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Hello folks, please join us for our next webinar: “Enabling Dynamic Interactions and Flow of Value”.
When: May 30, 2018, 11 am MDT.
How to register: Follow this registration link.
Modern organizations are complex organisms and one of the aspects of complexity lies in the dynamic nature of work to be executed. It is due to insufficient understanding of this important fact that facilitators, coaches and leaders struggle to effectively implement Lean and Agile in their environment. As a result, team structures, interaction patterns, specific processes and success indicators become obsolete and further improvement ends up being impossible.
In this webinar we will talk about solving the problem and will touch on the following topics:
- Dynamic work footprint and team formations
- Planning that preserves flexibility
- Facilitating dynamic team interactions and swarming
- Applying contextual success indicators to measure and improve flow
This talk will be useful to Lean-Agile coaches, leaders and facilitators.
See you there,
We just recorded a panel discussion during our OMEC (Org Mindset Enterprise Coach) class. The topic was Mental Models. Enjoy!
Is high speed good or not?
We generally believe that it is. But it’s not all that simple. True, if you ask any given enterprise whether they would like stuff being delivered faster or slower, they will pick “faster” every time. Here’s an important question though: the speed of exactly what are we so concerned with? Feel free to fill out the blanks:
We are trying to accelerate the ______________ in our organization.
What did you put in there?
Here’s what’s interesting: for very many organizations the phrase in the blank is “scope delivery” or “delivery of functionality” or “delivery of features”. (Note that here by “delivery” we mean development and deployment, altogether). Now, I wrote about this a number of times before that scope does not equal value and trying to approximate value by scope is a dangerous business as, generally speaking, one has little to do with the other. Today’s solutions are so complex that any significant step forward in the development of new functionality pushes us into an unknown territory where all we have is assumptions that require validation. Will the users like the new feature? Will it solve their problems? Is this new feature-set a sufficient reason to increase the license cost? Will this new caching algorithm work well under various production scenarios? Will our business partners find this API easy to use? Will this UX simplify conversions or we will keep losing potential customers? Etc.…etc. The scope itself has little to do with this. Moreover, the more you add to your solution, the more difficult it gets to add new functionality in the future. So, if we stuff our system with much fluff, then when the time comes to implement something really important, it will be a very difficult and painful process. So, takeaway #1:
We want to speed up the delivery of actual business value, not just any functionality.
That sounds better, doesn’t it? But here’s the catch: how do you determine what’s more and what’s less valuable? Well, someone may suggest a kind of prioritization process, and that immediately makes us feel so much better… while it probably shouldn’t. Here’s why. Let’s ask ourselves, how are those priorities being assigned? Well, a few decision-makers get together and figure it out, right? Well, too bad, because that’s the easiest path to indulge confirmation bias in full. And then whatever we call “value” is no more than our wishful thinking. Since when an isolated, internal opinion is a sufficient substitute for customer feedback or proper technical or market validation? But what a great sense of false security it creates!
An organization needs to establish a process by which they properly learn what’s value and what’s not. Instead of sweeping assumptions under the carpet, those assumptions need to be properly managed. In some cases, it means consulting with the customer and end users, in others – test-driving a prototype, yet in others a fully functional system for a subset of users and so on. And yes, sometimes there will be no other choice than to learn by doing, but that has to be clearly understood by decision-makers and treated respectively. Hence, takeaway #2:
The speed of value delivery is contingent upon organizational learning.
Now we are getting somewhere. Learning requires feedback cycles that cut across organizational levels and even the organizational boundary itself, therefore involving external parties that pay for, support or use the solution. In fact, this second statement is paramount: if the organization cannot learn fast, but keeps pushing hard in terms of delivery speed, it turns into a high-throughput poo-poo delivery vehicle.
Now’s the time for a few coaching tips (again, as always, mind your context when applying anybody’s suggestions):
- Disrupt the conventional isolated decision-making pattern by involving people from different levels (and, importantly, from outside the org.) as part of the routine.
- Coach the management to encourage alternative thinking and disagreement. Creating psychological safety around it is a primary goal.
- Start to manage assumptions explicitly. They need to be identified and acknowledged, for starters. Imagination is one thing; reality is quite another.
- Establish reliable feedback for functionality already delivered and have decision-makers compare expectations with empirical evidence.
- Coach the organization to operate with thin vertical slices of end-to-end value (emphasis on end-to-end). Move away from deep hierarchical work breakdown structures, as those are optimized for implementation (where we pretend that there’s no unknowns) and what you need instead is to optimize for learning (where you explicitly acknowledge and effectively manage assumptions). In some cases WBS is unavoidable. Then at least subordinate it fully to vertical slicing.
Organizational coaching and change leadership are tough disciplines that lie at the intersection of social and neuroscience, systems thinking, complexity theory and more. If you are a coach, continuously improving your professional skills and knowledge is like oxygen: the organizational landscape is so broad, complex and diverse that you can never be “prepped enough”. Here are some tips that can help advance in that direction.
Tip 1. Work with key decision-makers.
The logic is very simple here: if you want real change to happen, you need to drive the mindset shift in those whose decisions affect the organization a lot. Here lies an increasingly common mistake among enterprise coaches and transformation agents: they get stuck at lower levels, and they get stuck for good. Often various excuses are readily being made, like “I’ll start downstairs and will gradually make my way to the upper levels of the organization” or “When the leaders see what we’ve done with teams, they will quickly change their thought process”. No, they will not, and no, you will not naturally move upstairs just because you’ve worked with lower levels. One needs to start working with key decision-makers as early as possible, and that has to be an intentional (and big) part of your transformation and coaching activities. We’re going to publish some suggestions of how to enter those levels as a coach in the future. But some of those you already know and just need to execute. Getting to do this is not easy, and you will be dealing with a lot of differences in thinking as well as resistance, but you will also know that you are doing a very important thing for the organization. So, again, begin addressing the area where critical, impactful decisions are being made. When to start doing that? You guessed it correctly: right now!!
Tip 2. Utilize your knowledge of methods, but expect adjusting or even drastically altering the actual constructs to meet the unique organizational context.
Enterprises are very different in their structural and behavioral aspects and carry unique cultural DNA. There is no way in the world to know what ways of working will fit the organization the best. Instead, best ways of working emerge through experimentation, trial and error. Therefore, knowledge of various practices, concept, and ideas can be very helpful, but only as long as we are conscious of the emergent nature of optimal organizational behaviors. Sometimes this adjustment or tailoring is quite moderate, but sometimes it can be very significant, leaving very little in common with the initially selected “starting point”. In OMEC we go over a number of ways for making such adjustments. Here I will mention one: adding/removing constraints. Every practice or construct can be viewed as a set of constraints. Modifying those constraints at a more granular level provides a whole spectrum of future paths for evolving context-specific practices.
It is vital, however, that the adjustments reflect the objective nature of the organizational environment and are not used as a way to avoid any significant change. The temptation of staying in the current comfort zone is too great, and you as a coach have to be aware of that.
Tip 3. Watch for long-term effects.
And that is if you care about the actual results of your work. Change is often not so hard to initiate. It’s a lot harder to sustain, however. Declaring victory after a few months of using new ways of working, is simply premature in systems of complexity, like modern enterprises. In fact, it is very common that the change gets well received from early on when the initial wave of enthusiasm seems to keep everything going in a right direction. Later, however, the unaddressed issues in organizational mindset and culture strike back and may obliterate everything that has been built so far. Creating sustainable organizational habits, therefore, is key to transformation success. We focus on specific tools to achieve that with coaches: “reinforcing feedback loops” (second-order loops that provide vital information on the process itself), “enabling practices” (and the overall understanding of connections across practices and constructs implemented in the org), “embedded mental models” (mental models associated with a specific practice or construct) and more… Have to keep in mind that sustainability doesn’t occur on its own. It takes focused effort!
Tip 4. Keep your eyes open for organizational impediments.
Solving systemic impediments to change is no easy job. But quite often the actual causes are right on the surface and for a coach, ignoring them or putting them on a back burner, pretending that they will be addressed later, is a poor strategy. What are these impediments? While every organization has its unique twist on everything, there are some common suspects, including rigid organizational planning and funding processes, measures and KPIs that favor individual heroic effort and enforce ultimate conformance to the long-term plan, leadership behavior that creates a wrong example to others and so forth. Without addressing real problems, it is useless to work on introducing new ways of working. Your time is precious so focus your effort on the right thing!
Tip 5. View every transformation as a learning journey not only for the organization but also for yourself.
There’s nothing more damaging than a change agent or a coach that “knows everything”. Usually, that means that they fail to realize that they operate in a highly complex environment where experimentation and emergence of qualitatively new constructs are far more important than a large bag of “known tricks”. The worst thing about this is that such coaches miss most of the opportunities to advance the organization’s performance and can only move within tight boundaries of their self-imposed myopia. Don’t be that and keep your ear to the ground. Some of your expectations will work out, some assumptions will be wrong – that’s the rules of the game. What makes real difference is whether you will show enough flexibility to regroup and exploit improvement opportunities that emerge every step of the way. You can either “know everything or actually be useful” and I want to think that you choose the latter, as per your life’s mission.
Alright, folks, that’s the message for today, and I wish you to be productive in your coaching endeavors.
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These may surprise you at first, but they are vital to the role. And soon as one starts looking a bit beyond methods and practices, and instead focuses on leveraging unique capabilities of a particular organization, it suddenly all makes sense. So, let’s get started:
- Mental models. Our perception of reality, as well as our ways of changing it, occurs in accordance with a mental model we operate with. How do we envision value creation process: as a set of long phases or rather a flow or something even different? How do we view a knowledge worker: as a uniquely skilled individual that requires certain environment to enable productive outcomes or as an interchangeable “resource”, a walking “capacity bucket” that can be moved around, to where such capacity is missing? How do we perceive customer value, business outcomes, sustainable success, etc. etc. etc.? Everything is governed by certain models. But rarely are our mental models perfectly accurate, sometimes they are way off the mark, sometimes they are okay, but somewhat incomplete. Adequate mental models allow to effectively problem-solve and continuously improve the system you operate as a part of. And vice versa, conceptually wrong mental models lead astray every time. Realizing that different people in the organization may operate out of different models is key, as well as the fact that getting to a better view of reality is a journey of many steps and those need proper facilitation. The more complex the system, the harder it is to have a complete and accurate picture of it, by definition, but rather the journey becomes the destination where the organization uncovers newer and better perspectives they were missing before. One common (and very serious) problem across enterprises is failure to embrace uncertainty as part of the mental model and properly understand how to convert uncertainty into business value. This often requires a lot of focus on behalf of a coach.
- Interactions. Enterprise behaviors in principle are irreducible to individual actions and thought processes. In fact, this is the reason why item #1 is necessary, but not sufficient. Effective interactions are at the root of organizational performance.
- Emergence. No new behavior, no matter how desirable, can be pre-planned and achieved in a predictable manner. Most we can do is determine the overall direction in which we want to be moving, work on the underlying factors that support/impede the process and let the rest emerge. So, if for example, we are looking to enable responsiveness to change, we have to address existing impediments to it (rigid existing processes and constraints), introduce the foundation of the new process, but then keep ear to the ground, because every organization implements this capability in their own manner, as their unique context allows them to.
- Organizational habits. It might sound surprising, but people operate out of their explicit mental models far less then we might think. Instead, implicit models account for a large portion of decisions and may come as a great surprise even to the people who make those decisions in the first place. Those implicit models are not directly affected by deliberate, conscious mental effort; they rather form as an underlying structure of existing habits. Therefore, tapping into new habits means effectively addressing a large portion of decisions made in the enterprise context. Ignoring this area leads to a lot of bad surprises later on, when it turns out that despite much training and coaching effort, people fall to their old behavior all the same, when confronted by reality. Organizational habits are the vehicle by which sustainable benefits can be achieved out of the transformation.
- Learning. Finally, the only way to validate a mental model is by comparing anticipated outcomes to empirical evidence. Did we really speed up? Is this feature-set better for the customer? Is this architectural change going to make it easier or harder to add future features? These and many more critical questions can easily be answered without any empirical evidence at all – our minds are pretty good in “constructing” reality that corresponds to our expectations as well as creatively rationalizing any undesirable input that manages to slip through; a whole bunch of super powerful cognitive biases drive us to do so. But empirical evidence, rather than wishful thinking, is the way to go. How do we measure success? Are we over-relying on outputs and never measure the real outcomes? Are we over-constraining ourselves with easy-to-acquire quantitative measures while in fact we may need more qualitative, deep feedback loops? When everything is “known”, the organization is most certainly in a big trouble, overlooking the unknowns that contain both big opportunities and really dangerous risks.
The task of an enterprise coach is one of the hardest ones out there. It is critical to view it from the right perspective.
Enjoy and focus on what really matters to your transformation success!
By Alex Yakyma, Org Mindset.
…And hello again, guys,
I will be speaking at Agile2018 conference in San Diego. Please come see me at the conference, I will happy to talk with you. The talk will be: Organizational Learning: Getting Off the Ground.
Have you ever wondered why is it so hard to instill a culture of learning in your organization? Have you experienced how vital empirical evidence is neglected and critical decisions are instead made based on speculation? Have you ever wondered what’s behind such organizational myopia and how you can help your enterprise overcome it?
Together we’ll immerse deep into organizational mechanisms that prevent enterprises from learning. We will see how existing organizational structure, its regular routines and leadership behavior encourage the certainty bias – an unreasonable confidence in speculative outcomes – and how this inhibits organizational learning.
But our journey won’t stop there. In the most critical part of the talk, we’ll discuss the tools you can use as an organizational leader, facilitator or coach, to address the certainty bias and instill a mindset of learning. We will seek answers in the following areas:
• Creating an environment of psychological safety that enables fearless exploration and ideation
• Establishing cross-cutting feedback loops that make validated learning possible
• Embracing uncertainty and variability in core organizational structures and routines
• Instilling the culture of outcome-oriented decisions
The neglect of organizational learning leads to the worst possible form of waste there is – the focus and energy of the entire organization is thrown at the wrong objectives. Let’s improve this together!
I’m glad to announce that I will have a talk at Mile High Agile this year (May 21, 22, Denver, CO). The topic is “Addressing the Reductionist Mindset”. More detail on the talk below and I will be happy to see you at the conference.
The most critical transformation is not the one that happens with processes and tools. The most important shift is the one that happens in the organization’s mindset and culture. As an industry, we have developed a large number of Lean and Agile practices, and yet the mindset of most of the organizations remains largely the same, relying on Reductionist Thinking – a thought process that is contrary to Agility, Innovation and Product Development Flow. Addressing the reductionist mindset requires purposeful, focused action on the part of enterprise coaches and transformation agents. In this presentation, Alex Yakyma will discuss the following topics:
- Certainty Bias and its influence on enterprise practices and policies
- Establishing a new culture that embraces uncertainty and variability
- Operating with assumptions and assumption chains in business strategy, user requirements, architecture, implementation strategy, etc.
- Aligning individual motivation with value delivery
- Creating flexibility to foster emergent behavior
- Establishing cross-level learning in the organization
The talk outlines practical advice with respect to the steps in growing a new mindset. The presentation includes a number of organizational anti-patterns as well as suggestions of how to avoid them.
We often hear (and also say) things like: “avoid local optimization”, “optimize the system as a whole”, and so on… Those are very reasonable suggestions. And yet, as many of us know, organizations don’t seem to be very good at it. Actually, most of the time they are not good at this at all! It seems like whenever there’s a slightest opportunity to do some nice little local optimization, they are totally on it. At the same time, while there are important steps to be done in terms of optimizing the whole – nobody seems to notice the opportunity. It’s like some sort of selective vision impairment or some sort of a dark spell on people that mostly have university degrees and are overall considered smart.
My strong belief is that people aren’t inherently stupid, but as lots and lots of scientific evidence demonstrates, the brain function that is responsible for analytic thinking, gets often “hijacked” by the much more primitive (and yet powerful) system that utilizes various shortcuts and heuristics to arrive at conclusions that are not so beneficial in a complex environment, such as modern organizations (see references to various research results in D. Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”).
Knowing how many organizational change agents have to deal with this problem in the context of the transformation, we decided to do a little research. We simply surveyed people with a simple question (let’s call it the “Main form“):
You’re starting a new job as a team leader in a new company. After spending a week in your new role, you discovered that there’s a systemic issue that prevents the team from performing at their best ability. It looks very likely that the root cause of the issue lies in the behavior of your bosses and, therefore, is beyond your control boundary as a team leader. There’s a slim chance, however, that the problem might be due to internal dynamic of your team. This issue does not render the team entirely blocked, but significantly affects their performance. What would you choose to do?
…and the answers were:
a) Focus primarily on working with your bosses to address the issue
b) Focus primarily on addressing the issue by changing the team behavior
c) Avoid disrupting the flow, let things be the way they are and let the team continue with their tasks
Please note that we deliberately did not include answers like “Work with the team first and if that doesn’t help – work with your bosses”. The reason for that was simple: we wanted to have them make a principal choice rather than select something particularly comforting, but not necessarily achievable-as-stated in their case.
We’ve also created two other forms of the same question, purposefully “biasing” the respondents a little, to add a sense of urgency. Here they are:
Alternative form 1:
You’re starting a new job as a team leader in a new company. At the very beginning, you were told by the person that hired you that the management is not happy with the team performance. After spending a week in your new role, you discovered that there’s a systemic issue that prevents the team from performing at their best ability. But it looks very likely that the root cause of the issue lies in the behavior of your bosses and, therefore, is beyond your control boundary as a team leader. There’s a slim chance, however, that the problem might be due to internal dynamic of your team. This issue does not render the team entirely blocked, but significantly affects their performance. What would you choose to do?
Alternative form 2:
You’re starting a new job as a team leader in a new company. It turns out that your predecessor was terminated. After spending a week in your new role, you discovered that there’s a systemic issue that prevents the team from performing at their best ability. It looks very likely that the root cause of the issue lies in the behavior of your bosses and, therefore, is beyond your control boundary as a team leader. There’s a slim chance, however, that the problem might be due to internal dynamic of your team. This issue does not render the team entirely blocked, but significantly affects their performance. What would you choose to do?
The difference with the Main Form is in red font. The answers remained the same as in case of Main Form.
Here are the results:
Main Form. 53 total respondents (unconstrained demographic):
Alternative Form 1. 53 total responses (unconstrained demographic):
Alternative Form 2. 51 total responses (unconstrained demographic):
Interesting, isn’t it?
For starters, notice how the answers spread between “a” and “b” in Main Form. That is an interesting, asymmetrical response, given that the question states that the first potential root cause (the problem being caused by the bosses) is stated to be significantly more probable than the second one (it being caused by the team). The two alternative formulations clearly biased the audience more towards answer “a”. Please note that all three forms were answered by different people, without overlaps; no one had to answer the question in more than one form.
I personally had a hypothesis that Alternative Form 1 would bias the respondents toward answer 1 (as it did), but Alternative Form 2 would rather bias them toward answers 2 and 3, which it obviously didn’t. Basically, both alternative forms had approximately the same affect. But still, notice, how many respondents selected answer “b” in both alternative forms.
At that point it’s been decided that “unconstrained demographic” is an interesting first approximation, but we need to know how would a more targeted audience react to this. For that, the Main Form was selected as the only form to continue with and the survey was answered by 51 people in various middle management positions. I can’t say that I exactly expected to see this:
This time around, however, we included a text field where we asked people to explain the rationale behind their choice. 37 out of 51 respondents did so. Some answers suggested that people were primarily focused on what was in their direct area of influence (here’s one interesting example: “My job is to direct my team not change management”). Quite a few others were basically suggesting that they selected “a” to start with the team and then move to the bosses if the former doesn’t produce the desirable results, which is funny because as I noted above, we tried to constrain the answers to not include that specific “comfortable” option. Finally, those who selected answer “a” mostly explained that they want “Only real solution” and “Try to fix the root of the problem”.
To be entirely clear, I am not suggesting that either one of those three answers (“a” or “b” or “c”) was a right one. The question purposefully contained some ambiguity and our goal was to rather see what answers people are mostly inclined towards. The main takeaway for me is that there’s definitely a strong asymmetry in play:
People are more inclined to local optimization despite the fact that it is unlikely to produce the desirable results and they are aware of that.
What does that tell us? I guess, a few things:
- You may educate the middle management in systems thinking all you want and it may not change too much, because their decision whether to use it is significantly impacted by other factors; it is very likely that physiological safety is one of them
- Maybe there’s much more value in the higher management creating a transparent environment where raising systemic impediments is not something frowned upon, but rather encouraged and thoroughly supported
- The effect may be a cumulative result of unintended consequences of existing policies, metrics and KPIs and established cultural scenarios (“bring me only good news!”, etc.). The impact of such “blowbacks” is what the higher management needs to be educated in.
Have a good day and focus on real problems, otherwise we will pay you a visit 🙂
By Alex Yakyma, Org Mindset.
Earlier this year we released version 2.0 of the Org Mindset Enterprise Lean-Agile Coach (OMEC) course and the group that was in the late January class enjoyed all the benefits of the new version. Here’s a brief overview of the change.
- New overall structure and segmentation of modules. The three parts containing the total of 9 modules. Very helpful in its structural simplicity.
- The Five Principles were added and used throughout the course. This tremendously helps to effectively frame all conversations and exercises. I made a blog post about the principles some time ago; you can find it here.
- The topic of embracing uncertainty by organizations elevated significantly with specific tools around it.
- Most impactful cognitive biases considered that contribute to the reductionist thinking and reinforce traditional, deterministic paradigms. The conversation comes with the ways to improve decision-making and mitigate the impact of the biases.
- Enterprise transformation agenda is closely attended. Plenty of new material on driving a goal-oriented transformation, defining the change vector, acquiring shared understanding of impediments and inhibitors to transformation in particular organizational context.
- Five most common transformation anti-patterns included along with the ways to avoid them or remedy the transformation, if already subjected to those. Sadly, most of the transformation initiatives end up being affected by one or more of those anti-patterns. Even more sadly, a vast majority of change agents don’t know about them and readily lead their organization straight into the trouble.
- Organizational design topics centered around the concept of “formations” that significantly facilitated the discussions around responsive org. structures, soft boundaries, encapsulating dependancies and assumptions and so forth. The importance of the notion comes from its scalable, yet simple, nature.
- Great focus on thin increments of value at higher organizational level to foster validated learning, grow empirical mindset and evolve adaptive planning and execution culture throughout the organization.
- More material on growing a productive organizational culture, multiple dimensions of human motivation, the dynamics of effective knowledge creation and use.
- A whole new module dedicated to supporting digital transformation and adoption of devops. Key aspects of contextual, incremental devops transformation process are considered across different parts of the enterprise. Certain important specifics of evolving AI-based capabilities are discussed as part of the digital transformation topic. It is vital to acknowledge and address the challenges that Lean-Agile transformation agents encounter in a broader enterprise context and be able to provide the tools for them to feel comfortable in addressing those challenges. I’m especially happy that these domains were added to OMEC 2.0.
This current version contains the total of 64 exercises; some small and quick, others deep and immersive. I think in v2.0 the interactiveness during the class has increased even further compared to the initial version. This direction is inevitable. One of the key outcomes of the course is to learn how to probe the environment and adjust to a specific organizational context. And how can one learn that other than through experiential, immersive and interactive process…
Enjoy and we will see you guys in our classrooms!