Lean Thinking

Tuesday, 22 August 2017 19:37

Incremental Organisational Change

Published in Agile

Last time we looked at some of the challenges around organisational change and the need to flip the system from one attractor to another. But where does that leave us? We know organisational change is hard. We know that we need to change the state of the system. We know that traditional approaches run out of steam and the system settles back to where it was before (often after thrashing wildly). We know we still want to change organisations. But how? How should we be doing organisational change?

Traditional approaches fail for a few reasons - they try to do a massive change all at once but don't add enough energy to push the system into a new state, or they add so much energy that the system breaks completely and descends into chaos, or they go the other way and try to do a low energy change but they can't sustain for long enough and they don't manage to shift the system. So what do we do?

Published in Agile

As an agile coach I am always pushing for cultural change. That's what agile is really - it's not a delivery mechanism, it's a fundamental change in the culture of an organisation. What do we mean by organisational culture? There are many definitions but the one that I like is that culture is a shared understanding of values. It's the understanding everyone has of what the organisation thinks is important. Culture drives behaviour - people will seek to maximise what is considered important in the culture and will behave in ways that do that.

The problem of course is that, as anyone will tell you, cultural change is hard. CEOs are tasked with changing culture and spend years failing to do it. People say that the only way to change culture is to change all the people. Or that cultural change only happens when a generation of employees retire. I don't agree. Cultural change is really easy. You just need to let people know what the organisation values. "Hang on", I hear you say, "Just wait a minute. Organisations have been putting out statements for years about what they want in their new culture. People can often quote chapter and verse from the CEO's latest values statement. Millions are spent on flashy communications. And nothing changes."

Published in Agile

Take a thin steel rod. I'm sure you have one handy. Clamp one end in a vice (which you also have handy...I know I do) so that it's sticking straight up in the air. Now move the free end of the rod to the side a little and let it go. What happened? Did it spring right back? OK, now move it a little further. Still springing back? If you keep going, moving it a little further each time, you will find a point where the rod no longer springs back but bends permanently. Materials scientists call this the elastic limit. Below this limit, materials experience elastic deformation - they spring back to the way they were before once the force is removed. Above this limit, they experience what is called plastic deformation - they no longer spring back but permanently change shape.

So why am I giving you this lecture in materials science? Because organisations behave the same way. When you apply a force to them - when you change something - the organisation is very good at snapping straight back to the way it was before.  As soon as you stop pushing the change, the change disappears. We've all seen it happen. As soon as you relax, the change evaporates and within a short time the organisation is happily doing what it has always done.

Published in Agile

What's the first thing you do when you look at a map? Find your destination? Maybe. Start planning a route? Sounds logical. But there is something missing. One fundamental step that renders the other two useless. That first step is locating where you are. Obvious really, but essential. Unless you can position yourself accurately on the map, no amount of accuracy in destination identification, or time spent in route planning, will get you where you want to go.

That's obvious when looking at a map. Very few of us (my mother excluded) will locate our destination then confidently set off without working out where we are now. My mother, on the other hand, will locate her destination, see that it is on the left hand side of the map and confidently set out towards the left. Consequently her excursions often end up in interesting places. Trouble is, the same principle applies to organisational change and in that context, very few of us perform the first step. We jump straight into desired state, plan a few actions and off we go. We don't spend much time, if any, on step one. We don't measure where we are first. The result is exactly the same as looking at a map without locating youself on it. You will start off confidently in a random direction and end up... somewhere. If it's at your intended destination that will be by good luck (or the help of someone you asked for directions) rather than good map reading.

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