Photo credit: Andre Hunger / Unsplash

One more time: change is a game of mind

All of a sudden change in work is happening or referred to everywhere, all the time. I wonder if it’s been like this for some years and I only now realised? Or is this now the steepest slope for the up-take of all things agile and iterative: design thinking, digitalisation, DevOps, increased automation etc. fluid ways of working.

Be as it may, during the past year I have participated in numerous initiatives on taking these new more fluid practices in use. I see them all as different sides to a changed way of thinking. In order to be more relevant, more practical, and closer to customers we strive to iterate, learn and share to find concrete improvement as fast as possible. We pilot to generate data that we can analyse to learn, in stead of guestimating.

We are changing the way we work

We talk about taking in use these new ways of working, methods, and technologies. It sounds so easy — they are improvements to the old; why would we not want to use them? Too seldom do we consider or talk about this being a learning process. We admit that change is needed and that change is difficult, we just don’t add any time or budget for it in our plans.

When was the last time you learned a new skill and then immediately took it in use to do much of our daily routines in a new way?

Our learning skills flourished as children. Walking is a skill we learned and then took into daily use. How did we do that? We first learned to stand hanging with both hands tightly on something like a chair. Then we started to test our balance and strength by bouncing a bit next to the chair. After that we practiced letting go of the chair and/or took first steps pushing the chair before finally taking the first steps on our own. It took a lot of time.

And all while doing this — even after we learned the skill, we fell down. A lot.

We need to learn this approach to changes: we need to practice and become more balanced in the new skills before we can be expected to take it fully in use. Adopting new technologies; taking new software in use or automating development pipelines always requires changes in the way we operate. They need to be managed as changes. Otherwise we risk loosing much of the benefits the technology could bring. Without practicing and learning the new processes, we will eventually try to find a way to fit the new tools into our existing routines. Because as humans, we are bad at changing our habits.

Same goes for adopting new methods or ways of working — changes are difficult and we people are fond of our routines. No matter how much we understand the need for that change, no matter how well the value of the change was sold to us, we tend to fall back to our old habits unless there is a deliberate program to prohibit that. Change management is nothing new, but we use it too scarcely.

There needs to be light

Good change initiatives require commitment and guidance from the top of the organisation, while all layers of the organisation are empowered to try new approaches to learn new skills. In large corporations middle management has an important role in converting the top vision and strategic message. They make the message tangible and relatable to everyone.

Middle management is also where the change often succeeds or fails — they have the power to make sure that things really change in day to day work and the change program stays on track.

Trial and error are part of the iterative approach to change. We start to work with new technology, using a new process and then find out what isn’t working. In all changes failing and risk taking should be encouraged especially in the lower levels of organisation, as that is where costs of failing are smallest and the chances of finding improvements are greatest.

This too rarely happens in large organisations. While the top management and finance organisation are busy minimising unauthorised risk taking, the organisation ends up taking the largest risk of all: that of moving slowly while smaller competitors are running. Here again, middle managers and their attitudes to risk taking and failing are important.

Leaders and teachers come in all shapes and forms

When we are forced to change our behaviours, we all react differently. For some the change might be quite close to how they wanted to do things anyway — they agree with it. For others, the new ways might not be as welcome, or the new practices as logical. That’s ok.

However, there needs to be openness and clear communication on what kinds of behaviours are expected and encouraged. The first movers need to be praised and rewarded. And when people don’t follow new practices, this needs to be taken up and publicly discussed.

Change is fragile, and letting the old behaviours reside as subculture will kill progress in longer term.

Changing is also a bit like walking in the dark. You try to find your way touching objects around you with outstretched hands. It makes us feel insecure, and we don’t like it. Insecurity easily triggers in us the wish for fleeing: “I don’t want to do this. I want to be elsewhere.” In this environment being able to trust that you won’t be punished for unsuccessful trials is even more important.

Change is also about learning to recover from failure. Both technical and personal.

Communities and mentoring; learning and failing together ease this pain. With such support, the insecurity is not individual, but shared. It becomes more like a shared adventure. Thus, when planning change make sure to find the budget and time to let people trial together and mentor one another. We are more creative together, and it will improve our thinking.

Fluidity means that change is constant

And then we need to make change itself the habit. What is common to all of these iterative and fluid ways of working is that they embrace continuous change. The whole ideology of iterative development is based on the thought that the right mix can only be found by iterating, validating with customers, and then learning. This is a continuous loop that makes change inevitably constant and continuous.

We currently talk about a number of new methods, ideas, and technologies as the source for change needs. They all share a common approach; an iterative loop where trial, error and learning are constant. This is a big change, especially in large corporations where planning, minimising risks, and predictability have been virtues.

The mindset change needed is big. Plan accordingly.