A couple of years ago we had our basement renovated. All of our friends warned us we’re in for 5 weeks of hell. There would be dust everywhere, the noise would be un-bearable and the disruption to our daily routine would be severe.

We met with 5 contractors to have them assess the basement. Only 1 of them actually asked us about how we planned to use the space. The others asked us “what features” we wanted, such as a bedroom, bathroom etc.

The contractor we picked was a dad, he had small kids that ruined his basement and agreed that our kids are likely going to trash the place as well so spending extra on fancy ‘features’ might not make sense. We mocked up the basement by taping an outline of where the walls might be and while doing that our contractor filled us in on why it was better to arrange things a certain way.

Basically he gave us options. “If you do this, you may not be able to do that later. If you do this, it’ll cost a lot more, but then you’ll be able to do that later without any problem.”

The Reno

This space is unusable!

We had a contract and agreement to meet weekly to show progress. That was it. No big plan, no “milestones” and a firm handshake. Risky? You betcha, but he built trust right away with us.

If you’ve been through a renovation, you know it’s disruptive but the word “renovation” gives you a concrete picture of the future state and hope that you’ll get there. “Transformation” is vague and fuzzy. It sounds good, which our brains like, but it’s not tangible enough to truly paint a picture of how much disruption you’ll need to tolerate while your organization is transforming.

But it all worked out

But it all worked out

Renovation is a much better metaphor. It implies you’re daily routine will be disrupted. It implies things will be messy and problems will come up. It also mandates that you, the homeowner, be available at a moments notice to deal with problems. Like the time when the guys framed what will become our bathroom only to find the clearance from the steel beam wasn’t sufficient to put the door where we wanted it to go. They told us instantly, gave us options and we picked one.

I recently watched an episode of Homes on Holmes where Mike was fixed a botched second story edition. The previous contractor told the family they could essentially copy/paste the second floor without disrupting the main floor. This sounds an awful lot like running a pilot Agile team. “Oh don’t worry, we’re not going to disrupt anything”

Anybody who knows anything about how a house is built knows you simply can’t add a floor without disrupting the rest of the house. How will you tie in the electrical work? Plumbing work? What does the support structure look like? Sometimes you need to poke holes in the walls that aren’t part of the renovation to avoid nasty problems later.

So what happened? Well, Mike and his crew had to basically rebuilt the entire house at a tune to over $250,000. Yikes.

In today’s organizations, think of the plumbing and electrical as your core support services such as operations or HR. Sure they’re not being directly affected by the change, but moving towards a “whole team” model like agile is directly in competition with HR’s performance management processes. At some point you’re going to have to hook up the team’s pipes to HR’s pipes and that’s where the friction arises.

How can we move away from the “transformation” metaphor and towards a “renovation” metaphor?

“Organizational transformation is more like a home renovation. Everything’s disrupted for a while. It’s a mess. Bits of the structure are unusable. But we put up with it, because we know we’re going to get a better place to live. When we talk to people at work about “organizational transformation” or “agile transformation,” most people – including us – don’t know what we’re talking about. It’s too big, too vague, too unseen, too magical. Let’s talk about renovation. Everyone’s seen at least one – and lived through it. It’s something real, familiar, manageable, and within our grasp.” – Sue Johnston
  • stop creating a centralized transformation team
  • stop using the word transformation
  • offload managers and directors from the day-to-day grind and have them own the change
  • decide what not to change
  • Ignore the stuff that doesn’t matter. For example, on one of the french doors in our basement there are still a few paint splotches on a few window pains. No big deal, arguing with the contractor to fix that isn’t the hill I want to die on. When I get bored enough or when it bothers me enough, I’ll scrape them off.
  • Inspect and adapt frequently!
  • Plan enough to start, knowing the plan will change when you uncover unexpected mold or termites!

Jason Little
Author, Lean Change Management at Leanintuit
I began my career as a web developer when Cold Fusion roamed the earth. Over the following years, I moved into management, Agile Coaching and consulting. The bumps and bruises I collected along the way helped me realize that helping organizations adopt Agile practices was less about the practices, and all about change.
In 2008 I attended an experiential learning conference (AYE) about how people experience change and since then, I’ve been writing, and speaking, all over the world about helping organizations discover more effective practices for managing organizational change.