From my last post on describing the basic properties of the change curve, you may be wondering how you avoid unplanned change or how you can successfully introduce positive change in knowledge work.  Actually, you cannot.  However, you can introduce favorable conditions to help your team and organization navigate unexpected change or introduce change for improvement.  This builds a more resilient learning organization.

What are these favorable conditions for navigating change in a knowledge-work organization?

  • Provide choices, not imposition.
  • Allow experimentation; minimize variables
  • Set a frequency for feedback and sharing observations

Provide Choices, Not Imposition

People respond better to change when they have choices.  (for an example, see What’s the Secret Joy of Working Remote?). Choices provide people with options in how to navigate unexpected change.  It allows them a form of control when they might feel they have very little control.  

Knowledge workers rely on their analysis and decision making abilities.  Providing choices to navigate change allows knowledge workers to do what they do best: discover options, analyze them, and decide on a best course of action to improve the situation.

This approach works for unexpected change but also for change introduced from within the team or organization to improve the work.  People typically embrace change when they ask for change and are supported.  Many of the distributed agile teams I work with are successful because they have an environment that allows them to introduce change.  These changes introduced by the team improve how they work and to achieve better outcomes on the work.  Again, they are allowed to do what they do best as knowledge workers.

For instance, what choices do you provide to the team during hiring?  Can team members contribute to the job requirements?  Are team members involved in the hiring process?  Do they participate in interviewing the top candidates?  Can they discuss the options of the candidates and collaborate on their decision to bring in who they feel fits best within the team?

Or, are these decisions made outside the team for the team?  Again, allowing knowledge workers to do what they do best (analyze and decide) during change provides favorable conditions for positive change.

Allow experimentation; minimize variables

“Just do it!” becomes a common response for some managers when they feel that change requires urgent action.  Such an “order” may make sense in the military or in life-threatening situations. I’ve yet to find a situation where “just do it” sets favorable conditions for a knowledge work team to successfully adapt to change.

An unexpected change may be outside the control of the manager and the team.  Perhaps sudden changes in a competitor’s strategy, or an unforeseen problem that threatens the trust of key customers, a merger/acquisition scenario, or some other change outside the manager’s control produces an unexpected and urgent change.  Urgency will drive the manager and team to “just do it” or just fix it.  But this approach may not give them time to examine all their options.  Yet, space can still be provided to discuss the change with the team and set up for rapid experimentation on the best options.

Perhaps the change is planned.  There may be a new person brought into the team, or a new process or new tool.  Expectations may assume this change will improve the team’s work.  Often urgency arises in this situation as the manager and team just want to get back to work.  But the work of change rarely appears trivial.

There are steps that any leader can take to help a team (or teams) navigate change successfully.  Too many variables make it difficult to see an outcome.  So experimentation becomes the best approach.  The figure below shows the typical steps for setting up an experiment.

The Experiment Loop courtesy of Johanna Rothman from her book Manage It! Used with permission.

This figure should look familiar if you know the work of W. Edwards Deming, one of the early pioneers of the lean management movement. 

The hypothesis becomes a possible future. It is not the only possible outcome, but it becomes one that is possible based on what you know of the context and any theory you have on how your team (or organization) works in that context. One approach often followed becomes “prove the hypothesis right”. The can help us reach an answer faster if we can prove the answer through the data we collect. However, this becomes subject to our biases and we may filter important information when we experiment and gather results. Sometimes we can create new problems by only “proving our hypothesis” and not looking for alternatives or boundary conditions where the hypothesis does not hold up.

Another approach becomes, “prove the hypothesis wrong”. This may take additional time, but can explore pitfalls more. This may help reduce future surprises. Most business organizations do not have the patience for this approach. Most academic research organizations follow this approach strictly to push the boundaries of theory. This results in the business world sometimes outpacing academia and sometimes academia leaping past the business world (and sometimes provide whole new business areas).

Regardless, exploring the change as an “experiment” helps communicate to those involved that the change may not be permanent and that all impacted by the change still have some control over the change by engaging with the experiment.  For the leaders, it becomes critical to involve those impacted in designing, running and analyzing the experiment.  Then your teams will be experimenting with you and not feel like they are “experimented on” by you.  

In my next post, I’ll cover setting a frequency for feedback and sharing observations in experiments.