Saturday, August 23, 2014

The intrinsic non repeatability of the change agent

After 3 really intense days of ALE2014 in Krakow, this morning my brain was busy connecting the many sparse dots and the many insights popping out from talks, open sessions and private conversations, including late night ones.

There’s a fundamental clash between the way change agents and organisational consultants act and the way the market is looking for their services. Let me explain it.

What the market is looking for

When selecting/interviewing a change agent the buyer company, most of the time ends up falling into two fundamentally flawed questions:

  • Which results can you guarantee?
  • Have you done this before?
Let me explain why they’re both fundamentally flawed and why you should try to challenge them from the start. Beware, I said flawed, but I didn’t mean they’re not legitimate questions: the buyer/customer company might be new to change initiatives and looking for some certainty. Statistics shows that 70% of change initiatives fail, and that those numbers are substantially flat from the eighties (thanks to Steven Parry for showing this data). So risk is inevitably there. But the way to manage risk is probably to hire a good consultant, with previous experience on the matter, in order to mitigate that risk, or to implement some just in case ‘cover my ass’ strategy.
This leads to a couple of weird problems: success in previous initiatives is no guarantee of success in the new one. More than anywhere else, context is king. And context is mostly out of the change agent scope, at least in the early days. A common trait of experienced change agents is the ability to detect critical, non removable impediments quickly (in the initial interview or in the early assessment) so that they end up having a better record, by avoiding customers with low success probability. Which sounds a lot like the old Sun Tzu’s advice: “battles are won before they’re ever fought”.
A more legitimate meaning of the ‘Have you done this before?’ question is to check previous references. This is probably the best thing to do, especially if it involves talking with somebody to know something more about the person, the style and the possible surprises that may arise.

What happens in reality

But the other implicit issue is that this often hides the tendency of thinking in terms of the wrong complexity context.  Of course we don’t expect our customers to be familiar with the Cynefin Framework, but guarantee and repeatability are thinking tools for complicated systems. While in a complex system there is no guarantee that repeating an action will lead to the same result.
If you hire Mourinho as a football coach, you’re sure you’re going to pay a lot of money, but there is no guarantee that he will deliver the expected result. This is what makes soccer still interesting, by the way.
But one other aspect gets too easily forgotten. In a change management initiative, or more specifically in an agile transformation, the system is not the only thing that changes. The change agent, changes as well. It’s not only experience, it’s scars. It’s emotions, and last but not least it’s learning.

The agent changes too

One thing that the customers rarely understand is that sometimes we do something really special, something that we’ve never done before. And this turns out special just because we’re doing it for the first time. It’s something probably similar to improvising in a jazz way. In Jazz music, it takes a lot of mastery to be able to improvise, but that performance is intrinsically non repeatable. And trying to repeat it will probably make it worse. The second time a band tries to jam on a given tune, the magic won’t be there.
The other thing that we often forget to consider is the emotional overload of such things. After a success, or a failure, or simply when the time has come, would you just ‘be ready to start over?’ I suspect the plain answer can be “no". Just like some people need some thinking time between a love story and another one, ending an initiative and starting a new one with a new customer right away might be a really bad idea. Without the initial curiosity, and freshness the new mission will risk to be ‘just a new job’, without the magic.




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