Enterprise Agility: Facilitating Change [Excerpt]

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Enterprise Agility: Facilitating Change [Excerpt]

Check out this excerpt from Sunil Mundra's Enterprise Agility and hear some of his key takeaways on facilitating change at an enterprise-level organization.

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Many enterprises will need to significantly reinvent themselves in order to enhance their agility. The change necessary is tectonic in nature, as it encompasses not only the extrinsic and tangible elements of a business, like people, process, and governance, but also, and more importantly, the intrinsic and intangible elements like mindset and culture.

This article, based on the book Enterprise Agility by Sunil Mundra, is about key learnings related to facilitating change at the company level, based on the author's experience. The takeaways from these learnings will help to alleviate pain and disruption, which are often side effects of enterprise-level change.


The following are the key takeaways gained from my experience in facilitating enterprise-level change:

People Do Not Resist Change

A commonly held belief is that peoples' instinct is to resist change. What is supposedly seen as resistance is actually people's reaction to the potentially negative impact of change on them. It is therefore obvious that if people believe that the change is beneficial for them, they will not react negatively toward it.

It can thus be concluded that resistance to change is a myth. It can also be inferred that the so-called resistance is just a symptom of an underlying problem.

Some of the causes of resistance include the following:

  • Disappointment and resentment about not having a voice in shaping the nature of change

  • Processing information about the change selectively, influenced by past bad experiences and mental models

  • Uncertainty, leading to insecurity, about how the change will impact them

  • Realization that the change will expose their incompetence

  • Fear of the unknown

For each of these causes, there needs to be a specific way of preventing and/or overcoming them. For example, for the first point, opportunities should be provided to people to have their voice heard about shaping the change, before rolling the change out formally. For the third point, it will be a combination of communication regarding the benefits of change for the people involved and individual counseling.

The key takeaway about resistance is that it should be viewed as valuable feedback. The feedback, as a response to change, could be that the message about the change is not properly understood, the impact of the change is perceived as negative by some individuals, or a group of individuals, or just that some people are resisting change simply due to a bad attitude. Depending on what the resistance is actually translating into, corrective actions can be determined. It is therefore critical that resistance is not ignored or, even worse, quashed.

Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Better

In a book published in 2015, German authors Klaus Leopold and Siegfried Kaltenecker noted that the dip in performance in the change curve occurs when the change necessitates that the people in the organization have to unlearn old behaviors, processes, and systems and learn new ways of doing things. [i]

One thing that all change models depict is the Valley of Despair. The Satir model [ii], as shown in the following diagram, depicts this trough. The Valley of Despair reflects that things usually will get worse before they get better with respect to any change. In this phase, individuals experience negative emotions, like anxiety and fear, and the organization experiences a slowdown in throughput and responsiveness. There is a lot of uncertainty, and sometimes even chaos, in this phase, as both the organization as a whole and the individuals are grappling with eliminating behaviors, processes, and practices and simultaneously adopting new behaviors, processes, and so on.

Figure 1: The Satir model of change

Figure 1: The Satir model of change

The Valley of Despair phase has multiple implications:

  • The investment of both time and effort to get out of this phase will be high

  • It is difficult to climb out of the valley if it gets too steep

  • Facilitating change can become the highest priority for the organization, overriding even business priorities

  • It is as good an opportunity as it gets to weed out and modify what does not seem to be working well

  • Learnings from dealing with this phase should help to modify the rollout of change across the wider organization

Continuous Adaptation Should Be the Norm

According to Jim Highsmith, one of the creators of the Agile Manifesto:

"We tend to think of change management, perhaps better called adaptation management, as managing the exceptions— the deviations from the norm. But maybe we should view adaptation as the normal and steady state as the exception— it sure seems that way in today's business environment." [iii]

Considering the extent and pace of change in the external environment, to which an adaptive organization will need to be responsive to, it is futile to envision a precise "end state" for any change that impacts the organization as a whole. Hence change/ adaptation should be continuous in nature, where the states post change are merely transitory. In line with the principle of emergence, there will be multiple flips to achieve wider and deeper changes, but the fact is that the change of state is in the present and not in the distant future. Hence, if change is not continuous, that needs to be seen as an exception and handled accordingly.

Need to Slow Down to Go Faster

As mentioned earlier, any change, especially of the intrinsic type, will involve a learning curve and simultaneously a phase of negative emotions like insecurity, anxiety, fear, and so on. Hence, during this period, a slowdown in performance and throughput is inevitable. Expecting people to maintain the same level of performance/throughput and adopt major changes at the same time will put tremendous stress not only on employees, but on processes and structure as well.  Hence, a slowdown should be anticipated and planned for accordingly. Care should be taken to factor this in when conducting performance appraisals.

Another important reason to plan for slowing down is to allow sufficient time for inquiry and discovery. In an adaptive organization, the way forward in progressing change should be decided by the network of agents and that should be based on emergence. Collaboration, exploration, and learning should always get precedence over speed. Slowing down is in fact necessary to see patterns and to be able to distinguish symptoms from problems. If these basics are in place, not only will speed be a natural outcome, but so will effectiveness and sustainability of the change be.

Watch Out for Change Fatigue

Most people find it difficult to deal with change, at least in the  initial period, as it entails people stepping out of their  comfort zone. This is especially true when the change is intrinsic in nature. Moreover, change can be stressful, as it can create insecurity about the job and the role and also self-doubt about adapting to the changed circumstances. On top of  this, change can be slow and gradual, resulting in people not being able to see the "light at the end of the tunnel." All of this can result in "change fatigue" for individuals and teams, and if  this fatigue becomes widespread  at the organization level, it can negatively impact the adaptiveness  of the organization.

Some fatigue at individual and team level will be unavoidable, especially if  the change is significant at the enterprise level. What is important is to spot the fatigue early and implement measures to contain it. Visible signs of change fatigue include symptoms of continuous stress and anxiety, increase in absenteeism, cynicism in conversations, and increased apathy in meetings and group discussions.

The following are some measures to avoid/contain change fatigue:

  • Provide outlets for people to express their feelings, especially negative ones. Providing access to internal and/or external counsellors, anonymized qualitative surveys and "all hands"  meetings  can  help  people to bring out their feelings into the open and also provide valuable feedback to the leadership team

  • Celebrate successes. These could  be  in  terms  of milestones, business impact, behaviors, and so on

  • Ensure that "innovators" and "early adopters" continue to maintain and radiate their enthusiasm through closer participation in leadership meetings, providing opportunities to drive communication and messaging around change in the wider organization, and so on. Since these people are usually "opinion leaders," any change fatigue in them will have a cascading impact on the wider organization

  • Avoid starting too many big changes at the same time. Spreading the start of some initiatives over a few weeks may make a marginal difference  strategically  but can be key in avoiding fatigue

  • Avoid communication overload, particularly which comes from the "top." Choice of timing and a balanced mix of formal and informal communication can ensure that "noise," which can cause fatigue, is avoided.

According to Arun Arora, a digital  partner at McKinsey, and others:

"Teams can become overwhelmed by the sheer scale and complexity of the change. Effective leaders, therefore, design small projects with frequent milestones so that teams feel a sense of accomplishment.”

They also focus on keeping things simple, for example by limiting the number of KPIs. One consumer business  chose three: amount and source of  traffic to digital assets, quality of traffic, and conversion rates." [iv]

Don't "Shoot the Enablers"

This is borrowed from the "shoot the messenger" metaphor. Moving to an adaptive state can cause underlying problems to surface very early, particularly when adopting Agile, for example, after implementing continuous integration (CI), the feedback on whether a check-in has broken the build will be known immediately. This fast feedback should actually encourage the developers to check-in code frequently. However, if the developers are measured based on the number of successful and failed check-ins, CI may actually discourage the developers from performing a check-in frequently. The problem is not the change from no CI to having CI or the behavior post the change. Introducing CI is actually pointing toward at least two underlying problems: measurement which punishes the right behavior and lack of safety nets for developers, such as test-driven development (TDD), which encourages the right behaviors. In this instance, rolling back the CI implementation would be a grave mistake, as it is an enabler that has exposed the problems which, if resolved, will increase the organization's agility.

Sense of Purpose Over Sense of Urgency

Many traditional change models advocate creating a sense of urgency as the first step in the change process. The primary intent is right: to help people to see the need for change. The belief also is that by doing this, change can be sped up. However, there are several problems with urgency being the primary driver, some of the key ones being:

  • People are inclined to take shortcuts

    • It discourages creativity and holistic thinking, as the focus is on "just getting it done"

    • It can create a sense of panic, leading to knee-jerk reactions

  • Urgency implies a need to be always busy and hence people become keener to be "seen" as busy, which has the potential to introduce behavioral anti-patterns

  • It can lead to a blame game

A better first step is to have a sense of purpose as the primary driver for change. This will help employees to understand the need for change even better, as it will provide a better understanding of the expected outcomes and behaviors. The intrinsic motivation and therefore the ownership of change will be higher, as purpose is more likely to resonate with people, rather than urgency.

Reaching a consensus on the problem statement is the first step toward creating a sense of purpose. This may not be as straightforward, as people's perception of the nature and gravity of the problem often differs considerably. Many times, investing in workshops to get to a common understanding of the problem becomes an absolute necessity.

Focusing on purpose does not imply losing sight of what is currently wrong. Focusing purely on purpose that involves imagining a better future has the risk of inadequate engagement and momentum. This is because, as human beings, we are more willing to take risks to avoid losing  something, rather than to gain something more. Hence, the messaging about change must have the appropriate balance of purpose and urgency, to evoke concern about what is wrong and excitement about what the future holds in store.

Upgrade Skills

Change initiatives often necessitate people to upgrade their skills or even acquire new skills. In the flurry of activities leading to and arising from change, the need to upgrade skills may appear like a low priority item or the need may not be felt at all until it is too late.

For example, a bank decided that its loan underwriters should directly interact with potential loan applicants, with the objective of improving customer-centricity and achieving better risk assessment. It changed its processes accordingly to mandate the interactions. However, after a certain period of time, it was noted that there was no impact on customer-centricity or risk assessment but the morale of the underwriters was distinctly low. On investigating the root cause, it was found that the underwriters had got used to working behind the scenes, dealing with paperwork and computer screens. Given the nature of the work, the underwriters were not hired for or trained for customer-facing skills. The sudden exposure to facing customers directly left the underwriters feeling very nervous and tense.

Respect the Hard Constraints

Enterprises often imagine being in a utopian state post a change. Quite often, the utopian state is imagined based on idolizing another business. For example, a company might say, "We want to have a culture like Google," or "We want to have a structure like Spotify." While it is fine to  draw inspiration from other organizations, blindly wanting to be a copy of them is a highly unrealistic expectation. Each company's context is different and each will have a unique combination of strengths, weaknesses, constraints, and capabilities. Enterprises must be realistic about the extent of change that the firm can handle at a given point in time and based on emergent feedback, the constraints and weaknesses that can be influenced at that point in time must be appropriately addressed.

The analogy of a human body will bring this point to life. Each human body is unique and has positives and weaknesses, and, while bringing change to the body, the constraints prevailing currently must be respected. Take the example of a highly obese person, who is struggling to walk beyond 100 steps at a time but has aspirations to become a champion sportsperson. It will be unrealistic to begin changing them toward becoming a highly physically fit person right away. At that stage, it will be absolutely absurd to put them through any kind of rigorous training meant for athletes. This could pose a serious threat to that person's life. What might be more appropriate in their current state might be to focus on helping them to lose weight through a combination of upper body exercise, diet change and physical therapy. Once they get into slightly better shape, interventions appropriate at that time can be introduced. Once they get into a reasonably good shape, there might be a realization that their knees are not good enough to support running but given their structure and strength in the upper body, they could aim to excel in a sport like javelin.

According to Paul Taylor, a social innovation consultant:

"Maybe we need to accept that not all problems are there to be fixed. That our organizations are flawed. They always have been and always will be.”

Perhaps we need:

  • Reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity

  • Devolving resources and influence  to  those  closest to the problem

  • Changing little and fast through small-scale experimentation

  • Not rolling out anything until we have evidence that it works" [v]

Don't Manage Change, Facilitate It

For the business to be able to at least keep up with, if not outpace, the rate of change in the external environment, change has to happen organically, that is, it must be owned and driven by people across the company.

The words manage and change do not go well together, if change needs to happen organically. Manage implies, among other things, thinker-doer separation, upfront planning, and adherence to processes created to minimize uncertainty and variation. When change is managed in this way, people feel like it is imposed on them.

In this context, it is important to remember that complex adaptive systems (CAS), which enterprises are, can be externally guided toward change by nudging or "disturbing" them through appropriate interventions. The interventions will influence the interactions and behaviors of the people, that is, agents in CAS terminology, which will move the organization from the current to the new state. If early feedback indicates that the interventions are not leading to the desired outcome, the nature and extent of interventions may need to be modified. The role of leaders is thus to facilitate the change through appropriate interventions and not to manage the change.

You just read an excerpt from the book Enterprise Agility written by Sunil Mundra and published by Packt Publishing.

Enterprise Agility is a step-by-step guide to facing change and uncertainty head-on. The books provide practical ways to apply Agile methodologies and boost Agility throughout a business.

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