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July 9, 2024

Wiring the Winning Organization: A 5-Step Guide for Mid-Level Technology Leaders

By Summary by IT Revolution

In today’s fast-paced and ever-evolving business landscape, organizations must continuously adapt and improve to maintain a competitive edge. Technology leaders play a crucial role in driving this change, but those in mid-level positions often face unique challenges. They have the insight and potential to create high-performing teams but may lack the decision-making power to drive broad organizational change single-handedly. However, a paper by Maria Mentzer in the Spring 2024 Enterprise Technology Leadership Journal offers a practical 5-step approach for these “middle leaders” to transform their organizations and achieve sustained success.

Mentzer’s blueprint, inspired by the book Wiring the Winning Organization by Gene Kim and Steven J. Spear, focuses on developing three key capabilities within teams:

  1. identifying problems in real-time,
  2. collaboratively solving problems to gain new knowledge, and
  3. systematically spreading learnings throughout the organization.

By fostering these skills, technology leaders can create a grassroots movement that sparks an accelerated improvement dynamic, ultimately leading to a significant competitive advantage.

Step 1: Simplify the Message

The first step in driving change is to craft a clear, concise message that resonates with stakeholders at all levels—upward to senior management, sideways to peers, and downward to frontline teams. Mentzer emphasizes the importance of simplifying the “why,” “what,” and “how” of the transformation effort, ensuring that everyone understands the purpose, goals, and approach. By using language that is easy to grasp and remember, mid-level leaders can more effectively build buy-in and alignment across the organization.

Step 2: Pilot with “Model-Lines”

Rather than attempting to transform the entire organization at once, Mentzer recommends starting small with one or two pilot teams, or “model-lines.” When selecting these initial teams, leaders should look for several key factors:

  1. Supportive leadership: Identify teams with leaders who are receptive to change and willing to prioritize improvement efforts.
  2. Visible pain points: Choose teams working on issues that are noticeably painful and important to others, creating broader interest in their success.
  3. Rapid improvement cycles: Opt for teams with work that can be improved in days or weeks rather than months, enabling quick wins and faster learning.
  4. Full team engagement: Ensure the entire team roster is available and eager to participate in the transformation effort.

Once the model-line teams are selected, it’s crucial to communicate the initiative organization-wide. This sets expectations, builds commitment, and generates curiosity, paving the way for future adoption.

Step 3: Embrace New Ways of Working

The core of Mentzer’s approach lies in coaching model-line teams to practice three key behaviors: slowifying, amplifying, and simplifying. Slowifying involves deliberately stepping away from day-to-day work to collaboratively map and improve processes. Amplifying entails making problems and issues highly visible, while simplifying focuses on breaking down problems into manageable parts for targeted problem-solving.

To guide teams in adopting these behaviors, Mentzer suggests using a straightforward yet powerful process mapping method. This visual approach helps teams identify pain points, bottlenecks, and areas for improvement by mapping out the flow of work, handoffs between team members, and methods used. By making the invisible visible, teams can more effectively surface and address issues that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Step 4: Reinforce Through Practice

Developing new habits and ways of working takes time and repetition. To help teams internalize the behaviors of problem identification, collaborative problem-solving, and knowledge sharing, Mentzer provides a detailed 9-step blueprint for facilitated practice sessions. These sessions guide teams through the process of mapping their work, identifying issues, brainstorming solutions, running experiments, and sharing learnings.

The role of the facilitator, often the mid-level leader driving the change, is crucial in these sessions. Mentzer offers valuable tips for preparing, designing, and running effective practice sessions, emphasizing the importance of creating a psychologically safe environment where team members feel comfortable surfacing problems and testing new ideas. As teams progress through multiple rounds of practice, the new behaviors become increasingly ingrained, ultimately becoming a natural part of their daily work.

Step 5: Scale Through Fast Followers

As the model-line teams begin to see success and share their stories, interest in the transformation effort will grow. Mentzer advises leaders to be prepared to nurture “fast-follower” teams—those eager to adopt the new ways of working after seeing the positive impact on the pilot groups.

To support these fast followers, leaders should have educational content, logistics, coaching support, and events ready to go. This may include providing dedicated space and time for teams to practice process mapping, training additional coaches to support the growing number of teams, and hosting lunch-and-learns or workshops to share successes and generate excitement.

As the movement gains momentum, leaders should also plan for the program infrastructure needed to scale the effort more broadly. This may involve establishing a dedicated support team, developing formal training and certification programs, identifying success metrics and tracking systems, and investing in tools or software to support the new ways of working.

Conclusion

Driving a successful transformation in any organization is a significant challenge, but it can be incredibly rewarding for technology leaders in the middle. By following Maria Mentzer’s 5-step approach—simplifying the message, starting small with model-lines, embracing new behaviors, reinforcing through practice, and scaling through fast followers—these leaders can create a powerful grassroots movement that leads to continuous improvement and competitive advantage.

The key to success lies in empowering frontline teams to surface and solve problems every day, supported by engaged and committed leaders at all levels. By sparking this accelerated improvement dynamic, technology leaders in the middle can wire their organizations for success, no matter how rapidly the world changes around them. With dedication, perseverance, and a willingness to learn and adapt, these leaders can make a lasting impact on their teams, their organizations, and their own careers.

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