Sustainable Change: Willing to Change

In this third article in the series on sustainable change, my suggestion that we should stop trying to change organizations that aren’t willing to change. Instead, let’s give our energy to organizations that truly want to improve and help them succeed.

Change can be hard to impossible if people in an organization aren’t willing to change. You might not want to try that, as the chance of failure outweighs the effort, money, time, and energy that you have to put in.

In the first article on sustainable change, I explored how we can catch signals of overload during change. The second article shows how I’ve used a kanban-based approach to manage change initiatives

Not every organization is willing to change

Over the years I’ve worked with many organizations. Most of them were looking for ways to improve and were willing to change things to accomplish this. But that wasn’t the case for all of them. Here are three cases from my career where I was expected to change the organization but it turned out that the organization isn’t willing to change.

The first case comes from a manager that hired me to form a team consisting of professionals working in different departments. I worked with the professionals and with him as a team leader to establish the team. That wasn’t always easy and we had some challenging discussions along the way.

At one time when I spoke with him about his role in supporting team members in their work he threw me out of his office, saying “I didn’t hire you to change me”. He called me later that day and asked me to come back, stating that “I may be right about him having to do something for the team”.

He did change his behavior, as did some of his employees and we teamed up to foster change any way we could. We had successes and got up to the CIO leading the IT department to increase awareness for collaboration.

Unfortunately, we also had a lot of resistance and power games in the IT organization. One of the managers that resisted told me shortly before the end of my assignment that he had expected me as a consultant to tell him and his colleague managers how to do their work. When I asked him if he would have done the things I would have asked them, he said “of course not”. I rest my case.

The manager that hired me to form the team left shortly after my assignment was finished. He gave up trying to change the organization.

The second case is when I was hired as a Scrum Master for a team of experts on product management from different parts of the company. These people were brought together to align the way of working in different divisions across the whole company.

The manager who hired me told me that I shouldn’t bother my team members too much and “be very careful with them”. That should have ringed the alarm already, but somehow I missed this signal (probably by being too eager to get going).

I started working with the team, being careful to support them on what they need and help them to become a better team. That worked out ok, although the people didn’t feel a strong reason to truly become one team (and looking back they were right on that).

The solution that evolved for the organization was to set up cross-functional product teams with an overall product owner-team that would guide product management solutions developed by the teams. The experts in my team would be joining different teams as senior product architects. As they never were a team and didn’t want to become a team, I didn’t expect much resistance.

I tried to explain the benefits of splitting up the group to the experts and provoked discussions about having them in different teams. I didn’t force them in any way, just wanted to hear them. Next, some of my team members complained behind my back to the manager who hired me, who discontinued my contract. Instead, he hired an “agile project manager” that he expected to tell his experts what to do (the PM that was hired and I knew each other and we actually had a great laugh about it).

In this organization, changing someone’s function or function description was a no go. Careers mattered more than getting results, for everyone in the company including the managers. This organization clearly wasn’t willing to change.

The third and last case was when I worked for a toxic CEO. I was hired by the CIO during the CEO’s holiday to improve the organization’s focus on increasing software quality.  So I never met with the CEO before getting the assignment. Actually, the discussions were more about the conditions of the assignment than about the objectives and needs of the company. Looking back, that’s a red flag to start something.

I met the CEO on my first working day, where he exhausted his team (included me) with a board meeting that started right after lunch and expanded far into the evening. Turned out he managed by putting people under large pressure and using fear, creating a toxic atmosphere.

He made it clear on this first day that his main priority for me was to extend the ISO certificate, no matter what. I found out on that same day that the ISO audit was moved to a period where I had already booked a holiday. The company knew of my holiday plans and had stated explicitly that they would never interfere with private plans that were made before joining the company. I told the CEO politely that I was not available on the audit days and proposed to work towards a solution to pass the audit. They never asked me but expected that I would cancel my holiday instead.

I didn’t bow for the CEO, and it lasted only into the second week until he had found an excuse to fire me. Funny thing was that I wasn’t even aware of how toxic he was until I started talking about what happened with people who congratulated me on escaping from this company.

The way that this company is managed by a dictatorial leader using fear was something that wouldn’t change. His behavior and the underlying culture actually inhibited the whole company to change. Senior managers had to do what the CEO told them to do.

None of the organizations from the cases above wanted to truly change, although they hired me to help them change. I gave up on working with these kinds of organizations. It’s a waste of time and energy.

Why am I sharing my experiences of change that failed in this article? Because I care! I wrote the core part of this blog post when an agile coach cried out to me in an email chat about organizations that don’t get it and are unwilling to change, yet hiring consultants and expecting them to change the organization. He was wondering if he was the only one experiencing this and thinking about stopping his consultancy business. “You are not alone” is what I replied, recognizing his agony. And I shared the above failures of trying to change organizations that didn’t want to be changed.

Looking back at the three cases that I described above, I did make a difference in the first company. Changes go slowly (it’s government) but they seem to be making some progress over the years. I gave them something to think about. If asked, I would work with them again.

I would have serious doubts about working with the second company (although I did have some impact there too), and for sure won’t work with company number three anymore. 

But we need to become agile

Agile is the new buzzword (altough it’s almost 20 yeasr old); nowadays every organization either wants to become agile or claims that it is agile.

When I learned about agile in 2001 and started reading books from Alistair Cockburn and others who wrote the manifesto, my first thought was that this agile stuff would probably work only for 10%-20% of the organizations out there. Most others would be better off not trying it out because they wouldn’t “get it” and it would fail utterly.

I still feel this way. For most organizations, even in 2020, agile is such a large misfit with their mindset, culture, and the way they are organized that it simply can’t work.

The number of failed agile transformations is a clear message that many organizations shouldn’t try to adopt agile. It’s not that they just aren’t ready (something that you can find out with an agile self-assessment or by reading out parts of the agile manifesto and see how people in the organization react), it’s that deep inside these organizations aren’t willing to change.

I’m talking about organizations that treat their agile transformation as a project with a goal, budget, and end date. These organizations want to become agile in a non-agile way, which is one of the main reasons why agile transformations fail. They want to keep working in the same way that they have always done.

Many organizations that are hiring consultants to become agile don’t know why they want to become agile. This may sound like a blunt statement, but I’ve seen this over and over when I ask senior managers about why they think they need agile. They either come up with one or more general statements like having to become more flexible or faster or increase their performance. Or they are on a cost-saving journey expecting agile to help them (it doesn’t, firing people tends to be a better solution for that).

If I dig deeper there’s almost never a link to be found between their business goals and agile. I hear the same from agile coaches and consultants, who truly wonder why the company that they work with wants to do the agile transformation. If there’s no clear reason, then they are probably not willing to go through the changes that would be needed to become agile. So why would you try to transform them, if maybe agile is not the right answer?

My approach is to only work on increasing agility with the few companies that truly want to achieve this and are willing and able to change. And don’t spend energy on companies with a culture or leadership that is largely incongruent with agile.

Willing to change

A variant of the famous lightbulb joke is: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is: Only one, but the bulb has got to really WANT to change. The same is true for organizations:

How many consultants do you need to change an organization?
Only one, provided that the organization really wants to change.

Ben Linders

Or, when it comes to adopting agile:

How many agile coaches do you need to guide an organization toward agile and help them increase their agility?
Only one, provided that the organization really wants to become agile.

Ben Linders

Forcing change on people doesn’t work, neither does being hired to force people to change. No matter how much you are paid, if there are major barriers in an organization that inhibit change you may want to think twice before accepting an assignment. Even if you manage to get changes done, those changes will probably not last. They are not sustainable.

Let’s give our energy to organizations that truly want to improve and help them succeed. And not waste our precious time on trying to change organizations that aren’t willing to change.

Can I help?

Nowadays, when I work with organizations I focus on bringing out what people, teams, and organizations desire. I’ll look for ways to leverage and build on their existing culture and ongoing journey. I don’t impose or carry in agile processes or methods, instead, I try to reveal strengths that are there and help them to solve their most urgent problems using what’s there and the energy that people have. It increases their agility, without dogmatic agile processes or practices.

I give workshops, but they are not intended for people to get a certificate. Business-wise it would serve me better to become a certified trainer, but I can’t live with that. My workshops are fluid, content is adopted before and during the training depending on what best serves the people attending. People in my workshops are there to really learn something, they are not hunting for a certificate. My way of training works for them, and for me.

My success comes from doing things that

  • I’m good at or willing and able to try out
  • I love to do and give me energy
  • are helpful and solve people’s needs
  • are appreciated by people and have value for them
  • provide an income and have a future

It’s my personal Ikigai that drives what I do and how I do it.

I get energy from making some difference somewhere for some people. I look for ways that I can help them to become aware of a problem that they are having and encourage them to stop and think of a better solution. That I can help a Scrum master or Agile Coach somewhere to become aware and deal with problems. That due to what I do or share someone stops pulling horses to make companies or people agile (doesn’t matter if the horse is dead or alive, you can’t pull a horse in a direction it doesn’t want to go).

We can’t make all agile transformations succeed, most of them are bound to fail anyway. But maybe we can make them fail faster and learn quicker and better? Iterate on their journey? Or support them to reflect on where they are going? Self-assess what’s happening to adopt their course?

Most transformations will stop, fail, and blame agile. And that’s ok, as these were probably bound to fail anyway. A few will learn from their failure. They get it. They improve. Become stronger. They are the reason why we are there, you can only cure the ones who are open to being cured. 

Are you willing to change?

Companies that are willing to change do exist, but it’s hard to find them. They seem to find me, I don’t hunt for them. Such companies do things that are needed and they often aren’t visible as great performers (it’s not a priority for them to shine). Sometimes research like what Frederic Laloux did for Reinventing Organizations brings them out in the open.

Over the year I have been lucky enough to have some companies that have change embedded in their DNA come to me and asked me to help them with specific parts of their journey. Companies that are truly customer-focused and wanted to further improve their teams and internal collaboration to perform even better. Innovative companies that were growing and needed to change to accommodate their goals and stay innovative. A company that really focused on their employees and looked for ways that Scrum could leverage the way they applied Holacracy. They know where they want to go and are willing to change to keep moving forward.

Firms that truly want to improve are rare. I’ve had them over the years; short focused assignments with a lot of workshops and intensive sessions spread out over a period of several weeks (I never work full time with companies anymore; it would drive them and me mad). Or a focused two or three-day online workshop. A couple of hours of one-on-one coaching and mentoring with Free Lifetime Support to bring things into practice. For companies that are willing to change, this works. Maybe it can work for you too?

I feel blessed with every company that approaches me and truly wants to do something and allows me to help them. If you are one of those, please do reach out to me!

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Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

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