Transformation Hall Pass & Big Bang Regressions

When transforming an entire enterprise it is nearly impossible to all of sudden instantaneously flip everything on its ear: the roles, processes, organizational structure and the mindsets of all the people that inhabit it.  From the outside looking in, there are many aspects of life that appear susceptible to instant metamorphosis.  Individual kernels of pop corn bursting open, photographic film exposed to sunlight, the illumination of a light bulb…all of them are commonplace to us.
However, many changes happen so gradually, at such a small scale or large scale that our perception of them is that they are practically static and immutable.  Consider the pupa.  Though it contains dormant life, it does not move perceptibly to humans.  Indeed, we would not recognize that the contents of the cocoon are a gelatinous protein soup which gradually morphs into a butterfly wrapped in its own pied wings.  More simply: it was Goo. How awkward it is to be in Goo. Though the worm is gone, it never died, nor was the butterfly “born” from another butterfly.  It emerged from its former self.  The Grand Canyon was once a stream on the open plains, until it wasn’t.
In the enterprise, we have a similar goal: Keep the enterprise alive, producing value to customers, while it transforms itself and emerges a new creature to the oblivious outside world.  The agile coach has at least 3 goals to achieve in serving as a kind of mid-wife to the new entity:

1) Don’t let it die.
2) Don’t let it regress to former self, and
3) Help it happen as fast and painless as possible.

In some cases, these 3 imperatives seem to be working in counter purposes to one another.  Many people speak of the moment where all the planned changes take effect as a kind of moment of truth, where “ripping off the band-aid” can be fast or slow, with a preference for fast.
However, some things cannot be rushed, and going too fast will kill the animal.  With cocoons at least, it is by very sad experience that I can tell you perforating the circumference of the cocoon seems to be useful to an emerging butterfly by lowering the amount of effort to burst free from it’s confines.  However, what actually happens is that before the emergent butterfly has even dried its wings upon exiting the cocoon, it dies without exception.  There are internal toxins which the emerging butterfly will secrete in the furious, explosive work of pounding a whole in the walls of the chrysalis and squeezing its entire body through it.  If it fails to work up this life-saving sweat, the residual toxins alone kill the creature.  So, non-interference at this crucial stage is the best service one could do for the transformation.
With organizations, we agile coaches and managers only wish to help.  Suddenly changing all the company’s policies, roles, structure and process would be such a colossal, disruptive shock, which could jeopardize the continuity of business.  So, big bang starts into transformation are unheard of.
In Open Space Agility, we recommend that the approach come from the people who do the everyday work.  The approach is an experiment, and therefore it has some unpredictable elements, but learning ensues and iterations on the approach lead to an optimal one.
Given: the first experiment is logically the riskiest because so little is yet known about possible outcomes.  We mitigate the risk by restricting the stakes put at risk, and reducing the variables.   One change group and a control group enable some simple, yet powerful learning possibilities.
In the first Open Space event, volunteers can self-select or organize into a pilot team.  It is an experiment to prove a hypothesis or learn more about the reality of the forces at work in their system.  Eventually a successful team emerges from these repeated experiments, and the news spreads fast, emboldening previously reluctant volunteers, or prudent skeptics who watched over the experiments while carrying out the duties of the business, providing operating capital for reinventing of the organization.  Their sacrifice must not go unsung, because they did it all short-handed.  Stripped of historical headcount (the volunteers who left the ranks of their old teams) the “control group” teams had to get by, making more business value with fewer hands to make light work.
Indeed, these patient, stalwart servants of the organization are heroes in this story of scientific advancement of the work system.  How are they rewarded with each successful wave of new teams adopting agile configurations (cross-functional, co-located, right-sized, full-stack teams)?  They are further drained of coworkers’ effort and skill sets with each new round.  No matter how frantically they work to take up the slack to compensate for the vacant spots on their team, they can never catch up, unless their work load is proportionately decreased.
In all my years, I’ve not seen a timely, proportionate migration of workload from the stripped teams over to the newly formed agile teams.  It’s invariably a “bumpy ride” for anchor teams holding the plane in flight while the engines are being dismantled and reassembled into ones of higher performance.
At some point the workload has got to flip from the overburdened, short-handed old teams, to the newly emerging agile teams, which may still represent only some small fraction of the entire workforce.  If you listen to the conversations in the old teams, you’ll hear them saying this.  “When are we going to have either off-load our projects, or go agile ourselves?”
“We can’t get our work done because we don’t have the skill sets anymore or the shear headcount to finish the same volume of tasks.”
It is my experience that this is the precise moment when management or the powers that be in the enterprise should call a meeting of all the people belonging to the old teams, to form a large set of self-selecting, cross-functional, right-sized, full-stack agile teams.  I guarantee you that there will be managers who have not completely evolved their mindset to resemble an agile mindset, and they will say, “We don’t need to stop the teams from working because we can assign them to the right agile teams.”  Even the managers who you thought had evolved beyond this kind of command and control paradigm, may regress backward to this old, familiar rhetoric, without realizing it in the moment.  They need reassurance.
Nobody needs to start playing traffic cop at a Big Room Team Forming event.  If you empower people to govern themselves, give them multiple iterations to distribute and balance their skills sets and work capacity, they can solve the super complex problem of who to plug into which new team, which is accepting which set of business requirements.  FAST Agile is a time-proven framework that has accomplished this quite effectively in practice and is described by its inventor Ron Quartel.  There are several author practitioners who publish the How-To of re-teaming, such as Heidi Helfand’s Dynamic Reteaming and Sandy Mamoli’s Creating Great Teams.  Craig Larman features in a story several years ago about team forming at scale with self-designing teams.  There is no more reason to doubt that teams can consistently accomplish organization without the “assistance” or interference of managers.  As Deming pointed out, when managers intervene with a system that works well, they are creating waste within their system, or more plainly they are “meddling” as he termed it.
“I know of 4 particular bad eggs who are going to reject the agile process.  They know who each other are, and they’ll form a team of their own so they don’t have to do anything, and they’ll just blame each other and create big problems…” chimed a director at a client, as their anxiety swelled to borderline paranoia.   Managers are confronting a dire need for systemic change for the first time, and the need to shift in their own professional identity. In panic mode, they commence exo nihilo generating new reasons for their old existence.  “We’ve got to make them join an agile team, and abandon waterfall or they never will.”
Yeah, he said it.  -The M word.
‘Make’ as in ‘mandate.’  -Force people into the box you want them confined by, using your positional authority.  That just gives rise to a whole new set of problems, so rampant, virulent and subversive that command and control managers up in their ivory tower will never stamp it out, thus renewing the logical loop of the organization’s need for their continued meddling.
There has got to be a better way.  The old teams are over burdened.  They can’t wait to form into the new teams.  We can’t succumb to coercion because it will destroy the high level of engagement and motivation required for agile, effectively leaving the remaining teams as the hostages of the few people Unwilling to move forward.
The answer is a ‘hallpass.’  -A get out of jail free card.  If you don’t want to be in a team, you don’t have to be.
Hallpass recipients need to find a way to add value.  And it is a viable option to create business value outside the team.   In the LeSS framework, there are technical specialists outside the team known as “Travelers.”  SAFe has technical SMEs.  Kanban System Design has limited availability resources.  Giving dispensation to a small group of people who do not wish to join an agile team does not prevent the agile transformation from happening.
I know this from first-hand experience.  When a former employer was scaling agile, in 1 line of business there were 3 principle programmers who could not be cajoled into joining a team when teams were forming en mass.  These were the folks that had written the very first line of code and maintained the multi-million line code base for over a decade.  They had seen failed attempts to replace the original system (“lift-and-shift” gone awry).
Their view of the transformation was “this too shall pass.”   If the agile teams collectively ever got stuck in a corner with the code base, these gentlemen would be up all night digging them out.  Herculean rescue efforts was there specialty and they were there for us in emergencies.  A human safety net, but it was a dirty little secret because nobody was supposed to have a hall pass.
Two of the trio finally joined an agile team of their volition because the fun and camaraderie was contagious.  The last hold out was generally in a bad mood and played the role of Oscar the Grouch in the enterprise, but his contributions were valued and everyone respected him for making them.

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