“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together”
Vincent Van Gogh
In my previous blog I outlined the role of the CIO in driving organisational change, and the first steps to be taken to build the case for change and a supporting coalition. In this post, I will dive into how to mobilise action around this shared vision, and then ideas on how to embed the changes permanently in your culture.
Mobilising the Organization
- Define the first steps. Just start as my colleague states. Just as every journey starts with a single step, so does every realised vision. Linear plans to move an organisation to a future state do not work. Cultural change is emergent, with many changes having other, unexpected changes. Such plans are also very disempowering. The plan creators spend time defending the plan, and those outside of the team spend time pointing out the obvious flaws. It leads to disengagement and cynicism. Two patterns strike me when I look back on transformations I have been involved in: (i) at least half of the executed plan to create the change could not have been predicted at the start of the journey, and (ii) the transformation consisted of many, many small steps driven by many individuals. It is so easy to slip into the desire to make “the BIG CHANGE”, leading to multi-year behemoths which project a comforting but artificial and destructive level of certainty. It also encourages slavish devotion to the plan rather than the outcomes desired.
One step I would recommend, if you don’t already have it, is dedicating some change management support to the effort. In some businesses this might be a transformation office, in others it could include one or more specialists experienced in driving organisational change. They cannot become a useful dumping ground for managing the change. Rather, they help the executives, champions, and advocates continually assess the next set of steps to make. Skilled individuals will be forthright in their views and will use tools such as appreciative enquiry and other systemic change tools to iteratively understand the impact of changes. From this they can help you understand points of intervention to accelerate changes.
- Communicate repetitively. We all know that communication is critical in change efforts, but then often pay it cursory attention. Don’t mistake your clarity and passion for the need to change as being representative of the whole organisation. I like the rule of 12—until someone has heard the message 12 times, scepticism will remain about whether this is a passing management fad. Be authentic and ensure the vision has emotional resonance while also acknowledging the anxieties that the recipients may harbour. If this transformation is important, start every meeting off with a reminder about what it is about, and use every communication vehicle you have to ensure widespread understanding.
Secondly, open up an organisational dialogue to ensure the case for change is understood, concerns and ideas are surfaced, and people genuinely feel they have a voice. Critically, continually test for buy-in to the need for change. Assume that interest will wain and act accordingly. Change steps are emotional in nature so it is common to find fear, denial, arrogance, and complacency, particularly in successful, established companies along with a “this too will pass” mentality from the board downwards. Be relentless, as buried scepticism will derail future steps. Giving sceptics a voice helps prevent issues from festering underground and derailing the journey. At these junctures, don’t persuade (“here’s why I’m right”); rather, debate, understand, influence, and educate.
- Deliver continual quick wins. Nothing is more powerful than seeing tangible examples of a change in action. Make them genuine, unambiguous, and meaningful, giving the team responsible for the change the spotlight. Constant wins are far more effective than going after the “biggie”. Allowing teams to experiment helps build a belief in the new culture, as well as to accelerate learnings on how to get to the future state.
Quick wins can and should take many forms, with the more loosely coupled streams of work going in parallel the better. Examples include:
- Putting team members through training and certifications. This sends a strong message that you understand that nascent fears of employees about job security and organisational relevance.
- Taking a small, new but visible initiative and creating a cross-functional 2-pizza team to deliver it in a visible part of your building.
- Critical path analyses to identify areas where small improvements can have big gains which then lead to quick wins. For instance, reducing time-to-production for new environments, a step towards introducing DevOps.
- Create excitement and relentlessly maintain momentum
In Geoffrey Moore’s seminal book Crossing the Chasmhe states that approximately 16% of those effected by a change need to be actively on-board before you can make the leap into mainstream adoption of a new product, process, or culture. This is rooted in the need for many to see social proof that a change is beneficial and serious, along with a good dose of peer pressure. To get to these numbers, mobilise as many complementary, small transformational efforts as possible, leveraging the transformation office or equivalent to provide loose coordination. If you are not uncomfortable by the level of control you are ceding here, you probably need to let go even more. As a leader, make your presence felt by investing time in spending time with these teams and talking about the results.
Use situations opportunistically, whether a new project, an annual budget planning process, or an all-hands meeting, to continue to reinforce the bright new future and the progress that is being made. Amp up personal stories from those doing the work on how they are feeling in the new, emerging world. Celebrate successes virally and loudly. Invest energy in keeping the excitement alive, and actively look for work that can be moved off teams’ plates to enable momentum to continue. Don’t just start new work, look for old ways of working that can be retired.
Sustaining the Change
- Cement changes culturally. In our project-oriented world, it is common to see a cultural changes proceed well but then flounder due to a lack of sustained effort in ensuring changes become deep rooted. Retooling an organisation takes time. Build upon the steps such as training and certifications taken as short-term wins. As the vision becomes clearer and realer in employees’ minds, so will the fear of their future relevance to the organisation. The reality is that any change sees turnover, often with employees self-selecting about not wanting to work in the new environment, but executing the previous steps well has a hugeimpact on minimising this. Unfortunately, too, tough decisions might be needed on the few individuals who are flagrantly trying to preserve the status quo. Don’t let these issues fester.
There is no secret sauce to embedding cultural change, other than relentlessly focusing on the symbols, stories, and personal actions that signal to the organisation at-large that the new behaviours are valued and expected. The exact actions to signify this will be contextual, but will include:
- Hiring, on-boarding promotion, and reward mechanisms. AWS’s hiring and on-boarding mechanisms formed a large part of why I joined the company. The commitment to the 14 leadership principles and ways of working were reinforced at every stage of the process, regardless of tenure or position of the person I was talking to.
- Rewrite job roles and families to bring clarity to team members. Benchmark these to ensure they are not unicorn roles.
- Continue communicating regularly, highlighting the latest successes to make visible what “good” looks like.
- Be conscious of you and your peers’ actions. Are you living up to the new culture?
- Is the right type of risk-taking being recognised and/or protected? In the new world of agility, autonomous teams are important but will make mistakes.
- Invent and embed new rituals into the organisation. Traditionally, McDonald’s meetings used to open with introductions that consisted of name (pretty important), title (how important is this person hierarchically), and tenure (useful but not when a proxy for importance). Replace this type of approach with something that reflects a tenet of importance to the new culture, such as “My name is Phil, and the biggest learning I had from my last experiment was XXXX”.
- Institutionalise feedback mechanisms, such as pulse surveys, to take a regular measure of organisational health and opportunities, and then act on the information. This could be once a quarter all the way through to daily, as at Amazon.
- Look at budget allocation. Are you still allocating budgets to large projects and releases, or empowering teams to make business value decisions based on a backlog?
In general, look at all of your processes over time through the lens of the new culture, and look for those often small changes that can be made to reinforce the culture.
For us engineers and technologists, it is uncomfortable, but there is no prescriptive approach to changing culture. It is dependent on the people, their dynamics, your industry, goals, and many other factors. Culture is designed to protect the organisation and so resists change. It is what has made organisations resilient and successful. When you intervene to change the culture, you should expect friction at every stage, but tap into those essential technology leadership attributes of persistence, resilience, and dealing with ambiguity. If you don’t sense friction, ask yourself whether change is really happening. You are not only trying to change others, you are also the subject of the same change. Harness your discomfort as you pursue changes such as giving teams more autonomy to build up empathy for what others are going through.
The ultimate goal is to build a culture of change; a flywheel which embeds continual improvement and innovation into your organisation’s DNA to move away from sporadic, painful changes. To do so, you will need to treat each step of what is described as a linear process here as part of an inter-related, iterative process. Build your organisational network so you can sense when more time is needed to embed a change or teams need to be helped through the normal grieving processthat changes trigger. This is an emotional process and must be led with your own EQ, persistence, and a good dose of empathy.
The Heart of Change, Kotter
Crossing the Chasm, Moore
A 12 Step Program to Get from Zero to Hundreds of AWS-Certified Engineers