Creating alliances & holding zero-sum trolls at bay

This post is an early draft of a chapter in my book,  Monolithic Transformation.

Source.

Lone wolves rarely succeed at transforming business models and behavior at large organizations. True to the halo effect, you’ll hear about successful lone wolves often. What you don’t hear about are all the lone wolves who limped off to die alone. Even CEOs and boards often find that change-by-mandate efforts fail. “Efforts that don’t have a powerful enough guiding coalition can make apparent progress for a while,” as Kotter summarizes, “But, sooner or later, the opposition gathers itself together and stops the change.”

Organizations get big by creating and sustaining a portfolio of revenue sources, likey over decades. While these revenue sources may transmogrify from cows to dogs, if frightened or backed into a corner, hale but mettlesome upstarts will are usually trampled by the status quo stampede. At the very least, they’re constantly protecting their neck from frothy, sharp-tooth jackals. You have to work with those cows and canines, often forming “committees.” Oh, and, you know, they might actually be helpful.

How you use this committee is situation. It might be the placate enemies who’d rather see you fail than succeed, looking to salvage corporate resources from the HMS Transformation’s wreak. The old maxim to keep your friends close and your enemies closer summarizes this tactic well. Getting your “enemies” committed to and involved in your project is an obvious, facile suggestion, but it’ll keep them at bay. You’ll need to remove my cynical tone from your committee and actually rely on them for strategic and tactical input, support in budgeting cycles, and, eventually, involvement in your change.

For example, a couple years back I was working with all the C-level executives at a large retailer. They’d come together to understand IT’s strategy to become a software defined business. Of course, IT could only go so far and needed the the actual lines of business to support and adopt that change. The IT executives explained how transforming to a cloud native organization would improve the company’s software capabilities in the morning. In the afternoon, they all started defining a new application focused on driving repeat business, using the very techniques discussed in the morning. This workshopping solidified IT’s relationship with key lines of business and started working transforming those businesses. It also kicked off real, actual work on the initiative. By seeing the benefits of the new approach in action, IT also won over the CFO who’d been the most skeptical.

As this anecdote illustrates, building an alliance often requires serving your new friends. IT typically has little power to drive change, especially after decades of positioning themselves as a service bureau instead of a core enabler of growth. As seen in the Duke lineworker case above, asking the business what they’d like changed is more effective than presuming to know. As that case also shows, a small batch process discovers what actually needs to happen despite the business’ initial theories. But, getting there requires a more of a “the customer is always right” approach on IT’s part.

Now, there are many tactics for managing this committee; as ever Kotter does an excellent job of cataloging them in Leading Change. In particular, you want to make sure the committee members remain engaged. Good executives can quickly smell a waste of time and will start sending junior staff if the wind of change smells stale (wouldn’t you do the same?). You need to manage their excitement, treating them as stakeholder and customers, not just collaborators. Luckily, most organizations I’ve spoken with find that cloud native technologies and methodologies so vastly improve their software capabilities, in such a short amount of time that winning over peers is easy. As one executive a year intro their digital transformation program told me, “holy-@$!!%!@-cow we are starting to accelerate. It’s getting hard to not overdo it. I have business partners lined up out the door.”

This post is an early draft of a chapter in my book,  Monolithic Transformation.

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