This post is adapted from Chapter 1 of Sooner Safer Happier by Jonathan Smart, with Zsolt Berend, Myles Ogilvie, and Simon Rohrer.
In Antipattern 1.2: Using Old Ways of Thinking to Apply New Ways of Working, we saw how a capital “A,” capital “T” Agile Transformation feels to an employee like involuntary, mandatory change being inflicted upon them, whether they like it or not. The capital “A” denotes how they are going to change and the capital “T” denotes that they have to change. Often organizations treat a Transformation (with a capital T) as a project with a start date and an end date, applying an old way of thinking to new ways of working. Imposing Agile is not agile, nor is treating it as a deterministic project. In addition, humans have an evolutionary bias to be averse to loss. Collectively, all of this can generate fear, resistance, and an agentic state. Forced change removes the top three motivators for people at work: autonomy, mastery, and purpose (as Dan Pink puts in it Drive).
In addition to being clear on the desired outcomes and empowering how those outcomes are improved, there is a need to clearly articulate the unique why for your organization in a way which appeals to intrinsic motivators. Cutting costs, increasing earnings per share, increasing return on equity, and prioritizing shareholders’ short-term financial interests may not be a sufficient purpose for most employees. So what is?
1: Start with Why
In his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek compares a company that sells what it does with a company that sells why it does.
For example, most PC manufacturers sell computers where you select the microprocessor, the amount of memory, the size of the hard drive, and the price. The PC is a commodity and margins are low. Most PC manufacturers sell the what.
Apple’s products, however, look like nothing else on the market. They have a design ethos, a style, and a cult following. Apple has had a strong why from the beginning. The company was born at a time of revolutionary, anti-establishment sentiment in Northern California. “The Apple gave an individual the power to do the same things as any company,” Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak explained to Sinek in Start with Why. “For the first time ever, one person could take on a corporation simply because they had the ability to use the technology.” Within three years Apple was a $100 million company.
In 2009, Apple’s why was: “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo, we believe in thinking differently.” Today the why is: “Apple’s employees are dedicated to making the best products on Earth and to leaving the world better than we found it.” The company has been one of the top three most highly valued, publicly traded companies every quarter since Q2 2010, and in most of those quarters it was the most highly valued company. It was the first company with a trillion-dollar market valuation and in 2019 topped Forbes’s list of the most valuable brand for the ninth year in a row.
“People don’t buy what you do,” Sinek says, “they buy why you do it.” People buy Apple’s why.
The “buy” here could mean purchasing a product or a service, or it could equally mean buying into change. Edgar Schein, former professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, said: “Learning only happens when survival anxiety is greater than learning anxiety. Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new for fear that we will look stupid in the attempt. It can threaten our self-esteem and even our identity.”
That anxiety is a threshold that has to be overcome in order to be willing to unlearn, relearn, and take action. If learning anxiety is higher than survival anxiety, there will be inaction. Ideally, that learning anxiety should be lowered by creating a psychologically safe environment in which to learn, with support and coaching, rather than by increasing survival anxiety, which is what most organizations intentionally or unintentionally do.
In addition, to overcome learning anxiety, the why, the call to action, needs to be articulated in a form that appeals to all primary motivators. However, research has shown that the why for most change doesn’t. What the leader cares about (and typically bases at least 80% of his or her messaging on) does not tap into roughly 80% of the workforce’s primary motivators for overcoming learning anxiety.
The why has to be about more than higher profitability, shareholder returns, or stock price. It can’t only be about the company’s short-term financial returns. When employees are asked what motivates them most in their work, their answers are split equally between five forms of impact:
- Society: They want their work to have a positive effect on society (for example, creating or protecting employment, helping those less fortunate, or improving sustainability for the benefit of our planet).
- Customer: They want to positively impact customer satisfaction and create brand advocates.
- Company: They want to have an effect on the company and its shareholders, which enables the other four forms of positive impact.
- Team: They want to have a positive impact on their colleagues, such as by creating a more engaging and rewarding environment or by helping team members to improve. That’s an effect that people can see around them each day on people they value.
- Individual: They want a why that has a positive impact on themselves, on their levels of autonomy, purpose, and mastery, on their growth and personal development.
The pattern here is to craft a why for change, that people will buy and that is unique to your organization.
And then repeat that why. Communicate this why three more times than you think you need to and you’re a third of the way done. A tip here is that when training for any way of working, whether that training is run internally or externally, have the organization’s unique why at the start of every session. You cannot over-communicate the why. Follow it up with social proof, recognition, and reward for those who have overcome learning anxiety. Show that it’s safe for people to choose to come into the water and that others have already jumped in and are benefiting. They have an incentive to join them.
2: Improving Ways of Working Is Emergent; Empower the How
There is a need to apply new ways of thinking and behaving to new ways of working.
Change—and changing how you change—in human systems is not deterministic or reductionist. You can’t take change apart, see how it works, swap a few bits, and put it all back together again. Change is emergent. The best approach to changing ways of working is not as a capital “T” Transformation, as a “project,” or as a “program” with a start date and an end date. In this domain, there is no such thing as best practice, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution that optimizes outcomes for the many unique contexts in which the change takes place. It is not a case of applying a reorganization, new job titles, ceremonies, the so-called Spotify Model, and declaring that the horse has transformed into a unicorn. You’ll only have glued a fake horn to the horse’s head. It still won’t poop rainbows.
Organizations are complex adaptive systems. The behavior of a complex adaptive system is emergent. It is not predicted by the behavior of its parts, which, for large companies, are networks of complex adaptive systems themselves. Organizations are adaptive because behavior mutates in response to change events. They look to increase what they perceive to be their survivability. Acting in the space changes the space. Any experiments that take place in a complex adaptive system are not really experiments because you can’t undo them, like adding milk to coffee.
Nor is a complex adaptive system linear. It’s susceptible to the butterfly effect, where a butterfly flaps its wings and there’s a tornado a thousand miles away. The trick is to find the small changes that have a large positive effect. Complex adaptive systems have a history. They evolve and their past has a bearing on their present behavior. History and folklore are important. People don’t forget. Especially if they really didn’t want milk in their coffee.
As change is emergent and changing how change is done is also emergent, once you are clear on your BVSSH outcomes and your organization’s unique why, the optimal approach is to apply agility to agility. This is the Complex domain of the Cynefin Framework. You have to Think Big, Start Small, Learn Fast in your unique context. Probe, sense, and respond. Run safe-to-learn experiments with support and coaching and from within guardrails. Don’t bet the farm on a big bang. At the beginning the force is strong and the corporate antibodies are powerful.
The key to success here is to invite participation. It will be the Innovators on the left of the Diffusion of Innovation Curve, that 2.5% sliver, who will volunteer to go first. They have the appetite. They are motivated by the buzz of being first and have probably been working this way formally or informally for some time. A great way to identify Innovators is to run a voluntary Community of Practice. Organize one per region, meeting in person where possible, and see who turns up every time. I previously created and chaired an internal, global, Agile Community of Practice that grew to 2,500 people. It had a three-year head start on the adoption of better ways of working firm wide, and it meant that we already knew who the Innovators and Early Adopters were across multiple business areas globally. These were people with a passionate belief derived from having been agile and lean practitioners for in some cases up to twenty years. There was social proof, in context, of how agility resulted in better business outcomes, and these people wanted to help lead the change.
Having invited the Innovators, keep the change gradient low as experiments are proven in your unique context and within risk appetite. Nail it before you scale it. Humans have a limited velocity to unlearn and relearn. You cannot force the pace of change. Seek more Innovators and Early Adopters who want to opt in from across the organization. Ensure that there are people from “our business,” IT, compliance, finance, and so on, not a local optimization in one function or job role. Avoid the need to play catch-up with the Finance Department in eighteen months.
With volunteers identified, provide support. It is advisable to have a central Ways of Working Center of Enablement (WoW CoE) and coaching. (Note that it’s called a “Center of Enablement,” not a “Center of Excellence.”) The WoW CoE is a central, small, servant leadership function for ways of working. The servant part is that it is there to support colleagues, to help mobilize the organization to remove impediments to Better Value Sooner Safer Happier. The leadership part is that it is there to lead the way, to shine a light, to recognize, reward, communicate, share learning, build community, and be knowledgeable on ways of working that improve on BVSSH outcomes. Coaching should be made available on a pull, not push basis, because like learning to ski, it’s much easier if you have someone who can coach you: ski in front, side by side, behind, then move on to the next learner. Otherwise you fall over a lot, hurt yourself, and want to go back to the hotel for a mulled wine.
Over time, as the innovators and early adopters make progress, others see the results, the recognition, the incentives, and the social proof. They join in. The BVSSH outcome data shows the effect that the experiments implemented so far are having. Outcome measures inch up further. More people are willing to join in. Those who were willing are now enthusiastic. Eventually, the Laggards, those who wanted a comfortable life doing what they’ve always done, realize that they’re being left behind. When much of the company is working with new ways of working, when teams are delivering Better Value Sooner Safer Happier, and the Laggards have not improved when there is no reason for not improving, they stand out. That’s the last thing a Laggard wants to do. In my experience, they either choose to opt out of the firm, which is fine, or they choose to join in with improving outcomes, which is preferable.
Inviting improving ways of working in order to deliver Better Value Sooner Safer Happier is ongoing, outcome-oriented, lower-case “t” transformation. Human systems entropy. The work never stops. You are never done improving. A former knowledge worker from Toyota in Japan once told me that all “office workers” were expected to spend 40% of their time on continuous improvement activities. I found this astounding. Two days out of every five on continuous improvement. You are never done at being the best at being better.