There is no doubt that business agility is necessary today, but are you ready? Is your organization able to absorb and adapt to change? Are your technical and business practices, your culture and leadership able to handle the stress of change? Or will they, when pushed and pulled by the stresses of rapid business change, collapse like Galloping Gertie (the Tacoma Narrows Bridge)? If you haven’t made a specific effort to prepare your organization able to handle the stresses of rapid and constant change, the answer is likely, ‘No’.
Every organization is a complex system of systems that can be understood with 4 key dimensions:
- Technical Practices
- Business Systems
- Organizational Culture
The challenge in any organizational change is to keep all the pieces aligned as you move from the old to the new way. If any dimension is not in sync with the other conflict and tension will be the result. This conflict and tension may be enough to kill the change.
Management/Leadership, organizational culture, business systems and the technical ways we work have all been developed in and for contexts that no longer exist. Business for the first 85 years of the 20th century was focused on optimizing for assembly lines;
- Consolidation of work in a single location
- Making workers more and more efficient
- Control of the supply chain.
Most new products of the first 2/3 of the 20th century had relatively long lead times, at least as compared to what happened in the last 15 years of the 20th century. If you controlled the supply chain and you were able to produce and deliver your products for less money than your competitors your business was more likely to be successful. Planning, estimation and delivery were all focused on these same goals; Consolidation, efficiency, control of the supply chain. Tools that controlled variation would make the work more efficient. Six sigma is one such tool, it is designed to reduce variation in high volume production systems. In the latter part of the 20th century reducing variation is no longer the goal, in growth markets speed and the ability to adapt have become the goal. Making this shift as an organization is stressful and success is not guaranteed.
The top two items: Technical practices and Business processes are the most obvious areas because they have physical manifestations. There are tools, reports, processes and forms. Making these two parts of the change process hard to miss. While they represent a significant effort they pale in comparison to the challenge of changing the cultural and leadership paradigms of an organization. Technical practices and Business Systems are generally easier to address because they represent hard skill areas. We can develop methodologies, rules, templates and forms for people to use. We can require their use and fool ourselves into believing that we have changed the organization. But don’t be fooled. Far too much emphases has been placed on these, “hard skill” changes above the line, and not enough on the “soft skill” changes required, below the line. Like the classic iceberg pictures, it is what below the surface that is more significant.
In the following sections we will explore what each of these areas are and the elemental changes that occur when moving from 20th century industrialization mindset to 21st Century Knowledge Worker thinking in each area: Technical Practices, Business Systems, Organizational Culture, and Leadership.