For some reason I’ve had a lot of conversations lately about whether change is possible in very large organizations. It doesn’t matter whether it’s private corporations or government the discussion is generally the same. There’s a lot of skepticism and doubt as to whether it’s possible.

Oil rig fireI just read this article titled ‘BP boss: The Gulf of Mexico oil spill was a ‘near-death experience‘ for us. In this article, Bob Dudley says “sometimes it takes a near-death experience to radically change a company”.

I agree with Bob. I think it does sometimes take a near death experience to radically change a company. The world is littered with the carcasses of once giants who were having a near death experience and never recovered. One really good example is Kodak. If you didn’t know it was an engineer at Kodak who invented the digital camera. From what I’ve been able to find the engineer who invented digital photography says Kodak responded in this way:

“But it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, ‘that’s cute—but don’t tell anyone about it.'”

The story is far more complex than this simple statement. However, this simple statement sets the tone for the rest of the story. Kodak was so focused on being a film company as they were a world-wide giant making a ton of money! Why would they need to change? Unfortunately in their refusal to change they started a long downward slide to oblivion (read more here). There are plenty of other examples such as Motorola, Future Shop and many more. It’s my observation there are already plenty of other big corporations and governments heading in the same direction.

What’s happening

I cannot comment on the details on what happened in BP Oil, Kodak or Motorola. I never worked with them so have not had the opportunity to observe for myself and will not pretend to understand. However, what I continue to see in many large organizations is the proliferation of the status-quo under the banner of change.

When teaching introductory Agile courses I’m often using a game to immerse people in what it means to work in an Agile fashion. Teams work together to pass balls around the group attempting to do as many as possible in two minutes. I then give them one minute to figure out how to improve their score and we repeat. Sounds simple right? Teams frequently start with scores in the range of 20-30. Likely around half the teams never increase this number significantly. The only thing they do is tweak how they’re already working together by changing how they stand, how many they pass at a time, etc. In one case I was even scolded once for not having provided enough planning time.

Many of these large organizations are very mired in their belief they can get themselves out of a situation without changing their status quo.  They bring in new processes like Agile or Lean and install the processes in teams as they’ve heard you can get things done faster, better and cheaper. They then have the people co-locate, and stand in front of a team board every day. Then because Agile is supposed to result in faster, better and cheaper the work requests continue to goto the teams at the same pace. The truth is Agile isn’t going to fix even one of their problems but it will make them quickly visible.

In the end I see companies continually ignoring their wake-up calls. They start pointing the finger at people or their shiny new process. They are heading towards a near-death experience all the while adding process to an already process laden company. In other words, they continue to deny the real problems while shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Listen to your wake-up call!

As leaders you have and a responsibility and opportunity to avoid a near-death experience … if only you would listen to the signs!  One of my favourite signs comes from competitive threats written off for one reason or the other. Take Uber … I believe in my lifetime I will see at least a near death experience in the Taxi industry. Why? Taxi drivers are responding with protests and stickers in their windows, but they are not really changing how the model works. Banks are another favourite of mine to talk about. It’s no longer safe to believe just because you’re one of the top X banks in the country that you’re set for life. I think there is a lot of competitive threats you need to pay attention to which you cannot solve through a buy-out. Take for example giants such as Amazon or Google. For me it’s only a matter of time before we have the banking version of Uber coming at us (if it’s not already happening … Bitcoin).

The question to ask yourself is how are you responding to these signs? Are you starting an increasing number of projects that seem to take longer and longer to complete? Are you asking your people to work harder, longer or smarter? Are you hiring a big consulting firm and paying them untold fortunes to save you with their solution? Do you ever feel like you’re just shuffling the deck chairs?

Leading for ChangeTM

Many leaders with all the best intentions respond to the signs of trouble by finding a solution for the team(s). At the most extreme I once worked for a leader who would go home on week-ends and skim through business books for new ideas. Then he’d come in Monday with the next greatest fix for the team and tell us how we were going to work. By Thursday he’d be frustrated as it wasn’t going well, and by the week-end he’d be off reading again. I have no problem in the leader bringing in ideas in support of the team, for me the mistake he was making was in trying to solve the team’s challenges.

Leadership means providing an environment in which the team can solve their own challenges.

Teams need to feel safe in an environment supportive of experiments, learning and growth. Teams need to feel responsibility and ownership for how they work. Teams need space to learn and grow, which means saying “no” to some of the work being asked of them. Teams need an environment in which change is not just encouraged it’s expected and ‘just the way we do business’.

Leadership is a big responsibility and I’ve seen repeatedly how good process without good leadership leads to lacklustre results. There’s lots of great work out there already you can tap into including the work of Jurgen Appelo, Jason Little, Christopher Avery and more.

Take action!

Don’t become the next BP Oil or Kodak. Wake up to the signs that are all around you and challenge the status quo before you have a near-death experience. Start leading in a way that supports your teams in a continual stream of improvements.

Here’s a new sign to watch for … no-one is talking about change and yet change is happening every day in the team(s). Change isn’t something we need to plan for, it’s just something that’s always happening around us every day.

Oh and if you’re wondering about the ballpoint game … The other half of the teams usually figure out part way through the game they need to get out of the box. They need to radically change how they approach their work in order to increase their score significantly. These teams finish with scores ranging in the areas of 200-300, and I’ve had one team hit a final score of 482! (I won’t tell you how this was done other than to say they completely changed the paradigm of how they were working).

Building Great Teams

Building Great Teams

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