We need to respond to change, rather than change our ways of working to follow the plan

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In the light of the Cornonavirus situation organisations need to reconsider WHAT they are doing, not just HOW they are doing it. Just moving people to work from home is to play behind the curve, it assumes that the market that you derive your value from is unchanged – and that just isn’t true any more.

These are strange times, for many of us who are working in the professional services sector, there is a global move to working from home and there are many techniques and tools that are available to us such as Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts etc. However I want to challenge whether just focusing on those working practices is actually the best course of action.

We know that in complex, human based environments, feedback and learning are essential for progress and the best approach for that is collaborative working that delivers frequently to your customer base. Switching to remote working is going to hinder this, whatever tools you use it will never be quite as good as it could have been face to face. Simply telling staff to work from home is a mitigation strategy that attempts to negate the impact of the change. This is attempting to catch up with a plan, rather than really adapting to the change.

The reason for making this distinction is because I fear many have missed what the change really is. It is easy to see is as: I was working with colleagues interactively in the office, and now I am working in an isolated environment trying to do the same job.

However this isn’t really the change. If you were the only one to be now working from home, then fine, get a crash course in remote working tools to try and do the same job almost as well, but you aren’t. In fact it isn’t just your team that is impacted; it is your company, your competitors and more than that, your customers too. This change is also not for a week, or a month, and it is highly likely that in some areas, things will never completely go back to how they were. This change is HUGE.

 

The reality is that the norms of human interactions have been turned upside down in a matter of a few weeks. Things that we valued before, like catching up with old friends, have been pushed aside and new things, that we didn’t value much at all, now seem to be essential, like bizarrely, toilet roll. The current approach appears to be: “To change the ways of working while maintaining the same output”.  Regardless of how we do it, I would challenge whether the same output is actually what we should be aiming for?

 

We should remember that it isn’t the fastest or smartest that survive, it is those most adaptive to their environment. There is little benefit in effectively working from home to deliver a new app for cinema listings when nobody is going to the cinema any more.

When confronted with a substantially new scenario we naturally go through a three step process:

1     Assess the situation

2     Evaluate options

3     Implement and learn

 

Assess the situation

Start by taking a step back, challenge all the assumptions and accept the world has changed. Establish what the new situation is and how this has changed especially from the customer’s perspective. What are their needs NOW? Focus needs to switch to what will deliver value now rather than how to maintain working on what previously was going to deliver value.

 

I suggest the following actions:

  1. Immediately review portfolios of work and stand down any deliverables that are unlikely to receive the immediate impacts they were predicted to have.
  2. The product development lifecycle to be restarted in as many places as possible. Instigate small discoveries followed by ideation phases to really understand the impact of the changing world on their customers. Typically the ratio of this backlog building product exploration work to technical delivery is proportional to the level of understanding of the market, and as that is changing rapidly, the need for investment in this area has just gone through the roof.
  3. Assess the changes in the use of the products / services that are currently being offered and consider removing or reducing services that have seen a drop-off in use so as to repurpose efforts elsewhere

 

Evaluate options

Organisations need to go back to their fundamental purpose and look to understand how best they can fulfil that need in the current climate, their options are going to be linked to how impacted that purpose has been. A key question will be that can you fulfil your purpose when your customers are staying at home. Could you, like a restaurant who is in the business of feeding people, instead of expecting people to come to you, go to them? Can you do the equivalent of rigging up a truck with a barista coffee machine and drive along suburban roads like an old fashioned ice-cream van? In a new world where people aren’t encouraged to come to you, waiting for customers to arrive is a dangerous path to take. If you don’t offer you products and services online, but could, then there is no better time to start this than now.

When there truly are no options other than to wait it out and look to mitigate loss, then this may be the perfect time to switch to internal programmes of work rather than maintaining a very high service level to relatively few customers. Cutting staff is a distressing decision to have to make to reduce costs to survive, and I trust that those companies looking to do this have no other choice.

 

I suggest the following actions:

  1. Look to offer previously face to face services either door to door or over digital channels. It may require the former while the digital channel becomes workable.
  2. Consider the new data that has become important to us, can you access that, can you leverage that? For example if an organisation is delivering financial data to markets, then those markets are probably very interested in new dimensions on companies where data isn’t currently offered, because until recently it wasn’t relevant.
  3. Move transactions and offerings that would previously be in person to online, serviced by the same people that used to do this in person
  4. Ramp up internal work proportional to external customer facing work. Maybe this is the time to upgrade the servers, refactor that codebase, develop the internal training programmes package, or even just refurbish the office (switch bank cashiers to painters – we’ve all done a bit of DIY in our time)

 

Implement and learn

How organisations deliver against these changing needs given the new constraints placed upon them needs to be considered, and, as mentioned, this is where companies are focusing on remote working tools for example. However the changes needed are larger than this. Organisations that relied on footfall are going to need to reconnect with their customer base. Organisations that rely on teams delivering work are going to have to change how those teams are structured and controlled.

 

I suggest the following actions:

  1. The typical Amazon “Two pizza team” used to gauge team size is based off an assumption of human interaction that is no longer true. The emotional and bureaucratic cost when everyone is working remotely, rises considerably. Consequently organisations look to reduce their team sizes. I would suggest that teams in the region of four to five are likely to be able to work remotely much more effectively than larger groups.
  2. A centralised organisation that looks to control the actions of its people will struggle due to the reduced effectiveness of communications, the pressure needs to be on  how to delegate more. Empower teams that have the necessary information to make the decisions that they need to, and have leadership switch from making decisions, to ensuring decisions are being made.
  3. Arrange regular online or telephone based interaction purely for the purpose of interaction. We are social creatures and our mental health deteriorates when isolated. During a normal working day a large quantity of time is spent just talking to each other, laughing and smiling. These simple human interactions put us in a suitable frame of mind for doing the real work.

 

In summary, during these uncertain times we all need to be on the front foot about how best to adapt our business strategies and working approaches. To just focus on how to execute the same work as before, but from home, is akin to battening down the hatches in a storm. This is no simple storm, there has never been a storm like this before; what is needed is the ability to learn to thrive in a world of high winds.

Leave no one behind

arm in field

When seeking to support an organisation on the journey towards business agility, a more value centric, feedback driven approach, it is all too easy to overlook the reasons behind the resistance shown from some of the people affected. It is often not appreciated that they are a product of the system they have been in, they have been literally taught to be this way. The urge to want to brush them away needs to be resisted, as these people are just as important as those driving the change. If an organisation is looking to change, then it should not be leaving anyone behind. Their only failing is to be upholding the values the organisation gave them, that, until yesterday, were universally appreciated.

It isn’t hard to imagine the situation: you have been brought in to deliver an Agile transformation for an organisation; this is the opportunity you have been looking for and you are feeling positive. The request has come from the top this time, so even the cultural and organisational design issues should be on the table…..

You are working hard with both delivery teams and senior leadership but sometimes it feels like there are forces working against you. Don’t they see that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make things better? It seems like there are people who just don’t want to change, don’t want to see delivery being faster, more value centric; people who clearly don’t have the best interests of the organisation at heart and as such, probably should be weeded out. This is to say nothing of the swathes of people who clearly don’t have the suitable skills for working in a fast-paced cross-functional team environment. They are going to need to either adopt a steep learning curve or look for alternative employment where the expectations are lower.

Does this seem vaguely familiar? It is an easy trap to fall into, driven by conviction, a notion of moral righteousness about these ways of workings. We have seen the improvements elsewhere, not just to delivery but more importantly to people. To witness a lacklustre disengaged workforce metaphorically wake up from a foggy malaise and realise their full potential, is a genuinely uplifting experience; and it is what motivates us to continue our efforts. What is awry here is that the transformation isn’t all about US, this isn’t OUR moral crusade. We are enablers, a support function. Ultimately we are trying to make their world better, but not for us, for THEM.

Years ago there was a clear separation between the thinkers and the doers within a company, a small highly skilled group directing the activities of a large workforce of low skilled, and usually replaceable people. In this Taylorist view of the world, people really were a commodity, a resource. As the nature of work morphed into the creative or knowledge domain, then the people delivering the value have became essential to it. Now the purpose of the organisation is typically intrinsic to the people delivering it. The employees are no longer a means to an end, they are not a fungible commodity to be used and exploited. People are not resources. The employees, the people, ARE the organisation.

In this context, when looking to improve an organisation we are really looking to improve it for the employees. If the view on that improvement is that some employees need to be “Weeded out”, or “Lack sufficient skills to remain” then what is being said is that for the best interests of the people, some people need to be removed.

Take a step back from that and repeat it:

For the best interests of the people, some people need to be removed.

If we scale this premise up, to a societal level, then there are examples in history, some which relate to the most abhorrent acts that have ever occurred.

This isn’t to say that in groups there is no need to protect the masses against the destructive acts of the few, this is why we have performance reviews, gross misconduct policies and in a wider societal context, law enforcement and prisons. However, cultural norms are relatively static; the moral codes that govern day-to-day acceptable behaviour change very very slowly. Something which was socially acceptable today will not become repugnant tomorrow, or even next week or month. Within the context of Business Agility there is an attempt to move much much faster.

Systems of people do change, but they change slowly. You may have an opinion on the system, wish to change it and through your actions, usually supported by others, manage to instigate one; but this change will be gradual. People change at the rate that they choose to, not at the rate that others tell them too. The deeper the ideology, the deeper the emotional connection to the principle in question and the slower the change. Just because something is morally “Right” does not mean that people will adopt a new value set overnight, especially not if the RIGHT thing to do, is NOT the EASIEST thing to do. To look to “Weed out” people who do not change to a new value set within weeks or even a few months, is to misunderstand the fundamentals of how we, as humans, accept and adapt to change, and by association could be considered unethical.

To go full circle, when we encounter someone who is resisting or countering moves towards an Agile transformation, instead of looking for ways to go over or through the individual, we should look to understand what is driving their beliefs and actions. It is highly likely that their behaviours are linked to the system that they are in, and have been in for quite some time. Some of the people that will struggle the most are those that have the most invested in the current system, they are the greatest advocates for what WAS valued.

The system they are in has defined their role, their contributions, what is valued and helpful, and what is not. This system has processes within it that may have been in place for years. It is possible that the process has a longer tenure in the organisation than the employees that execute upon it. This person’s career may have been shaped and optimised against the execution of this process and likely their future trajectory planned against it. In this situation, a suggestion to remove the process is catastrophic to that person. You are removing their current purpose, challenging their prior value and removing their opportunities for growth and progression. The skills that they have spent years learning and honing are now redundant, those years of intellectual investment have been potentially wasted. This person deserves empathy not scorn and dismissal. Consider this another way, at some point in the future, it will be our world that is changing, how quickly will we be able to adapt, and how would we wish to be treated?

The capabilities, beliefs and behaviours of people who seem to resist change are a consequence of their participation within the system for years, and to suggest that they will be able to change these as fast as an organisation can change its processes and structures is naïve. The challenge of change towards business agility is ultimately one of culture, and each person within that organisation is a fractal manifestation of that culture. Now you can change processes and policies overnight but it won’t change the culture immediately. This is akin to putting on boots and a Stetson, it might make you look like a cowboy, but it doesn’t mean you are one.

Therefore if the organisation, through the permeation of its culture, has shaped the individual to be what they are today, then it has the moral obligation to help its employees through any change it attempts. For an organisation to “Weed out” people who are not supportive is to punish people for being what the organisation has created them to be.

There will always reach a point when persistent behaviour associated to a prior values will no longer be acceptable. This occurs once the whole organisational culture can be said to have changed, not just the visible elements of it, but the principles and values beneath them. Patience will always run out eventually, but it needs to have been demonstratively shown.

The most extreme situations of resistance I have encountered have been understandably associated to organisational design changes to remove the walls between the traditional siloes of business and technology. People who have status, power and a career path associated to a managerial position within one of these pillars are enormously threatened. A possible path in these situations is to switch the perception of importance and respect to be associated to the ability to influence a decision and to provide support, rather than direct control or line management headcount. For this to work however, it needs to be a widespread cultural value. The individual in question will not self-actualise through these values if their peers around them do not follow suit. This is a great example of why a full shift to business agility needs to involve the whole organisation, not just cherry picked departments, to ensure that the whole management team experiences the same discomfort and adjustments rather than it becoming a game of winners and losers.

The decent approach is to invest in these people and provide them with support and coaching. Someone will need to understand their personal context, opportunities and losses with what is being suggested. Those losses need to be accepted and compensated for. Each affected employee needs to have the opportunity to find purpose and understand the value that they can contribute. Their learning and career path within the organisation will need to be recreated and agreed by both parties. It is the responsibility of the organisation to make the clear case for the change and how the employee fits within the new world. If they fail to understand the drivers behind the change so as to still not support it, then it is as much a failing of the organisation as it is the employee. It is fair to say that none of this will be easy or swift, but then successful systemic change rarely is.

Ultimately this is a question of empathy and responsibility towards the people that organisations have created. If we are in the situation of striving to enable an Agile transformation, what would it take for use to be able to see people as a product of their system and treat them accordingly?

Comments are welcomed – even criticism. It is only through feedback that we learn.

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Credit to all those that provided comments and editorial support – you know who you are.