There are many facets of driving agile changes. Agile changes are featured by such as developing minimum viable product and not investing too much initially, developing a series of iterations to gradually improve the product, engaging stakeholders early and frequently to ensure the outcomes meet business needs, developing working product/solutions from which feedback may be sought to feed iterative improvements prior to final release.
With so many facets of implementing agile changes, what is the most important part of driving agile changes? What is the core concept that must be done right without which the change would not be considered ‘agile’?
One of the most critical parts of agile change is the concept of developing a hypothesis that can be tested. The outcome must be clear in terms of whether the solution developed meets the business needs or not.
In waterfall methods of delivering projects, the focus is on spending significant focus understanding and detailing features and ‘requirements’ from the business. From these, the solution is then designed and developed.
The problem with this approach is:
Significant resources and investment may be required to sufficiently develop the solution depending on the complexity involved
It may also take a long period of time to involve various stakeholders and investigate solution design options before a final product can be developed. A series of design decisions also need to be made, each step taking time to undergo
The business may not know what they want and they would need to provide ‘requirement’s that may or may not meet their needs. For example, prior to the launch of iphones, touch screen phones were not popular and were not seen as the design of future phones
The risk can be significant if the solution developed does not meet business needs. Millions of dollars of project investment could have been wasted if this is the case.
On the other hand, what is the advantage of a hypothesis based approach?
Does not spend a lot of time creating a sophisticated solution or product. Instead, a simplified version is developed which captures the core of business need. This is then tested, and then the results can then feed into further improvements required. In this way, the process allows organisations to fail early and cheaply in order to eventually come up with the winning solution
Instead of focusing on detailed planning which is based on a series of assumptions which may not have been tested to be valid, the focus is on deriving a solution that CAN be tested and validated or invalidated. This is especially important when the solution is new and has not been implemented previously in the organisation
The hypothesis approach is a scientific approach where the focus is on proven results based on data. In the same way a laboratory technician would conduct a series of experiments to test the properties of a chemical solution to further understand it, in the same way the project team would conduct a series of ‘experiments’ (or iterations) to gradually test and from testing results, improve the solution
Tests are always based on ‘real’ data and real scenarios therefore there is a much greater chance that the final solution will meet business needs
The importance of a hypothesis-approach for organisational agility
The survival and growth of a company are dependent on its ability to go into different products, different territories or different customer groups to expand its offering. In order to do this, the company needs to ultimately launch various products or services that do not exist currently or that have not been launched in certain new areas/segments.
Therefore, the ability of the organisation to continuously develop, launch and learn from new products and services is critical for its success. Each product launch is a new hypothesis that is to be tested. And with each testing, a set of learning is achieved which will improve its next product launch. In this way, this is how companies become agile and develop the ability to flex and change based on its ability to generate hypotheses.
For digital businesses developing hypothesis is a core way of operating. A hypothesis can be as small as testing the wording of the website using A/B Testing to see which wording is more engaging for website visitors. A/B Testing is where a certain number of visitor traffic is channeled into one version of the website versus another version. And the results of visitor interactions can be used to validate which version is more engaging.
Change management hypothesis testing
To truly adopt a hypothesis-based approach to change management one needs to adopt change hypothesis testing. What is change hypothesis testing I hear you ask? It is basically developing a series of small change experiments to test assumptions. Change experiments are important because they help to inform what change tactics or approaches work or do not work.
Some examples of change experiments include:
Wording of campaign phrases or positioning
Email click-through rate based on details such as who email is from, time of delivery, etc.
Effectiveness of training exercises
Employee awareness after town hall messages
Impact assessment approach effectiveness
Campaign medium effectiveness such as freebies, posters, etc.
However, it is critical to ensure that hypothesis to be tested is not time nor resource intensive. The experiment must also be tested using feedback data. The hypothesis cannot be proven or disproved unless it is backed by hard data and not just opinions.
Australia and New Zealand are like 2 brothers. One big brother, Australia, and the smaller brother New Zealand. We are culturally similar and speak with almost the same accent (almost but not quite the same). Both countries have experienced recent tragedies and challenges. However, there are 2 very different prime ministers. Let’s explore what we can learn from these two leaders within significant change events.
On 15 March in Christchurch New Zealand, there was a mass shooting at 2 mosques resulting in 51 killed and 49 injured. This has cut through the psyche of New Zealand quite deeply as it was the first time the country had experienced mass shooting at this scale. Being a small country with a relatively liberal and tolerant culture this came a shock for most.
Jacinda Arden, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, reacted swiftly. Within a few hours of the event she addressed the terrorist directly demonstrating strength and determination. She quickly flew into Christchurch to visit survivors and their relatives. Dressed in black head scarf, she visited mosques and asked how she could support the mosques and the victims. Within a few days of the event she also called out blatantly the responsibility of social media platforms in hosting hate messages which was the case for this incident as the attacker posted Facebook messages prior to the attack.
She then made sweeping changes to gun laws in New Zealand banning all assault rifles and military-style semi-automatics. This happened within a few days of the event and though some may argue that this is much easier to achieve in New Zealand than the US but the point is that she acted swiftly and had even convinced the conservative opposition party to enact on this law.
4 key lessons we can learn from her example as a change leader include:
1. Displaying agile leadership. She proactively faced into a catastrophic situation and worked with others to address the situation head-on. She made fast and clear decisions to resolve and contain the situation.
2. Authenticity. She spent time with those affected by the tragedy and showed empathy and care. This wasn’t about the photo opportunity as it was more about spending time to listen and show care for those impacted by change. She didn’t try to be someone she is not. Instead of the antagonistic and hostile speeches that one might expect from leaders like Trump, her words were empathic, strong and unwavering.
3. Displaying emotional connection . She also placed herself in the shoes of those affected by the tragedy with her cultural sensitivity and emotional connection to those impacted. The grieving was not only felt by those involved in the tragedy, the whole nation was grieving. Her visibility was critical to speak for the nation but also to acknowledge everyone’s emotional state and concerns. The critical word here is ‘visibility’. Felt emotional connection wont garner groups of people if they are not displayed.
4. Collaborating with others to drive change. A series of changes ensued not just gun law changes, but also driving security, and social media regulation changes. In an interview she used the words “duty of care as a leader” to safeguard her people and address their concerns. She is not just speaking for herself, but also for other leaders, including business leaders, to step up and take action. She also influenced various world leaders on the same agenda to rally support.
Right now in Australia, at the time of writing, we are still in the middle of a catastrophic set of fires raging across most states of Australia. More than 1300 homes have been burnt down and 18 people have died so far. In Sydney, we have had more than 2 months of smoke haze in our air resulting from bushfires, and sometimes the air quality can be 11 times more than ‘hazardous’ level. This is absolutely the worst I have ever experienced in Australia. This morning, I received the message that at the southern highlands where I spend Christmas, the area is surrounded by bushfires and residents have all been evacuated.
Let’s have a look at how our Prime Minister has lead the country during this period of environmental change. Unlike the leadership we’ve seen from Jacinda Ardern, Scott Morrison our Prime Minister flew out with his family to Hawaii to spend holidays by the water. Whilst the country is burning and people are suffering, even under intense criticism, our prime minister was absent and away. When prompted to address serious climate change issues, he responded by saying that it was not the time to talk about climate change.
Eventually after continued public pressures, after Scott Morrison came back from holidays he proceeded to visit some of the towns completely destroyed by bushfires. Many of the victims refused to shake his hand. In the business world we have also seen this type of reaction from those who felt they have been deserted and have not received any leadership support. There have even been incidents where the victims have asked Scott questions and he had ignored them and moved away, then later on quoting how he had promised help for them.
Whilst fires continue to burn through our states, the Prime Minister’s party released a party propaganda social media tweet proclaiming the party’s prowess in helping Australians through supporting firefighters, listing the financial assistance offered as a part of the package. An Australian TV panellist said this was like “being ‘sold to’ at a funeral”. It was completely inappropriate and badly timed.
In terms of the same change leadership lessons we had captured from Jacinda Ardern, what can we also learn from Scott Morrison’s change leadership example?
1. Displaying agile leadership. Lack of action and decision at the commencement of the change is almost unforgivable. It is very hard to salvage from the lack of leadership support when at this pivotal moment when there is no leadership action or response.
2. Authenticity. Unfortunately, authenticity by definition cannot be faked nor acted. People see through the actions and inactions of a leader. There is no amount of corporate communications packaging nor word-smithing that can change how others experience through change leadership, or the lack of. Being open and transparent remains the best approach for any change leader.
3. Displaying emotional connection. It is difficult to fake emotional reaction. Through overall body language as well as tonal cues people can easily pick up on a leader’s ability to connect emotionally. When people are in distress and in suffering, the best approach is to simply listen and show that you have heard them. Ideally, you are also able to address at least some of their core concerns. But the critical must-have remains how a leaders displayed active listening and showing that he or she cares.
4. Collaborating with others to drive change. What Australia needs is global leadership to drive climate change and to work with various agencies and leaders, the same way that Jacinda Ardern has been doing with New Zealand‘s agenda. Several countries have proactive offered support in fighting bushfires even without Scott Morrison reaching out to tap on others.
Change is all around us, not just in the organizations that we work in.
In the same way, change leaders are also all around us.
Leading change is an absolutely critical skill to master and will well into the future.