Are you renting your organisational transformation?

When undergoing an organisational transformation, there’s a strong temptation to adopt a model off the shelf. It’s easier, it gives you a thing to tell people what you’re doing (‘we’re going SAFe’, or ‘we’re adopting the Spotify model’), and it gives you a reference for solving problems – all you need to do is ‘follow the model’. 

Adopting a model off the shelf is akin to ‘renting’ – taking possession of something prebuilt, with low investment and little attachment. Renting can serve a purpose in that there is a body of knowledge to draw from, often handy guides, training and consultants happy to guide you – so it’s often viewed as a faster way to achieve organisational transformation. 

At Two Percent Shift we don’t advocate renting because while it might provide short term comfort when wrestling with the uncertainty and complexity of change, it has a significant drawback that severely limits the embedding and sustainability of an organisational transformation that achieves your business goals in your environment:

Renting neglects the context of the adopting organisation.

Off the shelf models are designed with an optimising goal in mind. How do you know that the model’s optimising goal – what it aims to do, matches your optimising goal – your reason for undertaking a change in the first place?

Spotify’s model is a continuous evolution of ways of working towards Spotify’s mission: “.. to unlock the potential of human creativity – by giving a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their art and billions of fans the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired by it.” Every evolution of the “Spotify Model” is an evolution towards better serving that mission. Unless you are in the same business as Spotify, decisions that inform Spotify’s model may not be optimal for you. 

One of the things we observe about SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) is that it provides comfort and confidence to traditional organisations that they can ‘go agile’, while addressing the fears that managers, governance and process will be retained. This observation is not intended as a slight – SAFe serves a very valuable purpose of making scaled Agile accessible to a large number of organisations that are trying to either optimise, or surpass the amber/orange stages of organisational culture (As per Frederic Laloux, the author of Reinventing Organizations: A Guide for Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness).

Everything about an organisational transformation should be aligned to that organisation’s optimising goal with guiding principles towards that goal. In doing so, there are some things that will remain the same, some that will bend and some that will break. You can’t identify which is which upfront, as every organisation has a complex, embedded landscape of leadership, mindset, culture, relationships, structure, processes and practices and a history for how those things have evolved. This is complex work and something that cannot be designed up front, or solved with an off the shelf model. An emergent practice is needed.

The Two Percent Shift approach can be summarised as: 

Think big, start small and move fast!

When we think big, we start by aligning the organisation in the direction and towards their optimising goal for the transformation. What is the company’s purpose? What’s the challenge that needs to be addressed? Why is this important? What would a visionary outcome look like? How will we know when we have that – what are the business dials we need to turn?

After grasping the current condition we start small, by identifying the next target condition, then run experiments that take us in that direction. As we take action we will uncover obstacles, then through learning, adapt our course towards that target condition and so emerge the transformation that needs to happen.

We move fast through taking a pragmatic approach, using short feedback loops to quickly solve real problems, focusing on depth over breadth towards the bigger picture. This allows leadership, mindset, culture, relationships, structure, processes and practices (all the elements of change, human and structural) to be addressed in small slices. In doing so, we often encounter drivers. Drivers are a signal for further change – a thing that needs to bend or break, or be accepted (with transparency and understanding of the impact of the decision) as is – to enable mission success.

When a driver is identified, we look to both leverage the collective intelligence of the organisation to solve the problem AND draw from existing frameworks that might inform us and can be adapted to suit our specific needs. With this approach, we ‘build up’ our model to be uniquely suited to the organisation and the work it does for its customers. It also avoids implementing the parts of a model that are unnecessary for the organisation – if no driver exists, it’s not implemented.

This also acknowledges the value in existing models. When viewed as bodies of knowledge that can be drawn from as experiments to apply to your own context, the acceleration of an applied model can be achieved along with the validation that it serves *this* organisation’s optimising goal, especially if applied within the concept of ‘shuhari’ – learning the fundamentals, digressing, then transcending the application as maturity evolves. 

By thinking big, starting small, moving fast and responding to drivers along the way, the transformation emerges based on the specific needs of the organisation – something that cannot be planned upfront, because every organisational context is different. What might be simple for one organisation, is a major challenge for another.

This also allows for the plan and goals to shift based on what is learned along the way, in service of the desired business outcomes. The organisation hasn’t committed to a big upfront design, so there is no sunk cost with which to resist changes to ‘the plan’, instead we embed and sustain transformational change so it sticks.

Aside: Rather than create ‘plans’, we tend to employ ‘roadmaps’ – something that shows the optimising goal, the missions along the way arranged loosely in horizons, the threshold of current knowledge, and known impediments. This can quickly communicate the ‘plan’ on a single page without creating attachment or setting unrealistic expectations – common pitfalls of big upfront design or planning. Something to acknowledge is that this can be very uncomfortable for people who want to know the answer to ‘what if’ scenarios right now. 

There is a significant benefit that comes with this approach over renting; The organisation builds capability and agile thinking, allowing them to respond quickly to change, and get used to change as an opportunity to improve. It creates thinkers and solvers – people empowered to do, invested in evolving *their* way of working towards their higher purpose. This creates an organisation where ‘transformation’ becomes the air that is breathed – invisible, unseen and just how we do things here.