Part I – Organizational Transformation – Challenges and Strategies

Introduction

Many of us with passion for software organizational transformation, and a passion for helping teams transition from traditional waterfall or other “ancient” development models to contemporary agile and lean processes, have been reading books, blogs, white papers about these transformations. We often go to various online forums and follow threads on this topic. And by doing so, we find a lot of references about successful moves to Agile, Scrum, SAFe, embracing Lean or other initiatives and reading posts by passionate engineers talking about all the awesome positive outputs they got by adopting these methodologies. We embrace learning and trying to find best practices or develop a model that may apply to our own situation, will work for our next client or our own business. In this research journey we learn a lot about success stories or how startups are doing it and how quickly they come up with a model, a solution and adoption of new processes, tools or technical practices that put them on a path to success : delivering value to customers fast with consistent quality and built-in security.

But how many stories have we read about hidden problems that organizations are facing beyond just adopting new processes, tools and technical practices that enable them to automate everything?  Startups and small agile companies are one thing, but what about big companies, enterprises who have been in the software business for decades? Yes, we have learned quite a bit about Kodak and Nokia moments, and books were written about how they failed by not innovating fast enough and keeping up with emerging industry leaders and embracing new technologies fast enough. 

Change is Good…You go First!

But what about companies that may have good products, a solid product strategy, great existing market share but need to keep ahead of competition,  and therefore transform and learn how to move product out of the door faster, improve time to market and still keep quality under control. Typically these transformation stories begin with methodologies like Agile, Scrum, organizing teams around delivering value continuously, then DevOps, automated CI/CD , test driven development to improve product quality, shift-left security and testing, and so on. All great stuff. 

And that’s just the beginning of the list though. 

So how do we approach this? In what order do we implement these things? This is where the fun begins. You may have heard about the book from Mac Anderson and Tom Feltenstein “Change is Good…You go First.” Changes are good, but they are hard, they can be disruptive; especially when asking engineers who have grown accustomed to doing things a certain way to adopt a new way of doing things, new practices and learn unfamiliar methodology. These things often put them out of their comfort zone and they question whether it’s worth the discomfort. But eventually, engineers can be convinced once they learn it will make their life easier and empower them to reduce waste in their workflows they complained for years but nobody listened.

While those in the “trenches” who are actively utilizing the tools and methodologies may eventually embrace the change, other people in the organization need to buy into the strategy and change and be supportive in order for the organization to succeed. To discover challenges associated with this, we are moving upwards from engineers to management and executive leadership levels. 

Organizational Culture Can Generate “Transformational Friction”   

And to talk about challenges, we , undoubtably need to discuss organizational culture. One of the first things most of us would do to learn about company cultures is to search for companies who demonstrated great corporate culture or were proven to be successful in the past. Here are some statements from leaders and CEOs who have a great understanding of the value of embracing change:

“An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage” Jack Welch former CEO of GE

“Good leadership requires you to surround yourself with people of diverse perspectives who can disagree with you without fear of retaliation” Doris Kearns Goodwin American biographer and historian

“We can change culture if we change behavior.” Aubrey Daniels Founder of ADI

All valuable and true insights. 

But as most of us know or may have experienced, when we integrate ourselves with an organization, we discover certain behaviors that characterize how work is done and how an organization performs from a software delivery performance perspective. These behaviors and performances are directly correlated to the core of the organization’s culture. American sociologist Ron Westrum researched the topic of organizational culture in the 80s and developed an organizational culture model which is very applicable to organizations of today:

  • Pathological or power-oriented organization. As the model indicates these organizations are all about top-down, silo mentality, messengers shot, information withheld to keep an org or individual look better, new ideas are crushed.
  • Bureaucratic or process-oriented organizations. These are organizations that have teams who follow the processes, but each organization may have their own set of rules and practices based on which they deliver and expect everybody else who works with them to adopt just their way. Any novelty is seen as a potential problem that should be avoided
  • Generative or Performance-oriented organizations. This organizational model demonstrates highly collaborative environment with shared risks, novelty being embraced, and failure is seen as an opportunity to improve and pivot to avoid in the future

Turning Non-believers” to Forerunners 

These models are important to understand, and as we look at our organizations through the lens of these models, we may see evidence of these associated behaviors. 

So how culture impacts transformation and what are potential risks when dealing with organization who examined some behaviors and what we do about them?

What to do if we discover we are dealing with power-oriented or process-oriented organization and the  transformation efforts start suffering from “non-believers”. How to overcome this and how to turn these “antibodies” into forerunners? 

So let’s get into the details and in Part II we will discuss elements of a good transformation strategy, possible approaches, risks, and recommendations that should be considered to mitigate risks of failure and overcome challenges due to these existing cultural models.

Alex Bojanic

2 Comments

  1. […] the previous blog (Part I) we discussed organizational transformation and organizational culture as a factor that is often […]

  2. […] situations where it may even be political. To understand the latter, we need to reference our Part I blog where we discussed Westrum’s organizational culture model where the first two models […]

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