Everything is going to hell

When it comes to change, there is a Late Majority that is against transformation almost all the time. Even when an old system is on its last legs, these groups still find reasons why a new system, process or approach is really bad and will drive the company to bankruptcy.

The late majority is the last active group to contribute to the change. Once they are emotionally through the change, the new system is running extremely well, new customers have been won and so on, sometimes the same people say things like, „I always knew that the new system would be excellent for us.“

I enjoy chatting with these people over coffee to understand when the change of heart took place and whether I could have accelerated it in any way. The amazing thing is that everyone I have spoken to denies ever having been an opponent of the new.

Even if a person sitting next to him confirms that he actively worked against the innovation, all I hear are excuses like, “I didn’t mean it that way”. No matter how transparent or fault-tolerant the customer culture was, they always deny that they were ever against the new, now superior system.

In this context, initial reservations are perfectly understandable. If an organisation has waited too long, has been driven to wear and tear, the staff is often so stressed that a transformation seems like an impossible burden. When, after a successful transformation, an initial objector says, “Yes, I thought the team couldn’t carry that too.” That is perfectly understandable.

For change processes, the reluctant players are most important too, they help to stabilise at the beginning and at the end they sometimes have the chance to introduce the new system even better than the early adopters. Have the courage to admit that you were a doubter at the beginning, because we can all learn from that.



The 1% nonsense

A very popular narrative is that you only have to invest a few minutes every day in training, work, knowledge, contacts, physical resource or a sociological resource and after a year, through the effect of compound interest, something really big will be the outcome. In order to illustrate this, let us consider the following example.

Let’s imagine that it is true for a entire social network that one new post generates an average of 1 % new followers.

And now my 1% story: Invest 3 minutes every day in a posting on your social network and with every posting, the number of your followers increases by 1%. If you start out with 100 followers, after a week you have 106 followers, after a month 135 and after a year 3741 followers.

Why do these 1% stories impress us at first? Small investment – enormous growth – big profit!

For these 1% stories to be actually achievable, the projected growth has to be exponential. Unfortunately, this exponential growth does not apply to the propagation of 100 flowers in your garden, even if the initial values would also be 1% growth.

Biological systems often follow logistic curves, these are those curves that have the characteristic shape like an S. In the gradient part they look like exponential functions for a short distance. In our example of one posting per day, I chose such S-curve as my model, means the constant worker recognises the difference between 100 and 150 days later, because then the curve begins to slope down.

In my imagined model we reach 500 followers at the end of the year, which is a great increase and was worth the effort of about 18 hours of typing. However, compared to the targeted 3700 followers, the result is disappointing.

Which is exactly my point of criticism of these 1% interest rate stories, almost nothing in a limited market grows exponentially. I worry that the lack of realism and the disappointment along the way of not creating enough growth leads to dropouts and demotivation.

The reasons in the stories are often brilliant, it’s worth investing a constant 3 minutes a day in something good. You get smarter, generate more customers, become more athletic or whatever. Just not exponentially.

Exponential and logistic growth
Exponential and logistic growth

Value outcome, not hours

In social media, I am always amazed to see that simple and unreflective appeals achieve high click rates. Some of them are already ancient, but they are re-posted every few weeks and get thousands of clicks. These platitudes are annoying and boring for me, but the attention economy of the social media loves exactly such calendar slogans.

One of the phrases is: “Employers, value performance, not attendance”. A great appeal, a wonderful topic to discuss. Furthermore, it is also very value-creating when companies take a serious look at it. For most companies, this means a profound change, which is not that easy.

When I see this prompt on my timeline every 14 days, I always have to think of many corporations and chuckle. I remember a conversation with a slightly younger unit manager. At the time, my team was known for its high efficiency partly thanks to Lean, Agile and Diversity, and I was often asked what was behind it all.

After such a talk, this colleague took me aside and explained to me how to achieve something in a corporation. It was a very great conversation, she has a very different perspective on the world than I do, but I really appreciate that she openly explained her approach to me. Here are the main methods of her “presence” strategy.

Always stay late, find a place in an open-plan office that is well visible to everyone. When the lights are shut off in the evening, don’t switch them on again, only light up your own workstation. Two LED desk lamps are ideal.

Always seek to get attention. Visit the executive floor, ask about appointments and attendance, take the lift exactly when the last executive meeting took place in the evening, mention in the lift that you are taking a short break and just get a drink from the vending machine on the ground floor.

When going somewhere, always have things under your arm, a booklet on which you can write something down with a pen is ideal. Against being bored, spread out a lot of documents on the desk, in between which you can hide some private reads. Even the private tablet doesn’t catch the eye in the midst of all the stuff.

She had a dozen more tips of this kind. Such methods were very successful in her company and I think this also applies to many other companies. As I said, not my world at all, but a very sympathetic conversation, I had to smile a lot and I have seen a different world view.

Now let’s evaluate the strategy “presence” and the alternative “performance”:

Imagine that in the next reorganisation, her name is tossed into the ring. The reorganisation is discussed by a small group of people who have access to hundreds of candidates. Her name comes up and most of the board doesn’t know her very well, but have a positive impression: “Oh, that’s the one who always stays so late”. In this fashion, the “presence” strategy conveniently finds many supporters across the board.

This is much easier than a matching assessment on the performance of hundreds of candidates. These performances must be transparent to the same decision-making body. Think about how many conditions have to be fulfilled for such a body to say by a vast majority: “Oh, that’s the one who always performs so well”.

One requirement is the mutual recognition and reference to each other’s achievements. “I could never have done it without the co-worker” or “The team was on fire towards success, I barely had to assist” and many more statements like this.

So, now we have something tangible for the people in team “performance”. Not just the hard-to-implement generic phrase “Employers, value performance, not attendance”. How about the appeal: “Give praise to a colleague in front of the whole team today!”

This can be practised in any company, regardless of whether it is a member of the “presence” team or the “performance” team. Even if the subject of “performance” is very well managed in your company, a little praise never hurts.


No knowledge, no criticisms

In the social media, people often complain about unjustified criticism or condescending remarks based on gender, origin, clothing, etc. Such complaints are then often garnished with the statement that other social groups do not have to suffer from wrongful comments. In my experience, marginalising criticism is very common and likes to abuse external things like irrelevant characteristics or hobbies. The main thing is that it is a low-cost vehicle to discredit the person being attacked.

I am and have been involved in many change processes, and you hear these sayings very often in the tea room. Some leaders who drive change really get tons of blame. These insults are often driven by the Laggards, the people who are the very last to take over the changes. As an external consultant, I am seldom affected.

But it did happen to me once: A company badly needed to make its decentralised, inhomogeneous IT more efficient because it was writing red figures. After a few months of initial progress, there was a big project meeting to discuss alternatives. A business unit had joined at short notice and sent a representative. I was only a guest and seated at the very back of the room.

This representative took the opportunity of a small break in the programme, went to the front, grabbed the microphone and insulted me as a person. ” Do you want to be told what to do by that jerk German” was the more harmless version. I was very caught off guard, adrinaline shot through my bloodstream, yet I was able to use the period of name-calling to collect myself.

Slowly I went forward, placed myself next to him, looked at him and indicated with my hand that I wanted the microphone. He was very puzzled, kept talking, but I gestured with my hand without saying anything. He gave me the microphone and went back to his seat. I resumed quickly that we were all here to discuss alternatives, asked him to be constructive and forbade him to attack me personally. However, constructive criticism of my work was always welcome. He shouted something incomprehensible from his seat, then there was peace.

For me, it is important to briefly counter the attack. Not to the content, because such an attack has no content. It can be as low-level as a slow blink I threw at two ladies I didn’t let cut in front of me at a concert, who then had to settle for two rows behind me and then condescendingly insulted me with externalities and alleged qualities.

Often you only discover something like that through a second person, and I always bring it up there, too. I never raise suspicions, but rather talk about the content. “I heard you don’t like the upcoming changes”, the reactions are manifold, from “Yes, yes, it’s all good” to constructive criticism to “Yes, Miller is an blockhead, look at what a pimps car he rides”.

Such condescending criticism can really strike you. Maybe because you’re having a weak moment, because you’re struggling with other things in the project, because the criticism has subtly hit a sore spot.

When something like that has happened to me, I process it. I look for reasons why it has affected me and try to conclude it for myself. An important checkpoint is: Would I ask that particular person for criticism? If not, the criticism is not for me, but instead says quite a lot more about the other person.

Critics of nose lengths are annoying and don’t deserve any attention. You don’t know me or the content, then you have no right to criticise.

Finally, a quick thought on good criticism. If it is a mentor-mentee relationship or a supervisor-employee relationship and you are asked for criticism for improvement. From an observer’s perspective, you can highlight strengths and offer weaknesses as alternatives. Instead of saying, “You still have to learn how to talk to customers, but you are already very proficient in accounting and technology,” you can say what you appreciate: “When we are both at the customer’s, I love that you take the technology and the numbers off my hands. That way I can concentrate fully on the customer. This way, as an start to a meaningful conversation, a lot of ideas for improvement can be discussed, the mentee has maximum freedom to take alternatives and talk about the future.

Slow Blink
Slow Blink

Agile kicks managers out?

I think there is probably no greater nonsense out there than the narrative “Agile is eliminating management”. In the social networks, I often read advertisements for consultancies and seminars such as: First slowly introduce agile and self-organisation so that you don’t have to abolish management straight away. Managers beware, you won’t have your job much longer!

All agile organisations I know still have a management, even the biggest and oldest agile pioneers in the banking sector. Agile organisations or parts of organisations on the way to self-organisation distribute management tasks differently than usual. This new kind of management is often much more meaningful and valuable than the conventional.

Let’s take a look at some of my experiences and the differences between before and after.

Before: The supervisor draws up a training plan at the beginning of the business year with monthly reports. Of course, there is discussion, but it usually stays with industry-typical trainings that don’t exactly fit the job. The training status is reviewed quarterly.

After: Service champions from the team set the trainings in the learning groups, have short feedback loops, create ad hoc trainings, everything is visually managed. The team leaders’ job is to encourage people, to nudge learning groups at times. Strengthening strengths works almost by itself in agile teams, but reducing weaknesses usually needs coaching from the team leader.

Before: In the case of customer escalations, large groups of senior managers sit together, daily reports are prepared and 60-minute jour fixes are conducted. Only 10% of the reports are really relevant, the meetings tie up resources unnecessarily. Some decisions are made on the basis of second- or third-hand information.

After: Relevant stakeholders incl. customer representatives focus on the most important values, supported by someone who knows Lean/Agile methods. The situation is visualised, everyone can see the current status. The team leader moderates, takes care of tasks that go beyond the team. The team leader often also ensures that decisions once made are maintained, some solutions do not work on the first day.

Well, I think I could fill a whole book with examples like that. In my experience, the different assignment of responsibility and decision-making creates a much better acceptance of the desire for continuous improvement. Management systems like Objectives and Key Results (OKR) almost kick into gear by themselves in such environments, whereas in hierarchical environments they stop at any political traffic light as soon as it is as low as yellow.

Leaders are challenged in their most important role when introducing agile or hybrid-agile working methods: as a protective function for the team. Also as a corrective, so that the newly shared responsibilities are well anchored and lived. If the team moves towards self-organisation, the team leader remains the most important interface and an essential coach. Both for the holistic view of the development of the individual and for the next development step of the team. Not to mention the resolution of conflicts.

I don’t understand why they scare people with the threat “soon no one will need you any more”. Changes are already causing many people to break out in a cold sweat, because the working environment will change. If I think about how I worked 10 years ago and imagine I’m in 2013 and now I’m looking at 2023. So without any prior knowledge now to look at agile presales and sales.

I would find many things great, for example the high efficiency in the team. Some things I wouldn’t understand, for example why visual management is so useful if it sounds like bureaucracy. And some things I would have a lot of respect for, e.g. the example above of putting out a fire together with customers in a room.

By the way, the idea for this article came to me when a co-worker asked for a job reference and I thought: OK, then you write me one too. That’s what we did. Unthinkable in a 60s hierarchy. In a self-organised team, it was a matter of course and a great experience.

I would like to take away your fears if you are thinking in the direction of lean/agile, we agile coaches are there for you. I would be happy to tell you about my first steps.

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