Most of us work in organizations where change is the constant, and where at any one time there is a myriad of changes. What happens when there is a lot of changes being worked on? How do effective organizations manage change within this common environment? And what plays out when an organization adopts agile within this environment? Here we will illustrate how one organization effectively manages lots of changes within an agile environment.
Meet company A which is a typical financial services organization. They, like most other financial services organizations, are undergoing multiple changes. In change management theory land most are concerned with managing one change at a time. The reality for a lot of organizations is that there are lots of changes, some times up to hundreds of changes at a given point in time within an organization. This is not taking the lens of formal ’projects’ that would have formalized governance and resources in place to plan and deliver the initiative. From a user-centric lense, change is any initiative that involves changing a current way of working. These includes product changes, marketing campaigns, process changes, and role changes.
Like other organizations, company A has several business units, each of which has a range of initiatives that mainly impact their own business unit. However, some of these also impact other business units. At the same time, there is a company-wide body or governance group that determines which intiatives are to be funded centrally and are of higher priority, depending on the initiative benefit case, strategic importance and overall business value.
Towards the end of the year every year, there seems to be a phenomenon emerging in this company. Within an agile environment there are many agile teams are working in self-driven teams iterating on various changes. Many of the initaitives are also focused on delivering changes that impact frontline staff that work directly with customers. Most of these initiatives are aiming to implement the change prior to the end of the calendar year as the peak customer volume for this financial services firm tends to be between December and February. The idea is that if the changes were rolled out prior to December, then the change would take place in time to capture the peak volumes and therefore provide a quick realisation of benefits.
However, the scenario is that in true agile form, there is bound to be delays in each iteration. As each agile team starts to work through and iterate on the change, often there are technical delays or that the team realizes that the scope of the project requires a longer period of time to deliver. As a result, it is common to delay the eventual initiative go-live. When there are several initiatives aiming to go-live prior to the December period, this becomes a peak change impact period for the business. This means that there are simply too many initiatives trying to launch at the same time, causing operational performance challenges and business risks.
So how has Company A managed this situation?
Armed with the quantitative data of the impacts of every initiative, programs, projects and initiatives, the picture was clear in terms of what this meant to the business. The frontline staff, as well as team leaders of the frontline, will require significant time away from their normal duties to understand, digest and embed the various changes. This presents real challenges in terms of ensuring the right resourcing given the number of hours required to undergo changes. The business also has historical data of what happened last time this level of change had impacted the business and what this meant to business performance. The data also included the overall operational environment and any challenges including customer volumes, performance trends, etc.
A series of governance session was organized to zoom in on this specific scenario consisting of project delivery managers, change management, business leaders and other support professionals (e.g.initiatives risk). The session focused on discussing the various business risks and how to mitigate these risks, including prioritizing agreed critical initiatives, understanding sequencing implications, and de-prioritizing non-critical initiatives. With each meeting, there was also continuing delays for some initiatives (again, in true agile form). As these potential or actual delays were socialized and shared, stakeholders kept updating their plan of attack to ensure the was an effective way of managing the situation.
The role of the change practitioner
The change management professional’s role in this context is to lead and facilitate the discussion of the governance and stakeholders so that there is clarity of what the data is telling us, what options we have to deal with it, and agreed actions forward. Program managers play a role in sharing ongoing progress in initiatives. Business stakeholders also play a critical role in understanding, accepting and agreeing to any actions, as well as sharing any shifting business performance priorities. However, the change professional plays a key role as the core of the problem as about managing and coordinating the amount and pace of change at a given point in time.
There was a series of solutions proposed to manage this overall peak change period:
1) Less critical initaitives were either pushed out or stopped. This lead to various re-planning exercises
2) Higher priority initaitives were clarified and agreed
3) A set of communication and engagement actions were proposed to better engage the impacted teams to help them joint-the-dots around the myriad of changes and what these meant
4) Careful and continual monitoring and reporting of business performance was emphasized to track the outcome of the changes
The illustrated case for Company A is a very common scenario for a lot of organizations within an agile environment. Initiatives cannot operate in silos if we adopt a user-lens in managing change and the impacts of change. This case illustrates how critical it is to have strong data that tells a clear story of what is going to happen to the business and what it means. Data enables effective and strategic conversations. Data also provides significant power and value in putting change management at the driving seat of business management.
Telling effective stories is a critical skill for those leading change management. An effective and emotionally engaging story can make or break the outcome of a change initiative. We have all heard inspiring and engaging stories that compel us to move toward the journey and change our current ways. On the other hand, a badly formulated story that does not connect with us will do little to progress the change imperative.
To tell an effective story of change we need to refer to facts. What happened before that prompted the change process? What happened during the change journey? What was the outcome of the change? Anecdotal information may be interesting, but data and facts form a critical part of the change story as it adds to the ‘meat’ of the story and provides insights on exactly what happened, adding to the ‘texture’ of the story. Here is a change story I experienced.
When I was at Intel, there was significant concern that there was not a way to sustain the pace of change according to Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law was written by Intel’s co-founder Gordon Moore. In a paper published Moore postulated the number of transistors that would fit into a microchip would double every year. Over time, the pace of change at Intel in innovating to meet this expectation (and in many ways shaping the overall computer industry) had driven the company to innovate constantly.
At that time in 2004, there was concern within Intel that there may not be a way to fit in even more transistors within a chip as inserting even more would result in significant heat and energy consumption to not make it viable. For us layman, transistors are basically the ‘brains’ of the computer. The race was on to find another way to fulfill Moore’s prophecy. This is a company known for its technical prowess, building the most powerful supercomputers in the world. Therefore, there was significant motivation to continue to find ways to meet this challenge.
The challenge was met and tackled when engineers came up with a way of organising and grouping transistors as a ‘core’ in a way that distributed heat balanced with energy consumption (my simplified layman translation). This started with dual-core processors followed by multi-core processors. The company rejoiced and the law was maintained!
Typical story formats
There are several typical story formats that are common in telling change stories (adapted from Sparkol) including:
1) The Quest – The hero sets out in search of a particular challenge, prize or reward and in the process comes across a series of challenges. There may be accomplices along the way to help the hero in the quest. Eventually, after struggles, the hero succeeds and all is well.
2) Rebirth – The main character has a significant flaw or is a bad person, and eventually is shown their flaws and through this awareness and realization redeems him/herself to transform into ‘good’.
3) Overcoming the monster – The main character sets out to defeat a monster, and through sheer will, determination and hard work the character defeats the monster
Using data to tell the story
A typical story for organizations undergoing significant change is …
1) Context: Industry is undergoing significant changes and with significant competition, the company needs to transform ABC to stay competitive. 2) Quantitative data: The change roadmap contains a series of changes. Looking at the data (as shown through a heatmap or other analytical reports) there are certain months where change loading peaks. Last time this load happened business performance was impacted in ABC ways. 3) Qualitative data: From previous change episodes, anecdotal feedback from employees and other frontline teams is that ABC. For example, during this is what people experienced, and as a result XXX happened. 4) The problem statement: This presents a number of risks and challenges in terms of ABC. 5) The solution: To effectively manage these risks it is recommended that ABC.
However, the change story doesn’t need to be just about too much change. Other common story themes can be around …
1) Change not happening fast enough, with sufficient pace 2) Impact of change on customers is disjointed and not integrated, as a result leading to inadequate customer experience 3) Too many diverse sets of changes are happening (in a way that is not integrated), leading to a lack of focus and therefore lack of depth in change outcomes 4) Change clashes as a result of inadequate planning and integration, with different initiatives vying for attention
In using data to tell the change journey there should be a balance of quantitative as well as qualitative data used. Quantitative data can include sources such as the level of impact, where, when, to whom (how many people), etc., and qualitative data can include such as employee survey results, business change readiness interviews, stakeholder feedback, etc. The combination of both qualitative and quantitative data provides the richness required to bring life to the change story. Often, change practitioners shy away from quantitative data, and as a result risk not being taken seriously by senior stakeholders and project teams.
To read more about creating quantitative and strategic reports click here.
Visual representations of data are easier to understand and remembered by stakeholders. Designing effective data visuals that look interesting, and allows the reader to easily understand your points without being overwhelmed in an art. Key considerations include selecting the right graph to best represent the data you are showing (for example pie charts for percentages and line charts for historical trends), use colours effectively to represent different data dimensions, not over-crowding the user with too much information, using the right proportions of representations so that it is easier for the user to comprehend the scale/magnitude, and using common data representation within the same graph for consistency and to avoid confusing the reader.
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Recently, with the relentless pace of work, the changing weather conditions, and inadequate sleep, I had caught a cold. In recovering from the cold I started wondering more about the whole life cycle of sickness and wellness. Could it be that we can leverage from medicine how we improve the health of the organization as we design the change process? In many ways, organizational health and well-being can be an analogy to how healthy a human being is. If the health of the organization is not great due to various imbalances in the system, it can fall ill and become less effective, thereby not meeting its goals.
So how may we leverage the clinical approach that medicine adopts to disease treatment and maintenance of health to how we approach change management? In Medicine, the approach is based on the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease. Let’s use these three phases to further understand what this approach means when applied in a change management context.
One of the most important parts of being a medical practitioner is the ability to establish rapport with a patient. We have all been to doctors who spend barely 5 minutes with us and quickly subscribe pills before moving on to the next patient. Whilst the ramifications of limited rapport may not be great with a minor ailment, with complex diseases lack of rapport may result in the wrong diagnosis as important detail may have been missed or not prompted.
To effectively diagnose a patient the medical practitioner begins by taking the medical history before commencing on a physical examination. In a similar way, to really understand what is going on in the organization and why it needs to change we need to understand where it has been. Can an organization’s history can tell us why it is in the position that it is in currently? What has worked or has not worked in the past in undergoing change? Have there been incidents where change outcome was disastrous? What were the lessons learnt? What leadership style or ways of engagement has worked?
Similar to undertaking a physical examination, it is also important to analyze what conditions the organization is in currently prior to implementing a change. How effective are different levels of leaders is driving and engaging their teams on change initiatives? Is there any ‘signal loss’ in cascading information up and down or across the organization? What have been some of the common stories told about change? What systems are in place to support change initiatives? For example, change champions, communication channels or learning processes.
Physicians leverage diagnostic tools in diagnosing a patient’s illness. This is based on what is presented by the patient and the physician’s overall assessment based on visible or inferred observations. For example, the DSM-5 is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that is used to diagnose psychological and psychiatric disorders. The physician does not blindly follow the diagnostic tools to formulate an assessment. In the same way in diagnosing the organization we should also seek to understand first and then make the diagnosis based on evidence (inferred or observable). In this way, we should not blindly follow a particular change framework in ‘diagnosing’ the organization as this depends on the organization as well as the chosen change framework.
In change management we do not have just one diagnostic tool, we have several frameworks in which to help our diagnosis. There is no one framework that is applicable in all situations. Different models may be useful in certain situation. The trick is to know which ones to leverage in the right type of situations.
John Kotter’s 8-step model is great when applied to a significant strategy execution, restructuring or organization-wide change. In these situations, the strategy vision clarity has to be clear, a clear sense of urgency created and understood, and strong leadership coalition to drive through any employee resistance to the change. With this type of significant change leaders need to continuously drive and reinforce the change, and integrate this within the ways of working within the organization.
However, when the change is more of a project such as a technology or process change, then the Prosci ADKAR (Awareness Desire Knowledge Ability Reinforcement) model may be more relevant. This is a process focused model that aims to transition an individual from the current situation to the new state. Key enablers or activities may be executed on to help drive this transition. These include providing the right communications, addressing any employee inputs, training sessions, coaching and recognition for the right behaviors adopted.
When the change involves significant restructuring where there could be redundancies including role changes and people transitions then the Kubler-Ross model may be leveraged. The model outlines an individual’s emotional journey through loss and grief during the change process. The journey starts with shock, denial, then frustration, depression, experimentation and finally decision and integration. As often with significant people transitions and job redundancies emotions are high and these need to be carefully addressed and managed. However, if the change is more focused on a simple process change where there is not a lot of heightened emotional reactions, this model may not be as useful.
The change practitioner is not always engaged or consulted at the beginning of a change initiative. Sometimes it is only when things are not going well and according to plan that the change consultant is engaged to turn things around. Irrespective of whether the change initiative is in the commencement or in the middle of the journey, effective diagnosis is important to understand exactly what change intervention is required to address the situation.
Just as a good medical practitioner will utilize a combination of evidence/data and judgment according to diagnostic frameworks to determine the best course of treatment, the change practitioner should also follow suit. What types of data should be used to not only diagnose but also to subscribe treatment? The following is a summary of key types of data to look for and collect.
What is the change – Why is the change necessary – What does the change benefit? Its customers or its employees? – What does the end state look like?
What is the impact – Who is impacted by the change? – What is the extent of the impact? – What are the impacts on the role/person/organization? – What time period is the impact? In what ways? – What are the change transition activities proposed?
Readiness for the change – How ready are the impacted people for the change? – How is this measured and reported? – What is the minimum readiness criteria?
A good physician looks at the patient as a whole and not just the particular symptoms he or she is presenting. Based on the the symptoms presented, it could be that there are several disorders and not just one. In a similar way, a change leader needs to understand what the total picture of change is and not just isolate change to one project. Understanding what the totality of changes mean to the impacted stakeholder will go a long way in deriving what change approach or support is required.
To effectively diagnose a change situation the practitioner needs to use a data and evidence-based approach to understand where the organization has been, where it is and where it is going. Again using data, the practitioner needs to effectively frame the problem and diagnose the situation using the appropriate change model/framework(s). The right diagnose is critical to ensure the right change intervention is subscribed. For the same reason that wrongly diagnosing a patient could lead to further illness the same can be said for the wrong diagnosis of the change situation for an organization.
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