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January 4, 2021

Leading through Better Value Sooner Safer Happier

By IT Revolution

Gene Kim Interviews Jonathan Smart, author of Sooner Safer Happier (Part 1)

Gene Kim: Why Better Value Sooner Safer Happier? What about those five words is so revolutionary.

Jonathan Smart: The world of work has fundamentally changed. We are living through a tipping point in the latest of a succession of technology-led revolutions, which have a socio-economic impact. We’ve gone from the Age of Oil and Mass Production to the Age of Digital. Like going from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, we have a new means of production. 

In 2015, seven of the top 10 firms by market value, were not IT firms. Only two years later, in 2017, seven of the top 10 firms are IT firms. On 26th June 2018, General Electric, the last remaining original constituent of the Dow Jones, was removed from the index, after more than a century, another sign of the shifting tectonic plates. 

As a result, and accelerated by a global pandemic, the pace of change is accelerating. No longer is change staccato. Change is continuous and it needs to be sustainable. A traditional approach to change attempts to determine a solution at the point of knowing the least, has change control which inhibits change and there is late learning with a big bang delivery. The focus is on have we delivered to the plan, rather than have we maximized outcomes. 

In response to this latest technology-led revolution, a common antipattern is organizations inflicting a capital ‘A’, capital ‘T’, Agile Transformation. The capital ‘A’ denotes this is exactly how to work (with new language) and the capital ‘T’ denotes that you don’t have a choice. A one-size-fits-all, top down mandate, is an attempt to apply new ways of working with old ways of thinking. Often, there is a focus on process and tools, leaving cultural norms such as command-and-control and a culture of fear, firmly intact. With a lack of psychological safety, people don’t experiment in order to improve outcomes. Agile is one of many possible ‘means to an end’, along with Lean, DevOps, Cloud and more, however it is not the ‘end’ itself. Organizations can be ‘doing Agile’, ‘doing DevOps’ or have implemented cloud, and not see an improvement in business outcomes. The eye is on the wrong ball. 

Instead, the pattern is to focus on the outcomes, on Better Value Sooner Safer Happier (BVSSH). This is in the context of change and is end to end, across the whole organization, not only in IT.  Better is quality. Value is unique and is from the perspective of both the consumer and the producer. Sooner is time to learning, time to value. Safer is agile not fragile, it’s compliance, data privacy, information security, regulatory compliance and so on. Happier covers customers, colleagues, citizens and climate, as it is not about “more for less” at any human or climatic cost. These outcomes balance each other. Sooner cannot be forced, as it reduces Better and Happier. Instead, by removing impediments to these outcomes there is a virtuous circle. 

Gene: Explain one of your biggest successes using the concepts from Sooner Safer Happier.

Jon: At a large global organization with 80,000 colleagues, after 4 years, the benefits we observed included a 20x reduction in failure demand, time to value being three times sooner on average, with the most improved teams having a 20x reduction, and the highest colleague engagement scores with increased customer satisfaction. 

It’s worth noting the multiple year timeline. People have a limited velocity to unlearn and relearn. The pace of change cannot be forced. It can be given a headwind or a tailwind. Forcing change leads to new labels on the same old behavior. Change is a social activity and organizations are complex adaptive systems, they are emergent. There is no silver bullet, no snake oil. There needs to be a bias to action, starting small and learning fast, along with invitation, incentivization, safety, recognition and support. The success pattern is one or more ‘S-curves’, keeping the gradient to change low to start with (start small), then sustainably increasing it, as it is proven in your unique context. Small doesn’t mean slow. Quite the opposite. Applying an agile mindset to agility. Nail it, before you scale it. Generate social proof and repeat at the sustainable speed of learning. 

Human systems entropy. It is important to maintain focus, priority and incentivization to continue to improve outcomes. It is important to nurture culture continuously, like tending to a garden. If not, the weeds can grow back quickly. Whilst it takes years at large, traditional, organizations, to unlearn and relearn, it can take months to slip backwards. A frequently observed scenario is a change in leadership, reintroducing a more traditional mindset and command-and-control behaviors. 

An important factor here is data and having a feedback loop. In order to improve on desired outcomes, such as BVSSH, there is a need to measure quality, value, flow, safety and happiness. This provides feedback on experiments, to then amplify or dampen them, enabling agility and improvement. As there are many unique contexts and starting points, the improvement trend over time is more important than the absolute values. 

Gene: How can organizations succeed despite the odds in today’s pandemic-driven and disruptive digital world?

Jon: By stacking the odds in your favor, by leveraging emergence, leveraging the new means of production, ways of working and ways of thinking, in order to improve outcomes. Doing nothing, maintaining the status quo, is going backwards relative to others. Success should not be despite the odds, it should be because of the odds! 

When the global pandemic struck, with lockdowns and working from home where feasible, organizations exhibited remarkable agility. An often heard comment was that ‘”we were at our best.” People came together, agnostic of role-based silos, and quickly enabled tens or hundreds of thousands of colleagues to be able to work from home, for call centre workers to continue supporting customers, from home, for loan payment holidays to be rapidly implemented for those who had lost employment and so on. People “lean in,” coming together across role based specialisms with high alignment to a clear goal and high autonomy in how to get there. There is pride and satisfaction.

And, then, the observation from many organizations is that once the immediate crisis was over, there was a falling back to previous ways of working. For example, reverting to role based silos, handoffs, multiple review committees, too much concurrent work in progress, a focus on milestones in a plan with a solution determined at the point of knowing the least, with late learning and work waiting in queues. 

The key is how to keep some of the best behaviors going, without an immediate crisis, in order to prevent a future crisis of survival. For example, genuinely multi-disciplinary teams (not IT only), high alignment with a limited number of clear outcome hypotheses and high autonomy in how to get there, within minimal viable guardrails and with support to help alleviate impediments.  

There needs to be a culture of experimentation, with intelligent failure celebrated, which requires psychological safety. The fastest learning organization wins, where the definition of win includes customers, colleagues, citizens and climate. A goal is to be the best at being better, thus moving the odds to be in your favor.  

Gene: What is your vision of a leader?

Jon: Leader comes from Old English laedere meaning “one who leads,” from laedan meaning “to guide, accompany, bring forth,” which itself has roots in Proto-Germanic laidjan meaning “to travel.” It is pleasing to see that the origins of leadership are related to “guiding on a journey”. 

There is nothing in the etymology of lead, leader, or leadership to do with order, command, direct, commit, or control. The meaning of “command” from the fifteenth century means “control, right or authority to order or compel obedience,” with Latin and Old English origins involving words such as “commit,” “mandate,” “order” and “forbid.” 

Issuing orders, commanding people, telling people what to do and when to do it, is being a commander (“one who has the authority or power to command or order”). It is not being a leader.

Commander is a position. It is for a few. A commander orders. Obeying is mandatory. Power is positional. For example, “commander in chief.” Leader is not a position. Anyone can lead. A leader inspires. Following is voluntary. Power is given by followers. For example, climate change activist Greta Thunberg.

They are not mutually exclusive. A commander can exhibit leadership, create and inspire followers (rather than have minions), and create new leaders at every level, without using the threat of positional power. Equally, when there is a lack of consensus, a leader may adopt more of a command style, especially if it is to get out of danger or to prompt action due to a lack of consensus. For example, a principle of “disagree and commit,” seeking input and intent from leaders at all levels, so that everyone’s voice has been heard. Not a HiPPO decision made in isolation. And then a bias to action, with high alignment to clear desired outcomes in both the What and the How, and high autonomy for teams to use their own brains to optimize for those outcomes. Decision making is delegated to those with the information, with transparency, communication and within minimal viable guardrails.

There are three common antipatterns: leaders not role modeling the desired behavior (“do as I say, not as I do”), a lack of psychological safety and maintaining a deterministic mindset. 

Instead, leaders should go first, leading from the front, accompanying people on a journey as per the origins of the word. This is more authentic and for leaders is insightful as to the impediments and degree of organizational unlearning required. There should be incentivization, invitation, recognition and support. Leaders at all levels have a role to play in fostering, coaching and supporting people in continuously improving ways of working. 

An environment of psychological safety is essential. Whether it’s unique product development or repetitive work, in order to have continuous improvement, in order to optimize outcomes, people need to be able to experiment safely. People need to be able to feel that it is safe to learn, safe to challenge the status quo, safe to question someone in a more senior role, safe to run improvement experiments, to test a value hypothesis that might fail. More than that, people need to be actively recognized for the lowest cost and quickest time to failure, avoiding a sunk cost fallacy. Intelligent failure is a good thing. There is no such thing as a failed experiment. There is only learning.

A third success pattern is leaders adopting an emergent mindset. As mentioned in the previous answer, where the domain of work is emergent and unknowable, it is beneficial to leverage that emergence, rather than suppress it with a fixed plan, a fixed solution, change control, late learning and success being defined as hitting a predetermined solution based milestone. Instead, there should be a focus on outcome hypotheses, with early and often experimentation, optimizing for the speed of learning, in order to achieve the most value, in the shortest time, with the least effort.  

Gene: Why is this book and the concept of BVSSH urgent to digital leaders now?

Jon: As per the answer to the first question, we’ve seen a tectonic shift in the capabilities of organized human endeavor. 

We’ve gone from the Age of Oil and Mass Production to the Age of Digital. We’ve seen a pivot in the market valuation of organizations in less than a two year period between 2015 and 2017. We’ve seen once giant firms decline and new firms take their place. 

There is a new means of production, optimized with ways of working, thinking and behaving suited to the domain of the work. 

Those who make the most of the new means of production and the approach to it, create new customer and colleague expectations. 

Therefore, in order to survive and thrive, there is a need to adopt better ways of working, in order to continuously improve, aligned to desired outcomes. That said, as per a quote often attributed to W. Edwards Deming, “it is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory”.

- About The Authors
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IT Revolution

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1 Comment

  • Akshit Jan 4, 2021 9:29 am

    Thanks for sharing this valuable article

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