Managing Change From the Inside Out

Every edifice which desires to exist past its initial purpose must change. With buildings, rooms can be redesigned or restructured, sections can be added or removed, facades can be replaced. Many such alterations require concomitant changes to the infrastructure of the building; internal systems such as plumbing, foundation, physical supports, or communications must all be evaluated for continued service and efficiency. Modifications such as these often support new or changed purposes for the existing building.

The same principles apply to organizations, which change their purposes much more frequently than most buildings. Depending on the market and product or service offered, strategies can change annually (or more often), structures and processes can be optimized for efficiency, and infrastructure can be modified to support the new purposes. But unlike buildings, organizations are made of thinking, feeling people, not dumb material. This fact requires that organizational change, to be most effective, must be approached in a fundamentaly different way.

Our human history is filled with examples of organizational change. There are two main approaches which stand out across the centuries. Mandated change from without, and inspired change from within. Mandated change can be met with two responses: Submissive acceptance, or rejection and resistance. In some cultures, submissive acceptance is part of the prevalent worldview and psychology. In those where it is not, mandated change can quickly morph into force, and things can get ugly for all involved.

At least for the majority of Western culture, inspired change is almost always the more effective approach. Indeed, the entire motivational industry of books, movies, and various programs is based on the premise that people will more readily change their behavior when they actually want to change. So how do you inspire your organization to change itself from within?

Earlier this summer, I was exposed to the work of James Sartain, one man who seems to have a decent handle on how to go about inspiring change in organizations. Mr. Sartain’s background is in software and software quality. After spending some time at HP, he has led software quality improvement initiatives at Intuit, Adobe, and currently at McAfee.

I don’t know Mr. Sartain personally, but I have read his online publications during this career journey. His role is one which reports to the senior leadership, and his goal is to improve software quality across the corporation’s software products. Through his publications, you can see how his approach has matured over the years, and you can see which aspects of his approach seem to be effective by the fact that he has maintained them through experiences at four companies.

This is my summary of Mr. Sartain’s approach to change management:

1. Senior Leadership Support and Commitment.  While change cannot be effectively mandated from the top down, it can be easily prevented in that way. There is a huge amount of inertia to overcome in effecting behavioral change across an organization, and the density of senior management’s influence is often greater than the rest of the organization put together. Senior leadership must be supportive of the initiative for there to be any hope of success. Mr. Sartain also emphasizes that large-scale organizational change is not a short-term effort. Organizational change takes time, and that must be acknowledged and accepted up front.

2. A Compelling Vision of the Future.  In each of his new roles, Mr. Sartain has painted a picture of what life would be like if the quality improvement initiative was already done. He reinforces the commitment part of step 1 by dating this picture two to three years in the future. From the viewpoints of the customers, the shareholders, and the employees, his vision explains the benefits accrued by each group as a direct result of the change.

3. Viral Adoption of Best Practices.  Far from reinventing the wheel, Mr. Sartain is an avid supporter of industry best practices. But what stood out to me in this area is how he proposes to roll out the best practices. He advocates identifying one or two teams who know they need to change what they are doing, and who are ready and willing to try something new. Once these teams have success implementing the change initiative, their excitement will naturally overflow to others around them. Mr. Sartain creatively applies the principles from Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, viewing the change initiative as the product to be adopted and the internal organization as the market. These initial teams are the early adopters whose word-of-mouth promotion is crucial to taking the change initiative to scale.

4. Evidence via Metrics.  From his software quality background, Mr. Sartain knows that metrics are critical to ascertaining the progress and effectiveness of any type of change. Key metrics should be indentified, agreed upon, and sedulously tracked and reported from the beginning. Without rigorous metrics, success or failure easily becomes a political story with partisan advocates on both sides.

5. Review, Reorganize, and Reward Progress.  Going back to my first statements, everything must change over time, even change initiatives. The process must include steps to evaluate progress and customize the initiative for the environment without prematurely jettisonning the commitment. Progress where evident should be publicly rewarded to help sustain the momentum and show the support of the senior leadership.

While these five steps work together as a complete body, in my opinion, the heart of success is in steps 2 and 3. The power of a compelling vision cannot be underestimated. It is in our nature to aspire to greater things and brighter futures. When you can paint that picture as the context for change, you tap into an enormous potential for focused activity. Likewise, success is infectious. When one team succeeds, and can passionately communicate why they succeeded, it inspires emulation in those around them. Igniting these two internal sparks are crucial for creating change from the inside out.

The next time you know you need to change your strategy, or have the need to revamp a system’s architecture, consider how to manage that change from the inside out. Can you create a vision of the future that energizes your organization around your new strategy? Can you prove the validity of your new architecture in some smaller way that creates viral excitement around a larger roll-out? How can you tap the power of vision and the infectious nature of success to create effective change in your organization?

Do you have other positive experiences with rolling out change? Add your thoughts below!

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Making Time to Think, Part 2

I recently read William Powers’ insightful book Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. Mr. Powers eloquently throws light on what he calls “the conundrum at the heart of the digital age.” It’s a book about our connected digital devices – what he simply calls our “screens” – and the roles we are allowing them to play in our lives.

The author is no technophobe, and this book is not one which decries connected devices and their uses. Rather, it’s a book about balance, and a call for deliberately thinking about the quality of our lives in this digital age. It’s a book about calling out the de facto philosophy by which many of us live day by day.

We’ve effectively been living by a philosophy, albeit an unconscious one. It holds that (1) connecting via screens is good, and (2) the more you connect, the better. I call it Digital Maximalism, because the goal is maximum screen time. Few of us have decided this is a wise approach to life, but let’s face it, this is how we’ve been living.

I can relate to that. The benefits of “connecting via screens” are obvious in both our business and personal lives. Our screens allow us instant access to information and people in ways never before achieved. That’s great. But the problem which this philosophy of Digital Maximalism quickly leads to, however, is one of balance.

Whether you’re walking down a big-city street or in the woods outside a country town, if you’re carrying a mobile device with you, the global crowd comes along…. The air is full of people.

Balance between making time to think – alone, by myself, with no distractions – and connecting with the ever-present crowd via my screens can be a challenge to achieve. And it’s impossible to achieve without deliberately considering why and how I should achieve it.

To be hooked up to the crowd all day is a very particular way to go through life.

Mr. Powers makes the point that time spent in concentrated focus or thought is essential to living a fulfilled life, and essential to real productivity at work. Depth is key to quality. The danger with screens, however, is that constant updates from and for the crowd become constant interruptions which can undermine depth.

[B]oth software and hardware make it easy to hop around. So easy, it’s irresistible…. Thus, although we think of our screens as productivity tools, they actually undermine the serial focus that’s the essence of true productivity…. Digital busyness is the enemy of depth.

Going back in time, he looks at seven other technological innovations in history (writing, printing press, etc.), and shows how each one of them caused a similar phenomenon to our digital-age “information overload.” He draws on the work of leading thinkers of each era to show that this problem, and some possible remedies, are not new or unique to our time. Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, Thoreau, and McLuhan all have things to say to us on these points.

Mr. Powers shares some strategies for re-establishing balance which he and his family have tried personally. But in the end, this book is not about answers: it’s about thinking. The ideas presented are relevant and speak deeply to our need for balance. The ideas are paramount. The ideas are what will lead you to rationally consider your own connectedness and connected habits. After all, the answer for each us will be different, but none of us can reach our effectual answer without thinking – deeply.

What have you found to be effective ways of carving out time to think, or minimizing interruptions from “the crowd” in your own life?


Protecting the Right Status Quo

I recently read an article on overcoming inertia in your strategy efforts. It listed two of the causes of inertia as cognitive biases and politics. From my own experience, I can attest to the detrimental effects of both. I can also tell you that they infect architecture teams as well as strategy teams. Both types of inertia spring from a love of the status quo, and a desire, conscious or not, to protect it at all costs and as long as possible.

Cognitive biases are those mental blocks which prevent a team from seeing new possibilities or options. Cognitive biases will prevent a strategist from seeing when a heretofore effective strategy is reaching the point of diminishing returns. They will prevent an organization from acknowledging the coming obsolescence of whole product lines or systems because of market dynamics. Tracking market and technology trends is critical to creating accurate visions of the future environment in which your products or services will live, but simply tracking is not enough. An honest, unbiased analysis of what those trends mean to your customers, your products, and your stakeholders is essential. An overattachment to an historically effective strategy can be debilitating when it is justified by a never-changing picture of the future.

Architects are not immune to cognitive biases. Software and systems architecture is as much an art as a science. There is a creative aspect to architecture that necessarily generates emotional attachment to successful products and systems. How many architects have you heard claim with pride, “That’s my baby!”? This attachment, if not acknowledged and constantly guarded against, can easily become a blinder when that architecture is no longer the right one for the customers or the business. This is often the main reason why a market is disrupted by a different technology: the disrupter had no undue attachment to the traditional technology or architecture already in place, and so was able to see the full potential of something different.

Politics is more insidious. Some people will always place their career concerns before those of their customers or stakeholders. They will be more interested in building their empire, their influence, or their reputation at the expense of others. Many of these people are masters at hiding this agenda in their speech by saying all the right things at the right time to deflect criticism. But the truth is always there in what they do, in the ways in which they treat those downline from them, and in the relationships they leave behind. Their M.O. is intimidation – in the worst cases, outright, blatant intimidation; but more often in subtle, read-between-the-lines-of-what-I’m-saying intimidation.

This type of politics hampers strategy efforts when a new strategy endangers the pet projects or schemes of the politically-minded managers or leaders. What is good for one’s short-term career advancement is often not what is right for a company’s strategy. This is frequently experienced in roadmapping, because making the future visible – a key tenet of roadmapping effectiveness – is not comfortable for those interested in maintaining the status quo at all costs.

The signers of the Declaration created a vision of the future with little regard to their own career paths.

This affects architecture in a similar way. Technical experts have a vested career interest in remaining experts, and so will sometimes submarine architectural options which go outside of their technical comfort zone, or would possibly make obsolete the systems or products on which they achieved their technical reputation. Exercising this type of control can be a leading cause of irritation between architects and designers and engineers. It is impossible to mask when architects attempt to mandate an architectural direction based on their own interests. An architect’s role should be about championing those options which fulfill the larger picture or longer-term strategy, not about controlling system designers and engineers to protect their own job.

From either point of view, whether strategy or architecture, the only status quo that really matters is maintaining a focus on value creation for your customers and, thereby, for your stakeholders. Everything else must change. If everything else is not changing, it’s time to look for causes of inertia, including cognitive biases and politics. Great leaders – the ones with meaningful career potential –  are those who can help organizations change by championing the vision of the future which will maximize that value creation.


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