Age of experimentation

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All management is change management

In this article, Robert Schaffer argues that all management involves change management, as any improvement in an organisation is a change. Seems reasonable, but what I really like about this article is the example of XL Caitlin who have developed a culture of experimenting and discovering to find new business.

This is exactly the kind of thing that executives describe to me as the most important change they want to make within their organisations. They want a culture that inspires and encourages people to have the ideas, and that there is a well-oiled machine that supports finding out if the idea is going to work through small scale experiments.

Experiment during implementation

These experiments must run alongside business as usual, but if they work, they will be incorporated into business as usual and will become a new thing that the organisation does. Professor John Kotter has given this Agile environment its own brand – he calls it the “Dual Operating System” where business as usual runs alongside a continuous improvement culture.

Having been involved in cultural change for 3 decades, this desire for continuous improvement appears reasonable but is incredibly difficult to achieve because at its core at real challenges to how an organisation is run:

1. The principle that anyone can have an idea and will be allowed to run with it

Well I think we all know plenty of examples where this isn’t the case. Escalating ideas up through the governance chain can take so long the idea becomes stale before it is implemented. Escalating through various levels of management involves so many people that the originator (often someone junior and close to the front line of the business) is side-lined in favour of a project team or a specialist brought into run the initiative. Either way, behaviour like this is so common place that there is little incentive for people to have ideas or put them forward. So they remain something they talk about with colleagues but just don’t go anywhere.

2. Creating a small scale experiment, targeting a limited number of customers or a specific product or service sounds simple

I have countless examples of how an initial pilot becomes a major roll-out often because arguments are made about the difficulties of allowing one part of the customer base to have something that all customers cannot access. The fear of singling out a small group and giving them privileged access to something new makes other parts of the organisation nervous. So the group is widened and widened until it becomes a full launch, with all the expectations for success that this demands. Then when the experiment provides limited success, it is immediately labelled a failure and everyone goes back to what they were doing.

3. Experiments involve a hypothesis that is then tried out and the results measured to discover if the original hypothesis is correct

This scientific thinking relies on the ability to take an idea and to conceive of the measures which will indicate success or failure and then to identify ways in which these elements can be measured and compared with the status quo. Again, my experience tells me we are not good enough at identifying and following through with measures to do this.

I don’t feel disheartened by what I have just written because I think the first step to fixing anything is being clear what the blockers are. To be successful in this area, I think change management professionals need an excellent grounding in the basics of Agile environments, and I think those used to working in Agile environments will benefit from formalising their knowledge of change management approaches.