Change is the currency of every organization involved developing, enhancing or maintaining software. Change includes the business process being automated, the techniques used to do work or even the technology upon which the software is built. Very little significant change is frictionless. For change to occur the need and benefit to be gained for solving the problem must overcome inertia – the work needed to find a solution and implement the solution. (more…)

The big (panoramic) picture.

The big (panoramic) picture.

In Systems Thinking: Difficulties we focused on the dark side of systems thinking.  But, systems thinking is a powerful framework for change agents. There are two primary reasons systems thinking has a tremendous impact:

  • Understanding Context
  • Value Focus


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The Software Process and Measurement Cast 386 features our interview with Jason Little. Jason and I discussed his exploration of storytelling in change management.  Stories are a powerful tool to develop and hone a big picture view of organizational change.

Jason began his career as a web developer when Cold Fusion roamed the earth. Over the following years, he moved into management, Agile Coaching and consulting. The bumps and bruises collected along the way brought him to the realization that helping organizations adopt Agile practices is less about the practices, and all about change.

In 2008, he attended an experiential learning conference about how people experience change, and since then he’s been writing and speaking all over the world about helping organizations discover more effective practices for managing organizational change. He is the author of Lean Change Management and an international speaker who has spoken all over the world from Canada, the US, Finland, Germany, Australia, Belgium and more. (more…)

A wrapping paper change barbarian

A wrapping-paper-change barbarian

When you begin a change process it is important to remember a few critical points. If you were getting ready for vacation, the checklist might include identifying who is going and who is in charge, deciding on a destination, a map, and hotel reservations. Beginning a process improvement project is not very different. Here is my simple checklist with five of the most critical requirements for preparing to embrace a journey of change. My critical five are:

1. An Identified Goal

2. Proper Sponsorship

3. Sufficient Budget

4. A Communication Strategy and Plan

5. A Tactical Plan

The first item on the checklist is an identified goal. The goal is the definition of where you want to go; the destination in the vacation analogy. A goal provides direction and a filter to understand the potential impact of constraints. Examples of a goal can range from something as simple as, “reduce the cost of projects,” or as complex as “attain CMMI Maturity Level 5.” The goal also sets the table for discussing all of the other items on the checklist, such as the required budget. One piece of advice: make sure your goal can be concisely and simply stated. Simplicity increases the chance the goal will be broadly remembered, which reduces the number of times you will need to explain the goal, which will increase the amount of time available for progress.

Proper sponsorship is next on the list. Sponsorship is important because it is provides the basis for the authority needed to propel change. There are many different types and levels of sponsorship. The word “proper” is used in this line item to remind you that there is no one type of sponsorship that fits all events and organizational culture. One example is the “barbarian.” The barbarian is the type that will lead the charge, but typically is less collaborative and more a command-driven personality. Barbarians tend to be viewed as zealots who harness their belief structure to provide single minded energy towards the goal they are focused on. Having a barbarian as a sponsor can infuse change projects with an enormous amount of power. The bookend to the barbarian type of sponsorship is the “bureaucrat”. Sponsorship from a bureaucrat is very different. Instead of leading the charge, bureaucrats tend to organize and control the charge. They may provide guidance, but they rarely get directly involved in the fray. The examples show two different varieties of sponsorship each that will fit in different organizations. In a life or death situation, I would like to have a barbarian for a sponsor. However if I was affecting incremental changes in a command and control organization, the bureaucrat would make more sense. Remember sponsorship is important because sponsorship give you access to power.

Budget is next on the checklist. The term budget can cover a wide range of ground ranging from money to availably of human resources (effort). The budget will answer the question “how much of the organization’s formal resources can you apply?” The budget that ends up being identified to support change is always less than what seems to be needed. Use this constraint as a tool to motivate your team to find innovations on the way to attaining the goal rather and a reason to rein in your goal.

The first plan I recommend building is an organizational change management plan (OCMP). The OCMP is frames how your project is going to transform the future state of the organization. It will integrate the project roles and responsibilities with the requirements for communication, training, oversight, reporting and the strategies to address resistance, and reinforcement activities. The OCMP is a mixture of a high-level map and how-to document that is critical to ensure you are as focused on how you are change the organization as to tasks required to define and implement specific processes.

Finally you will need a tactical plan that lays out the tasks you need to accomplish and the order the tasks need to be done. The focus and breadth of the tactical plan you use will be different depending on the project management technique that you use. For example, if you use a time boxed technique like SCRUM your tactical plan will focus on identifying tasks for the current sprint based on the backlog of items required to reach your goal. Regardless of the planning technique used you must have a tactical plan or risk falling into random activity. Use the technique that conforms to your project’s needs and your organization’s culture. The bottom line is that you will you need to understand the activities and order they occur in to get to your goal.

Change is difficult to accomplish in the best of times, and almost impossible if you fail to start properly. This simple checklist for change readiness was developed and compiled to help you focus on a set of topics that need to be considered when beginning any process improvement project. Are there other areas that should be on the list? Can each topic area be deconstructed into finer levels of granularity? I believe the answer is certainly yes, and I would urge you to augment and deconstruct the list and further to share your results. In any case a checklist that focuses you on getting your sponsorship, goals, budget and plans in order can help you start well.

Communicate, many ways and many times!

Communicate, many ways and many times!

Change is a fact of life. John P. Kotter’s book, Leading Change, defines his famous eight-stage model for change. The first stage of the model is establishing a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency provides the energy and rational for any large, long-term change program. Once a sense of urgency has been established, the second stage in the eight-stage model for change is the establishment of a guiding coalition. If a sense of urgency provides energy to drive change, a guiding coalition provides the power for making change happen. A vision, built on the foundation of urgency and a guiding coalition, represents a picture of a state of being at some point in the future. Once a vision has been established, it must be clearly and consistently communicated. Failure to effectively communicate the vision will cripple change.

Kotter lists seven attributes for effective communication of the change vision.

  1. Keep it simple – The vision must be clearly understandable by all of those who are impacted. The message must be clear and simple, which means ZERO mumbo jumbo. The United States Coast Guard has the one of best vision statements I have ever read, “The world’s best responders: anytime, any place, any hazard.” Everyone from top most senior officers to the most junior enlisted personnel would have difficulty misinterpreting the vision when making day-to-day decisions.
  2. Metaphor, analogy, and examples –Use words to paint pictures in people’s mind that clarify the complexity.
  3. Multiple forums – Increasing the number of vehicles used to communicate the message increases the chance that the vision will be heard, internalized and institutionalized.
  4. Repetition – Communicating a vision requires more than a roll-out speech and an article in the company newsletter. The vision needs to be continually repeated and reinforced in order to break through the clutter of competing communications.
  5. Leadership by example – Leaders must participate in and live the change. Living the change increases the credibility and deflects resistance. Perceived inconsistencies between the vision of change and how leadership acts will be noticed. Inconsistencies in behavior will hurt or deflect change.
  6. Explain perceived inconsistencies.
  7. Give and take – Communicating the vision for change requires two-way communication between leaders and others involved in making change a reality. Two-way communication means both listening and being heard. Communication implies that if the vision is wrong that the change vision may need to change.

Effective change requires that enough people understand the change they are being asked to make and where that change will lead them. Ambiguously crafted visions and communications will at best cause confusion and at worst derail change. Regardless of the urgent need for a change or how carefully the vision is crafted people do not follow those they feel are on the wrong path. This true even if the change has powerful backers. Effective communication of the change vision helps to build the critical mass needed to make change actually happen.


John P. Kotter’s Leading Change established why change in organizations can fail and the forces that shape successful in the first two chapters. The two sets of opposing forces he identifies are used to define his famous eight-stage model for change. The first step of the model is establishing a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency provides the energy and rational for any large, long-term change program. Once a sense of urgency has been established, the second step is the establishment of a guiding coalition. If a sense of urgency provides energy to drive change, a guiding coalition provides the power for to make change happen.

Kotter defines a guiding coalition as a team built on trust and a common goal. The team must reflect the proper balance of four key attributes in order to be effective:

  1. Position Power – Are the members of the coalition in the right organizational positions to support and foster progress? Are they in the right place in the organization to overcome those outside the coalition that can disrupt progress? For example, not including line-management in the guiding coalition for a change that affects them is typically dangerous. Not involving the leadership of the organization most directly affected will generate active resistance or passive aggressive behavior. Without the involvement of those that will be affected  In a software development organization, not including development managers in the guiding coalition for planning and implementing changes that would impact how they staff a project would generate resistance.  It would easy to view the change they are being asked to make as being forced on them from the outside..
  2. Expertise – Do the members of the team have the relevant skills and knowledge needed to make the decision’s needed to make the right change happen? When considering the topic of expertise, the concept of diversity must be considered. Relevant diversity helps team take broader perspective when making decisions.
  3. Credibility – Does the broader organization (specially the areas impacted in the change) trust and believe in the reputations of the members so that decisions will be accepted? Without credibility the guiding the decisions and messaging around the change will not be taken seriously.
  4. Leadership – The guiding coalition has to have enough leadership to drive the change. While there is not a single precise definition of leadership, the core attribute of all definition is the ability to influence a group of people to achieve a goal.

The guiding coalition needs to reflect a combination of all of these qualities. For example, a guiding coalition without leadership will either tend to wander aimlessly or not have enough influence to get the organization to follow them. Kotter drives home the point that a well-balanced team is needed by comparing changes driven by the lone, powerful champion and the underpowered committee. The lone powerful champion can work in scenarios where diversity of thought is not critical or the required rate of change is slow. Given the pace of change and level of complexity most development organizations face on a day-to-day basis, these scenarios are outside of the norm today. Many organizations appoint committees to lead and champion change that are merely groups of managers that meet to facilitate status sharing or don’t have the power needed to generate change and influence the organization. A few years ago I was asked to observe a project steering committee for a CMMI implementation. The implementation touched every aspect of the development group in the organization (including support and enhancements). The steering committee was comprised of proxies for the leaders all impacted departments. Each person on the committee had their own agenda insuring that the committee was a group rather than a team. Also, because they were proxies for other leaders there were very few decisions they were empowered to make because they had very little positional authority. The steering committee had a hard time steering anything.  A guiding coalition needs to be a team that is focused on a single goal in order to effectively provide the structure needed to harness and guide the energy unleashed by a common well understood sense of urgency.

Fire Alarm

Kaizen is a Japanese word meaning good change. Change in a dynamic business environment has become an accepted norm. Organizations must adapt or lose relevancy. The concept of kaizen has been adopted within the information technology industry as part of core management practices. In business terms, kaizen has been defined as continuous incremental change. You need energy to make change occur, in many cases, a sense of urgency is the mechanism used to generate the energy to drive continuous change.

John Kotter, author of Leading Change and the eight-step model of change, suggests that without a sense of urgency people don’t give the needed push of hard work to make change happen. Urgency begins by providing a focus that helps people to first become aware of the need for change and then pay attention to the need and the factors causing the need by piercing through the noise. (See the awareness, attention, action model). The energy a sense of urgency injects into the process is needed make the step from paying attention to taking to break through complacency and disrupt the status quo.

The need for urgency in the equation for change can lead to problems. The first is the potential for confusing importance with urgency. In a perfect world, we would only want to react to what is both important and urgent. The second problem area is that of manufactured/false urgency. Both problematic scenarios lead to the sapping of the organization’s energy in the long term, which makes it more difficult to recognize and react when real change is needed. If further there is an over reliance on a manufactured or a false sense of urgency the focus becomes short-term rather than strategic.

My first job out of university was as a statistical analyst/sales forecaster for a woman’s garment manufacturer. We had six “seasons” or product line offerings every year. Quotas were set for the sales force (incrementally bigger than last year). The sales management team for regional sales managers to the national sales manager provided constant “motivation” to the sales force. Motivation always included the dire consequences of missing the quota. There was always a sense of urgency, which drove action, including account prospecting (good behavior) and order padding (bad behavior). The manufactured urgency generated both good and bad change, and when things were going well it was pretty easy to sort those out. However, the business cycle has never been repealed and when an economic downturn occurred it was difficult to differentiate the real urgency. Therefore the organization did not make strategic changes quickly enough. A 80 year old firm with 750 million dollars in sales failed nearly overnight.

Urgency can become a narcotic that makes the need real change harder to recognize and harder to generate. Signs of an over reliance on urgency can include:

  • People that are “too busy” to do the right thing,
  • Generating highly crafted PowerPoint pitches for even small changes,
  • Continually chasing a new silver bullet before the last has been evaluated.

The goal of kaizen is to continually improve the whole organization. The whole organization includes empowering everyone from development and operational personnel to all layers of management to recognize and make change. Motivation is needed to evoke good change, however we need to be careful that motivation does not translate to a need to generate a false sense of urgency.