Archive for Management

How Change Initiatives Damage Organizations and Fail

Change Initiative - ForcesA simple (and misunderstood) way people think of their change initiative like this:

Their organization is just sitting there, ready to change in wonderful ways. We just have to tell people how great our new initiative is and they will be lining up to learn more and make things happen. Right?

Unfortunately, organizations are complex adaptive systems with their own dynamics and forces at play.

Note: we could be talking about the whole organization, a group, or a team here.

Forces Acting on an Organization

In the following diagram, I will use the word Culture to capture the existing forces at play in an organization. The real situation will be of course much more complex with various attractors influencing the system in different ways, but this will reveal the essence of what I have seen with change initiatives around Agile.

Forces on Org Change


Some remarks on the diagram:

  1. It is difficult for a change initiative to make real progress if it runs against the culture of the organizations (as is usually the case with Agile). It’s like trying to roll a giant boulder up hill.
  2. When forces pull an object in different directions, the object is under tension. Too much tension and the organization will be damaged (red squiggles). So, when you notice resistance, applying more force will damage your organization. A few weeks ago, this simple explanation helped a client reduce tension by shifting the blue rather than adding more green.
  3. The change initiative will eventually fail. Why? Energy is required to keep the change initiative going. Eventually, people will just declare victory or give up and move on to the next initiative. At this point the boulder rolls down the hill, crushing supporters of the initiative on the way.

Rolling Rocks Downhill

Rolling down hill - culture A much better way to go about this is to forget about change strategies and work on an organization’s culture so that it moves the organization towards the desired outcome without conflict. This is of course a vastly simplified version of reality, but it helps us stop and consider the root cause of dynamics and forces in an organization.


There is a great exercise on force-field analysis called “May the Forces Be With You” that I learned from The big book of humorous training games.

Olivier Lafontan wrote the insightful post Being an Agile transition coach feels like Sisyphus that inspired the boulder in my narrative.

The phrase “Rolling Rocks Downhill” came to mind from Clarke Ching’s new book by that title.

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Organizational Transformation Checklist

In this post I am sharing workshop results on how to understand the readiness of the leadership to undertake organizational transformation such as the intentional upgrade of the cultural operating system. It is partly a checklist and partly a diagnostic tool to understand current perceptions.

In his seminal work, John Kotter identifies a Sense of Urgency as the key first step to any major change initiative. Success requires that “75% of a company’s management is honestly convinced that business as usual is totally unacceptable.”

In this post, additional considerations are considered.

Transformation is #1 Organizational Priority

In addition to Kotter’s remarks we add the following litmus test for undertaking transformation.

Transformation - Litmus Test

A common symptom of failure is that transformation or improving culture is listed as the fourth bullet point in the yearly objectives.

Leadership Team Readiness Checklist

What follows is one readiness checklist to assess whether the leadership in an organization is really ready. The text in blue indicates activities that can support a leadership team in understanding where it stands on each item.

Transformation - Readiness Checklist

Red Flags is a term from Good to Great where great companies have hope and faith to see the red flags or difficult truths.
Red Pill is a term from the movie the Matrix that denotes the willingness to explore disconnects in our belief system to understand the true and perhaps discomforting reality.

Dear leaders, how are you doing?

The following diagram shows a set of diagnostics that can start a real discussion around the perception of the current state of the organization. It is intended to be used for one or more people to put an “x” on the line indicating where they see that aspect. The scale increases from left to right with either a rating of 1 to 10 or from ☹ to ☺

Readiness Questions- Dear Leader


The astute reader will notice the last question is not a scale, but an open-ended exploration called My Worst Nightmare.


I would like to thank the participants in this session including Don Gray and Claudia Melo. I would also like to acknowledge the financial contribution of the Agile Alliance for sponsoring this workshop through the Supporting Agile Adoption Program.

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How to Build a Culture Bubble

The post is about how one can create a bubble of a new culture inside of an existing organization. For example, this may be used by a group interested in developing an innovation and learning culture inside a typical bureaucratic organization. This post is a continuation of my earlier post on how to Build Culture Adapters to Avoid Agile Failure.

I realized that I have drawn the diagram below dozens of times with clients, prospects and colleagues over the last year and realized other people may be interested in it.

The drawing below shows the hierarchy of a typical organization with a dominant culture (in blue) and a new culture bubble formed (in green).

Leader growing different culture in org hierarcy

Given the nature of a power hierarchy in traditional organizations, a leader/manager can induce a culture shift in the organization that reports into her. See Transformation? Leaders Go First! for an explanation of how leaders can support a transformation process.

It is of course, critically important to build adapters around your bubble so that it can safely interface with the rest of the organization and avoid trigger the attack of organizational anti-bodies.

A final comment is regarding the cooperation of partner groups (in light blue) that are tightly bound to the same customer value stream. The close cooperation required for success necessitates a higher level of alignment. This means that the partner group must either help lead the culture change (and go green) or at a minimum be neutral (as show in light blue).

In a software context, a very tight relationship exists between the product and development groups since they need to work together to create customer value. A common pattern is for the green bubble to be the development and the blue bubble to be product.

When and How to Use This Diagram

I typically draw this picture and provide this explanation when socializing alternative approaches to Agile. In virtually all cases, the change agent leading the Agile initiative is not the CEO and does not have a span of control or influence over the whole organization. It is usually the case that typical “modern” management practices are in place that are regressive and hostile to fostering an Agile culture. So most leaders have the option of sticking to the adoption of practices that are consistent with the existing organizational culture or undertake a transformation of their group to realize a new culture that is supportive of Agile.

It is of particular importance, that as an external change artist, we are fully respectful of our client’s wishes and intents. It’s their organization after all. For some coaches this means letting go of the dream of helping the organization move forward on the road towards an Agile mindset – or “real” Agile.

Related Work?

Some time ago I shared George Schlitz and Giora Morein’s Agile Enablement Battlefield model to help understand how a transition is progressing. I am no longer a big fan of the metaphor of war, however, the notions of “fog of war” can be helpful. As well, I have seen increasing danger and harm caused by wolves in sheep’s clothing. These are the folks who say they are on board and go along with changes, but resist in passive ways. Of course, this is a natural and understandable response to coercion. If we really want to change our organizations then coercion is a tool that we need to leave behind.


The basic ideas of managing gaps in culture comes from William Schneider’s book How to Make you Culture Work. Many thanks also to all the various workshop participants who validated that these patterns apply.


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Diverse Paths to High-Performance Organizational Culture

There is no single path or prescription for high-performance organizational culture. Increasingly companies are abandoning the traditional “modern management” practices developed for manufacturing and are moving to post-modern approaches that reflect the changing face of work and  the needs of knowledge workers.

In this post, we compare and contrast five organizations that have moved beyond traditional (archaic) management practices: Zappos, Valve Corporation, Semco, Netflix, and Beyond Budgeting Companies. The results are shown in the matrix below using Harvey Balls:

Comparison of High-Performance Organizational Cultures

As can be seen that for many aspects these organizations, there is no single best way. It can be seen that there are many paths to effective organizational cultures. At the level of individual practices we can see that there is great diversity.

Customer Focus and Engaged Staff

There are two very powerful common threads that emerge around these organizations: customer focus and engaged staff. Although each organization has a unique cultural operating system and supporting practices, they all share this commonality.

Organizational Coherence

Each organization has a powerful driver for coherence around values and behaviour. We consider each of the methods identified in the image below to be roughly equivalent in the sense that perform the same function – namely organizational coherence. In other words, simple rules of behaviour in one organization may be functionally equivalent to values in another organization in terms of it’s ability to guide and unify. Each organization has different values and principles, so this would suggest that there is no one path to success.


Future Investigation

The diagram below is a brainstorm of additional organizational aspects to consider as well as other organizations the have characteristics of post-modern thinking.

Organizations and Aspects

I have recently discovered that Lululemon is another example of break-through organizational culture.


I would like to thank the participants in this session: Don Gray, Claudia Melo, Jens Coldewey and Diana Larsen. I would also like to acknowledge the financial contribution of the Agile Alliance for sponsoring this workshop through the Supporting Agile Adoption Program.

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Workshop on Characteristics of High-Performance Organizations

At Agile Tour Toronto last November, I conducted a workshop to get crowd-sourced research into high-performance organizational cultures. The purpose of this workshop was two-fold. First, to understand similarities and differences between organizational cultures. Second, to see if case-studies of high-performance cultures would resonate with Agile-oriented people.

The companies that were selected for study were:

  1. Zappos – amazing customer service
  2. Valve Corporation – everyone responsible for finding a project to contribute to (no hierarchy)
  3. Semco – where people pick their own salary and people choose their managers
  4. Netflix – where staff are managed like a professional sports team – only the best and non-performers are cut
  5. Beyond Budgeting – OK, this isn’t a company, but we used the composite characteristics of companies that move to decentralized control. It’s more about leadership than budgeting.

Each group was given a case study, and asked to summarize the following:

  • Key Organizational Characteristics – What did the organization pay attention to and how did it structure itself?
  • Business Benefits – What material business results were observed in that organization?

Happy Customers and Engaged Staff

When asked what the key benefits these companies found from their high-performance culture the aggregate results across all companies were happy customers and engaged staff. See image below. We played a short version of the game of 35 to arrive at this result.

Key Benefits of high-performance cultures


With regard to the second goal of the workshop – the workshop participants were very interested and several indicated that they found learning about these cultures as valuable for understanding how to progress with Agile at an organizational level.

Zappos Characteristics and Benefits

I have photos of the results of some of the groups, but the lighting was terrible so it’s really hard to read. Below are the results for one group that was working on Zappos.


  • Focused on long-term vision
  • Customer oriented
  • Fun and a little weirdness
  • Team communication
  • Personal and professional growth


  • Delighted and repeat customers
  • Employee retention
  • Long-term growth
  • Positive financial outlook
  • Better ROI


I would like to thank all the participants for working together to understand each organization’s structure and to identify the key benefits. Based on the ratings and comments, it looks like people had fun.

I am very grateful for Thiagi for showing me how to create a great workshop out just some handouts so that I can get out of the way and let people learn directly.

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Lululemon – A Stellar Example of Break-Through Organizational Culture

Christine Day, the CEO of Lululemon, gave a compelling account at the Toronto Board of Trade of how Lululemon uses culture as a core competitive advantage. It is woven into the fabric of every interaction and decision, not a bunch of meaningless posters on the wall. Sadly, there is no book yet. But when there is, I believe it will have greater impact than Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness – a landmark book on organizational culture.

Below are my notes from the session.

Lululemon Culture - Christine Day


Lululemon shares some characteristics with other break-through organizational cultures:

  • Focus on the long term success
  • Compelling shared vision – “elevate the world from mediocrity”
  • Little or no organizational hierarchy. e.g. Stores drive activity, not head office.
  • Focus on people and their development
  • Having a compelling Why? See their manifesto
  • Coherent and compelling company culture. See some slides to get some more flavour of this.

There are two elements that I notice are unique and striking about Lululemon culture.

Values Value Chain

The first is the focus on the “values value chain”. They seek to create an ecosystem of success: win/win for everyone they deal with from suppliers to staff to local yoga studios. Like Amazon they believe their long term success will not always lie with short-term decisions. And they always make decisions in favour of the long term. A key difference with Lululemon is that it’s not just about the customer, it’s about everyone involved in the value chain.

Creating a Generation of Leaders

The second and more important element is the relentless focus on leadership and personal development of staff. They encourage staff to dream big and to develop both personally and professionally. These are visibly posted in stores and online. The #1 reason for leaving Lululemon is to pursue their personal vision.

After the talk, I sat with some “Educators” – associates who do sales and other activities – and I could see first hand that Lululemon is changing the world by creating a generation of leaders. It is for this second element, almost a side-effect, that I believe that Lululemon will help change the landscape of business to one more habitable by humans.

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Relatedness trumps Responsibility, Accountability

Relatedness is the heart of high-performing teams and organizations. As stated in the Agile Manifesto, focus on “Individuals and Interactions” is essential. How we relate to ourselves and others is central to creating and maintaining effective and valuable systems.

There are many mental frames that are used to discuss organizational culture and performance. In this post, I argue that relatedness trumps responsibility and accountability as a meme for change. All are valuable and necessary, however, focus on human beings and their relations provides the greatest leverage.

The diagram below illustrates this hierarchy.

Relatedness Responsibility Accountability


Relatedness is the connection between human beings in a system.

We can describe a system as the aggregate of all the interpersonal relations. Environments of trust and safety have a high degree of relatedness between people. These are the kinds of systems that we want to create for ourselves. We do this by connecting with others and helping people in groups connect with each other.

There are myriad ways to create relatedness. Simple ones include sharing food or drink. Working together on a shared goal can support this. Simple exercises such as Marketplace or teambuilding with Lego can move us towards greater relatedness. Another is the Check-in protocol where people share emotions. Improv theater has expected behaviours that support relatedness: yes-anding, making everyone else look good, mistakes are invitations to create, etc). Zappos has fun as part of company culture and uses events and activities to create connectedness. e.g. Head shaving for charity.

Approaches exist for dramatic improvements in relatedness. Temenos is a retreat/workshop designed to help people see themselves and other participants as whole and valuable human beings. Other approaches include organization-wide mindfulness practices and mediation to re-wire our brains to focus on the present moment as well as to what is going on at an emotional level with ourselves and with others.

Recently, I have been writing about the work of Brene Brown and how attention to our internal emotions and thoughts helps us connect with other human beings. See related posts on empathy, vulnerability and shame.


Christopher Avery views responsibility as the core to success. We want environments where people feel a sense of ownership and responsiblity for creating successful outcomes. Individuals that feel responsibile are an essential compenent of a high-performing systems: they will notice what needs doing and make it happen.

So why is it often better to focus energy on relatedness versus responsibility?

A system where people have a high degree of relatedness will foster strong responsibility. People will be motivated to take action because they care and understand about the impact on others. So when we start with relatedness, responsibility will follow. It is also the case that relatedness will increase when people act with responsiblity, but this is not as strong an effect.

Both relatedness and responsibility are valuable. When it is appropriate to cultivate relatedness in a system, then this will set a stronger foundation for system health and growth.


There are some who argue that accountability is the key to greater performance. One example of this is Change the Culture: Change the Game where Conners and Smith explain how accountabilty can be used to increase organizational performance. There are lot’s of valuable contirbutions from the book discussion culture change, however, the central tenet “The most effective culture is a culture of accountability” is not aligned with more recent notions of organizational design and culture.

Tobias Mayer has a great post where he clarifies the tension between responibility and accountability. Tobies shares this quote : “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” said Pasi Sahlberg, one of the chief architects of Finland’s successful school reforms. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.

Although, accountability is required and a direct focus on accountability will get positive results in most dysfunctional systems, this  is not the full story. If we want a high-performance system, however, the best way to get accountabilty is by cultivating relatedness and responsibilty. Direct focus on accountability is hazardous to more evolved human systems.


I would like to thank those who have helped me on my journey to understand human relatedness as central to high-functioning systems. In particular, Siraj Sirajuddin, Pascal Pink and Olaf Lewitz have been powerful influences. I would also like to thank the participants of Temenos workshops for cultivating my ability to deeply connect with others.

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Tactics, Strategy, & Culture – A Model for Thinking about Organizational Change

The following diagram is a powerful mental frame to help understand change efforts within organizations. It makes the discernment between tactical, strategic and cultural levels. One way to use the diagram is to position each change item or activity on the line to show what aspect it is focussed on.

More importantly, I use the diagram to engage with clients to explore what they want to achieve, why they want to achieve it, and how invested they are in the outcome.

Some typical benefits are listed above the line. Most importantly, break-through results only come from culture –  not tactical or strategic approaches.

  • Tactics – “How do we work?” is about day to day practices and process elements. These are things that a team or organization can adopt.
  • Strategy – “What do we want to achieve” is about aligning the company around key goals and initiatives.
  • Culture – “Who do we want to be?” is about clarifying the organizations reason for existing as well as it’s values and vision.

Relationship between the levels

Culture is the foundation that Strategy and Tactics sit on. But culture is like an iceberg – a powerful force that is underwater where you can’t see it. Sure it’s possible to work at the levels of tactics and strategy, but that is unlikely to make any lasting change or draw great benefits. Lasting change requires working at all three levels so that the tactics and strategy support the culture.

Relationship to Leadership Agility

Bill Joiner has identified a number of distinct mindsets that can be found with managers/leaders. and his work on Leadership Agility. The following are one to one mappings from types of leaders/mindsets:

  • Experts focus on Tactics: problems and work execution.
  • Achievers focus on Strategy: outcomes and the system.
  • Catalysts focus on Culture: vision and break-through culture.


The deepest inspiration comes from Bill Joiner and his work on Leadership Agility and the different levels of focus. This served as the basis for my model.

I would like to thank a variety of sources for the notion of Culture being mostly hidden – I have seen or read this in a number of places but most vividly from the folks at Crucial Conversations and their book Influencer in particular.

I am grateful for Mike Cottemeyer for helping me understand the difference between Agile Adoption (Tactical) and Agile Transformation (Cultural).

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What is a Team?

Here is an infographic on “what is a team?”. I created it to help explain the concept in an upcoming workshop. Now I think it will be part of my basic Agile training.

Team Characteristics

  1. Shared Purpose or Goal
  2. Team Boundary – who is part of team and who is not.
  3. Shared responsibility to achieve the goal
  4. Shared work and shared results
  5. Maybe 5 or maximum 8 people on the team.
Please note, I am not talking about the definition of a “high-performance team”. This would need to include things like: safety, trust, diversity, collaboration skills, kindness, etc.


This was inspired by the discussion of a team at Value, Quality, Flow. They drawn on lot’s of influences, so hard to list them all here.

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An Influencer’s Playbook

(Joint post with Pascal Pink)

I was extremely privileged to share a day with Pascal Pinck and learn his “playbook” as a powerful influencer. His lessons span mental models, coaching stance and tools for effecting change.

The infographic above expresses the key concepts – I will tie them together below.

Situational Awareness (Stance)

The place to start as an influencer is as a “co-sufferer”: to approach a system with deep respect and humility. Siraj Sirajuddin refers to this as “supplication”. I have experienced that this is the single most critical ingredient for success. More on this in coming posts.

When connecting with a system is essential to “Listen to the music, not the words” (Quote from Gerry Weinberg). This is because language may transmit conflicted sentiments and channel residue from past traumas, whereas the underlying spirit knows what is needed to create a resonant future.

One expression of respect for a system is detachment from the outcome – accepting the will of a system to choose it’s own destiny.  Pascal says this has gotten much easier for him since he accepted the reality that systems will not generally let influencers move them in a direction that is counter to their underlying orientation or DNA anyway.

Think of the organization as a person

An organization is a biological, organic system. We can use the metaphor of a human body as way to think about making interventions. We may also think of a system as having a personality: what are it’s hopes, fears, dreams and ambitions? See KrisMap for a workshop to explore this.

Homeostasis in the human body is a very powerful force that keeps us healthy. In systems, the status quo is expressed through the invisible and powerful force of organizational culture. It’s like the water we are swimming in that we can’t see. What can draw us away from homeostasis?

Compelling Shared Vision is a Critical Attractor

A shared vision is not enough. It needs to be a compelling shared vision to create a strong enough attractor to shift away from the status quo. Values and purpose intertwine with the vision to create a powerful attractor. A particularly powerful vision is that of a breakthrough organizational culture.

One purpose of compelling shared vision is to help induce relational flow so that the parts of the system are constantly aligning and self-synchronizing, which allow multiple sources of energy to pull in the same direction.

Intervene with Leading Indicators

One problem with organizations that focus (at a strategic level) on goals is that outcomes are by definition lagging indicators. Influencers get better results by focusing on the leading indicators. A simple example of this is whether to focus on team trust, alignment, and communication patterns (leading indicators) or budget variance, “lessons learned” and “best practices” (lagging indicators).

Pascal uses the metaphor of acupuncture where you poke the body in one place to get a result in another. For this to work we actually have to have some sort of model of the connections between things. In line with Cynefin framework for complex environments we can’t fully understand situations but can conceptualize “probabilistic directionality” to reason about interventions.

Oscillate between future and current state

A good influencer will oscillate between current state and future state. We need to connect with the current state to have empathy for the system and we need to connect with the future state to provide direction and sense mismatches. It also provides a great source of questions.  Pascal recommends The Three Laws of Performance by Logan and Zaffron as an excellent way to develop a deeper understanding of this topic


I would like to thank Pascal for inviting me to LA last year to experience one of the most insightful days of my life and for sharing the secrets of his success. And then for co-writing this post with me.

I would like to thank Siraj Sirajuddin who developed or co-developed several of the ideas expressed in this post.

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