Innovation Manager’s Toolkit
Training Support for
Transformation Leads &
It’s a Special Job
And special jobs need special training
Chief Coach & Founder
Lifecycle Pte. Ltd. (Singapore)
Change Agents, Transformation Leads and Innovation Managers (“CTIOs” – change, transformation and innovation officers, for the sake of this article) are the civil equivalent of Rangers and Special Ops. They are top performers and exceptional talent hand picked by leadership to take on high stakes roles that will impact the future of the organization.
Meanwhile, unlike their uniformed counterparts, CTIOs are often dropped into their roles without dedicated training opportunities.
The special projects they are called into are typically of nature of “exploring uncharted territory,” where uncertainty and ambiguity prevails. And when the leadership team that commissions the project are unsure themselves of what it takes to carry out the mission, the directive includes “We leave it to your own devices to figure out what and how to do.”
Doing a special job, without the much needed special training. That’s tough.
Learning from Complexity: Separate the What and How
We can define a complex task as: something where we have known approaches to doing the task and there is confidence in a satisfactory outcome, but details of the outcome is unpredictable.
There’s insight in this. What this means is that while there are uncertainties and ambiguities surrounding “what” the final outcome is going to look like (except that it will be something satisfactory), there is clarity on the “how.”
Indeed, modern management science provides a host of tools, approaches and frameworks for tackling complex challenges, and as Evidenced Based Management is one of them, they prove to be highly effective.
What this means is that we can support the CTIOs’ mission on exploring the “what,” with some good training on the “how.”
Three Areas of Focus: Process, People, Structure
As an Organization Development professional, I focus on five areas of intervention: process, people, structure, product and customer.
Often CTIOs are achievers in their previous product development and customer facing roles, so my focus will go to development efforts for the first three areas of intervention: process, people and structure.
From ancient to modern times, the sure-fire way known to conquer complexity is trial and error. It’s as simple as that.
Yet, we are so ingrained in waterfall project management culture, it’s incredibly hard to get out of the deterministic and linear thinking habit. The comfort of a clear end state and transparent step by step process all the way to the end is so alluring, we decidedly allow ourselves to be fooled despite the clear consciousness of the known phenomena of “planning fallacy” (plenty of Dilbert cartoons to prove that).
CTIOs need to make a conscious effort to de-learn waterfall.
And that’s all it needs to take!
Learning which trial and error, or more formally, experimental and iterative framework to adopt, is itself experimental and iterative learning. There are many experimental and iterative approaches to chose from:
The three most popular Agile frameworks, Lean Startup, Scrum and Design Thinking each have their strengths and weaknesses. Lean Startup’s built-measure-learn cycle is conceptually correct and is helpful for installing the entrepreneurial mindset. Yet it doesn’t have the the time boxed Sprint iterative delivery power and rigor of Scrum. Meanwhile Scrum can fall into the pitfall of monotonous iteration, so the ideation power of Design Thinking is treasured.
Also, good’ol PDCA is still useful in many situations, and the intuitiveness of OODA can be powerfully helpful for many business professionals. (And of course, a reminder that Waterfall is not entirely bad – in fact it’s great, for tasks of less uncertain nature.)
What is important for the CTIOs is to be aware of our waterfall tendencies, and then experiment and iterate with whatever alternative approach they chose. Learning these new approaches will involve a lot of failures. For example, almost all Scrum teams fall into one trap or another of “fake Scrum” at any given point of their learning journey. And Design Thinking takes practice to really activate the collective creativity of the team. But that’s how it works – we only can learn a new process by experimenting and iterating. (Except that the learning curve will be faster with good coaches and trainers like myself!)
It’s easy to imagine that tightly telling people what to do; i.e. an instructive style of leadership, won’t work for mobilizing people in change, transformation and innovation projects.
The work of the CTIO is to tap into the collective genius of people to find out what’s the right thing to do for the organization’s future. We need people to gather around and think together, sustainably and in scale.
And probably the only realistic way to achieving that, is to activate people’s innate ability to self-organize.
The challenge is, people actually like to be lead and managed. Self-organization is somewhat paradoxical, and it doesn’t occur entirely naturally. An environment that makes it possible for self-organization to emerge needs to be set up, and therefore the focus of leadership and management will go to facilitating this; i.e. facilitative leadership (a.k.a. servant leadership).
A hallmark characteristic of an environment that allows self-organization is psychological safety. Installing a no-blame culture, promoting communication and relationship skills that remove toxic conversations, coaching conversational skills that tolerate differences in opinion and encourage experimentation and iterations for progress, are just some of the many things that CTIOs will need to foster development.
It’s no surprise that therefore a lot of my Organization Development intervention work is in around this area of behavioral coaching. And the key here is to support this with a “coach the coach” approach to the CTIOs. When it comes to influencing people to adopt new behaviors, “telling” rarely works. Instead, we coaches practice active listening, clarifying and nudging. Helping CTIOs build coaching skills is a key element for success in the people aspects of their jobs.
A recurring challenge for organizational change, transformation and innovation is that often success doesn’t sustain nor permeate through other parts of the organization. Every large organization probably has memories of seemingly successful change programs that eventually failed to stick and just faded away. The wonder of “where’d that go?” and the ensuing apathy that nothing changes, painfully reinforces organizational resistance to change.
Organizations are complex systems, and because of the equilibrium seeking nature of organizational dynamics, organizations always mean revert to where they were before. Except when a new “norm” is successfully installed and it overwrites the old ways of doing things.
Organization structure is a representation of the most rigid parts of the organization. Making change and transformation permanent in an organization requires impact to be seen at the organization’s structure level.
I believe CTIOs can increase their chance of letting their individual programs survive from organizational resistance to change by taking a global systems view of their organization. The key is to:
- “Synchronize” their individual programs with other change, transformation, innovation and also various learning and development initiatives happening in other parts of the organization, and create a common awareness of new ways of doing things, i.e. the new “norm,” and
- “Align” the new “norm” with current organizational objectives; i.e. demonstrate that the organization can continue achieving it’s business and operational goals even by doing things the “new way.”
If successful, the new “norm” will become part of the organization’s structure, making the change and transformation permanent.
Agile is about flexibility, but it is also a disciplined practice. Structured learning of frameworks, concepts, and general and subject matter specific knowledge in the form of lecturing and teaching is required for laying the foundations of solid skill building.
“Then and there” are usually the best timings to learn new things as the need is present, and that’s why on the job coaching is a powerful modality of learning. Meanwhile the use of regular coaching sessions allows tapping into the power of reflective and retrospective learning.
Hybrid / blended learning
Trial and error is a feedback loop based way of learning between theory and application. Training and facilitation simulates the experiential learning, hence they are hybrid and blended, dynamic modes of structured and unstructured learning.
It will become complex: Operate Organization Development programs dynamically and iteratively
Again, organizations are complex systems. To make the CTIO learning & development efforts create impact in the organization, sooner or later we will start noticing that the efforts cannot be made in isolation with other change, transformation and innovation activities happening in other parts of the organization.
As detailed in “Organization Systems Integration,” Organization Development programs need to be operated dynamically and holistically. My recommendation to handling the complexity surrounding Organization Development challenges, is to take steps to be in where the action is happening (“Gemba (現場)” as in Lean), run pilots and iterate to find out what works and not, and progress to a scaling strategy once formulas of successes are identified.
Finally, as external coach, I place importance in making sure that the success is sustainable without creating further dependence on external resources. Therefore, my focus is on “KSA” (Knowledge, Skill and Ability, or Attitude, Aptitude) transfer to the CTIOs.