Organization Systems Integration
Making Change, Transformation & Innovation work in all corners of the Organization
Change, transformation & innovation programs hardly go as planned. So what do we do?
We love planning, and we do it very well. Therefore it’s not surprising to see impressively well designed change, transformation and innovation programs in place in organizations, given the high stakes nature of such initiatives.
And well made plans, we feel, will bring sure results by just executing them well. Plan, execute, results.
Reality is, we know only too well that things don’t go as planned, and we are resigned to accept sub-par delivery, mediocre outcomes, and a quiet death to the program somewhere down the road. Every organization has a story like this.
From execution to operation, we need a shift in modality. Change, transformation, innovation programs are complex by nature, and they need to be operated dynamically.
And to keep the fire burning, a continuous demonstration of value creation is needed – not just at the end, but all along the way, in increments and in iteration.
Addressing the Irony of Delivering Agile Transformation with Waterfall
Agile and digital transformation projects are abundant today. The irony is that too frequently, they are planned and delivered in essentially waterfall project management style.
Waterfall is a linear, plan-all-the-way, phased execution style of project management. It is a productive project management approach, and in fact, we owe modernity to Waterfall because of its highly scalable attribute that produces predictable and replicable results.
However, it is an approach best suited for projects of certainty, such as construction engineering, production facility and standard work-flow type of projects. In contrast, Agile development is better suited for projects of complexity with lots of unknowns that contribute to variability in outcomes.
Organization Development programs, including organizational change, Agile transformation and digital innovation projects, clearly are the latter category. In complex and uncertain environments, human behavior is volatile and unpredictable (simply put, we become overwhelmed), and applying a linear, predictable outcome seeking way of managing people is ineffective. Decades of organizational research corroborate this point: prescribed interventions for change and transformation fail with high probability.
Why We Stick to Waterfall
Yet still, we see organizations trying to do change, transformation and innovation with Waterfall.
I consider there are two reasons for this:
- For many of us, Waterfall is the only way we know how to do projects.
- There’s no one definitive, apparent, visible alternative “methodology” to Waterfall.
Agile is an alternative to Waterfall, but Agile is not a single, clearly defined methodology like Waterfall. Rather, it is more of an approach and mindset (also frequently referred to as “agility”), and a general reference to the many actual implementation frameworks, such as Scrum. Agile is not as slick as Waterfall; it’s a bit all over the place and hard to grasp.
This ambiguity around Agile makes it difficult for people to register that Agile can be an alternative to Waterfall. And when people don’t see clean alternative choices to something, they won’t make the switch. So in many people’s minds, Waterfall defaults back as the “right” way of doing things.
Taking the Multi-Disciplinary and Exploratory Approach
Clearly, we need to do things differently if we want to break the chain of Waterfall reliance. But how?
We can start with accepting that anything that involves change, transformation and innovation, is an exploratory endeavor.
Easily said, excruciatingly hard to do.
Because we love certainty. We’re ingrained in fixed time frame, KPI driven, results delivery management culture. It’s easier for us to be told what to do and deliver on concrete targets. So, most people will go into a mild panic when they are told to do things in an “exploratory” way.
Try Many Ways, Deploy Many Tools
A good starting point to quell the inital panic of facing the gargantuan challenge is to know that exploration does not mean a shot in the dark or a random walk. There are many tools, frameworks and mental models for complexity handling, and a few recommended ways of trying first from those “who’ve been there, done that.”
While change, transformation and innovation is too complex and overwhelming to make any one tool or methodology effective to do the job and we need access to a wide range of tools, frameworks and mental models on demand, through experimentation and iteration seasoned change agents eventually hone in on a “formula of success” which often are surprisingly common.
At Agile Organization Development, our “formula of success” is to focus on the people and process aspects of teamwork, and take a structured approach in understanding the unique context of the client organization using the many learnings from the management science community.
Leading change, transformation and innovation require specialist skills. Exceptional talent and general management skills go only so far.
Organizations find this out after a struggled first attempt with internal talent, and often the “cavalry” , i.e. external consultants, are called in next.
Results are mixed. Many programs fail because the external experts struggle to “gel” with the internal context of the client organization. Othertimes the success is short lived – while certain impact is created with the program, after the departure of the external help the effect degrades and things go back to the “old ways”.
That’s why we at Agile Organization Development believe in the learning approach. Our objective is to transfer the necessary specialist “KSA” (Knowledge, Skill, Abilities) to designated change agents, transformation leads and innovation managers in the client organization (ref: “Innovation Managers Toolkit“).
Delivering in Iterations, Not in Stages
My motto as an Organization Development professional is, “it’s all about the conversations”. Perhaps change management is a structured effort of influencing, and influencing organizational change is about fostering conversations in all corners of the organization.
I am optimistic that there is no organizational challenge we cannot address with the power of conversations. However, facilitating conversations across and among a large population is no easy feat. That is why I say it’s a “structured effort”.
And here is where we have to be careful not to fall into a trap. We are so ingrained in Waterfall thinking, a typical structured approach will involve a stage gate or phased approach – first achieve this, then next do this, and so on.
A better image would be to deliver in “iterations” – start local, start small, and grow the circle of influence with small wins here and there and eventually everwhere. Three mental models, or frames of mind, may come in handy here:
- Snowball Effect
Start local. Prescribed interventions for change and transformation fail with high probability – there’s really no point spending an inordinate amount of time designing a perfect change management or transformation plan with just the higher ups. What’s often missing is early onset communication with people and teams who will be involved in the change and transformation. This is where the principle of Gemba-Shugi, a Lean concept, comes in: Gemba means “actual place” or “on-site” in Japanese (Shugi means “principle”).
Gemba-Shugi denotes one’s stance of placing importance and giving priority to what is happening at the actual place of activity (also known as MBWA – management by walking around). Listening, goes a long way in getting people on board, because when people are listened to they feel understood and take accountability with the things they say, i.e. ownership is generated. Being on the ground and fostering dialogue is a crucial first step in instigating change .
This is a quote by Organization Development pioneer Kurt Lewin from back in 1947. Three quarters of a century later, it remains the modus operandi of the profession.
What, where and how to intervene, is best found by a test and learn approach. We believe pilot interventions in incremental scale and in iterations are far more effective than a definitive plan of execution (aka the “big bang” approach).
Once we see good patterns of success in the pilot interventions, the focus will start shifting to a scaling strategy. Now that we know what “works” in the organization, we next need to find ways that success will sustain organically.
Enter Systems Thinking. In a nutshell, Systems Thinking is a practice of understanding group dynamics of people from the perspective of two types of feedback loops: balancing and reinforcing. In a scaling strategy for anything, we’d like to bank on the latter type of reinforcing feedback loops. Also known as positive feedback loops, in a growth scenario, these feedback loops “reinvest” an earlier action that resulted in growth into the same action that produce further growth. Imagine how a a snowball grows larger and larger going down a hill with earlier outer layers of snow collecting more snow and so forth. That’s the image.
With change, we would want to create an accelerating pattern of earlier success of change fueling more actions of change. Once a critical mass is hit, change becomes irreversible. This is what we are going after in using the snowball effect as a scaling strategy of change.
Countering Resistance to Change
Unfortunately, the curse of the first type of balancing feeback loops will forever persist in change management. That is because organizations are almost like living, breathing creatures themselves and they inherently seek stability for their survival. Until the critical mass of the snowball effect is hit, there will be many, many forces that will interfere with the snowball from rolling down the hill. This is the essence of change managment – it’s all about protecting change from the many resisting forces and fueling the effort so that the inertia of change doesn’t weaken.
Organizations are Complex Systems
I’d like to close this article with an idea of a higher order role in change management.
In IT, Systems Integration is a big thing. Enterprise computer systems are highly complex, with different systems in place for different business units and functions across the organization, each with their own frontend, middleware, backend, database, on premise and cloud applications and so on. These systems components need to talk with each other to make the system work, and then there’s the need for the individual systems to talk with other systems in the organization, and so much more. Hence, we have Systems Integrators. It’s a half a trillion dollar industry.
Meanwhile, organizations are themselves systems. And IT, is a sub-system of organizations. If IT systems are highly complex, then by inference, organizations are hyper complex systems. It makes strong sense to consider having a systems integrator role in the organizational context as well.
Role Recognition for “Organization Systems Integrators”
We propose to organizational leaders the role recognition of “Organization Systems Integrators.”
Organizations will typically have various change, transformation and innovation efforts happening simultaneously in different parts of the organization. We believe there is a higher order need for a role that will help these various efforts synchronize, integrate and collectively grow for whole organization success. The need is in sustaining the success of individual change, transformation and innovation programs, and allowing that success to permeate through other parts of the organization.
There is no shortage of corporate case studies of successful, innovative business units eventually being negated and absorbed back in to the status quo of the organization. Systems Theory demonstrate the dynamics and kinetics behind these powerful organizational immune reactions and draw of mean reversion. Early success in change, transformation and innovation are like sprouts and saplings. They are vulnerable to strong forces of resistance to change, and require good protection and nurturing.
Systems Theory conscious Organization Development professionals can be powerful partners and aid for synchronized and integrated growth of change, transformation and innovation efforts across the organization. Again, this is an exploratory endeavor and learning exercise for all. My personal fascination is in observing what patterns of networking (centralized, decentralized, distributed) would emerge from the synchronizing and integrating efforts among the various programs in the organization.