Change Sprints Will Get You to the Finish Line
Change projects often suffer from a surplus of good intentions and a deficit of disciplined effort.
You get a senior leadership team together for a few days, assess what needs to change, build a plan, and get everyone aligned. If the workshop is good – our clients tell us that Change Logic runs outstanding senior leadership team sessions – then the organization can harness the excitement that the event generates. Leaders speak honestly about their challenges and commit to making change happen.
However, the following day, the ‘tyranny of the now’ can intrude and make it difficult to sustain the level of focus and intensity necessary to lead a successful business renewal. Day-to-day operations – customers, employees, product development meetings, business plan reviews –consume your time with legitimate and important demands. This sets up the familiar competition between what you’ve agreed is important and what is immediately urgent.
An extra twist on the important-urgent tension is that you are likely dealing with how to change deep-seated routines, behaviors, and mindsets. Even if you have time to complete the tangible actions that come out of a change workshop, it is still difficult to recreate that sense of commitment and motivation that made you believe ‘big’ change was possible.
Having lived through this a few times at Change Logic, we designed a method that would help our clients stay focused, engage a broader base of leaders in owning the change initiatives, and do so in a way that would energize the organization as a whole. So, the Sprint process was born. Borrowing some of the techniques and language of ‘Agile’ software development and embedding the insights from Mike Tushman and Charles O’Reilly, we have now led over twenty sprints across multiple industries. It’s enabled our clients to build new innovation businesses, embed new operating models, and rebuild go-to-market practices and processes, to name just a few of the change efforts using the Sprint model.(See annotation #1 below).
What are Sprints?
Simply, Sprints are how Change Logic clients create and maintain momentum to address their most critical strategic change priorities. Sprints allow clients to balance the practical mechanics with the social dimensions of change, the two elements that comprise the most intractable challenges organizations face today.
Sprints are the perfect antidote to the organizational inertia and resistance that so often haunt big transformational challenges; they recognize the complex, multi-dimensional nature of change and address the systemic barriers that other, more traditional approaches fail to address effectively.
Change: hard and soft
A key distinction is whether a change is purely about the organization hardware – process, structure, system – or whether it touches the software – people, capabilities, behaviors, and mindsets. If you only have to change “hardware”, then momentum, commitment, and engagement are not on the critical path; it’s a simple cause and effect relationship between action and result. Examples would be implementing a new IT system or managing an office move. There is still an important human dimension involved in this kid of shift, but it can be addressed through standard methods such as strong project management, training, and communications. We don’t need to change leadership behavior significantly or the social system of the organization. These are primarily “hardware” projects, in the realm of the knowable.
However, most changes that we work on at Change Logic involve a response to uncertain market dynamics that may have implications for the core capabilities of an organization, and may confront power relationships between senior leaders. We are now in the realm of complexity, and that requires a different approach to managing change.
The critical part of this type of change is that we don’t know the answers at the outset. It requires an exploratory approach – one where we test potential solutions through smart experiments which address both the formal systems (processes, organization, skills) AND the social systems of culture and leadership. A typical client example would be moving from functionally focused ways of working to a collaborative model where multiple units need to align around shared priorities, often on a strict timeline. This will only work when we identify and shift the existing organizational dynamics and informal power structures. This is where we have found the Sprint Process to have significant impact.
How do Sprints work?
Sprints have several key elements/characteristics:
They address the most strategically critical and stubborn transformational challenges
They focus on identifying and addressing root causes for performance issues, not the surface symptoms – these are often cultural as much as they are procedural or organizational
They operate at speed – using 30/60/90 day cycles to drive rapid progress
They use experiments to test & refine solutions before rolling out big implementations – so people learn, not just to experiment, but to accept that failure is both a necessity and a learning opportunity in complex transformation
They leverage skills, knowledge, and enthusiasm from across the organization – Sprint teams typically consist of highly empowered middle managers with a senior sponsor who acts as team advisor and coach, not as a director
They focus as much on learning how to do complex transformation as they do on actual transformation-delivery
They focus as much on the cultural and behavioral shifts needed for success as they do on the mechanistic process and structural shifts
They leverage standard change and project management methods to ensure effective governance, but they add a layer of leadership development; they help senior leaders to adapt their behaviors and help more junior leaders to take on broader responsibilities
As a result, Sprints enable organizations to define, test, refine and implement complex transformation while avoiding the endless debates and political resistance that go along with these types of adaptations. At the same time, the organization learns how to shift on their own by developing the ability to continue managing transformation effectively and to continue adapting to the needs of today’s world.
The Change Logic Sprint approach can provide companies with real competitive advantage – we help them develop the ability to change and adapt faster and more effectively than their (often disruptive) competitors. To understand more about what we do and how we do it, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Dave Snowden has written about a powerful distinction between ‘Known’ and ‘Knowable’ problems where cause and effect applies: Complexity, where you only know what happened in retrospect, and Chaos, where there is not cause and effect.