Only Adaptable Organizations Have A Shot At Becoming Agile

If you are an Organizational Design professional, a business executive, or agile coach/consultant that has been sitting on the fence about Open Space Agility or Prime/OS™ (both leverage Large Group Interventions or ‘LGI’s’) for the last few years that it has been blowing every other Engagement Model or transformation platform out of the water (actually no others existed until about 1 year ago), then you may want to ask yourself if you are just a laggard.

Being conscientious is one thing.  I always look before I leap.  But waiting until academics have gone several years beyond gathering the data, and publishing white papers about their findings for scientific peer review, ultimately culminating in the publication of mass-marketed books…. is an entirely a different matter.  Could you be waiting for your competition to go first?  Would they tell you if they had?

First there was the question, “Is Agile really any better than running product development in stage gates?”  Clearly, the world has settled the issue more than 20 years ago.

Next, came the retort, “Sure, but will Agile scale in enterprise IT?”  Yes, but you’d better get it just right because crap doesn’t scale.  -Common knowledge by 2012.

Now, some still wonder, “How do we get it right sooner than later?” or “Could we be Agile everywhere in the organization?”

The answer has always been, “Only if you use a proper Engagement Model.” and “With OSA you could.”  Without first becoming an organization capable of adapting to whatever reality is presenting you with, there is no such thing as Business Agility, scaling agile or being agile, for you.  There’s only pretending or wishing you are.

But it’s not your fault!
If you didn’t hear the answer to the last couple of questions, maybe you were in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Maybe you didn’t think to ask.  Or maybe you needed to hear it from someone you can identify as a credible source.

Here’s one that’s been in print for 4 years now.  (In the entertainment industry, I think items this old are considered  to be in the “Jumping The Shark” stage of existence.)

“The single most important technique used to accelerate change at Allstate is the large-group intervention (LGI).  Variously known as search conferences, open space meetings, or decision accelerators LGIs vary in purpose (such as visioning, strategy formulation, organization design, or implementation planning); size (from fewer than fifty to over two thousand  people); composition (mix of internal and external stakeholders); length (hours or days); structure (very rigid and formal or loose and informal); and number (single events or a series of linked conferences). 4  Although the OE [blogger’s note: Organizational Effectiveness] Group customizes each transformation strategy, they often use a series of LGIs of about two hundred people to build a vision, define change initiatives, and sustain the transformation. Because LGIs involve a broad range of stakeholders, this strategy allows the business to take a systemic approach to transformation- applying the ITSS [Blogger’s note: OD industry term for ‘It’s the system, stupid!’] principle rather than a piecemeal, one-system-at-a-time approach.

The unit’s leadership team, in collaboration with the OE group or the design team, run an initial LGI jointly. Its purpose is to get buy-in for the strategy, refine any diagnostic work done by the leadership team, and establish the vision and case for change. Of particular importance, is the first LGI which gives the leadership team members an opportunity to demonstrate new behaviors consistent with the new way of operating while soliciting insight and commitment from the group. LGIs teach organization members and stakeholders how to think about shared leadership, perform innovative work, and make multistakeholder decisions – all important components of the agility routines [Blogger’s note: ‘routines’ is an OD term that means ‘processes’ or ‘practices’ to the lay public.] The output of the first LGI helps to create a vivid picture of the organization’s desired future state along several dimensions. Participants are charged with being an ambassador for change in their home subunits. [Blogger’s note: You may call said ‘subunits’ your ‘team.’]

A second LGI, with new participants from the same business or function, can take the results from the first LGI and propose a set of initiatives [Blogger’s note: you may call initiatives ‘experiments.’] that will deliver the desired change. By giving the large group a choice in what to address, the organization can focus on the most important agility routine or redesign the most important good management practices.  For example, the customer and enterprise services (CES) unit put forth “Five Bold Moves” that were implemented to support a strategy of “thrilling the customer” and “getting different.” They included changes in feedback processes and nonmonetary recognition programs that expected the same behaviors and performance from the printing press operator or an executives, a “travelling employee team” charged with sharing best practices and changing work processes, and training in business acumen.  The claims organization launched a number of transformational initiatives, changed the organization structure, and significantly modified a number of backbone processes. Thus the desired output of the second LGI is three to five initiatives with clear objectives and staffing requirements and a clear line of sight to agility. The design team and the leadership team are then jointly tasked with providing resources to the initiatives and monitoring their progress.

Sustain Change and Learn
A third LGI challenges participants to sustain the changes that the various initiatives will deliver.  This has three aspects: structural changes, leadership attention, and continuous improvement. Structural changes take the form of organization redesigns, process and workflow changes, information systems changes, or combinations of all three. The OE team brings tools to bear here, such as Galbraiths’s Start Model for organization design. LGI participants also develop new management processes to ensure that the change initiatives remain front and center on the leadership agenda. For some groups, this means making it a standing item at monthly leadership team meetings.

Finally, the OE team uses this third LGI to develop processes and tools to capture learning from the initiatives, to drive continuous improvements in performance, and to create new knowledge and skills regarding change. For example, the organization has learned that:
-Methodologies and change initiatives are effective only if they are adopted by the organization. The issue is not whether the OE team can run an LGI or manage a change in work processes, but how to transfer the skills and knowledge to the line organization so that it can run its own change processes. Methods, models, tools, and changes must fit with the organization’s reality and be owned by its members. In transformations where the OE team did most of the work because they wanted to be helpful or speed up the pace of change, success was limited.
-Leaders must understand the required behavior changes and their implications, commit to them, live them, and be held accountable for them. Over the course of different transformations, everyone had to deal with the problem of the “unpopped kernel”: a manager who had been given support, resources, feedback, and time but had not demonstrated the new behaviors. When these managers were replaced, it was a very public demonstration of leadership’s commitment to the values and the transformation at Allstate. When the “unpopped kernels” were not addressed, trust in leadership and credibility for the change decreased, and the ability to implement change dissolved.
-Measurement, using concrete data, is an intervention; it is not just a data-gathering process. People pay attention to what’s measured, and efforts to change measurement and incentive systems are powerful. These good management practices shaped to operate in a flexible way – help fix the foundation and support the perceiving and testing routines.
-Until a tangible shift is experienced in terms of day-to-day work, the change is not perceived to be real. The LGIs allow a higher percentage of people in the organization to participate in the diagnosis, decide on the changes to be made, and commit to the transformation. This alone makes the change more real and owned. But more important, the high degree of freedom given to the LGI participants to choose the meaningful and agility-related changes also ensures that change addresses the real issue of adding value.
As a result, with each transformation, the OE team, each unit’s leadership team, design team, and staff are learning about changing a complex system and operating more agile organizations. Each unit going through a transformation implements a variety of changes. Some are successful, some are not, but each change represents an opportunity to learn. It is the essence of the testing routine.

The transformation process at Allstate, and especially its heavy use of LGIs, had several key benefits. First, the opening set of activities – challenging leadership and clarifying strategy-speaks loudly about the way the agile organization operates. The strategy and perceiving routines depend greatly on an enlightened view of leading and managing that encourages engagement [blogger’s emphasis in bold] and speaking truth to power. Committing to new leadership behaviors and employing LGIs represents an inclusive, transparent, and shared view of leadership and focuses on getting clear strategies formulated, shared, and executed quickly. Second, the process focuses on learning, a key component of the testing routine. LGIs teach organization members new skills and knowledge with respect to innovation and multistakeholder decision making.

The process helped the organization implement change quickly and build change capability. LGIs accelerate change by considering a variety of issues simultaneously rather than serially with each stakeholder tapping into the energy and information of all participants for problem solving and action, and promoting the transformation of ideas into practical action steps through the rapdi prototyping of options and alternatives. The pace at which the implementation of a new strategy can occur is set by the ability of the different stakeholders to understand the strategy, their willingness to accept the new capabilities, and their ability to contribute to the change. Large-group interventions bring “the whole system into the room” 5 and can remove and relax these limits through “education by common experience.” 6 When a whole system shares and commonly interprets an experience, it can produce significant and rapid changes in understanding and behavior.
Accelerated change processes in turn accelerate the achievement of results.  For the operations group, the “green line” of customer satisfaction started to improve. Years had gone by with absolutely no movement in customer satisfaction: after the LGIs, continuous improvement was shown for seven months in a row, moving from 77 percent to 84 percent satisfaction. In addition, the operations group started “paying back” part of its budget each year through cost reductions and improved productivity. Finally the organization successfully implemented a difficult and large-scale operational change. An evaluation of that change widely attributed its success to the lesson learned from the transformation.”
[Jumping forward 1 paragraph…]

“Is Allstate agile? Not yet. Like Cambia, they have a way to go, but they have put themselves on the right track. Supported by their change-friendly “good hands” identity, they are building a strong and embedded change capability that will allow them to make change more quickly and efficiently. Their emphasis on changing the leadership mind-sets and conducting the change process to reinforce the emergence of a shared leadership philosophy will support the emergence of a strong perceiving routine. However, their “middle out” change strategy is risky, and its future success depends on the continued support of corporate executives. The success of the transformation in producing meaningful results will certainly help in gaining that support.”

The Agility Factor: Building Adaptable Organizations for Superior Performance by Christopher G. Worley, Thomas Williams, and Edward E. Lawler III

Footnote 4: B. Bunker and B. Alban, Large group interventions (San Francisco: Jossey-Bas, 1997).
Footnote 5:  M. Weisbord, Productive workplaces (San Francisco: Jossey-Bas, 1987)
Footnote 6:  G. Vickers, Freedom in a rocking boat (Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1970), 142

In Japanese, there is an old saying, 「石橋でも叩いてから渡る。」<Ishibashi demo tataite kara wataru.>  Pound on even a stone bridge before you cross it.  In other words, play it safe for important things like your life.

I recommend my clients do just that.  I also have another quote for them,

“It is not always what we know or analyzed before we make a decision that makes it a great decision.  It is what we do after we make the decision to implement and execute it that makes it a good decision.”  -William Pollard

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