I thought long before deciding to publish this article, wondering if I might be shooting myself in the foot. However, in change management, organizational development, and agile or digital transformations, I firmly believe there’s one common misstep that most companies still make. It is their belief in why their people won’t adapt.
Dear Leader, it’s you!
When conversing with company leaders (as in “self-proclaimed leaders”, who run the company) to grasp the challenges they perceive in their organizations, a recurring theme emerges: those leaders often attribute their challenges to the inertia and attitudes of individuals within the organization. Whether through my direct experience, observation, or discussions with individuals and organizations, the prevailing belief is that a minority performs well while the majority does not. Consequently, they often hire me as an Agile Coach to drive the necessary changes. But here is the secret recipe: You do not need an Agile Coach!
The organizational performance is a consequence of its structure.Peter Senge, The 5th Discipline
Reflecting on my 11 years in this role (where I “identify” as an Agile Coach, or rather Consultant), a realization has crystallized: this endeavor may, in fact, be Sisyphean work.
No, esteemed company leader, I’m not laying blame on you. I hold myself accountable for my inability to articulate the essence of instigating change within the company. We can refer to this challenge as the “Curse of Knowledge,” a cognitive bias that makes it difficult for individuals with expertise to effectively communicate with those who may not share the same context or level of knowledge.
However, dear leader, I suggest that the perceived underperformance of your organization may be linked to your understanding of leadership and how you build your team, department or company. Keep reading to understand what I mean.
The visible challenges
Organizations seeking change often attribute challenges to a perceived “people problem.” This is evident in issues commonly shared with me:
- Team members lack proactivity and resist taking on new challenges, preferring 9 to 5 jobs.
- Team members refrain from seeking help, despite constant offers.
- Individuals in the team operate in silos rather than collaboratively.
- Limited collaboration between the Product Team and Engineers.
- The organization struggles to deliver what is needed.
- Leaders fail to drive the desired change.
- Agreed-upon initiatives, like X, see no progress.
- Despite numerous training opportunities, employees do not implement learning.
Leaders may not be entirely mistaken, analyzing these symptoms might lead to the understanding of a people problem – in the end, it is the people, who do not behave as expected. However, the truth lies elsewhere: it lies in the ways on how we understand organizations and team performance.
Organizations as complex systems
“You do not have a people problem. You have an f****d up organization problem.”(Niels Pfläging, organize for complexity)
Organizations may brand themselves as agile, modern, and lean, but often these labels are confined to operational execution, project, and product delivery. The overall functioning of the organization still adheres to traditional principles rooted in Taylor’s “Principles of Scientific Management.” This adherence is driven by a belief that known best practices and our experiences are the key to team performance. However, it lacks a fundamental comprehension of team and organizational dynamics.
While Taylor’s approach thrived in a complicated system with low market dynamics, its inhumane and non-scientific nature proves limiting in complex systems with high market dynamics. Without delving into the details of market dynamics evolution, interested readers can explore the topic further in this WhitePaper from the BetaCodex Network.
However, with that in mind, we know, that organizations grappling with new products, competitors, or other challenges, seeking agility or digital transformation, typically operate in high dynamic markets. Regrettably, their response often aligns with tools and practices from a complicated rather than a complex environment.
Best Practices as the root cause of why people won’t adapt?
For decades, and sometimes even over a century, we have been constructing best practices derived from the traditional command and control environment, inspired by Taylor. Here are some examples of tools and practices often observed in organizations that complain about the challenges mentioned above, also illustrating why they might impede rather than facilitate meaningful change:
- Individual Performance Reviews and Bonus create a culture of heroism, emphasizing individual achievements over collaborative efforts. This approach fosters the belief that performance is solely a result of individual will, potentially undermining teamwork and ignoring the team’s or individual’s context.
- Learning & Development Teams or Training Committees rely on a centralized team to dictate learning needs, which may limit the organization’s understanding of diverse learning requirements. This approach may hinder a more nuanced and multi-faceted view of learning and competence development, as it assumes a select few can comprehensively identify training needs for everyone.
- Providing Career Plans focusing on fixed roles and titles can put individuals into fixed roles, discouraging exploration of new competences and diverse career paths. This approach may lead to demotivation, as individuals may feel confined to roles dictated by the organization rather than pursuing their growth and aspirations. In complex systems, this reduces innovation and creativity.
- Traditional Recruitment Strategies can create dependencies and conflicts between hiring managers and recruiters. This approach may limit the organization’s ability to adapt to changing talent needs and attract a diverse range of candidates. It also introduces a delay between need and hiring, which can reduce the competitive edge of the organization as a whole.
- The delusion of own Performance can result in a lack of delegation and collaboration and usually shifts the burden of the efforts onto individuals instead of understanding team performance. If leaders overestimate their performance, they also look out for other “heroes” in the team, potentially building a fragile team depending on individuals.
- Espousing Theories, Values & Culture, but then lacking alignment with actions can create a gap between stated ideals and actual behavior. This approach results in leaders not embodying the values they promote, leading to a superficial application of principles and inhibiting true cultural change.
- Setting Targets and Goals, instead of Discussing Visions, can drive a short-term, results-oriented mindset. This approach may hinder a focus on continuous improvement and organizational growth, as it places emphasis on immediate objectives rather than fostering a discussion around long-term improvements.
Practices cause System Archetypes, or: understand your system
Nevertheless, we still believe those practices are helping us to provide structure, ensure performance and motivate the individuals of the teams. We see no alternatives to those practices. In the end, this just reinforces the conundrum of the practices. We rely more on them instead of thinking out-of-the-box, valuing context of performance over rules or policies.
If we understand our team’s System Archetypes (underlying patterns of interactions within the team), we can very often track the above-mentioned behaviors and symptoms back to those so-called best practices:
- Individuals in your team are not proactive: When individual performance is solely rewarded, as seen in practices like Individual Performance Reviews and Bonus, a reinforcing loop can emerge. This loop may inadvertently discourage team members from proactively collaborating, leading to a culture that values individual achievements over teamwork. Team members are siloed or not proactive to help out. Performance Reviews and Bonus reward past activities, but will impact the future motivation and behaviors of the individuals in the team.
- Individuals are not accepting help even if offered: The centralized approach of Learning & Development Teams or Training Committees might erode the motivation of team members to seek help. By dictating learning needs without addressing diverse needs, the motivation to engage in learning initiatives may diminish over time.
- Lack of collaboration between Product Team and Engineers: Recruitment Efforts relying on predefined strategies may inadvertently shift the burden from fostering internal collaboration. This can lead to limited collaboration between teams, such as the Product Team and Engineers, as the organization leans towards external hires instead of nurturing synergies within. Additionally, it can also cause a reinforcing loop with delay: The best candidates might accept an offer from another company, if the collaboration between Recruiters and Hiring managers is not direct and towards the same objectives.
- Leaders are not driving the change: Organizations solely relying on Setting Targets and Goals, instead of Discussing Visions, may find themselves caught in a cycle of fixes that fail to address the root causes of delivery challenges. This short-term mindset might hinder the pursuit of a long-term vision for sustained growth. Additionally, if for some changes innovation and drive is necessary, targets, and goals may drive the leaders not actively leading the change.
- Leaders not carry out change even when agreed upon: When organizations articulate values without aligning actions, a drifting goals archetype can emerge. Espousing Theories, Values & Culture without embodying them can impede meaningful organizational change, causing leaders to fall short of driving the desired transformation or agreed-upon activities not being carried out.
Dear Leader, shift your mindset
The impetus for change in your organization rests with you. To foster meaningful transformation, it’s crucial to shift your perspective on organizational dynamics. Recognize that organizational performance is tied to systemic properties, practices, and tools, not solely reliant on individual shortcomings. Embracing this complexity requires a fundamental shift in mindset. Then we understand, why people won’t adapt.
The following principles are crucial for a better way of doing things:
Focus on Interactions, Not People
Many assert that individuals are a company’s most crucial assets. However, I believe this view is flawed. People should not be labeled as assets. More importantly, this perspective encourages improving people, akin to trying to expedite a flower’s growth by pulling on it. Enhance team dynamics by observing interactions, fostering constructive discussions, and learning from diverse perspectives.
Don’t Treat People Like Idiots
As Hans Monderman said, “If you treat people like idiots, they behave like idiots.” He revolutionized traffic control by trusting individuals and reducing strict rules with his concept of shared space. Similarly, in your team or organization, nurture creativity and innovation by avoiding rigid adherence to rules and regulations. These qualities flourish in a supportive environment rather than being planned.
Don’t Change the Environment, Remove Impediments
We often assume drastic changes are necessary to drive transformation. However, people embrace change when its benefits match or exceed the status quo. Understanding system archetypes helps identify practices impeding change. Instead of a complete overhaul, eliminate impediments. For instance, when questioned about improving motivation, consider what demotivates people and remove those elements, instead of creating unrelated activities such as Team Building events or buying ping-pong tables.
Dialogue with Suspension of Assumptions
A significant obstacle to productive collaboration is unvoiced assumptions about others. Workshops and discussions often focus on proving one’s opinion right, leading to close-mindedness. Chris Argyris’s ladder of inference can help understand, how observations can lead to beliefs. In the next discussion, start by stating assumptions and data that inform beliefs. This transparency facilitates open-minded, solution-oriented discussions.
You Don’t Need Leaders, You Need Leadership
Shift from a hierarchical view of leadership to recognize it as a collective, distributed capability. Cultivate an environment where leadership emerges organically at all levels, promoting shared responsibility and initiative.
Many organizations confuse leaders, managers, and leadership. They often use “leader” for those in management positions, expecting them to act solely as traditional managers. Managers, as formal authorized leaders, create the structures for high performance. Good management practices result in leadership emerging organically within a team. In essence, you don’t need leaders (though you can call your managers leaders), but you do need management (accountable are the Managers). Encourage them to focus on the principles outlined above.
Dear Leader, it’s you!
In this article, we’ve grasped a fundamental truth: behavior stems from the systems in place. Often, our instinct is to address issues by trying to fix individuals, but this tends to amplify inertia and demotivation rather than addressing the root causes.
Understanding System Archetypes provides insight into how our practices shape individual interactions. When our focus leans towards individual performance over team learning and vision-driven outcomes, we inadvertently cultivate a hero culture, fostering an overreliance on individualism.
The crux for any manager lies in overcoming System Archetypes. Management itself isn’t inherently negative; it’s an essential function. The shift required lies in how we approach management. Prioritize managing interactions, removing impediments, and actively listening to comprehend. The responsibility for this change rests with you, dear Leader.