Read any article about how to ensure successful change (or why changes fail), and you’re likely to see these patterns: we need communication, top-down support, strong leadership, a reason why (urgency), motivated individuals, and the right change method to follow.
There are enough change methods, models, and frameworks out there to shake a stick at, yet hundreds of articles flood the internet daily about why change fails, or what it takes to ensure successful change. I believe any change lives or dies with the people affected by the change. There’s no method, model, or framework that can ensure success, there are only conversations that help us understand the change, our place in it, how the organization is affected, and how the people around us are affected.
A while back I turned down a contract after speaking to a few leaders at a large organization, wherein I heard multiple, and completely misaligned, stories about why this change was happening. Most importantly, one of the leaders was speaking about something completely different than the purpose I was brought in for. A few months later, they approached me again and told me a compelling story so I said I will help on one condition: all the ‘leaders’ are brought together for a full-day liftoff for the change. Sure enough, that didn’t happen and I left after a period of time.
Another organization approached me about helping with an intervention 1.5 years into a 5 year transformation effort. In order to protect the wishes for privacy, I’m not able to mention the name of the organization, or details about the program but I can say every large (10,000+) organization in finance, telecom, and healthcare are going through similar transformations.
Our goal was clear: How can we get unstuck, and enlist the help of all 180 leaders to make this change happen? After much back and forth, we settled on an overall agenda. The CEO, CTO and Head of Transformation would deliver short talks about what has happened so far, where they were headed as an organization, and then they’d unveil 3 gnarly challenges they wanted their leaders to own, and solve.
We planned a day-and-a-half event where we’d get the group to choose the challenge they wanted to work on, and the ultimate goal was to have a co-created plan for moving forward. We decided to use Lego Serious Play to run the bulk of the session, this was the overall flow for the session:
- Opening: Have the leaders frame the challenges
- Explore what it means to be a leader in this new world
- Explore what each person’s life would look like when the challenges had been conquered (IE: what’s in it for me)
- Explore what the organization would look like when the challenges had been conquered (IE: what’s in it for the organization)
- Explore what needed to be true in order for the future state to be achieved
- Explore what is supporting, and holding us back from realizing that future
- Create an action plan for getting to the future state
- Create a small action for yourself that you’ll hold yourself accountable for
The Trouble with Scaling
There’s almost as many how to scale X articles as there are about how to ensure successful change. There is only 1 trick to scaling anything. EVERYTHING TAKES LONGER!
Some of our troubles (and solutions) were:
- having enough Lego for 180 people (the organization bought about $25,000 USD of LSP Lego! In some cases, special, or multiple orders needed to be placed because the LSP folks won’t allow you to buy that much Lego at a time. We also had to improvise on one kit because they’re not sold anymore)
- having enough facilitators so each table had a dedicated facilitator (we enlisted all the Agile Coaches from the organization to help, in total had 17 facilitators, 2 main facilitators, 5 people behind the scenes co-ordinating before, during, and after the event.)
- randomizing people at tables to avoid birds of a feather syndrome (we wanted cross-functional participation, so HR people would be sitting with OPS people and more)
- removing certain Lego kits throughout the day (We used 3 kits throughout the day, a warm-up kit, fiddle bag (called Explorer Kits), and the big landscape kits. If you’ve done LSP before, sorting post-event is a chore so we wanted to reduce the administrative stuff afterwards!)
- getting the Lego from the organization’s main office to the location! (This was accomplished by having 2 people rent a van and drive 10 hours to the venue!)
- Since all the tables were generating data, we needed a way to synthesize it quickly and look for patterns across the whole group (we created a marketplace at the front of the room and brought everyone up to see the patterns. Given there were 3 challenges, we needed to co-ordinate each facilitator using the same colour sticky note for each challenge in order to make clustering the data easier.)
- Where would the change canvases live after they were created? (we captured pictures and are in process of creating a big-visible change wall)
- What if lesser-experienced facilitators were lost? (I roamed the crowd during exercises, and we used the buddy system. That is, we paired people together and put their tables close to each other so they could ask their neighbour for help)
- How would we know we were doing well? (We used http://sli.do 3 times during the event to check in.)
- After day 1, how could we take hoards of data, synthesize it, and provide something meaningful for people to work on for the half if day 2? (We ended up doing this, and threw out our plan as the Head of Transformation thought it would be better if the groups did this themselves)
- With 180 people and 17 groups, how would the executive sponsors keep up? (They roamed the floor during the actions part of day 2 and assigned themselves to help a change champions team!)
- How could we cross-debrief 180 people? (We randomly selected people to tell their story and had 3 mic runners, including me)
- How would we sort and store all the Lego? What about all the garbage? (we had 20 25L Ikea boxes that stored the warm-up kits, explorer kits, and landscape kits. We also mob-sorted the kits, and people randomly removed all the package throughout the hour or two that it took)
Ok, you get the idea…scaling LSP is logistically challenging but doable. I’ve done 30 – 60 people sessions many times and it’s not as hard as you might think. Typically at that scale, I have each table tell their stories to the whole group, generally we don’t need to have an actionable plan for an enterprise organization done by the end of the session. Also, we wanted the entire room to get aligned around this transformation so we needed to look for convergence and divergence amongst all the tables.
Other key results:
These results were all transparent as they were collected using http://sli.do and results were posted on screen in real-time!
- 80% of the people enjoyed the Lego
- Feedback from a post-event retrospective included: “The <event> was a massive success and you made it happen! Great job!” “You in the team are doing a super good work to get the people spirit lifted!”
- All live questions were captured for later use. In fact, http://sli.do puts the audience in control of the questions. People ask questions anonymously, and the crowd votes on them because they show up on the projection in real-time. I was super-excited to see the executives answers all the hard questions in a meaningful way. I’ve seen “ask the executives anything” sessions before and they usually duck the hard questions, these guys hit the hard questions head on.
- Other questions included:
- has this <event> made it more clear why we’re doing this? (3.72/4.0)
- do you believe in the direction we’re going? (3.56/4.0)
- do you feel a sense of belonging to this journey? (3.42/4.0)
I had many conversations with people at breaks, lunch, and dinner and heard many comments like: “somehow, this feels difference than other sessions…”
Now the Extra Work Starts
Now we have our own actions!
- visualize all the change canvases.
- follow-up on all the sheets left in the Accountability Box.
- get into a rhythm of quarterly retrospectives to keep up momentum.
Finally, when we started planning this, I told the people I was impressed with the desire to put on this event despite the enormous cost, and they stopped me mid-sentence and said: “No, we view this as an investment in our future.”
Last week I participated in a much smaller event where I was invited to do a 30-minute talk on what I’ve seen different over the last year I’ve been working with them. I titled my talk “Possibilities“. I shared with them stories about running large-scale sessions, globally distributed team liftoffs, remote lean coffees, large-scale retrospectives and more. I shared this story as well. Sometimes things seem impossible until you see proof it can be done.
We often think enterprise change is the most effective when we lock a bunch of change people in a room to create a perfect plan because we can’t get everyone affected by the change in the room.
This is proof that it can be done. If you’re serious about transforming your organization, this will help you make your future happen.