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  • John Clapham

Transformation, hiking and the importance of knowing where you actually are.

I was properly stuck, I’d hiked around in rain and fog for almost an hour, getting colder and wetter and muddier. My pack wasn’t getting any lighter, or my knees younger. Night would fall shortly, and the prospect of pitching a tarp in this bog was not appealing. An indistinct sheep eyed me knowingly, as if to say “Back again, are you having fun yet? “

Which leads to an obvious question, what does being lost on the moors, again, have to do with agile transformation?

My needs at that moment, my frustration and resentment at the situation are typical of what people discuss when I’m coaching during periods of organisational change (Notwithstanding the fact that they are generally drier). Like them, I knew exactly where I was going and why, I was fully brought in, I just didn’t know where I was, and that made preparing for the journey ahead unnecessarily difficult.

A good proportion of effort in transformation goes into figuring out and articulating where to go, often looking relatively far ahead and using missions, visions and values to describe what is wanted. These north stars are generally valuable and useful, but knowing where you want to go and how to get there are quite different.

The challenge I often see is a lack of consideration, or reluctance to acknowledge, where people and teams are now, their situation. Without knowing roughly where you are it’s difficult to consider next steps effectively. If you misjudged your location, or indeed somebody else decides where you are, the plans made are likely to be ill matched or overreaching. This awareness applies from both the perspective of the individual or team (I don’t know where I am) and leadership viewpoints (I don’t know where you are).

A Tale Of Team A and Team B

Exaggerating slightly for effect, consider an organisation whose transformation vision is to “Provide seamless user journeys by embracing best of breed agile and DevOps practices”. Imagine two teams hearing this rallying call:

Team A looks after a vital IT service which uses older tech and requires a large amount of maintenance. It is hard to change, test and deploy, the team is small relative to the high demand placed upon it, they have been working late for as long as they can remember and suffer high attrition.

Team B are building a new service from the ground up, they are using new languages and approaches, they are often singled out for praise in company dispatches. They are always up to date with work and leave on time, in part because they decide what to work on themselves.

Both these teams are asked to achieve the same transformation goals, but to achieve them each will need to take different steps, and may require different styles of support and leadership. For instance Team A may benefit from taking steps towards reducing demand on their team, yielding time and energy to invest in learning new approaches. If there were an assumption that all teams are in the same situation, Team A may receive well meaning but low impact support, like training they don’t use and which, without practice, changes little and slowly evaporates overtime.

The Team A and B example also illustrates different aspects of knowing where you are and especially what is available and useful to further transformation. There are personal aspects such as engagement, well being and skills. There are resources such as budget, tools, support from coaches and learning and development. There are factors emerging from the team environment like working relationships, psychological safety and systems of work.

Of course, I’m not saying senior and transformation leads aren’t aware that teams differ, it’s just sometimes left to chance, especially where there is an assumption that other leads have the time, inclination and skills to further transformation. This is particularly likely when out of habit or incentive delivery is prized over growth.

So what can be done?

It would be rather ironic to claim I know what works best in your situation, there are however some points which may help discover how to proceed. For teams and lost hikers alike this speaks to orientation. Wikipedia characterises orienteering as a collection of sports that:

“Navigate from point to point in diverse and usually unfamiliar terrain whilst moving at speed.”

Sound familiar? Most transformations are moving through unfamiliar terrain, with a desire to do so at pace. There are similarities in what it takes for successful navigation, be it through a soggy undulating moor or complex organisational landscape. In my view a good start is for everyone to know where they are now, where they are going next, and the overall destination.

Situation - Where are we now?

Pretty much everyone should know where they are with regards to the transformation. Groups out hill walking occasionally stop, refuel, check their location, weather forecast, supplies and energy levels. Well run outfits do this regularly, rather than waiting until it's necessary. Similarly the team can check skills, kit, budget and time available to work towards transformation. It's important to have good awareness of this especially with regard to the well being and availability, people may be skilled but tired or predominantly focused on their delivery commitments.

Orientation - Where are we heading next?

Everyone should know where they are going next, both individually in terms of their development and as a team. These way-points are important and often neglected in change programs. Their direction may appear tangential as in the case of Team A above, or may simply be to wait and carry on as you are. This is important for a sense of confidence in the transformation, otherwise interventions and changes can seem incoherent.

Destination - Where are we going?

Everyone knows where they are ultimately heading, crucially it should be clear, and articulated in inclusive widely understood language. If the changes aren’t happening as desired there's often an assumption the people don’t understand and a tendency to address this by saying buzzwords slower and louder. I often find understanding isn’t the issue, it is more likely that, to some listeners, a feasible route from here to there isn’t apparent.

There are of course many other factors, including Coordination (How is everyone else doing? How do we learn from each other?) and Measure(ation) - How do we check progress to gauge pace and progress?

In Conclusion

Having situational awareness, that is a sense of where you are and where you are going next, is as crucial during transformation as a compelling vision. It enables people to work out what will help, find next steps and plan a custom route based on their unique situation and skills.

It’s hard to guess where people are, the best place for this awareness to develop is from teams and the individuals within them. They are experts in their situation. Having this awareness of the reality in which each team operates enables thinking and discussion about how best to progress. Assuming change is taking place in a busy environment with existing commitments, steps towards transformation goals should be obvious, simple and achievable. Otherwise it's easy to leave the all hands meeting thoroughly enthused but with no idea where to start or how to contribute. We can readily agree that a distant destination is worth the journey, but without considering where we are first we risk misdirecting efforts, or simply staying still.


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