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Baking in Change

This morning was the first day of access to Google Labs Workspace Assistant. It’s nothing more than an embedded chatbot that prompts you to do your job for you whenever it sees an opportunity. When I started this article about embedding organizational change into your culture, it offered to write it for me. I figured, what the hell? I gave it a prompt and put it to work.

What I got back was mainly glib crap. If only reshaping your organization’s culture to thrive in a world of accelerating change could be accomplished with glib crap. Alas, it’s hard work and takes more time and effort than throwing together a plan and “executing” it as Google’s chatbot recommends.

It did get a few things right. One prerequisite far too many companies overlook is the need for a robust set of lived values. I emphasize the word “lived” here because hanging a plaque in the lobby for visitors won’t get it done. Values are just as important as a clear mission and vision to fast-moving organizations.

As organizations grow, they need controls because new employees don’t always know what to do. With so many people executing their personal objectives, it’s easy for the momentum to drift in too many directions. Traditionally, organizations have dealt with this in two ways:

  • Bureaucracy - building rules and structures that limit what individuals can do without checks and balances

  • Hierarchy - creating layers of decision-making authority to ensure that decisions are made by people who have earned the organization’s trust

Both of these are designed to slow the organization down to reduce mistakes. Unfortunately, slowing down won’t help you in a world of continually finding ways to speed up. Agility offers a new model for avoiding chaos while minimizing bureaucracy and hierarchy. At its core, Agility is about empowering operational employees.

Where a traditional command-and-control organization declares they are Agile by simply removing layers of management and controls, chaos would surely result. Laying the foundation for removing these things takes time and sustained effort.

It starts with molding the organization’s mission, vision, and values so that they collectively provide a roadmap for every individual in the organization. Taking care to ensure that the information contained in these three messages is actionable in everyday decisions for everyone in the organization is no small ask. It can be done, and great organizations do it.

Armed with clear messaging for everyone, you need to start teaching everyone how to use the information to try new things, learn quickly, and take action based on that new knowledge. This is much easier said than done. People bring their command-and-control mindset from prior jobs, and breaking old habits is hard. Leaders need to learn new skills to encourage autonomy, and the response to mistakes needs to be turned on its head.

Operational employees need to shed their fear of taking calculated risks. The slightest backlash against an experiment gone wrong will send signals that are hard to reverse. These are the hard parts of an Agile Journey. Without soft skills, all the “new ways of working” are for naught. In time, the mindset changes, and the real benefits of Agility are realized. Like a fine wine, this “becoming” cannot be rushed.

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