It is widely known that participation of people in organizational change is very important. But even though most have accepted this to be true, involving others in designing change remains a challenge. Consequences became visible to me when our latest reorganization as agile coaches at idealo started. I will share my experiences with you, point out the importance of organizational structures and personal relationships in change processes and build up a hypothesis on how values help to overcome resistance and get yourself into the change process.
The Desire for Involvement — Our Story
The process we have gone through has not been easy. The “head-of-group” decided to install a new organizational structure called clusters. A cluster consists of multiple product areas, i.e. units that own responsibility for a part of the user journey. Clusters are supposed to strengthen communication between product areas working on the same user journey. Once the idea was born they also started thinking about how the agile coaches can be allocated to the clusters — especially as agile coaching capacity is limited and some units did not get any support in the past. Ideas went down to a personal level. Single coaches were mapped to clusters. Initially the agile coaches took not part in these discussions. Some thoughts were shared by the leads of the agile coaches, i.e. communication was indirect and uni-directional. The agile coaches did not feel involved (though nobody explicitly excluded them from the discussion). There was a lack of empowerment to participate in designing the change. Resistance and negative emotions emerged within the agile coach team. Effort had to be made before we were able to move on and add value to the change process.
Initially there was disappointment regarding the team-leads. It felt like the team’s autonomy had been undermined, the leads did not protect it. Later frustration and denial took over. Colleagues started to argue that the proposed idea did not make sense and that we would have to create a completely different approach ourselves. In my perception this was mainly based on emotional resistance, not so much on validity of the proposal. Slowly we began to discuss possibilities within the presented idea. Within clusters a closer collaboration with the head-of-group could be established. Smaller teams of agile coaches could be formed, making sure that there is enough room for supervision and support. As we started to like the idea of reorganization, retentions and sympathy within the agile coach team became more important. Hidden conflicts had to be addressed. The team had to face it’s own problems, people had to leave their comfort zones. In the end it took almost two weeks to stabilize the situation. Finally the team came up with a solution on how to work within clusters.
During that process communication with colleagues outside of the agile coach team a lot. Psychological safety was needed for our process. Relationships within the agile coach team were much stronger than between agile coaches and others. Hence our results were invisible to others. Once again people being affected, i.e. the head-ofs, had not been involved in the process. As you might imagine voices from the head-of-group started to reject (aspects of) our solution. All of this happened more than three month ago. We continued with the change and are now working as small teams of agile coaches within clusters. Still the change is not supported by everyone.
What do we learn from this? Basically this is just another example showing the importance of involving people who are affected by changes into the design process. Even though this is good practice, it is hard to do. Sometimes it might be impossible. In our case I do see two main drivers that prevented us from involving each other in the first place:
Existing structures influence group of involvement
When starting a change process we should ask ourselves “Who will be affected?” and install structures that intensify communication between these parties. Organizational structures are meant to help people reaching their goals. One of the keys is to establish regular communication between people that need to collaborate. A good structure for organizational change should also establish communication between people who are affected by the change. Most of the time we do not install such a structure. Instead we rely on what’s already there.
One key artefact is the existing meeting-structure. Invitations to those meetings are often based on hierarchical levels, roles and affiliation to departments. If change is discussed and designed in these meetings, communication stays in these groups. Others who are affected by the change are excluded.
Existing relationships influence group of involvement
We should invest into stable and trustworthy relationships. Building up relationships takes time and addresses the person instead of organizational topics. It has to be done on a daily basis. The invest will pay out once you start your next change process and things start to get a bit rough. Communication and inclusion during a change process are more likely to happen when personal relationships are established. If you have a good relationship to people designing a change, it will be easier for you to be involved. There are several dimensions to look at.
One dimension is sympathy. If someone likes you she will be more willing to talk to you about anything.
Another dimension is reputation. You might be seen as an expert for a topic that the change is dealing with. People might think that you are very rational and therefore assume that your feedback is rather objective.
A third dimension is confluence. You might share the same goals and ideas with each other, i.e. dialogues will reinforce the change process and critical perspectives challenging the change (moving you out of your comfort zone) can be avoided.
The most important dimension in our case was psychological safety. Whenever emotions occur, especially if people get into some kind of weakness, they will prefer interaction with colleagues they trust. People outside the circle of trust will be excluded from the communication.
Rely On Values to Bring Yourself Into the Game
My experience also leads me to a hypothesis: If you want to participate in change processes actively, you need to take responsibility yourself. Waiting for others to invite you often is not enough. You can make use of your values to empower yourself. As agile coaches we claim that everyone is acting with positive intentions. Still the proposal from the head-of-group led the agile coaches into resistance. We could not see that the proposal was the outcome of positive intentions. Instead we felt excluded from the change process and went into opposition. Remembering our values would have helped us to stay open minded and empower ourselves instead of being paralyzed once your amygdala took over.
What if we had chosen a different perspective? What if we had valued the proposal as it has been outcome of positive intentions? If we had trusted that the head-ofs were open for discussions that would lead to good results? If we had answered the proposal by talking to the people that had the idea in the first place? Maybe we would have stopped finger-pointing and would have started dialogues instead. It seems to be a good idea to align values and goals with others to foster collaboration. Relying on a mindset that is based on values like trust and openness will surely be very helpful for upcoming change processes.
I wrote the original article in November 2019. Half a year later we had to admit that the organizational change failed. Agile Crews do not exist anymore and also the clusters are not accepted by most of the colleagues. Maybe it would have been successful when involving others during the design phase.