Letting Go of Agile (Culture)

Letting go of Agile Culture“If you want something very, very badly, let it go free.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever.  If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.” – Harry Kronman

I have discovered the truth of this with Agile. The one time in my whole life I truly surrendered my attachment to Agile, it resulted in a beautiful transformation starting. But most of the time I was too attached to Agile to let it go.

This post is about how we may accidentally harm organizations with Agile and how we can let go so that we may succeed.

Accidentally Harming Organizations

Here is the basic thinking:

  1. Agile is a good thing.
  2. We can help companies if they use Agile.
  3. Let’s do it!

Trap #1: Accidentally introduce cultural conflict

Agile for me is basic common sense – this is how to get stuff done. BUT Agile does not work in most organizations due to culture. Sure there are some small pockets where Agile just works but this seems to be relatively rare – especially now that Agile has crossed the chasm.

Agile is a different culture from most companies, so the first trap is to accidentally introduce organizational conflict. That’s why I wrote “An Agile Adoption and Transformation Survival Guide: Working with Organizational Culture” – to help people notice this trap and avoid it.

My suggestion was to look at two options:

  1. Adopt elements of Agile that fit with the culture.
  2. Transform the organizational culture.

For many, option 1 is like giving up on Agile since they key part of it is missing so many Agile folks don’t like that option.

Increasingly Agile experts go for option #2 instead: Transform the Organizational Culture. I sure did. I set out to learn how to change organizational culture. And I figured it out. But there was a problem. A big one.

Trap #2 Attempt to Transform to Agile Culture

The core of the problem is that Agile is not an end in itself. It is means to an end. Some common goals (ends) are: a quality product, time to market or engaged staff. The problem is not that Agile doesn’t help with these goals (it certainly does), the problem is that people confuse Agile as the goal and often act in ways that undermine the real goal. We see Agile being used as a Whip or a Shield. That is why it’s a good idea to Stop Agile Initiatives. A better alternative to an Agile initiative is to have an initiative around the real goals. One way to get at the real goals is to run a workshop to clarify why people want Agile.

It is a good thing to change culture in service to what organizations really want for themselves. A specific culture is not a goal in itself, but a means to accomplishing something. We may seek a culture of engagement and innovation not for itself, but because we want our organization to thrive in a competitive landscape.

There are many many beautiful, productive organization cultures all over the world that have nothing to do with Agile. The implication is that there are many ways to get to a place where people love what they do. If we really want to help people, then the best move is to work with them to evolve a wonderful culture that is right for them. And for sure it will not be exactly “Agile Culture” (especially since this is not completely precise). If it is a progressive culture, it will likely be Agile-compatible and using Agile to get benefits will be very natural. It’s a win – win.

Agile Culture should never be a goal. If it is, we will likely just cause harm.

Let Go of the Outcome to Find Success

Here is my secret to success: Let go of the outcome.

I wrote a couple of years about about how leaders have a choice between the red pill (deeper reality) and the blue pill (surface reality). I stated it like I gave people a choice. But I didn’t. The only choice I wanted was the red pill. I wanted so much to help the people in organizations I pushed for the red pill. The truth is I cared so much for the outcome which I assumed was best that I didn’t really give a open choice. In subtle and more obvious ways I was attempting to coerce leaders into taking the red pill. Ooops! Coercion is not any part of Agile, but here I was wanting my outcome for others. And it is not just me. I have talked to dozens of professional coaches and this is pandemic in the Agile community.

The solution is obvious. If we really want to stay true to Agile values, we can’t coerce. We have to let the people (especially management teams) make their own decisions and their own mistakes. We have to help them find and walk the path that they choose. This means letting go of the outcome. This means letting go of Agile.

This business of learning to let go is not new. In fact, letting go of attachment is a central message of Buddhism.

To close, the one time I fully let go of Agile it came back in such a beautiful sustainable and lasting way. Time to rinse and repeat.

“If you want Agile very, very badly, let it go free.  If it comes back to you, it’s there forever.  If it doesn’t, it was never meant to be.”

(Stay tuned for a follow-up post on Agile as a means of creating freedom by Olaf Lewitz.)

My Apology

I helped a lot of people see Agile as a culture system and learn how to stop causing accidental conflict.

Unfortunately, I also energized a lot of people to seek culture change with the goal of growing Agile. As clarified in this blog post, this was a mistake. I am sorry.

What’s the alternative? For those who want real change, let’s help them meet their organizational goals with culture transformation and let Agile come willingly.

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Transformation Case Study – Video Interview

At Agile 2014, many people were inspired by this case study so Olaf Lewitz interviewed me. Here is what happened.

Slides and Highlights are here.

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Self-Appreciation Game

At Play4Agile, Olaf Lewitz and I hosted an exploratory session on personal growth hacks. Everyone shared ideas and turned into the self-appreciation game.

Purpose of the Game

The purpose of the game is to give people practice at accepting praise and recognition so that we feel good about our accomplishments and successes. This cultivates our sense of self-worth so that we are more resourceful at work and in our personal lives.

Why Play the Game

In our society there’s rarely room to learn how to accept praise and recognition. We squirm and say “it was nothing” because it feels uncomfortable. We have a hard time seeing our own self-worth and feel this disconnect when we receive praise.

This is a great game to help people and teams become more resourceful so they are able to co-create a more positive environment.

It is very helpful if you are working to create a people-oriented organization.

Game Rules

Setup

Form a circle. If you have more than 10 people, consider the option of forming two smaller groups.
Explain the purpose of the game and it’s mechanics.

Mechanics

Self-Appreciation Game
Go around the circle with each person taking turns:

  1. Brag Protocol: Pick something that you are proud of and share it with the group.
  2. Applause: Everyone cheers and claps to celebrate your success.
  3. Soak it in: Let the appreciation soak in like maple syrup in a pancake. Connect deeply and fully with the feeling for 10 to 15 seconds. See Hardwiring Happiness for further explanation of letting in the good.

Go around the circle 2 to 4 times depending on how much time and energy you have.

Game Results

As we went around the circle the connection and trust increased. Everyone left this game feeling awesome.

Why This Game is Important to Me

I am on an epic quest for self-worth so that I can engage with the world from a centered and whole place. So that I carry my own weather around inside me. The game was invented to help me level up on my quest. And it worked. I hope you are interested in similar benefits.

Acknowledgements

We are deeply grateful to the participants of the workshop who helped co-create and test drive this game.

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WholeHearted Manifesto: We Value People

The WholeHearted Manifesto consists on one value statement:

We Value People. (Period)

People are the driving force behind getting results. This is the secret recipe for success.

We value all people. Our customers. Our peers. But most of all ourselves.

It would be a mistake to think this is fluffy bunny stuff. It’s not. It is the hard stuff that makes all the difference.

Wholehearted Principles

The principles of the Wholehearted Manifesto are:

  1. People happen. Not right, not wrong. They will amaze you.
  2. Awesome outcomes emerge from people who truly connect.
  3. Collaboration is our oxygen: we co-create environments for people to flourish and grow.
  4. We all are on a unique journey and help each other along the way.
  5. We love and celebrate people for who they are.
  6. We are open and honest.
  7. We ask for help before we need it.

If you have any comments, suggestions, or enhancements – please add them on the manifesto page.

Help make a difference

If this message resonates with you – please go sign the manifesto. And please share the message. Let’s move towards a better world.

Acknowledgements

The manifesto spontaneously emerged during an intense, emergent collaboration session I had with Olaf Lewitz & Christine Neidhardt. We were not seeking this, it just arrived. So I imagine that many other people must be thinking the same thing. So this is a shared idea – not ours. Not anyones.

A wonderful group of people came together to help build the Wholehearted Principles at Play4Agile in Ruchersbach, Germany. Many thanks to:

We would also like to thank Brene Brown who has greatly influenced with her wonderful books and TED talks. She introduced the term “wholehearted” to describe people who are able to fully love themselves and bring joy to those around them.

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The Business Case for an Authentic Workplace

People are messy: they have personalities and emotions. In this post we explore how we can embrace people’s messiness for advantage rather than have it act as a drag.

Default Business Model is Mixed Engagement

Workers are DisengagedA recent study from Carnegie Mellon Training shows that there are very mixed levels of engagement from workers. See diagram to right.

Current estimates are that staff disengagement cost $11 billion from turnover alone. If we include the costs from low productivity, then $11 billion looks like pocket change.

One challenge with the traditional business model is that it denies people’s individuality and feelings. People put on an “office persona” for how they think they need to be to fit in.

In our workplaces, we do not dare to show our true and whole self. We do not feel welcome, and co-create work environments where sub-optimal results and shared ineffectiveness are normal.

The Authentic Workplace

An alternate model for our work environments is to invite people to show up as themselves – as the wonderful human beings that they are – and fully welcome them.

We might imagine an environment that allow us to:

  • Relate and connect authentically.
  • Share and acknowledge feelings.
  • Trust each other
  • Feel safe
  • Be vulnerable

Typical vs. Authentic Workplace

Consider the following diagram illustrating difference between these models:

Authentic Workplace

In the traditional workplace we create a work identity that is often a shallow project of our true self. Our minds our filled with distractions from our life outside of work. We put in effort to create a distortion field around ourselves to that no one sees our true selves or our distractions.

In an authentic workplace we welcome each others dreams and ambitions, personal history and most importantly our feelings.

Authentic Workplace Benefits

Here are a few benefits:

  • People are motivated when they feel valued and connected at work
  • “Distractions” can be dealt with so people can focus
  • Emotional support for challenges so people get unstuck
  • Better decisions since people are safe to share information

Authenticity is a Spectrum

It is valuable in this discussion to keep in mind that this is not a black or white situation: traditional or authentic. We might imagine measuring or sensing the level of authenticity in a given environment. I am not thinking of metrics but guideposts such as: Do people talk about their emotions? Do people feel a sense of community and support? The 12 Questions from “First Break all the rules” can be a helpful here.

How can we develop the skills?

Below are three ways that I have been developing these skills in my own life and practice.

#1 Authentic Connection Circle – Toronto

This week I am starting an Authentic Connection Circle in Toronto as a way for people to build capacity for authentically relating to one another. We will do this by talking about the stuff that scares us to build trust and create a safe environment.

Some might dismiss this as fluffy Bunny New Age. It’s not.

It’s about character.

Mastering out own patterns and history so that we can engage effectively with others is hard work. It takes character to be authentic and welcome what shows up in people.

#2 Temenos Workshops for Trust and Connection

Temenos is an experiential workshop that invites us to experience connection, openness and trust on a level that’s not accessible to us in daily life. With Temenos, we can safely test more effective methods of relating with others.

Temenos provides a safe setting to explore this space to develop our existing skills. We discover that we can open up to people and learn that this satisfies a deeply rooted human need.

With this experience, we may dare to treat each other more openly, truthfully, and effectively than before. We’re more aware of who we are, and what we want.

Upcoming workshops:

#3 Core Protocols

The Core Protocols are a set of rules designed to support high-performance teams. Some of the protocols are very supportive of building an authentic workplace. I will briefly highlight a few of them here:

  1. Check-in. At the start of a meeting or day everyone shares their emotional state so that there is awareness around how people are entering this context. A simple format of: I am … <glad> <sad> <afraid> is used.
  2. Check-out. People check out when they feel they cannot focus and be productive.
  3. Alignment. People share what their personal development goal is and lets others know how they can help.

Leaders Go First

In “7 Habits of Highly Successful People”, Stehphen Covey talks about this as “Victory begins at home”. If you want to see these changes and benefits in your organization, you need to go first. Leadership in organizations comes from all levels. Be the change you want to see.

Acknowledgements

The primary source of this thinking for me comes from Brene Brown. Olaf Lewitz and I have been collaborating on the developing these ideas and applying them in workplaces. Parts of the text around Temenos were co-written with Olaf. Pascal Pink contributed key ideas in helping explain what Temenos really is about.

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Lean Culture is about Cultivation and Control

I have thought for a long time that Agile and Lean are pursuing similar goals and quite similar in many respects. Although compatible, I now see they have significant differences in focus.

(Reader’s Note: this analysis was done in early  2012 but became a forgotten appendix for my book on Agile Culture. Thanks to Liza Provenzano who sparked a conversation on this topic at Impact99.)

The Schneider model is a very good tool for creating a quick and understandable analysis of a stated or implied culture system. If you are not familiar with it, I suggest taking a quick read and then coming back here.

Consider the result (below) where the principles of Lean are placed into the Schneider culture model. I used Jeffrey Liker’s 14 point model from his book The Toyota Way. As we can see the two dominant cultures are Cultivation and Control, with Competence a distant 3rd when we place each principle on the model.

Toyota Way - Lean Culture

The focus of Lean and Toyota Production System is on effective management of manufacturing facilities. As a result, it is not surprising to see such as strong operational focus with elements of control.

With this model of Lean, Collaboration culture is not strongly valued. Here there is a striking difference between Agile and Lean – Agile is much more about people since Collaboration and Cultivation are dominant. I would expect a different result if we looked at the culture of the Toyota Product Development which I imagine would be more similar to Agile.

Schneider identifies Cultivation and Control as opposites so having these be co-dominant would imply that either 1) the Schneider model is not sufficiently complex to deal with Lean philosophy, 2) The principles in Liker are a confused westernized attempt to model Lean based on the Toyota Production System or 3) I have misinterpreted the principles. Sadly, I don’t know the answer but this perhaps is indicative of the challenges that are encountered in real life with most failed attempts to instill a Lean culture.

I am aware that respect for people is considered a fundamental aspect of Lean. I have two observations to make. First, respect for people does not imply Collaboration culture. Second, Lean can be a dehumanizing system.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line for me is that we cannot safely ignore the culture we are working in or the culture that our ideology and tools bring with us. It is only by seeing the bigger picture and letting go of labels and tools that we can make effective, lasting change.

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Guy Laurence – Culture Change Through Renovation

Guy Lawrence – former CEO at Vodafone – tells of an organizational transformation effort that is intrinsically tied to office renovation – he says: “Conventional offices and working is dead”.

A Simple Recipe: Death to cubicles and offices

  1. Buy everyone in the company a cell phone and a laptop.
  2. Remove all offices and cubicles. Open plan office with desks.
  3. Remove all personal material so that every day starts fresh
  4. People sit with the people they need to work with that day.
  5. Meeting rooms are just for meetings of 6 or more people.
  6. Build coffee shops in in the center of each floor to create a “buzz”

Innovation & leveraging Gen Y

The motivation for undertaking these sweeping changes is to have people from Generation Y (born after 1982) actually want to work at Vodafone. A basic requirement here is that the tools they get at the company are as good or better than what they have personally. Nobody wants to use an infrastructure that sucks but for Gen Y this is a real problem.

Gen Y work on a collaborative model and do not tolerate a dominant hierarchy. Their employee engagement score plummet and they quit in droves.

Subversion of Management Hierarchy

A central part of the plan is to put the organizational hierarchy in the background and push communication and decision-making lower down in the organization. Part of the idea of getting rid of offices is to reduce the power differential between managers and subordinates. Guy reported that 49 of his 5000 staff did not make the adjustment to this brave new world.

The net of all this is to create a place that can rapidly respond to changing events. To use open networks of communication to tap into people’s creativity.

Video of Guy’s Talk at Google

What About Teams?

I am curious about teams in this brave new world. Agile Software Development and many others observe that building stable teams is a great recipe for high performance. My suspicion is that this model would be further enhanced by having a clear role for teams.

Curious About Culture

One thing very interesting is that Guy is leading a cultural transformation without clearly outlining the culture of the organization the way many other great organizations such as Zappos do. Instead, he uses simple rules to subvert traditional corporate behaviour. I imagine that this type of transformation could be even more successful if accompanied by an explicit culture model.

What’s next? Rogers Media/Telco!

I have been involved with Agile at Rogers (based in Toronto) on more than one occasion and it is by and large suffering from the typical culture and bureaucratic challenges of any large organization. I have been wondering what hope there is for the organization to truly transform without top-level leadership in a new direction.

Guy starts at Rogers in December, 2013.I am truly delighted to see that he will take steps towards a people-friendly work culture. I am also very curious to see if he will be able to overcome deeply entrenched resistance to change. Go Guy, GO!

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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.

Acknowledgments

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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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.

Acknowledgments

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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Build Culture Adapters to Avoid Agile Failure

The purpose of this post is to explain why building culture adapters around at team or group is a good idea. It is important for me to revisit this topic from my book and conference presentations since I have learned something new and wanted to share it. All but the last section is an excerpt from my book.

It is by now well known that Agile is a mindset and culture system and that it is incompatible with most organizational cultures.

Let’s talk about one way of moving forward with Agile – building adapters. This is an effective approach when the span of control and influence of the leadership does not cover the whole of the organization.

Start with A Successful Agile Team

A very powerful way to think about introducing a foreign culture such as Agile to an organization is through a cellular model. Consider a successful transformation of one team or group to Agile. This may have been a special pilot project with all the people keen to do Agile.

Imagine that the team is very excited about the new way of working. The team exists in the context of some other culture.

Team+Culture - 1 Cell adaptor Model

The team is not that excited about all of the organizational barriers and limits on productivity and success. So, what typically happens is they start to push back on the needs and requirements of other groups that are not adding value to the team and to the customers.

Attack of the Organizational Antibodies

The result sounds like a B-movie: “Attack of the Organizational Antibodies!” In the human body, we have antibodies (Killer T-Cells) that are designed to eliminate foreign elements to keep us healthy. In a similar way, organizations will react to the introduction of a foreign culture system such as Agile. These are the elements that work hard to preserve the status quo.

Team+Culture - 2 Anti-bodies

Build Culture Adapters

The movie doesn’t have to have a bad ending. One common pattern is to build adapters or translators around the foreign culture so that it fits within the overall culture. These are depicted in the diagram below as shapes surrounding and protecting the team. In this situation, the adapter allows the team to blend in with the overall organizational culture and avoid triggering the antibodies.  It looks like this:

Team+Culture - 3 Barriers + Adapters

In practical terms, the adapter could take the form of a Microsoft Project Plan that has no value to the customers or team but is required by the organization. Another might be team use of a peer-based review for merit increases that still gets submitted by the manager since the system requires input only from her.

This sounds like a lot of effort! Is it worth it? The value is equal to the benefits derived from Agile less the cost of adapter maintenance. Assuming there is good value in the team’s new state of functioning, then sadly some of that productivity will be lost maintaining the adapters. But this is a much better situation to be in compared to getting attacked by organizational antibodies. The adapters are part of the cost of doing business. Like taxes.

Lean differentiates between different types of waste in organizations. Type I Muda (waste) are non value added tasks that are required at the current time. Type II Muda are non value added tasks that can be removed immediately. Maintaining the adapters is type I since the environment requires them.

The model above points a way to success with Agile transformation – it is possible to transform one team or group provided that care and attention is provided to satisfying the requirements of the larger organization. It is a feasible strategy to consider this a first step before a wider organizational change initiative.

THIS WILL EVENTUALLY FAIL!

The adapter strategy is not sustainable in the long term. Why? Eventually, the manager of this group is going to leave and a new manager will be selected. The new manager will typically be chosen to reflect the host organizational culture and will become a powerful attractor for the host culture. An then Agile gets dissolved or neutered. And the people who love working in this new way to deliver great products quit the organization and go work somewhere else.

At a number of conference presentations, I presented the arguement that no responsible manager should undertake using this pattern since it is ultimately doomed to failure. And this is my mistake. I was wrong. Sorry.

But that’s Good! (My New Insight)

I was at a client earlier this year and this topic came up. As I have been working very hard on supplicating and having compassion for the organizations I coach, I noticed something interesting. This particular organization was focussed on short term results and not long term results. (Yeah, I know this is a losing strategy but it’s their culture not mine). So, in the context of their organizational culture is was not only acceptable but highly desirable to do something that will work in the short run but fail in the longer term. So, if you are a manager in an organization that is fixed on short-term results, then the adapters are a truly great strategy to use with a clear conscience. Happy trails.

 

 

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