Local staffing firm and winner of the Most Non-Ironically Orwellian-Sounding Twitter Handle Award tweeted this the other day:
That’s a pretty bold statement for a company that’s never done a change initiative. All successful change initiatives start at the top.
This idea is actually not unheard of. You hear it other places, mostly as the result of disillusionment. You can’t be an agile consultant very long without having the surreal experience of a company hiring you to help them change, then deciding they don’t really want to change all that much. As agility begins to cascade upward and outward threatening all extant presuppositions and practices, they stand, Gandalf-like, bellowing that YOU SHALL NOT PASS and breaking the bridge before all that hubbub you’re creating in their developer teams gets to accounting or whatever. There was one organization in particular where I felt they were paying me a very good amount of money for the privilege of ignoring me altogether. Like I said, it’s a very surreal feeling, especially when people can and do ignore me for free.
However, the truth is that change that begins at the worker level can and does work. In fact, my most successful “agile transformation” started with a development team, and once people saw the points being put on the scoreboard, the changes cascaded throughout the organization, changing their culture, levels of trust, rate of delivery – all kinds of good stuff. I’ve also seen change initiatives start at the top and fail miserably because, even though management was behind it, none of the workers were. It was something forced down on them, and they could get with the program or get out. People were resentful at worst and apathetic at best, confident in the knowledge that this was management’s new fad, and next year it would be something different. Change initiatives that start at the top without the full buy-in and participation of the ground up have a high risk for failure, and I speak from experience.
So, is it the case that all successful change initiatives start from the ground up? That’s also incorrect. Nobody can destroy a company’s agility like their leadership, and I’m going to go along with Deming here and say that the vast, vast majority of a company’s performance problems rest with leadership (ironically, vast amounts of time and money are spent on structures trying to pinpoint failures in the work force – “We need to hold our people accountable” is usually followed by an unspoken “because the problem sure isn’t me”). Your pilot project can outperform everything in company history, and management can still shut you down. It would be nice if good results were the final word in these kinds of decisions, but anyone who thinks data is the final word in an argument has never been in a long-term relationship. So, change initiatives that begin at the roots level without the full buy-in and participation of management also carry a high risk of failure.
If change initiatives that start at the top are prone to failure, and change initiatives that start at the bottom are prone to failure, then what are you supposed to do? Start in the middle?
The first part of the solution is, as Deming says, “The transformation is everyone’s job.” You have to be willing to address the organization as a whole. Agility has ramifications for everyone, and can actually be harmful if you only optimize a particular segment. Can you imagine what would happen if you could make the front driver-side tire on your car go 50mph faster than the other wheels? A similar thing happens to organizations where agility is only increasing in one place. If you want to transform an organization, everybody has to know that what you are doing is going to affect everyone from the CEO to the night janitor. Naturally, this can cause concern, and this leads me to my second part of the solution.
The second part of the solution is that organizations are resistant to change because of the way we try to make them change. When we blame an organization’s agile adoption difficulties on their industry, culture, or people, we haven’t gotten to the root cause. The root cause is that your way of changing the organization is setting it off the way a cold virus sets off your body. “What the hell is this thing?” says your body, and the fever goes up to try to boil it out of you, the snot spigots unload to try to flush it out of you, and sometimes other unpleasant things that tend to happen at inopportune moments. This is what organizations do to alien matter introduced into their system. And believe me, brothers and sisters, I am preaching to myself as much as anyone on this point, as I can cite instances in my career when I was happy to blame the transformational difficulties on the company instead of the way I was going about things.
Change initiatives have to be done with a respect for people and in a manner that drives out all fear of losing their job (Deming, again). This is the genius of Kanban: the changes are incremental, evolutionary, and the ideas and decisions come from the people doing the work instead of something imposed on them from the outside. You can’t just go in like Yosemite Sam hootin’ and hollerin’ with pistols blazing. When people start responding with resentment or fear, that’s your cue that you have done something wrong; it is not a cue that something is wrong with them. What kind of misanthrope would you have to be to start thinking about getting rid of people who are actually doing you a huge favor by reacting negatively to what you’re doing?
When you start with where workers are at, and you give them the tools to visualize their work, and you help them define what they’re doing, and you help them measure how efficiently that work is being done, and you ask them, “So, what do you think we should do?” you are on the road to people being valued, giving you buy-in, and coming up with better solutions than you could. Do you sometimes need to bring in ideas from the outside to get people started? Sure, sometimes – but even then, it’s something you want them to own, not something they have to comply with.
Change initiatives from the top can work; change initiatives from the bottom can work, but both are risky. Successful change initiatives start with everyone, and they are done by listening and building up your people instead of forcing it on them or getting rid of them.