Coaching Organizations to Accelerate

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):

  1. Disrupt the conventional isolated decision-making pattern by involving people from different levels (and, importantly, from outside the org.) as part of the routine.
  2. Coach the management to encourage alternative thinking and disagreement. Creating psychological safety around it is a primary goal.
  3. Start to manage assumptions explicitly. They need to be identified and acknowledged, for starters. Imagination is one thing; reality is quite another.
  4. Establish reliable feedback for functionality already delivered and have decision-makers compare expectations with empirical evidence.
  5. 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.

Want to learn more? Then it’s time to up your game and attend our Enterprise Coach class.

5 Tips for Better Organizational Coaching

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.

Want to take the next step as a coach and organizational change agent? Then what are you waiting for? Learn advanced tools for enterprise coaching.

Speaking at Agile2018!

…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.

Description

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!

Speaking at Mile High Agile This Year!

Hello folks,

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.

Talk Description

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.

The Problem with Systems Thinking is in… Not Applying It

 

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.

Podcast: Organizational Factors that Influence Lean-Agile Transformation – with Andrew Long

Had a pleasure to talk to Andrew Long this time. Andrew is a managing agile consultant with LitheSpeed (www.lithespeed.com). I was waiting long for this conversation to happen (yes, pun intended!). We talked about key factors that influence organizational agility and flow, the disconnects between the actual state of those factors (that include important structural and behavioral aspects of enterprise life) and declared intentions as part of the transformation. We talked about how to best facilitate emergence of new organizational capabilities, such as responsiveness to change, ability to innovate and so forth. Dealing with constraints and systemic impediments the organization has, which of them to address and when, change by declaration vs. real change and much, much more… I hope you enjoy it. To find more podcasts, articles and blogposts, go to http://orgmindset.com.

New Podcast: Managing Assumptions and Risks in Complex Organizations – Michael Kuesters and Alex Yakyma

Michael Kuesters was on my podcast recently, folks. This was Michael’s second appearance (you can find the first podcast recording here). It was great to virtually host him (he feels a lot like a family now…) and discuss an interesting topic that every enterprise that depends on software or systems development for their success, has to deal with one way or the other. We talked about many things: the danger of reaching a comfort zone in managing assumptions and risks, cognitive biases that can stand in the way, raising hidden assumptions to the explicit level, how assumptions come into existence, “strong” and “weak” assumptions, applying Occam’s razor to assumptions and risks, obsessing with predictability, the trick with building confidence based on prior project successes, using pre-mortems and much more.

And yes, we talked about winning jackpot three times in a row… Because it’s surprisingly connected to some enterprise practices.

Here’s the podcast recording:



To find Michael’s books, use the following links:

Extreme Agility: https://leanpub.com/extremeagility

Spirit of Scrum: https://leanpub.com/spiritofscrum

Bundle: https://leanpub.com/b/non-conformistagile

Enjoy!

 

Fixed or Variable? It’s Actually Both!

Should my team structure be fixed or variable? Should my funding be fixed or variable? Should the plan reflect fixed expectations or variable possibilities?

The reality is, it’s neither one of those isolated notions, but rather both of them enabling organization’s performance in concert with each other.

On the one hand, enterprise reality contains inherent uncertainty and variability. External conditions change, internal factors evolve and, even more importantly, we are able to refine our understanding of those only over time. It is fundamentally irrational to attempt building organizational plans and structures that contain “all the answers” inside.

On the other hand, everything cannot be a moving part. In a sense, an organization cannot just sit and wait for the facts to unfold, it has to actively work to facilitate the desirable future outcomes. It cannot “design” the future in a conventional sense of the word – that’s not how complex adaptive systems operate – but it indeed can and should create the environment and enablement for moving in a desirable direction.

The importance of both of these factors has a direct impact on underlying processes and structures within the enterprise. So, for example, it is often impossible to meet the variable business demand with a fixed team structure, due to skillset/knowledge constraints, as well as other reasons. Instead, it is entirely logical to keep the boundaries of some teams soft, allowing for people to regroup as necessary to best respond to a significant shift in demand. Interestingly enough, the fixed part is important too, because whenever possible, we want to benefit from long-term interactions, as they are known to improve the overall team performance. Similarly, our funding cannot be all carved in stone for a long time horizon, as it would make it impossible to respond to the changing environment. At the same time, without any specific upfront allocation of funds, it would be hard to commit the necessary capabilities required for successful execution. As for planning, it gets even more interesting. Even though many organizations are nowadays trying (at least formally) to be iterative and incremental, it doesn’t imply that they are actually able to respond to change. The real question is instead: are they properly handling uncertainty in their plans. If your plan, even for a shorter time horizon (1-3 months), contains only predefined outcomes, then most likely, your organization is just blind to the unknowns. And it doesn’t actually matter that you iterate every month or two: myopia to uncertainty renders iterative and incremental paradigm useless in such environment. Every plan, no matter how long or short, has to explicitly contain assumptions, preventing the Certainty Bias from settling in and pushing the organization to a whole new level of self-deception. But then again, if the plan does not contain any specific outcomes, nobody really knows where the organization is headed.

So here are the questions for you, as a matter of quick self-assessment:

  1. How exactly are uncertainty and variability incorporated into your process? (consider organizational design, planning, funding, for example). For each one of your examples, try to go over the actual logic, explicit rules, proven scenarios in your environment, rather than potentialities.
  2. How are variable and fixed factors aligned in those examples?
  3. Is it really working?
  4. How do you know that it does or doesn’t?

Lastly, while both fixed and variable nature of organizational activities and structures is essential, there’s a little catch, and we briefly touched on it already: we are all biased towards certainty and predictability and, on the opposite, try to avoid uncertainty and ambiguity. So, when your organizational leaders are telling you something like “but we need some degree of certainty and predictability,” you need to know how to translate this Klingon speech into English. It usually means: “we are looking to define a big-upfront detailed plan, lock down the exact scope and funding, and define specific team structure that will best execute it all.” For most organizations, moderating their obsession with predictability is an insurmountable problem, so the conversation better revolves around embracing uncertainty and variability rather than the “balance”. Otherwise, you are probably just wasting an opportunity to change something to better.

 

By Alex Yakyma, Org Mindset.