Creating Certainty in an Uncertain World

Agile says 'embrace uncertainty'. A better idea is figuring out how to reduce it.
December 2, 2019
Jason is the author of Lean Change Management and founder of the Lean Change Management Association and Spark the Change Toronto

The year was 1972, and Southwest Airlines was fresh off a $1.6M loss. As a result, they sold 1 of their four planes and needed to serve a 4-plane passenger docket with only three planes. Bill Franklyn, VP of Ground Operations, was tasked with finding a solution.

The solution? The infamous 10-minute turnaround. The next year Southwest posted a profit and has done so every year since then.  

“The flight attendants, the pilots, everybody was racing to get the airplane picked up real, real quick,” Johnson says. “I mean, it was a real team effort.” 

Back then, restrictions on airlines weren’t as strong as they are today, so to achieve this, the next set of passengers were already on the tarmac waiting for passengers to deplane, and sometimes the plane would be pushing back while people were still finding their seats. Today, that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen, but this isn’t the point.

The point is, when faced with extreme uncertainty, a strong directive (turn planes around in 10-minutes) and a cross-functional team (pilots, ground crew, flight attendants, etc.) figured out how to get it done by doing something about it.

There are millions of articles about how our brains hate uncertainty, to the point where it’s become an unchallenged truth in change management. It might be right for some, but not all. Some of us change people are adrenaline junkies, and we love the rush that change brings. Others are often relieved by a change that finally happens.

I’ve been running this exercise in my workshop for five years now. People are asked to think of a change they triggered versus a change that happened to them. They write down the reaction (happy, mad, sad, etc.), and the only truth is that we’re complicated animals, and everyone processes change differently.

The complexity of how people respond to change

A quick test? Tomorrow when you go to work, take a different road, or sidewalk, or train, and write down a few notes about how you feel when you get to your desk. That’s what change does to our brains.

The answer to the million-dollar question, “how can we change faster and manage uncertainty in an uncertainty world” comes down to how you approach the change. Agile pundits say “embrace uncertainty,” I would say that’s irresponsible, and working towards reducing uncertainty as much as you can is a much better attitude you can take. 

First, let’s set the definition of uncertainty. When an event happens, we use our experiences and knowledge to make sense of it; those events might be:

  • Being left a sticky note on your monitor by your boss that says “come see me” (or worse, a fly-by from your boss where they swing by your desk and say “come see me” and then walk away – I’ve had that one in the past.
  • rumors that an “org shuffle” is on the horizon
  • a meeting invite with no details
  • seeing your boss or co-worker walking around with someone wearing jeans and a blue blazer, meaning some overpriced consultant is likely being hired

Some people will say that as a result, our brains go into protection mode. Yes and no. To protect against the unknown, we become curious so you can choose the negative path of fear and protection, I’ll choose the way of interest and curiosity. 

There are three strategies we can use to deal with this uncertainty, and let’s use the example of the boss fly-by :

1) Passive (By Yourself): Gather information about the event or problem. Check your email for clues, re-run the event in your mind keying on your boss’ tone, demeanor, time of day, and whatever sensory data you remember.

2) Active: (With Others): Gather information about the event or problem with other people not directly involved with the event. Talk to a few co-workers and ask if anything weird is going on. Ask if there any new rumors floating about.

3) Interactive (With the Person Directly): Directly communicate with the person who triggered the event. When the fly-by happens, ask your boss if there’s anything you need to prepare or if they can give you more details.

Of course, there’s a whole bunch of things that give us clues into what’s going on here:

  • Is your boss a “be bold, brief and gone” type of person?
  • Is it your birthday? (Maybe it’s just a surprise party!)
  • Are other people freaked out?
  • Is this a common thing your boss has done before?

For introverts, this fly-by can be quite scary. I’ve had friends tell me their boss did this on a Friday afternoon; “come see me first thing on Monday,” and it ruined their weekend.

Now let’s look at a tough problem, like an agile transformation. Let’s assume that there is a starting place for this transformation even though we know that’s not true. All organizations are in continual flux, but for this example, we’ll assume this event was triggered by the hiring of a new VP of Agile after a bunch of side-of-the-desk change work was done over the last few months.

The Trigger: VP of Agile is hired to ‘roll out’ agile across the organization.

The Approach: Hole in the Floor (from Jerry Weinberg’s fantastic book Becoming a Change Artist, describes how leaders drop the change through the hole in the floor on unsuspecting employees versus using a dispersion approach which is more like adding-milk-to-coffee.)

Let’s start with how the VP of Agile can handle this uncertainty.

Passive

The VP of Agile, let’s call her Buffy, sends out an email to the side-of-the-desk change agents, says they all now report to her, and she wants to see the roadmap for the agile next Monday.

Active

Buffy talks to some of her peers at other similar organizations to see what they’ve done and is considering a copy/paste/tweak approach. Buffy also sends an invite to the change agents for a private meeting to explore what’s happened so far.

Interactive

Buffy walks over the change agent(s), introduces herself and why she was hired and asks if the change agent(s) can set up a meeting with one of the pilot teams, their executives, herself, and the change agents to see how things are going.

What About the Change Agents?

This is where things get complicated. The organizational culture dictates whether a passive, active, or interactive approach is the norm for change. Traditional and conservative organizations might lean towards a passive approach. That means there is a specialized group responsible, like an Agile COE, or centralized change team.

Buffy and the change agents will also have their way of handling this uncertainty. Suppose Buffy used her passive strategy above, how would the change agents react?

Passive: go off and google a bunch of agile transformation stuff and put it in the deck.

Active: talk to their colleagues, google Buffy to see what her experience was, where she previously worked, and talk to people that worked with her before. Then make the deck based on assumptions about Buffy.

Interactive: Walk over to Buffy’s office for a chat and suggest a meeting with the pilot team and their execs.

Because no post is complete without some chart, here’s one:

Your effectiveness as a change agent increases exponentially with your comfort using interactive strategies.

We love easy answers which is why you see so many posts around best practices, and easy answers like “mind the people!“, “The key to successful change is employee engagement!!!” and other universals. They make great tweets, but don’t help us nudge change forward.

Now I’m sure some are thinking, “yeah, but we HAVE TO do a deck.” Like everything in life, employing a strategy for managing uncertainty isn’t binary. Your organization’s culture, leadership styles, and the change agent’s personality all play a role in how to mix and match these strategies. The most important, in my view, is the change agent’s personality. 

In another post, I’ll show how to use the Lean Change Management cycle to combine passive, active, and interactive strategies to move things forward. 

For now, I’ll close with a short story. Over a decade ago, I was working in an 80,000 enterprise on their first agile transformation. I was one of two agile coaches there, and also acting as a scrum master on the first pilot team.

We were building software used in retail stores across Canada, and our goal was to reduce the time it took agents to do a transaction.

I did a liftoff with the team (what is agile, why now, why would you care, what can we do, blah blah blah) and we started sprint 1. As the Scrum Master, I sent out our sprint goal, user stories that were being worked on, and invites to our sprint review to legal, finance, marketing, training, and all other stakeholder groups.

Everyone showed up either in-person or virtually; most thought it was a waste of their time and didn’t come back, except for the corporate trainers. They came back every two weeks, and we started listening to their needs.

Long story short, we were building some test automation, and as a result, we were able to automatically create before and after screenshots to help the trainers incrementally create their training documentation each sprint.

We didn’t need a complicated agile framework; we used an interactive strategy to deal with their uncertainty. The norm was to throw the software over the wall, let the trainers figure it out, and hope for the best.

Not for us, we went live when it was ready, and the training was already done. Oh, and before all this fancy web stuff was around, we implemented in-app tooltips just in case.

Another accepted truth about change management today is that the pace of change keeps increasing, and more and more change agents are looking at agile to help. If you’re a change agent, the best way to know how to use interactive agile strategies for managing this uncertainty is to become a Scrum Master on a team, or at the very least, sit with the team. The latter is crucial if there is a severe change impact to the organization as a result of what agile teams are doing.

The more you can directly interact with people affected by the change in a meaningful way, the more likely it is that the change work you’re doing matters.

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