One of the most common questions I hear in organizations that I work with is: “When will we finish our agile transformation?”
This question is based on a traditional way of understanding change management and organizational change in which the paradigm is stability. Traditionally, we start from a stable situation then introduce a change (usually in the form of a program or project) with the intent that, once finished, we return to a stable situation. Under this approach, change is a transitory state, and it is often painful between stable periods. As represented by the “change curve” below, change management is based on two premises: change is predictable and plannable, and change is temporary.
Change is Not Predictable or Temporary
However, in the scenario that most of us live today, change is constant. We cannot consider either of these two premises valid. Change is not predictable; it will emerge and we don’t know when or how. And change is not temporary; it is now our permanent state, the “new normal”.
We must understand agility as the ability to adapt to constant change – the ability of companies to adapt quickly to changes that occur in the market, in society, in customers, and in the context of the digital age.
We went from a paradigm of organizational change based on moving from stability to stability, to the paradigm of agility, based on going from change to change.
Under this new paradigm, change never ends. Agile transformations don’t have a finish line since agility is not an end in itself, but a means to the path of continuous adaptation. Given these truths, a more appropriate question is: “When will we start to be agile?”
The digital age is complex and volatile. Adopting frameworks, methods, and tools is only one part of the adaptation process. For change to truly be adopted, we need the entire organization and, therefore, the people who make up the organization to develop their capacity to continuously adapt to change and together become an organization that is always learning (Learning organizations).
It is common to hear that changing people’s mindset is the fundamental goal of a transformation. It is what we call a cultural change – a change in how we think and do things. The problem is that changing our mindset (or way of thinking) is difficult. We are often in a state of organizational inertia and don’t know how to do it. Since most of us have experience with changing processes and tools, we think our approach to transformation can be the same: adopt an agile framework and hope that by adding a Kanban board and some retrospectives, the entire organization will think in a different way. However, this doesn’t usually work – especially in a large organization.
Another, better, approach to change the organizational mindset is through changing behaviors. Leandro Herrero says in Viral Change that “behaviors create culture, not the other way around.”
There are several advantages of focusing our efforts on changing behaviors: behaviors are concrete, observable, and, therefore, measurable. Also, we can actually succeed in changing them. (Just think about how quickly we changed hygiene habits, ways of working, and how we relate socially, as a consequence of COVID.)
Repeated and consistent behaviors will generate habits in people that can spread throughout the organization, contributing to cultural change, and even to global mindset change. But first, it’s important to understand why we behave the way we do.
Most of our behaviors are not thought through before we act on them; they happen automatically based on our previous experiences, under the law of minimum effort. We put our focus and attention only on what is new or challenging. The rest of the time, we act based on pre-learned behaviors that are triggered by signals in our environment. The act of behaving a certain way will generate a reward that will make us continue to repeat that behavior.
So how can the organization encourage behaviors that contribute to adopting a cultural change?
Identify “Non-Negotiable” Behavior
Base your work around the values and principles associated with your organizational vision. Start by getting to know yourself, reflecting on your current behaviors and identifying existing dysfunctions that hold you back from getting where you want to go. Do this at different levels (by person, by role, by hierarchy), and determine sets and sub-sets of non-negotiable behaviors; that is, agree on what should occur. Some examples of non-negotiable behaviors might be:
- Flag potential delivery delays as soon as possible
- Be on time to meetings
- Review the what, why, and how of each decision as a team
- Appreciate negative feedback
- Listen to all options before making a decision
Experimentation and Consistency
Experiment with the identified and proposed behaviors; put them into practice and keep track of the results. Observe how they bring us where we want to be (or where we don’t want to be), how easy or difficult they are, and how/if we can learn from, improve, or refine them. Share what you learn; be consistent to reinforce your results. (Use our Learning Experimentation Templates to document your progress.)
Finally, as an organization, enable the necessary mechanisms/levers to reinforce desired behaviors. Some of these systemic reinforcements are represented in the following figure:
- Encourage teams in their adoption through coaching.
- Ensure that the processes and tools being used reinforce adoption of the correct behaviors, and incorporate changes if necessary.
- Enable spaces and times in which people can observe, share, and learn together.
- Incorporate a system of extrinsic rewards in the form of recognition and incentives for the consistent adoption of behaviors.
- Lead by example. Leaders, and managers especially, must lead by example. They must be role models for their teams to follow.
In conclusion, helping people adjust their behaviors to align with the goals of the change is a great way to effectively promote the cultural change necessary in an agile transformations.
As the first value of the Agile Manifesto says, Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools. Let’s make sure that we always put the emphasis on people and the connections between them.