A trail map enables hikers to choose their own path!

A trail map enables hikers to choose their own path!

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. Developing a vision and strategy is only a start, the vision and strategy must be clearly and consistently communicated to build the critical mass needed to make change actually happen. Once an organization wound up and primed, the people within the organization must be empowered and let loose to create change.

I view the stages the precede stage five to be a build up to the beginning of the main course. Each step is incredibly important and ignoring any of the steps will lead to problems and failure.  However, if the change you are attempting to generate is to be broad based and long lasting, you will need to empower people.  In this chapter Kotter discusses removing barriers to empowerment. Kotter singles out four categories of barriers for examination:

  1. Structural – Organizational structure defines how the lines of authority and responsibility are constructed in order to deliver the organization’s products and services. An organization’s structures are generally developed to effectively and efficiently deliver services and products based on a specific way of working. Structures are built to guide and control work AND to resist change. Managers often defend the current structure and their own base of power leading to specialization. Specialization generates silos; fragmenting the work so that to deliver a product or service, many handoffs are required.  Handoffs slow the flow of information and communication, which accentuates the need to foster stable processes over innovation. Breaking through structural barriers requires a constant sense of urgency and senior management oversight and dedication.
  2. Skills – Change often requires reskilling employees who have spent years acquiring knowledge and skills and believe they have been successful. The act of having to acquire new skills and change what has worked in the past generates fear of the future and resistance. People fear change they do not think will benefit them or at least can’t predict will be positive. A training strategy needs to couple the experience and concepts to convince those involved with the change that they will be successful. Training to reskill employees must be designed to combat resistance and to address adult learning (see Training Strategies for Transformations and Change: Synthesis).
  3. Systems – Systems of all types need to change to empower and support employees in making change. Systems include information technology applications (e.g. customer relationship systems and logistics systems) and business processes (e.g. objectives, hiring processes, promotions). Changes to the process and systems are critical to making change possible and then supporting change.
  4. Supervisors – Not all supervisors and middle managers will support the vision and strategy for change adopted by the organization. When these leaders baulk at empowering their employees, change often grinds to a halt. Kotter suggests that you should confront the recalcitrant with honest dialog. I would add that that when the dialog occurs (the earlier the better) that the power that urgency, vision and constancy of purpose be used to get holdouts on the change train. Employees with supervisors that actively resist the change will never feel safe enough to be empowered.

Empowering employees generates power and action.  They are required to transform a vision and strategy into something tangible rather than something ethereal.  Without empowered employees, change fails.

Remember that the race does not always go to the just; however not running will ensure that you can't win. Don’t let your words keep you from running the race.

Remember that the race does not always go to the just; however not running will ensure that you can’t win. Don’t let your words keep you from running the race.

Words have power,when used correctly — the power to sell ideas, to rally the troops and to provide motivation. Or words can be a tactic signal of resistance to change and an abrogation of responsibility.  In the later set of scenarios, perfectly good words go bad.  I want to highlight three words, which when used to declare that action won’t be taken or as a tool to deny responsibility for taking action, might as well be swear words.  The words, in my opinion, that are the worst offenders are ‘but’, ‘can’t’ and ‘however’.  The use of any of these three words should send up a red flag that a course is being charted to a special process improvement hell for an organization.


The ugliest word in the process improvement world, at least in the English language, is ‘but’ (not but with two t’s).  ‘But’ is a fairly innocuous word, so why do I relegate it to such an august spot on my bad words list?  Because the term is usually used to explain why the speaker (even though they know better) can’t or won’t fight for what is right.  As an example, I recently participated in a discussion about involving the business as an equal partner in a project (a fairly typical discussion for an organization that is transitioning to Agile).  Everyone involved thought that the concept was important, made sense and would help the IT department deliver more value to the organization, ‘but’ in their opinion, the business would not be interested in participating.  Not that anyone would actually discuss having the business be involved with them or invite them to the project party.  A quick probe exposed excuses like “but they do not have time, so we won’t ask” and the infamous, “but that isn’t how we do it here.”  All of the reasons why they would not participate were rationalizations, intellectual smoke screens, for not taking the more difficult steps of asking the business to participate in the process of delivering projects.  It was too frightening to ask and risk rejection, or worse yet acceptance, then have to cede informational power through knowledge sharing.  The use of the word ‘but’ is used to negate anything out of ordinary which gives the speaker permission to not get involved in rectifying the problem.  By not working to fix the problem, the consequences belong to someone else.


A related negation word is ‘can’t’. ‘Can’t’ is generally a more personal negation word than ‘but.’ Examples of usage include ‘I can’t’ or ‘we can’t’. Generally this bad word is used to explain why someone or some group lacks specific power to take action.  Again like ‘but’, ‘can’t’ is used to negate what the person using the word admits is a good idea.  The use of the term reflects an abrogation of responsibility and shifts the responsibility elsewhere. For example, I was discussing daily standups with a colleague recently.  He told me a story about a team that had stopped doing daily stand-up meetings because the product owner deemed them overhead.  He quoted the Scrum Master as saying, “It is not my fault that we can’t do stand-ups because our product owner doesn’t think meetings are valuable.” In short he is saying, “It isn’t my fault that the team is not in control of how the work is being done.”  The abrogation of responsibility for the consequences of the team’s actions is what makes ‘can’t’ into a bad word in this example.  ‘Can’t’ reinforces the head-trash which steals power from the practitioner that makes it easy to walk away from the struggle to change rather than looking for a way to embrace change.  When you empower someone else to manage your behavior, you are reinforcing your lack of power and reducing your motivation and the motivation of those around you.


The third of this unholy trinity of negation words is ‘however’.  The struggle I have with this word is that it can be used insidiously to reflect a false use of logic to cut off debate.  A number of years ago, while reviewing an organization that decided to use Scrum and two-week iterations for projects, I was told, “we started involving the team in planning what was going to be done during the iterations, however they were not getting the work done fast enough, so we decided to tell them what they needed to do each iteration.”  The use of ‘however’ suggests a cause-and-effect relationship that may or may not be true and tends to deflect discussion from the root cause of the problem. The conversation went on for some period of time during which we came to the conclusion that by telling them what to do, the project had actually fared even worse.  What occurred was that the responsibility had been shifted away from poor portfolio planning onto the team’s shoulders.

In past essays I have discussed that our choices sometimes rob us of positional power.  The rationalization of those individual choices acts as an intellectual smokescreen to make us feel better about our lack of power. Rationalization provides a platform to keep a clinical distance from the problem. Rationalization can be a tool to avoid the passion and energy needed to generate change.

All of these unholy words can be used for good, and that it might be useful to have more instructions on how to recognize when they are be used in a bad way. A sort of a field guide to avoid mistaken recognition.  One easy mechanism for recognizing a poor use of ‘but’, ‘can’t’ and ‘however’ is to break the sentence or statement into three parts, everything before the unholy word, the unholy word and then everything after the unholy word.  By looking at the phrase that follows our unholy word all is exposed.  If the phrase rejects or explains why original and perfectly reasonable premise is bat poop crazy, then you have a problem.  I decided to spend some of my ample time in airports collecting observations of some of the negation phrases people use.  Some of shareable the examples I heard included:

  1. I told you so.
  2. It is not my fault.
  3. Just forget it.
  4. We tried that before.
  5. That will take too long.
  6. It doesn’t matter (passive aggressive).
  7. We don’t do it that way.
  8. My manager won’t go for it.

There were others that I heard that can’t be shared, and I am sure there are many other phrases that can be used to lull the listener into thinking that the speaker agrees and then pulls the rug out from the listener.

The use of negation words can be a sign that you are trying to absolve yourself from the risk of action.  I would like to suggest we ban the use of these three process improvement swear words and substitute enabling phrases such as “and while it might be difficult, here is what I am going to do about it.”  Our goal should be to act on problems that are blockers and issues rather than to ignore them or by doing that establishing  their reality by saying grace over them.  In my opinion, acting and failing is a far better course of action than doing nothing at all and putting your head in the sand.  The responsibility to act does not go away but rather affixes more firmly to those who do nothing than to those that are trying to change the world!  When you pretend to not have power you become a victim.  Victims continually cede their personal and positional power to those around them.  Remember that the race does not always go to the just; however not running will ensure that you can’t win. Don’t let your words keep you from running the race.


Are you a coach or a manager? Most traditional, hierarchical IT organizations use managers to plan, organize and control work. Managers make decisions with greater or lesser collaboration, based on their management style. A coach is a different thing entirely. Coaches exist to assist a team to reach its full potential. In the world of empowered employees and self-managed teams, a coach is an enabler, a guide, and a leader.

A coach enables her team by suggesting areas for self-improvement, ideas for using tools and techniques and facilities improving team. The goal of coaching is to help the team become more effective in delivering value to the organization. The act of coaching requires the ability to interact and facilitate both how individuals and groups work within the team.

When a coach provides guidance, they are using their gravitas to influence the direction of the team. In organizations that rely on control environments, the manager will tell the team the correct direction with the expectation that telling and doing are sequential acts. A coach provides direction and uses her influence to get the team to internalize that direction. The internalized direction may well reflect a synthesis of the team’s knowledge and the coach’s advice.

The ability to enable and guide is a function of being a leader. Kevin Kruse, author of Employee Engagement 2.0, defines leadership as “a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” The definition does not include the primary tenants of the definition of a manager, control and positional authority, but rather is focused on getting the most from the team through influence.

A coach is a guide and a leader. These attributes are inter-related and self-reinforcing. A coach rarely needs to leverage the techniques of a manager – planning, organizing and directing – rather they rely on influence and team peer-pressure. Are you a manager or a coach? The distinction is stark. Is your role to help the team maximize its value through a process of facilitation? If the answer is yes, then you are a coach.