Having some science behind you

New Thinking 25 August 2018 Ben Hayman

Science is awesome. It gives us a method to experiment and test new things in a safe way. We can combine things and expose them to pressures they have not seen before. With the right kind of assurance wrapped around experiments, we can even break things to learn about limits.

We see a similar situation in helping organisations build high-performance cultures. To help them deliver on transformation and create an organisational DNA that is perpetually ready for change.

Typically for organisations undertaking such change, the science is not a precise one and often lacks empirical measures to help us know if we are creating a valuable, stable and energised result. When will we all know that the change is robust enough to stand on its own – for the DNA to have adapted and support the most effective new ways of working?

It feels like scientific experimentation where we have to create the right ‘lab’ conditions for the change – and to put some measures around it. So let’s unpack that…

Combining volatile, high-energy elements under the right conditions

I think everyone accepts that significant change is hard to lead in any organisation. Business Objectives, Cultural History and Personal Opinion are always a volatile mix, even when an organisation is not undergoing major change. Turn up the heat through transformative change and it’s essential to understand and work with these factors. 

Most businesses will have had numerous change initiatives to help improve culture, process, outcomes or to get closer to the market. Teams might feel jaded by such change programmes even though they mean well. For the adoption of anything new, it’s critical to give everyone confidence that change will have great outcomes for them personally, as well as the business. This is especially the case when so-called new methods have been previously applied without care or potentially cynically for other corporate reasons. 

Accepting change as the new normal

The reality is that there will also always be new new ways of working. The big opportunity is to shift the mindset of the organisation to think of change as the new normal. While clearly beneficial, it’s generally less valuable to invest energy to introduce specific techniques such as Enterprise Agile or DevOps in isolation.

The implementation of new ways of working will never mean that all current approaches are bad or have no place. The focus we take with new ways of working is on helping the people within the organisation to see it as a diverse and multi-faceted thing – not a monocultural thing where there is just one way – the existing way. We want to change the DNA of the organisation so it adopts and supports a diversity of approaches even though at first the transformation can feel quite uncomfortable to many.

Managing expectations

The outcome of such transformational change has to be kept front and centre to avoid ‘right vs wrong’ or ‘old vs new’ tensions. The change must be inclusive and transparent in its approach and rationale. It’s therefore key that the organisation’s leadership communicate and visibly act on the objective to develop a high-performance, multi-faceted culture that makes the organisation more responsive, energised and focused on its strategy.

Keeping this top of mind in systematic ongoing engagement and communication will help alleviate tensions and get all minds focused on what matters. Adopting ‘the new’ rapidly and effectively whenever it supports the objective. 

Applying the right kind of heat to unfreeze the current status quo

In working with some of New Zealand’s largest organisations to support high stakes change initiatives, we have seen first hand the challenges they face to achieve such a shift in their culture. They almost always have a vision or a compelling desire for change but struggle to unfreeze the core of the business and adopt any new way of working sustainably. “We have tried this kind of change before plus we simply don’t have time to adopt these new ideas”. Heard that one?

It’s also clear that within all organisations there are highly-motivated, committed people who are hungry for new ways of working to get wider support – because they are usually already applying these in the part of the business where they work. These ambassadors for change need support, connection and to become celebrated leaders in the change. Sustainable culture change has to be an inclusive and representative thing.

No matter whether the new way might be Lean this, Agile that or DevOps the other, it really does not matter. The challenge isn’t the adoption of ‘the new’, it’s the ability to work in more than one way while being confident in keeping the lights on and operating well.

To unfreeze the core of such complicated organisations so they can sustainably adopt new ways of working, we must look at three underlying factors – Objectives, History and Opinion. All are significant when we think about culture and organisational change. They are not the only factors at play by any means but, if we understand them, then we can organise ways to mitigate their impact from the start. 

Objectives

Objectives tell the people to lock it down – to keep focused on effectiveness, efficiency and robustness. It’s an understandable focus for an existing business in a relatively mature market. Year after year of objectives will have been set at a personal level aligned to activity that strives to reduce uncertainty and build in efficiency to the organisation.

This will have resulted in a hyper focus on the currently accepted Portfolio, Governance, Programme and Project methods. The company will soon talk of its Lifecycle processes as being ‘the company way’.

Psychologically, this understandable desire for efficiency and for all staff to adopt common approaches that scale the value of that efficiency leads to a monoculture. A place where ‘the company way’ is almost palpable in meetings about anything that starts to look slightly ambiguous.

History

History suggests we are constrained by the past. Culture change has been tried before but it didn’t stick. Over the years the organisation will have announced and attempted a series of such change programmes. They will have had snappy titles, decent comms to staff and be very well intentioned by the top table and a subset of middle management. However, change did not happen – at least not sustainably. Ask a member of the staff who’s been around a while and they might say: “Things come and go, we tried it, it was a good idea but it just didn’t deliver real value. So people went back to the most pressing things, supporting the teams that report to them in order to keep the existing fires out. Change here just feels a bit too hard at the all-of-organisation level”.

In a well-intentioned, but historically-based working culture, change becomes a tough sell with a lot of inertia to overcome – it’s that organisational immune system thing. This reinforces the idea that new will be hard. Staff need more than slick comms and the voice of external consultants to reassure them to put the effort in to truly get on board with the change.

Opinion

Opinion provides us with no added confidence – With History and Objectives making existing ways of working the centre of attention all the time, it’s hard to introduce anything new. Generally, we find a few visionary converts that are ‘doing new’ in pockets with the hope that the way they are doing things might scale. Sometimes we see teams hoping that people won’t actually notice too much for fear that the new might get compromised by less well-informed parts of the organisation.

If the organisation has executive support to develop a more responsive culture by embracing new ways of working, it’s the confidence of everyone that will be key. Confidence that there is value, that change is safe, rewarding and will deliver good outcomes. It will need more than just the courage and opinion of a few of the senior leadership team to bring the whole organisation along. Confidence needs to be developed in everyone within the organisation that the change is valuable, achievable and that they see where they play a part in helping it to stick.

Show the value and grow confidence in ‘the new’

We think that some science and measures can only help here – a way to move the arguments about value from opinion and cultural heresay to something more structured. Even if we then argue about the science, at least we have distanced the culture from the emotions that sometimes get in the way of positive change.

New things are hard to argue for as they will have less mature and proven metrics around them. That’s been the case in science and innovation since the very beginning. For us, this is why measuring the value and progress towards culture change is critical.

We’re committed to helping organisations change by giving them a solid base of data (quantitative and qualitative) that tells them where they are now, what the current change work is delivering by way of benefits and where they could land next. And from those things, we’ll be able to identify what that might mean in terms of improving business performance.

Create a language of measurement

By creating a language of measurements and progress, we can help the organisation take Opinion out of the mix. Decision-making will become a more open and honest process for everyone and allow people to feel safe in expressing concerns or voicing their support for change more often and freely.

Parts of the measurement answer are out in the market already in the form of methodology health checks for Agile, DevOps, Analysis, User Research and Insights. It’s a great start, but bringing this all together and tackling the softer cultural aspects of people change is something we have put right at the centre of our new ways of working approach. It’s an ongoing area of development for us and we welcome your input and views.