Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

The Power of Habit

Building Support for Agile Processes

David Maxfield

David Maxfield is coauthor of three New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

My seventy-two-year-old company made a decision to make enormous business process changes intended to keep the company competitive in future markets, but these changes have now caused large amounts of complexity and are affecting group cohesion and overall morale. In trying to accommodate this more “agile” process, disengagement has become the norm as each area continues to operate within their isolated silos. Coercion and bullying have sadly achieved more than peaceful collaboration. Having already dealt with intensified levels of stress, a growing population of baby boomers are moving more quickly toward the door.

How can upper management, who has created an unfortunate perfect storm, now effectively promote change? What can be done at this point to make a successful transition from the old to the new?

Curious Twenty-Something

A Dear Curious,

These days it’s hard to find an organization that isn’t in the throes of reinvention, and the ones that aren’t are probably dead or dying. These gut-wrenching changes can tear an organization apart. So, how do you help your workforce embrace changes that are profound and rapid? I think every organization needs the answer to this question.

We at VitalSmarts spend a lot of our time working with organizations to craft answers that work for them. I’ll suggest a few approaches we take.

Focus on your Cultural Operating System. Test this metaphor: Organizations are like smartphones in that they have apps and an operating system. A smartphone’s apps include maps, e-mail, music, calendars, games, etc. These apps run on top of the phone’s basic operating system or OS. The OS controls how apps access and use the phone’s basic hardware, making it vital to the success of any and every app. However, as phone users, our attention is mostly on the apps. They are the programs we use every day. We tend to take the OS for granted.

The same is true in organizations. We tend to focus on organizational apps—specific strategies, structures, processes, initiatives, and systems—without attending to our organization’s operating system. This operating system, what we call a Cultural Operating System (COS), includes the underlying norms, behaviors, and unwritten rules that determine the success of every organizational app—apps like the agile business processes you refer to in your question.

The symptoms you describe as poor group cohesion, discouragement, coercion, and bullying often occur when an organization tries to graft a new app onto a Cultural Operating System that isn’t ready for it.

Launch a listening campaign. Leaders need to hear first-hand from a broad swath of employees. This is not the time for a survey or a consultant’s report. Leaders themselves need to lead interviews, focus groups, and “town hall meetings” to learn about the obstacles people are facing.

It is especially important for senior leaders to involve two groups: formal and informal leaders. Formal leaders are the managers and supervisors across the organization—everyone who manages people. Informal leaders are the opinion leaders within every group. These people may not have any formal role as leaders, but are respected and looked to for guidance. Leaders need to spend a disproportionate amount of time with these formal and informal leaders, because they are the key to the rest of the organization.

The goal of these listening sessions is to discover failure modes, crucial moments, and vital behaviors. Failure modes are the forms failures take—the common patterns that recur. Crucial moments are the times, places, and circumstances when these failures are especially likely. Vital behaviors are the actions that either prevent the failures from happening or turn failure into success in a crucial moment.

Look for the purpose behind each strategy. Organizations that are the best at importing new business processes focus on the purpose behind each new process rather than on the process itself. They treat the processes as heuristics that need to be tailored to fit their needs, not as formulas that need to be duplicated without variation.

Less successful organizations get caught up in the forms, policies, procedures, and tools involved in new processes—and implement them even when they don’t fit or don’t accomplish their intended purpose. It sounds as if your organization is suffering from this problem.

During their listening campaign, leaders should identify crucial moments when people are implementing processes in ways that don’t achieve the intended results. For example, agile processes put a big emphasis on involving stakeholders. However, this involvement can take many forms—and one size doesn’t fit all. Having stakeholders attend design meetings is one way to get involvement, but this approach only works if the stakeholders have the right skill sets and the interest to attend. If they don’t, then teams need to find other ways to involve them. The mistake is to either abandon involvement or stick with involvement that doesn’t work. These mistakes create the kinds of frustration you describe.

I hope these ideas give you new ways to examine the challenges your organization is facing. Readers, please add your ideas to the few I’ve suggested here.



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1 thought

  1. John

    Communication is key. Around my office, change without a rational reason usually meets all the roadblocks mentioned. Professional people generally don’t react well to “everyone is doing it” or “its industry best practice” Those phrases remind me of kindergarten. Or the parent who responds to questions with “because I said so” If management can’t explain the need for change, is the change necessary? Does the change make sense? I’ve seen plenty of one size fits all badly changes forced upon the workforce with little if any rational explanation from management.

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