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Seeds of change

Seeds of change

This one is for all the change agents out there who, from time to time, may have felt as if their work has no meaning or value.

Here’s what we do:

  1. We win an engagement with a client whose management want to institute organizational change (e.g., to implement Lean and/or Agile methods and practices, or to shift the organizational culture and management style toward a 21st-century model, or some other lofty goal).
  2. We define “success” as “the organization has deeply, honestly, and permanently changed for the better.”
  3. We help the people in the organization visualize a different future and guide them on a path toward that vision.
  4. We encourage people as the organization makes halting, slow progress.
  5. We encourage people as the organization succumbs to systemic forces and reverts to the status quo ante.
  6. We watch sadly as the people who had learned the most in the transformation initiative leave the organization.
  7. We hang our heads in shame; the definition of “success” has not been achieved.
  8. We use tales of the engagement to convince others to try the same thing, as we go forward in our careers. “It got off to a good start. If only…”
  9. We return to step 1.

By the beginning of 2016, this recurring pattern had led me to a bad place.

It seemed to me as if all these years of trying to make things better had been wasted. When people claimed “change is hard” and “change takes time,” it sounded to me as if they were making excuses to avoid doing things that were easy and that they could do immediately. Surely, the “old ways” of doing things in the IT field are hard and getting anything done takes a lot of time.

People undertake a lot of busy-looking activity, but nothing ever really changes. And what is the use of a change agent in a world where nothing ever changes?

I became impatient and irritable. People did not like to be around me. On a couple of occasions, I was asked to leave. It reached the point that I needed to do some serious introspection.

The result of the introspection, as well as several constructive conversations with my wife, is that I realized these individual transformation engagements are not disconnected stories of failure. They are chapters in a much longer narrative.

The narrative itself is larger than any of the individual organizations that engage change agents for their particular programs. The true value we bring is subtler than the noisy, boastful marketing presentations of most consultancies.

And by driving that larger narrative mindfully, we ensure our work does indeed have meaning and value.

My wife reminded me of something I might have perceived, had I not been preoccupied with emotional self-destruction. She asked quietly, “Do you remember Lance?”

It was a reference to one Lance Hill, a person most of you don’t know and have never heard of. He is a person I’ve been out of contact with for many years.

I was working as an enterprise architect at a financial institution in 2002. I was fed up with bureaucracy, and my wife and I were looking into franchise opportunities such as Main Event and the like. I was on my way out of the IT field.

Lance approached me and asked if I would be interested in working with him on a side project within the company. He wanted to assess the costs and value of the IT function of the enterprise, and then look for ways to improve it. I signed up for it, and joined a small group of hand-picked individuals.

In the course of our assessment, we came across a document called the Agile Manifesto. We saw that it promoted values similar to those we were pursuing, so we looked for help in implementing the ideas. We found ThoughtWorks. They helped us. Things snowballed from there. Long story short, I’m still in the IT field…and not because I have learned to love bureaucracy.

In 2006, the agile initiative at that company was going strong. Middle management in the IT department took control and destroyed it. Within six months, only 4 of the 60-odd people who had been involved with the initiative were still at the company. Lance and a couple of the others founded a healthcare start-up. Other individuals went to various other places. I joined Valtech, a company that was heavily into agile coaching at the time.

Then my wife asked me about some of the teams I talk about in glowing terms. The best agile organization I’ve seen. The best team I’ve worked with. That sort of thing. She asked me what became of them.

The answer is that they all imploded. Every one of them. They enjoyed astonishing results for a time, and then everything fell apart. The organizations reverted to the status quo ante. The individuals who had learned the most during the agile initiative scattered, moving to other companies or moving entirely out of the IT space.

That “best organization” – I encountered one of the developers at a conference, and he said most of the good stuff no longer existed. I spoke with the leader of the agile transformation there recently, and he referred to it as “lightning in a bottle;” a good thing while it lasted.

That “best team” – not a single one of them was still at their company six months after the transformation; their project manager, business analyst, and one of their five product owners also left as a direct result of things they had learned. They could no longer tolerate the status quo ante.

And that’s when I understood. The individual organizational transformation programs had fallen apart, but the individuals who had learned the most went out in search of other organizations where they could apply what they had learned.

That is the larger narrative.

Consider a hypothetical plant (I mean vegetation, not manufacturing). It grows until it’s ready to reproduce. It forms seed pods. The seed pods fill with potential new life. At some point, the plant ejects the seed pods. The seeds fly up into the air and are carried away by the wind. Some are eaten. Some fall on barren rock. Some land on fertile soil. Some of those thrive. A few become exceptionally hardy, strong plants.

An organization grows until its leaders perceive a need to change in order to remain viable. They bring in helpers to teach and guide the transformation. Personnel learn and grow, and begin to visualize a future they could not have imagined previously. At some point, management balks. They want to revert to familiar methods. They crush the change program. The individuals who had learned the most, and who were the most interested in positive change, leave the company to seek other opportunities. Some end up in conventional jobs. Some find work in places where their new vision is appreciated. Some of those influence others. A few drive significant change, or educate a significant number of additional people.

That “best organization” I mentioned? The head of IT and the head of quality assurance now work for one of the leading agile consultancies. Developers who learned XP and BDD there now mentor others in several other companies in sound software engineering practices and agile delivery methods.

That “best team” I mentioned? One of the developers went on to become a leading voice in the ColdFusion community for clean architecture and design and test-driven development. The project manager moved on to another company where she could practice Theory Y and servant-leadership. The business analyst realized IT work wasn’t for her, and she joined her husband to start a non-profit organization to benefit the homeless. One of the product owners realized the futility of traditional methods and became a management consultant so he could teach lightweight management methods to others (I showed him Neil Nickolaisen’s Purpose Alignment Model, thinking little of it, and apparently it was the catalyst that led him to pursue more information). One of the key business stakeholders fell in love with Story Mapping, and shifted the focus of her career, as well.

There are many other examples. These are all just little things; showing one person one tool or technique, or suggesting a slightly different perspective about some aspect of the work. There’s nothing dramatic or splashy involved.

Over time, the industry changes for the better.

Thanks to Lance, I became a seed. When the seed pod was ejected, I landed on fertile soil. My work has added value through the quiet one-on-one interactions with individuals in the course of day-to-day work; not in the self-aggrandizing PowerPointed bursts of spectacular, 5x or 10x or 100x improvement (that never stick).

The value of our work lies in preparing the seed pods. Where the seeds land is beyond our control, but we can trust that some of them will flourish even if we don’t live to see the outcome.

The moral of the story is this: Don’t worry too much if the individual organizational change initiatives never seem to result in lasting, meaningful change. You are making an impact.

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