Learning to Learn: The Continuous Cultural Change Competency
“A learning organisation is an organisation that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.”
Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline
There is something excitingly headline worthy about big initiatives. There is also something depressingly familiar about their poor success rates.
In Continuous Transformation: Stop Stopping Mark Schwartz stated that “…your digital transformation must prepare you for continuous change in the future by making change inexpensive, fast, and low risk.” For anyone who has listened to our presentation on “The Future of Enterprise IT” you will have heard about high-frequency enterprises. High-frequency enterprises move away from event-based changes, so called “punctuated equilibriums”. They replace multi-year initiatives with artificially comfortable timelines and prescribed goals with the ability to deal with ambiguity and rapid business environment changes supported by the flexibility of cloud technologies. Beyond embracing the technical aspects of Agile, DevSecOps, and experimentation, they also apply the same fast-small-often approach to their culture. They consider digital transformation a philosophy about how to create an organisation that can continuously evolve to retain its market relevance rather than as a traditional programme of work.
In “It’s not the Big that Eat the Small”, Jennings and Haughton assert that company size is no longer the key determinant of competitive advantage. With the democratisation of technology, the new winners are those who are fast. In McDonald’s this was translated into the phrase “Progress over Perfection”, a saying promoting five imperfect steps forward over a single heavily planned, drawn-out step.
This is all easier said than done. Given that a culture defines and protects an organisation, embodying proven practices in decisions including hiring and budgeting, how does an organisation continue to adapt its operating principles and processes without creating confusion? In my previous blog I discussed major cultural change. Here I outline some practices I have seen work well from both good and painful personal experiences, as well as from other companies. While not exhaustive, I hope it acts as fuel for thought.
- Instil a learning culture in your organisation. To improve on something, people need to have learned something new first. Make discussions about personal development plans an expectation throughout your business. Create training opportunities and set targets, such as achieving a certain level of certification. Apply the same principles to yourself and your peers. Where possible, don’t constrain what people can learn as innovation comes from different perspectives and ways of thinking. I discovered this from an individual in my team who learned about Darwinian medicine! Individuals who have a deep knowledge of a particular speciality but can also think broadly help traverse organisational boundaries. Make it clear that the onus is on each individual to own their development plan.
- Learn to learn from every experience by building in double loop learning to create a dynamic learning environment. For instance, aside from fixing an issue, support staff should be expected and empowered to learn why it happened in the first place and have the authority to drive down to true root causes. If you think you’ve found the root cause, dig deeper. Too many teams stop their analysis based on what they see as the boundaries of their accountabilities.
- Set big hairy audacious goals (BHAGs) as these stretch people to think differently, but decompose everything to the smallest tangible deliverable. Avoid architectural purity. For instance, the idea of fully isolated, fine-grained microservices is compelling but does this add enough guaranteed value in the short term that you will stop other initiatives while you rearchitect your portfolio? Probably not. While organisations should strive to have standalone teams that can develop business functionality, “strangle” your legacy applications as opportunities arise. Continuous iterations will get you to a great place with less stress and risk.
- Make meaningful outcomes such as speed (and everything else that matters) measurable and visible, keeping the number of metrics small. Ditch traditional metrics such as number of defects unless they are good diagnostic measures for improving the main KPIs. Make improving outcomes part of your third-party agreements as well. If your teams can reduce time-to-market by one day every week, it’s far more impactful and sustainable than undertaking a long initiative to take 50 days out of a measure. Additionally, it opens up the opportunity for any team to identify bottlenecks and contribute solutions. If you feel that documenting and keeping current your value chain or SDLC process has value, do it but don’t make this an event. Keeping focus on the KPIs will ensure that Agile, DevOps, governance, and other improvements are implemented in an adequate “progress over perfection” manner rather than as goals in and of themselves.
- Delegate down as far as possible. Autonomy is at the heart of agility. It is liberating for individuals and bolsters employee commitment. Empowered individuals will seek out improvements as they know they are trusted enough to make a difference. Simplify the often laborious RACI matrices where possible. Decide who gets to decide what based on the level of risk decisions pose to the organisation and the decision’s reversibility, or two-way doors as we call them. Use your employees as a force multiplier all the way down to the front-line staff, whether in restaurants, process accounts payable, or taking support calls, and encourage them to look across organisational boundaries. The org chart does not reflect where knowledge lies. Free up your time to work on the critical (one-way door) decisions.
- Incrementally improving your HR practices. Consciously apply principles such as bar-raising to new hires and promotions to continue to increase the diversity of experience and thinking within your teams. Look for team players who are learners, and recruit based on cultural fit.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Words matter. People pay attention to what you say and what you don’t. They are incredibly quick in spotting dissonance between what you say and what you do. Reinforce the importance of continuous improvement and learning with everybody, at every opportunity. Recognise and identify those who make improvements and those who adopt the improvements. Consistently ask for ideas for improvement and respond quickly to them, as well as what obstacles you can remove. Equally, ask teams what is stopping them from removing barriers and whether this points to a deeper issue to solve.
- Undertake targeted organisational search-and-replaces. Replace the notion of “best practice” with “current practice” to stop stifling potentially better solutions. For instance, every Amazon team has tenets by which they operate, but the tenets are always preceded by the phrase “unless you know better ones”. Replace shooting the messenger of bad news with praising those who identify issues quickly. Replace watermelon status colours (project is green on the outside but red inside) with metrics. Replace lengthy standard documents with automated solutions such as AWS CloudFormation templates and AWS CodePipelines. Make it easy to do the right thing.
- Keep teams intact where possible. Transitory project teams force organisations to repeatedly go through the storming-forming-norming process and discourage long-term ownership. Intact teams, such as product teams, retain the accountability for their work products which drives a different behaviour, as well as building trust and shortening learning curves.
While your team might benefit from training in improvement methodologies like Lean, often a good understanding of the metrics above will be sufficient for teams to make improvements. One tool I have found useful is the system archetype which helps teams get into the drivers of issues in complex systems.
As I re-read this post, part of me wants to say “yes, people know this.” It’s not rocket science but it’s also something that data shows that we do not do consistently or well. Culture change is probably the hardest change you will ever undertake. Pay attention to it and it will pay you back. Incremental changes won’t always be the solution, but embedding continual improvement and learning processes in your teams will give you the organisational muscle you need to adapt to the turbulent environments we operate in.
Bar-Raising as a Principle
It’s Not the Big That Eat the Small…It’s the Fast That Eat the Slow, Jennings & Haughton
The Fifth Discipline, Senge