How to engage management through the emergence of an agile culture

- Agile and Lean Principles

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by Louise Brace

“How can we engage upper management during change management?” In this article we’re going to delve into a question that we explored a little while ago during one of our Happy Melly Coffee sessions, you can see the context of the discussion below. 

How can we engage not only employees, but also upper management in the emergence of an agile culture, when so many managers still have a traditional or Management 2.0 mindset?

A major challenge for agile coaches when they start out with a new client or organization, is how to engage both employees and upper management in the emergence of an agile culture. Agile coaches and scrum masters often struggle to get them on board with such cultural experiments.

Jurgen posed an interesting question: Is it counterproductive to get upper management involved during the emergence of agile in an organization? Could it be an obstacle, rather than a benefit, when introducing an agile approach?

Often employee engagement programs are rolled out without the positive results the organizer had hoped for. This can result in a belief that change management isn’t a successful way to improve an organization, and so that organization keeps switching back to traditional hierarchical management styles.

Agile coaches often ponder on why these programs aren’t working, but perhaps the question they should be asking is: Why do we need such programs? And why do we keep trying them if they don’t work?

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Could the answer be that we just need to do something unconventional to make change happen?

Read on: Management 3.0 tools for Agile Coaches

It’s how we approach it that counts

If you look at any organization where people are fully engaged, agile and happy, there’s usually one common denominator: They don’t have an employee engagement program. When an organization feels like it needs one, it can often be the very core of the problem.

What really counts is people’s own approach and attitude to change, rather than change itself. How it’s implemented is irrelevant if the whole organization supports it.

To dig deeper, Jurgen asked: “why do we feel we need to engage upper management?

There is no 1,2, 3 step approach to involving management, but it can damage momentum or cause a counterface that sucks us back to the previous status quo. So before we go right ahead and take our experiments to senior management, we must first explore the possibility that we don’t actually need to get them involved.

We recognize that we need their support and encouragement – perhaps even financially. And we need them to accept organizational change, but that change doesn’t have to be a top down initiative.

Andy Cleff posed the question: “Does the implementation come from top down, bottom up or sideways?”

There are many experiments and changes that don’t require permission from upper management, or indeed their engagement. WE just need to make it happen.

Case story: When Jurgen was CTI for a Dutch development company, he decided to invite people from his organisation to dinner. He bought the food and laid it out in the kitchen. When everyone arrived he tasked them to making the dinner and prepare up the table. Everybody had to collaborate and cook together. There were developers, people from HR, R&D and of course senior managers. The evening was a great success. So much so, that others wanted to follow the event and organize dinner at their house!

The lesson here is that you don’t always need to ask permission from management to do something that will make a positive change in your company. At the dinner party there was no hierarchy. The concept was introduced and tested successfully. In many cases it’s totally cool to do something out of the box, bypass the hierarchy and go with your experiments. Then watch people follow your example.

Determining risk

There are plenty of positive changes you can make, without asking permission, and which aren’t related to hierarchy. Organize a sport’s day with your colleagues, get people out for meetings at a coffee bar, organize a team lunch once a month (everyone has to make their favourite dish). Start making connections in a networked fashion, this way you’ll be strengthening the network and de-emphasising the hierarchal grip.

Once you’ve paved the way, you can start to introduce ideas for change into the equation.

Of course there are some things you’ll always need to get permission on. But you can go a long way without an engagement program. Start out with low-medium risk exercises, involving people that are interested and motivated for change.

Celebrating success and failure

We need the support of upper management, but on many occasions not their permission. An effective way to secure support is by demonstrating the success of a low-medium risk experiment – one we didn’t get permission for, and how much was learnt from the experiment (even if it was a failure). When we can show success and learning, it’s much easier to create a collaborative mindset with management.

How do we communicate success?

Andy Cleff suggests that it’s a valuable exercise to over-communicate what we learn. Then we can get management involved, and ideally they’ll say, “Hey that’s great. It’s not the traditional model of HR, but it seems to be working, so keep on doing what you’re doing!”

So how can we celebrate success beyond the implementation? Jurgen Appelo used a ship’s bell to ring out success in his organization; Andy Cleff followed suit with a concierge bell, and of course cookies and cakes are always a welcome way of celebrating with your team in the moment (as long as you have a great bakery nearby!)

If you’re working with remote or distributed teams, you could use collaborative tools to share your successes, such as launching a special celebration Slack channel, a weekly virtual celebration via Zoom, sending Kudo Cards or using the ThanksBox application to send shouts out for a job well done.

Durgesh Kumar Mishra comments on the cultural differences in Indian organizations, where culture still tends to be driven by senior management, and where their support is still vitally important. “It’s a complicated scenario and won’t change overnight.” Although happily, coaches like Durgesh are working towards a more agile future. Management support here is still very important and it’s common for managers to ask: “What is it exactly that you’re doing right? Where’s the benefit?” Experimentation in this scenario is always a risk.

The halfway permission

Jurgen suggests that it’s possible that teams can go halfway with experiments without permission from senior management. Unfortunately some people don’t bother to take the risk, because they believe they have to ask for everything. It’s called learned helplessness. When you have been punished in the past for simply taking initiative, or spending time on experiments that failed, and you choose not to take the risk again.

Once you’ve been experimenting with low-medium risk experiments for a while, the question is then: How do you reach the second half? When do you start asking for permission to tackle higher risk experiments?

It can be complicated in organisations that still embrace a traditional work approach and in countries with a stricter culture, where trust plays a major role in change management. In this situation you can’t just do what you want. First you have to do what they want. To change rules and to change the environment, you have to get people in authority to trust you, and to trust your judgement.

Jurgen suggests a positive scenario is to have a person who has been working on the team floor, to move to a higher management position. Someone who can talk the language of the team and management, and who understands both perspectives; who can diligently present the need to experiment to the CEO, and work to get her support. Then it’s a question of building trust over time, to the point when you can discuss the rules and restrictions, and talk about implementing change.

At this point the question you should be asking is: What can I do for you? What do you need from me to make your life easier, and so that the organization works as you want it?

Try to solve their problems. Filter calls from dissatisfied clients, introduce free tools and exercises that improve productivity. When you come up with solutions to their problems, that’s the moment when they’ll start to say, “Just do it!” From there you can start negotiating rules and introducing organizational change at a higher level.

Photo: Louis Reed (Unsplash)

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