Inception!

A better way to introduce massive change into your organization

What was your favorite movie of the 2000’s? Mine was Inception with Leonardo Dicaprio as “dream thief” on a mission of redemption to clear his name. It’s a well-paced and superbly acted movie built on one simple premise. Can you plant the seed of an idea into someone’s mind as if it were their own?

My favorite moment in the film was during the middle of a gun fight, when one of the characters comes up from behind to support his colleague wielding a ridiculously massive gun, saying:

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“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

It’s dream after all, why not just conjure up a much larger weapon?

Dreams unfortunately do not work in Enterprise IT. There is no magic conjuring up of solutions that will get us out of trouble or solve many of the intractable issues we face when systems fail or code does not work as expected. It’s a world that often reflects Office Space more than Inception.

Despite this stark reality, executives implore their staff to dream bigger. They paint visions in beautiful Powerpoints of digital transformation and business agility and insane customer focus showing a glorious future. Then as Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

The reality is that any large scale organizational change usually dies a slow death. It is not the spectacular KO in the ring, it is the death by thousands of small cuts that bleed the desire for change. This is when things like Agile and Scrum become props of change rather than tools for helping to improve work and unleashing massive team productivity.

What most often stifles the dream of transformation is culture. As I shared in my last post:

“Without the innate sense of ownership, nothing can actually change…This is the biggest differentiator between the high performing and low performing engineering teams.”

Employees hear change and immediately think, “Nope, not for me”. There is no connection to why it should matter at a personal level. This is especially true the further away an organization is from the generative end of the Westrum scale:

Wetstrum scale of organizational culture

Organizations that have a generative culture are already imbued with the DNA of change. They learn faster, execute faster, and iterate faster. Change is seen as opportunity and the inevitable state of building a lasting organization that positively impacts customers, employees, partners, and society.

So how would an organization begin to shift the culture towards being more generative? There are certain practices that have been observed in other enterprises that have found success in their own transformation journey. These are the six key pillars for organizational “Inception”:

  • New people with new ideas — In any industry there is the usual recycling of people that move from one company to the next. But they are often not bringing in the type of new ideas that create leaps in innovation. If you want to be more like a “tech company” or “startup”, bring in people from outside your industry and give them the freedom and support to implement new ideas.
  • Build proof to shift mindsets — The usual way organizations initiate transformation is to create lots of announcements, buzz, and initiatives. This however rarely achieves its intended effect because no one in the organization believes in the change. Instead of the big bang approach to change, tackle one non-critical but visible initiative and use that success as a springboard to convince others to shift their mindsets around change. A new belief in what is possible needs to take root first before broad change occurs.
  • Grow capability and expand learning — Most organizations that begin to transform will notice two things. Some people leave immediately because they see change as a personal risk. The second is that the skills needed to ensure successful transformation do not exist. This requires strategic alignment between business leaders, learning & development, and recruiting to bring in the talent needed and to also reskill / upskill current staff so they do not feel left behind in the process (leading to further attrition).
  • Aggressively smash roadblocks — There is an old saying “you cannot pour new wine into an old wineskin”, otherwise the wineskin would burst. The same happens when you bring eager and smart developers and IT professionals into an organization just to have them get stuck on old process hiccups. It runs the gamut from manual code deploys, to slow dev environment setups, to the endless cycle of meetings. If one of your smart people on the ground raises her hand to point out a process problem, instead of ignoring or questioning said person, listen intently and act with urgency to remove the roadblock.
  • Switch to default open sharing — One pervasive organizational roadblock is the wasteful exercise in finding answers. Most information is poorly documented, hard to find, trapped in team silos, or stuck inside people’s heads. This is often because of a lack of an organizational imperative to be proactive with sharing critical information, content, and intellectual capital. The best organizations implement community practices that encourages sharing across all teams.
  • Executive support, not competition — None of the above points make an impact if leadership is not aligned to the mission of change and why change is critical. In non-generative organizations, executives protect their teams and focus on self-preservation over the needs of the company. They silo information rather than share openly because this would upset the balance of power. Change requires trust in an environment where trust is in short supply, thus achieving full executive support is often the most challenging of all the points to implement.

Most large scale transformation projects will fall short of the stated goals. Most often the culprit for this is the lack of a real foundation to support change. Instead of smashing through change, it is better to use inception to subtly introduce change. By using the framework above, you can visualize 1) your organization’s capacity to change and 2) the areas with the greatest deficit in terms of capabilities needed to support change.

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What has been your experience in organizations that initiated a wide-scale change? What succeeded and did not succeed in that transformation?

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Which integers can be expressed as a sum of three cubes in infinitely many ways?

42, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, was in the news

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

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Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, enterprise agility, community building & software engineering culture. Author 👉 https://twitter.com/marksbirch

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