Everything seems fine. You have the wind in your sails. Your ship is gliding across the ocean. Your crew is content and the horizon is clear. But then, you spot another ship. It moves faster, carrying more, and all without sails. As it passes, you hear the pounding of great engines. No sooner has it gone or another appears, and another. They’re everywhere. Clearly, a response is necessary. Something must be done.
You rally all hands and give them the news. To stay in the game, things will have to change drastically. The sails will have to go. Diesel power is the future, after all. But when you discard yesterday’s mast and drop in tomorrow’s engine, you don’t end up with a faster, better boat. You end up with a hole in the deck, a panicking crew and a lot of water where it doesn’t belong.
As with ships, so too with organizations. Change is deceptively tricky. Nobody wants to be left behind. And so, with all the hype and all the highly visible successes, it quickly becomes something you just need to do. If so many organizations are doing it, surely you would do well to follow in their footsteps?
Yes – and no. Organizational transformation is an essential part of preparing your business for future opportunities. But following the hype or copying another company’s approach won’t get you there. To achieve lasting change in organizational transformation, you must first ask yourself which challenges that transformation needs to solve.
01. Determine Your “Why” and Share It
Inspired leadership is an essential ingredient in organizational change, and that kind of leadership starts with asking the right questions. Before you can embark on a journey of transformation, you need to figure out why you should. Which challenges do you need to overcome to stay competitive? Which pressing problems drive your need to adapt?
This is a vital step that cannot be overlooked. Change requires support and commitment at all levels of the organization. When you’re asking your talent to abandon their old patterns, to transform the way they work, telling them that things need to change isn’t enough. You need to help them understand why this change is so important to the organization. Sharing your vision for the future will empower them, allowing everybody to focus their energy and creativity on achieving that goal.
02. Approach Frameworks and Methodologies as Starting Points
Understanding why change is a necessary step for your organization will also help you determine which approach will offer the best results. In a more traditional organization, you might logically expect more resistance to change. Choosing a framework that incorporates more project management, like SAFe, will help you navigate the challenges of organizational transformation in these situations. On the other hand, if your business is amenable to radical change, utilizing the LeSS framework will allow you to accelerate the process considerably.
The same goes for methodologies. Agile might be a good fit for some challenges, while traditional methods or a hybrid approach are better suited to others. The trick is to carefully examine the nature of your organization and your reasons for change, then choose the framework and methodology that align with your vision.
But choosing is only half the battle. The other half is understanding that frameworks and methods for change are not ironclad laws. They are starting points. No single model was tailor-made for your business, which means some parts are bound to work better than others. Blind devotion to every single aspect of a model is just as nonsensical as trying to implement the Spotify model in your organization. You will discover what works along the way, and you are strongly encouraged to discard impractical aspects of your starting model in favor of more useful aspects of another.
03. Focus Your Organizational Transformation on Three Core Themes
Once you have a handle on the “why” and “how” of the process, your next step is figuring out where the change in your organization should start. From our experience with helping clients transition to new ways of working, we’ve identified three core themes that are paramount to success.
In an ideal situation, we’d recommend tackling all three simultaneously, but that isn’t always feasible or necessary. However, these three themes are the cornerstones on which your transformation rests. Whether you start with a small pilot project or favor the big bang approach to change, each of these themes will help enable and accelerate the others, creating a constellation of tooling and purpose.
To provide an example of how these themes might play out in practice, we will take a closer look at our work with one of our clients, a global player in digital services.
Talent, Culture and Organization
People are the lifeblood of your organization. They are essential to the transformation process; if you focus on culture and empowerment, the sky really is the limit. But getting to self-organizing teams with end-to-end responsibility is not something you can do overnight. Once you’ve shared your vision and created a sense of urgency, the real work begins.
For one of our clients, that meant restructuring the organization on a fundamental level. The old way of working simply wasn’t conducive to the results they needed to stay competitive. The organization was built as a traditional pyramid, with managers at the top and developers and testers at the bottom. A large part of the work happened offshore, and problems often led to finger-pointing.
Taking a page from Spotify, we cut away the traditional hierarchy, appointed and coached product owners and moved multiple vendors into the teams. Each team is now responsible for a specific domain, and projects pass through one or more of these domains as needed. Old-school managers became servant leaders and the vendor concept was abandoned. Instead of simply saying “we’re all in this together”, the company created a culture that truly embodies and facilitates those values.
As a major player in the digital services domain, our client relies heavily on the strength and stability of its architecture. Unfortunately, the monolithic legacy systems that enabled their growth were also a considerable drag on innovation. At the same time, downtime was unthinkable. A challenge presented itself: how do you switch from legacy architecture to microservices without negatively impacting the service levels that are essential to customer satisfaction?
In this case, we used Martin Fowler’s Strangler Patterns. Instead of building a completely new platform, which would involve a million lines of code or more, we sliced the platform into manageable parts. By isolating specific features and building new services next to the existing platform, we gradually created a new system around the edges of the old. Focusing on one particular element at a time helped us make sure the new services matched and exceeded existing features of the system without disrupting them. As more microservices were brought online, the old system naturally withered away, easing the transformation of the organization’s existing architecture.
The last major building block in organizational transformation is delivery speed. Being able to commit to – and make good on – continuous delivery is an essential ingredient in your competitive advantage. Here, the Facebook approach is an excellent starting point to figure out what will work for you.
Historically, the digital services provider had always run numerous projects simultaneously. Moving code to production took months and releases happened around 10 times a year. Deliverables had a high defect ratio and deployment could easily take days. Dependencies were built up on top of each other, slowing progress and generating collisions, like a multitude of trains on a multitude of tracks, all barreling down on a single destination.
The solution, then, was to build a train station. In the real world, trains don’t wait on any one traveler. They stick to their schedules. If you miss the first, you can always get on the second. Using this logic as our foundation, we scheduled release twice a week and adhered to them strictly. This allowed us to release code to production for several projects simultaneously without delay, while also reducing the defect ratio and cutting the deployment times down to less than an hour.
04. Achieve Victories Wherever Possible
A win is a win, no matter how small. Every time you succeed, you will send a signal to the rest of your organization that you’re on the right track – even if the achievement is relatively minor. This, in turn, will help you generate support and involvement, while simultaneously proving that your vision adds real-world value.
It doesn't matter which core theme you decide to start with, so long as you find ways to achieve victories in the short term as well as the long term. Without those short-term wins, your support will flag and established commitment will falter. People will begin reverting to their old ways simply because they cannot see any tangible advantages to the new.
Set goals that will allow you to incorporate short-term wins in your organizational transformation, establish clear metrics for success and measure them diligently. The aim, after all, is to achieve continuous improvement. Even after all the original goals are met, the change is never over. By establishing a shared reference frame for value, fostering a culture where vision prevails over classical instruction, and showing your teams that commitment to change generates tangible improvements, you will be able to turn organizational change into a new way of life.
05. Be on the Lookout for Anti-patterns
The eight guiding principles for organizational transformation outlined by John Kotter are invaluable tools for managing change in your business. However, there are two sides to every coin. We already discussed the risks inherent in transformations on this platform, but it certainly bears repeating: it is wise to keep a close eye on these potential roadblocks and pitfalls.
The act of transforming your business raises specific anti-patterns that can be immensely destructive on both the short and long term. In some cases, these are rooted in existing structures and processes, almost like natural defenses. In others, anti-patterns emerge from specific aspects of the approach you’ve chosen.
Left unmanaged, these anti-patterns have the power to destabilize organizational transformation, even when your goals are within reach. Be mindful of them, anticipate those that are most likely in your situation and be ready to act when the need arises.
06. Never Let Fear Get in Your Way
Starting a transformation in your organization might feel like a huge and uncertain step, but there is absolutely no need to be afraid. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to remove all the uncertainties and unknowns from the process. It’s not a computational problem that you can solve with brute force.
Netflix doesn’t worry about the 90% of ideas that don’t make the cut, because the 10% that do succeed are what allow them to make a difference
Whether you start small or go big, mistakes are pretty much guaranteed. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. That’s just a fact of life – and it shouldn’t hold you back from taking the steps necessary to make your vision a reality. Netflix doesn’t worry about the 90% of ideas that don’t make the cut, because the 10% that do succeed are what allow them to make a difference. They treat mistakes as learning opportunities and keep moving forward, because that’s where their vision leads them.
Never be afraid to get started on change, and never be afraid to change what doesn’t work for you. The model you choose doesn’t define your organizational transformation – your vision does. With the right perspective, the right mindset and the right support, there are no limits to what you can achieve.