The Change Before the Change

In a recent post, I wrote about how to apply Agile techniques to change readiness assessments by using Perspective Mapping. What happens when there is the desire for change, but the organization isn’t ready? Further, what if the perception that the organization isn’t ready is simply my perspective? As much as we like to think change happens in a nice and tidy plan->execute->close process, it doesn’t.

As more organizations look to transform their organizations to Agile to gain an edge on their competitors, many of them have existing cultures that are at odds with the Agile Manifesto. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve visited numerous organizations from small 200-person shops to large enterprises and they ask me the same question: “Shouldn’t we have our business counterparts in this session because Agile isn’t just all about IT”

Short answer, yes.

Long answer, yes, with a but.

I’ve experienced some extremely toxic environments throughout my career. One of which where I was used a deflector shield between a severely damaged relationship between the business and IT. Most large organizations I’ve seen use the same pattern for bringing in Agile:

  1. Do a pilot
  2. Force an Agile process on top of existing processes
  3. Don’t bother to change organizational structure
  4. Implode once the pilot teams bump up against the organizational boundaries

What makes it harder is the existing culture and behaviors. In one organization, the good people who challenged the status quo, are seen as trouble-makers, while the people who reinforce the existing status quo are rewarded. While this is happening, the leaders wonder why they can’t get Agile to work. I recently encouraged a team to go amber more than 2 months before their expected released. The shockwave sent through the organization was phenomenal. Not only was the reaction to risk not tolerated, a new PM was pushed onto the team to get things back on track.

After a few months, we realized Agile wasn’t going to happen in this organization until something groundbreaking happened. They needed a change before they could change. If you’re familiar with my work, you’ll know I’m a fan of the Satir change model. We felt we needed a strong enough foreign element to wake up the leadership team and it’s a shame it needed to come to this.

Myself and the coaches I was working with, observed weeks of people being abused, working late hours (in some cases 14 hour days, 7 days a week), and I let the leadership team have it. I flat out told them they treat their people like shit and they are all miserable. I asked them when was the last time they walked the floors and saw people smiling or enjoying their work. I told them Agile is off the table until they sort out whatever is going on at the leadership level. I walked away from this organization because working at the team level clearly wasn’t the problem. In fact, the most senior leader didn’t even know about all the teams that were experimenting with Agile because his status report only showed 1 team that was ‘official allowed’ to try Agile. Sounds dumb, but that’s the way things work in large organizations sometimes.

As harsh as this sounds, it woke them up. They appreciated that for once they had consultants who were telling them the brutal truth and they are taking action now. The change before the change is going to be a long road, and while that sorts itself out, the original change is still in flight. Confusing? Words are inadequate to describe this dynamic. While this organization continues with a transformation that started months ago, and while the centralized enterprise departments conspire about pushing big Agile processes to all parts of the organization, the hard work is happening with leadership. Do they follow the enterprise mandate? Do they start rewarded Agile behavior? Do they run the risk of losing their jobs once their superiors see the disarray that is their organization?

Make no mistake, as much as Agile practitioners like to blame leaders for not being supportive, they folks have the same fears as everyone else. I’ve never met an executive who didn’t care about their people. Sometimes a thick skin is needed to work in a toxic organization…and let’s be clear, that toxicity is a result of the market they serve.

This is one small, but important reason why everything we know about managing change is wrong. Frameworks, processes models, budgets, and schedules cannot manage this complexity. When it comes to transformational change, the only enemy is time. There’s no undo keystroke to get rid of the years, and sometimes decades, of organizational debt. The interesting thing is, this organizational debt didn’t happen overnight. It happened one small decision after another and that’s the way to fix it.

“Shouldn’t we have our business counterparts here?” – Remember that? The yes, but answer is that it’s a good idea, but if you haven’t made sense of what Agile means to your IT leadership team yet, and you are in one of those toxic environments, a change needs to happen before you even consider this. Once the baggage has been dealt with, and the relationship has been repaired, then you might be ready for alignment.

Just remember, while that’s happening, the original change is still going on and that’s going to make things even more exciting.

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