Taking Bold Risks

One day in 1947, a massive box with the letters “IBM” printed across the side arrived on the doorsteps of the Goldman Sachs office in NYC. Wheeling it inside, no one was sure what to make of the huge metal lifeless box. There was only one thing to do, so they plugged in the device and the entire building immediately plunged into darkness!

Why on Earth would the senior partner of Goldman Sachs, Sidney Weinberg, buy a computer from IBM when he had no idea what it did? Because Sidney believed that you should be willing to take risks towards a bold vision, a vision that these “computers” would enable.

“This is going to do great things. It will change everything.”

He made an impossible wager. This was not the typical BHAG, otherwise known as a big, hairy, audacious goal. Those are great motivators for achieving personal ambitions, but we are taking about motivating an entire company out of organizational inertia. Like the movie Inception, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

Best movie ever…

In this case, the wager was to launch a new app into production in a month. That is from design to code to test to deploy. Historically anything new took close to a year to roll out to production, so on the face of it this wager simply seemed ridiculous.

Then a month later, the new app was released to users. Minds blown. Executives fainting from disbelief. Like the waters of the Red Sea parting, behold the miracle of a production ready app with real users generating real results in one month’s time!

When trying to understand how people accept change, I often reach for neuroscience and behavioral economics*. We do not change our thinking unless we are in danger or are presented with something novel. Thus a new idea needs to jolt us into paying attention otherwise our minds will simply file the idea away without much consideration.

If you want to change thinking, you need an idea so preposterous that it shakes one’s core beliefs and challenges the orthodoxy. The same applies to organizational change, you need to be willing to create an “Event” that if successful, forces the culture to shift towards the new reality.

There are other ways to change culture, but they rarely stick or have a meaningful impact. Agile is one example where it is implemented in practically every company, but there is little to show. The reason is that the organization adopted the language, but did not buy into the goal. Thus no structure took hold to support the change and no one wanted to embrace it.

Why does no one buy into the goal? On the surface, most goals sound like something everyone would agree with. In the case of Agile, it is to operate faster as an organization by breaking things down into smaller chunks. But for the rank and file, it doesn’t feel tangible. it just sounds like more motherhood and apple pie, executive mumbo jumbo talk.

Deploy a real app in a bank in one month? Now that is bold and very tangible! Much like how the “10+ Deploys Per Day” talk at Velocity 09 shook the entire belief system of the IT industry to its core. It left developers and sys admins stunned and in turn launched the movement known as DevOps that is estimated will be worth $10 billion USD by 2025.

Once you have people’s attention, you can then guide them towards a new belief system. The event causes people to adopt a new language to describe this new way of thinking. The new language leads to new mental models to provide structure for the change. In turn, the change gives people and teams the agency to embrace and carry forward the change throughout the organization, supported by the structure and language.

The name of this framework? It is ELSA, or in other words Event, Language, Structure and Agency. Once put in motion, increased Agency can lead to more Events which in turn creates a virtuous cycle of innovation and change in the organization.

Scribbles of brilliance as we solve all the world’s problems…

Obviously this type of framework comes with massive risks to those advocating this type of sweeping change. Bold vision can just as easily go bust and become career suicide. You have to be reasonably assured that you can pull off the trick you are so boldly proposing.

But consider these two questions; is the state of your industry the same now as it was even ten years ago and is the pace of change becoming faster or slower? History is littered with iconic brands that went belly up because they were too slow to change. You can’t afford to not be bold.

What are some organizational beliefs you feel are ready to be challenged? How would you approach changing beliefs across the organization?

*If you want to learn more about how the brain makes decisions, I recommend the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

Is it true that bananas are radioactive?

As it was Thanksgiving and all, here is a food related question…

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Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, startups, community building & engineering culture. Author is Mark Birch @ AWS 👉 https://twitter.com/marksbirch