follow
  • Leaders are making time for change to evolve

Reinventing Organizations by Fredric Laloux is the latest thing agile community has latched onto. Spiral dynamics isn’t new, but Fredric was the first person I know of that made that complex of a topic accessible to normal people. I remember attending my first coaching circle hosted by Michael Spayd back in 2010 where he walked us through organizational dynamics using spiral dynamics. I didn’t know what to do with that information at the time, but as I learned difference cultural models (OCAI, Schneider) and organizational development patterns and models, it became a little more clear.

Anyway, I saw Fredric speak at a conference a couple of years ago and he said there was a common pattern for transformations based on companies he talked to. Every great story started with a new company or new leader. There was no successful transformation. In the case of Buurtzorg, the visionary leader left the organization he was working for, and created his own organization. That organization was built on cause and purpose.

How can we make the switch? One approach is to start with storytelling. I was recently asked to facilitate a leadership session where I’d tell the leaders what Agile Utopia was. I told the person organizing it (who was on the leadership team) that I can’t do that. It’s not my place to tell you where you want to take the organization. I need to know what your cause and purpose is because my recommendations depend on that. If you want something meaningful, great, I have ideas. If you want to adopt process…well, cya, go hire a six sigma process consultant.

Here’s where things get interesting. I wrote the next 3 paragraphs before I went into the session:

So I ran a Lego Serious Play Session so they could explore the ultimate question: What does accelerating Agile in our group mean to us? This was a risky approach given it was so far outside the norms of what leaders in this organization do. After the shock wore off that some nutcase brought Lego to a leadership offsite, we explored what that meant, put the summary on a canvas, recorded videos of the session to post on their internal social media site and had a rough roadmap of what to do.

Now we had a sense of purpose, and while reality of being in a big organization interrupted our discussion a couple of times, the leadership team realized that if they could convey the intent of why we wanted to do this in a meaningful way, people would come along and they would look like rockstars in the organization. Now, not everyone was 100% onboard…no leadership group I’ve ever worked with has been on the same page. They might say it, but as an experienced change agent, you know mis-alignment when you see it.

That said, we have something meaningful to start with, and that’s going to be the fuel for the movement.

But here’s what actually happened:

The Lego was rebuffed with extreme prejudice. The group felt it was something they couldn’t do without their business partners present. I was shocked! They were open to it, but realized it would be more valuable to go deep into that conversation only when they had the right people at the table.

So we did something different. We explored alignment between staff, management and them, as the executive team. I had data prepared showing what people at the staff and management level really felt about this push to ‘go Agile‘ and I had the executives do the same thing. The cause and purpose emerged as focusing more on the relationship between IT and business people. Perhaps even more surprising to me was the bias for action. That is, our conversation swirled around the 5 most important things that I should focus on as the coach. One was developing coaching skills so when I’m gone, there are a handful of people with basic Agile and facilitation skills, the other was the drastically compress the time it took to liftoff new Agile teams from a couple of months to a few days. The third was to create a big visible Agile progress wall so they could see how teams were doing and what was preventing the teams from working in a more Agile way so they, the executives, could do something about it.

Long story short, there is more of a sense of purpose. Now, I’m not naive enough to think there isn’t an underlying performance management component to this, but the behaviour I’ve seen gives me insight into there being a genuine sense of building a better workplace.

As a change agent, I am using language aligned with cause and purpose. I am taking a stance that my goal is help people love coming to work again. It’s probably too hokey of a message for some in this organization, and maybe I’ll get tossed out the door. At some point, purpose needs to trump profit and I think a naturally starting point is with us…change people who’ve been brought in to help modernize workplaces. We can either placate the status quo, or have the courage to do what we’ve actually been asked to do.

I know what my choice is.


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