Behaviours That Transform Organisations

September 10, 2019

I recently attended a workshop around digital transformation at techfestival.co. Here I’ve followed up with some of the things I learned about including some of my own thoughts on the topic.

There are two things required for making positive and effective changes in teams and orgs:

  1. Crucial behaviours
  2. Effective learning process

I’ll discuss and summarise both in this post.

Crucial Behaviours

1. Be humble and open

Understand that the assumptions we make are in fact that - assumptions.

We can achieve that by working to remove as much ego as possible, detaching from solutions, and being transparent. Understanding that everything we work towards is a work in progress is key. We must face friction and conflict in an open way, address it and find a way to move forward.

2. Deep collaboration

We are one team.

We draw lines around people and teams all the time. We see management or product or engineering or sales as a separate department who has their own responsibilities. Often if something goes wrong we look for where it broke down and hope the closest aligned department or person takes responsibility to fix it.

However, this only reinforces the barriers to collaboration. Instead, if we continuously focus on improving cross functionality and diversity in teams we can work towards unlocking that “collective genius”, because teams effectiveness equals more than the sum of it’s parts.

Collaboration is hard (and even more so in a distributed org). It requires new connections, communications and relationships to be built when making teams which include a truly cross functional set of people. Coaching with a focus on people and relationship building is key here.

3. Ask the right questions in the right way

The way we frame our communication or questions can really impact our culture - positively or negatively.

We must take great care in adding to safety and collaboration when making requests. It’s important to take a step back and understand your intention when asking these questions.

Here are some examples of how the same intent can be satisfied while reaching a more constructive outcome:

❌ When will the project be done by? ✅ When will we have our current progress in the hands of users?
This reinforces the idea that changes we make have a known scope and end, and that by a certain date we won’t need to do any work on it again. Software applications don’t work that way. Instead, we can frame it in a way that promotes iterative and frequent delivery of value to users.
❌ How long is it delayed by? ✅ What can we achieve in the current time frame?
When a deadline exists, it opens the door to negative pressure and control from mgmt. This question creates an idea that something has gone wrong, but changes in timelines are a reality in the complex and problem-solving nature of software development. Instead, we can frame it in a way that promotes iterative and frequent delivery of value to users in a positive way.
❌ Can we get this done in two weeks? ✅ What can we achieve in two weeks?
Here the framing takes away problem solving responsibility from the team and minimises the complexity involved in achieving the goal.
Also, it’s very unlikely that a project or goal will ever fit exactly in an arbitrary time frame.
The only way to answer is yes or no, and therefore does not encourage collaboration in finding a solution, and is setting you up for authority-bias (people tend to comply with requests made by someone with more authority, regardless if it’s the right thing to do).
Instead, you can empower the team to work with you to find a solution to reach a productive answer that is not just yes/no.

4. Be focussed

Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Always start small and always make incremental changes. Doing everything at once at worst never works and at best makes you achieve it all much more slowly. In orgs there are always problems that need fixing or areas that need improving. It can be a real challenge to see a number of problems but only take action on one at a time. However, doing that along with testing continuously to stay on the right track is the most effective way to make a big difference in the long term.

5. Always reflect and learn

Spending time to learn together is a higher priority than anything else.

At every step or every change we must take time to reflect together and learn. The only way we can continue in the right direction is to take time to understand what that direction is. You likely already spend some time doing this without realising, but this principle is specifically about prioritising it, making it deliberate and going into it with the frame of mind to listen actively and to reach shared conclusions. One week spent learning together to spend the next three months building the right thing the right way is cost saving and risk reducing - and that should not be forgotten about.

6. Embrace the unknown

Be ok with not knowing the answer, and instead focus on learning.

If you take a moment to reflect on most of the decisions and changes we make, they are always into the unknown by some degree. Embracing the idea that we do not have all the answers helps us live by an experimentation and beginner’s mindset. It allows us to try new paths and test for real for the outcomes we are looking to achieve with no ego.

As our default position is “we don’t know yet”, it’s important to bring in other perspectives in decision or change making. This means well outside your usual circle. For example, if you are introducing a new design process, you could even reach out to some other businesses and ask them some questions that you are facing - you can go that far outside the box!

ℹ️ Tips for leaders

  1. Be engaged for real. Show that you care and get your hands dirty.
  2. Turn up. Join team meetings, have 1on1s, engage with q+a’s. Bring other people along and make them care. You are a leader!
  3. Ask the right questions (see above). Do not set your culture back with inappropriate questions.
  4. Trust and empowerment should be your default approach. Reflect if your actions add or take away from trust and autonomy in the people you lead.
  5. Lead by example. This is last but most definitely not least. Do not make a decision, suggest a process or give some feedback and then not live by your own standards - that would be a sure-fire way to kill trust and build walls between teams and mgmt. Do not underestimate the damage it can do! It takes many cases to build trust and only one to break it.

As a leader, the most important take away is that change leadership is about people and human behaviour above all. Focussing on how people think, feel and work together will get you more effectively to a better outcome than focussing on process, tools or practices.

The Learning Process

In our personal lives there is a huge taboo around output-based goals for happiness. We would never accept a goal such as “once I have x I will be happy”. Most people learn that even if we achieve x, there is still so much more missing. We should keep this in mind for orgs too. We cannot do Agile. There is no “we are SCRUM now so everything will be ok”. OKRs can be great to support transparent and focussed goal setting, but they in themselves do not resolve problems or reach goals, people do. Remember that, much like happiness in our lives, the goals we have in orgs are people and human based and possessing some material thing, tool or process does not achieve our goal in itself but simply supports us on the journey towards it.

The right way to think about change leadership or transformation is as a marathon, and one with an ever changing terrain. Sometimes we can plan long term outcomes, and sometimes we won’t know what’s coming around the corner. There will be many things that will help us on the journey (and some things that won’t!) but we continue learning so we can keep pace towards all the milestones we set.

What successful learning looks like:

Success in the learning process can be captured with three principles:

1. Deliver value continuously.

Small, measurable changes. Always, often and for the whole time.

2. Focus on the real needs and keep adjusting.

Your goal is to find the real needs beneath the frustrations and confusions. Create something that you can learn from as a primary goal. You will 100% not have the final solution with your first idea. If you cannot learn, you are wasting your time because you could be making things worse or spending your time improving something that you know will have an impact.

Ask questions, get stakeholders, facilitate human feedback throughout the whole thing.

3. Ensure the mandate to change things exists.

You need all three of the following:

  1. Execs need to be involved and engaged.
  2. Empowered self organising teams must exist.
  3. Change agents throughout the org (core people, advocates and change catalysts).

Conclusion

Change is really hard, but it’s at the core of everything we want to achieve in orgs and teams. By keeping in mind the above principles, practicing mindfulness and reflection, we can follow a process of learning throughout the whole org to get us to the outcomes we are all aiming for.

If you are interested in reading more on the topic, you can find further discussion in a free book that you can download here.

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