Change, or Else!

For the past couple of years, my coaching assignments have often taken me on the road. While visiting new cities, my typical evening routine includes wandering the streets until I’m lost or tired (or both).

A couple of months ago during one of these walks I noticed something out of the ordinary. Walking towards me was someone carrying a box. She was visibly upset and it was quite obvious she was just let go from her job.

As she passed I noticed the logo on the backpack she was wearing. It was a well-known company who had recently announced a large layoff. While I don’t know for sure, I can only guess she impacted by it.

Perhaps there is more to the back story behind the circumstances leading to this person walking out of their place of employment for the last time. I’ll never know. But for some reason, her vicissitude stayed with me throughout the evening as I continued my meandering.

Fast forward a couple of weeks later when I stumbled on a paragraph referring to the iconic corporate dysfunction movie, “Office Space.” It was from the book “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace” by Nikil Savil. It read:

The ‘space’ in Office Space was largely a symbol – of an uncaring, even ruthless organization. Its real targets were the unholy expectations of the modern workplace, which asked for dedication and commitment, offering none in return.”

As I was reading this, my mind flashed back to the setting of the person who was walking the busy streets with a box in her arms and tears on her face. Initially, I wasn’t sure why I connected these two somewhat disconnected scenes.

But the more I thought about it, this mixture of images offered up a symbol of my own – of the glaring need for organizations to become renown for thriving people and collective resilience. An organization with a foundation of healthy, purposeful people fluently navigating an ever-changing world.

Now, I’m not naïve and understand the nature of business and capitalism so the trick will be how can these companies get from an “old uncaring world” to a “new thriving and resilient world” while still delivering results. There will be no way around it – this will need the hard, messy, unglamorous, in the trenches, roll up your sleeves work of change. There are no shortcuts. There are no last-minute pardons. There is only hard work.

The purpose of the upcoming series of posts (and Season Two of the podcast) is to look at this journey from the “old world” to the “new world.” Hopefully, we can begin to scratch the surface of how to focus our energy and where to put in the hard work.

To start, let’s look at how organizations generally respond to the need to change.

Change is ignored.

People throughout the organization can feel something is amiss. It takes forever to get anything done and when we do get something done it isn’t what’s needed. But there is never time to think about whats really wrong and what could be done about it. Short-term goals and the illusion of productivity and busyness overwhelms the need to change.

There is a perception of security in the status quo. It is often rewarded and “rocking the boat” becomes frowned on. So existing systems and processes are continuously patched and issues are glossed over. Running jokes often emerge (“We’ve always done it this way.”)

People want to change I believe but change feels daunting and the inertia of the status quo remains too strong to overcome. “Where do we even start?” is often the dilemma.

If you were to ask people in private how to solve pressing issues, the answers come pouring out of them. But implementing anything feels monumental and people have been burned for speaking up in the past so they would rather continue to suffer in silence. Morale is low and people are disengaged.

Reaction to the Need to Change: Nothing or very little.
Long-lasting Impact: Change will be demanded as organizational productivity and workforce engagement declines.
People Impact: Develop atrophy (the gradual decline in effectiveness due to under use or neglect) and/or apathy (just don’t care any more).

Change is demanded.

If the need for change is ignored long enough it will eventually be demanded or forced – typically by leaders of the organization. This may take months, years or decades but it will happen.

Sometimes this happens as an event or announcement. Perhaps an email announcing organizational changes or as a town-hall meeting setting a new direction. Sometimes this happens as a mandate or an ultimatum, “Change…or else!” or “Get on board or get out.

When change is demanded, the language used often consists of “I want…” or “I need…” statements from the one doing the demanding. For example, you will sometimes hear managers saying “I want us to be Agile.” or “I need everyone to go to Agile training.”

If a change requires an event or mandate, it’s too late. There may be short-term gains but it’s just a matter of time before another mandate is required.

If change events are a surprise to the workforce, the impact is often hard to overcome. Motivating change the next time will be even more challenging as trust will continue to erode.

Reaction to the Need for Change: Command-and-control behaviors. Plans and decisions made in secret. Shock and awe.
Long-lasting Impact: Extreme highs and lows. Wild-swings of emotion or “change whiplash.” Eventually, events and mandates will lose their impact as the organization becomes numb to them.
People Impact: On-edge and fearful. Begin to isolate themselves and find safe places. “Just keep my head down and do my job.” Relationships begin to fracture and each change event diminishes trust a little more each time. As Seth Godin states, “…an ultimatum is an emotional affront, a deliberate break in a relationship.”

Change is attempted via willpower.

The consequence of ignored change and multiple demanding change events will often “freeze” an organization over time. This could be because of the apathy or atrophy formed from ignored changed or from the paralysis of fear fostered when change is demanded.

Out of desperation, a group of people will often emerge to try and help thaw the organization by creating a movement to break out of the stagnation or pain. They know we need to change (because its been demanded over and over) but we don’t know how to change.

This is often when Agile comes into the picture and will save the day.

Sadly, Agile (or any other change initiative) is often willed on an organization by overlaying its practices and mechanics over the top of demoralized or fearful people. Our group of change agents (coaches) will give enough energy to bring a small burst of what feels like improvement. This is often because we’ve chosen an area of the company easy to change or favors are called in to make things feel better and faster (with HR, infrastructure, legal, support for example).

But momentum is fleeting. The gravitational pull of the underlying culture is still latched on to the “old world.” Slowly, energy wanes and the promise of change fades.

Initial Reaction to the Need for Change: A small group of people (often leaders or coaches) attempts change through sheer willpower.
Long-lasting Impact: As the foundational culture (behaviors) have not been addressed, things will actually feel worse. Belief in the possibilities of meaningful change dwindle and people will revert back to ignoring the need for change. Or, a demanded change event will need to occur again and the cycle of dysfunction continues.
People Impact: Tired, broken, and demoralized as there is a limited amount of willpower available.

Change is natural.

The next 3 blog posts (and Season Two of The Illustrated Agile Podcast) is dedicated to discussing a few thoughts on an alternative option to building a dynamic organization rooted in its ability to change. Not just once, but continuous natural change.

An option where:

Change is naturally embedded into the DNA of the organization. We can do this by building an ecosystem based on simple rules, new language, and refreshing behaviors.

Change is naturally embedded into the work we do everyday. We can do this by building a backbone for how work flows through an ecosystem and by living our simple rules. We begin to remove the friction surrounding this backbone and allow the system to evolve around it.

Change has natural ebbs and flows. We can do this by designing cycles of increasing change energy (hard work) and momentum followed by periods of consolidation, observation, healing and rest. We use this time for a period of restoration and to introduce fresh thinking.

For clarity, I wouldn’t say that “layoffs” or a “reduction in force” should never occur. Market conditions shift quickly and mistakes happen. Sometimes we hire too many people too fast. Sometimes we add people to the team who may not be a fit. Sometimes organizations merge and there is an overlap in responsibilities.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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One thought on “Change, or Else!

  1. Wow, you touch on a lot here Len! Change is hard for so many organizations to swallow. As you mentioned many times it is forced upon them.