The ultimate prize promised by Theory U is the kind of transformational improvement that self-perpetuates. While even the most dynamic systems will eventually succumb to entropy, the Theory U approach is one possibility of creating an organisational shift that embeds a deep culture of learning and continuous improvement.
Change demands a step into the unknown. The fear of how things might turn out often trumps the sure knowledge that those very same things cannot continue as they are—regardless of how compelling the case. The image of a strong steel spring being held in the open position comes to mind.
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
It has a natural memory of being coiled, and unless held open, or permanently bent into a new shape, will revert to its original form as soon as the countervailing force is removed. So too with any attempt at introducing new ways of working. The memory of how work has been led and managed is like that strong spring. Often, it has taken many years to give it form and you cannot readily expect that the new ways will be sustainable without significant effort.
The dance of change
In his classic book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge promoted his theory about how to develop a ‘learning organisation’. Ten years later, in The Dance of Change, he reviewed how his ideas had fared in practice across a range of organisations. He identified some of the limits to scaling change from the laboratory of the initiators to the organisation at large:
• There’s not enough time
• There’s not enough money
• There’s not enough help, and we don’t know what we’re doing
• It’s irrelevant
• The leadership is not walking the talk, so why should I?
• I’m not sure if I’m able
• Can these people be trusted?
• Can I trust myself?
• Why is it taking so long?
• I don’t want to be part of a new religion
• What they’re doing is a complete mystery to me, and I’m anxious about showing my ignorance
• Who’s in charge?
• The old guard won’t give up the power
• We’ve seen all this before
• Where is all this heading?
Whilst I do keep looking, I’m yet to find an organisation with a leadership capable of voluntarily undertaking deep transformational change because they want to go from good to great. Far more often, they only seek change from a place of deep trouble where the anxiety associated with having to learn new ways of working has been outweighed by the anxiety associated with going out of business altogether. Nothing quite focuses the mind on overcoming Senge’s list than the prospect of bankruptcy. In cases where the case for systemic change isn’t immediately evident, it therefore takes real courage to put a safe job at risk and call to attention what most colleagues do not want to hear. Not if it means having to learn new rhythms and routines, relate to old colleagues in new ways, and embrace new colleagues with different and often competing ideas to yours.
If the people you seek to influence were not part of your initial phases of the U Journey—the Generative Interviews, Foundation Workshop, Learning Journeys, Retreat, and Crystallising Intent—there is a strong chance they’ll see you as, at best, misguided in your understanding of their issues and, at worst, as a self-serving promoter of the shiny new thing, arguing that your motive is tainted because of how heavily invested you are in understanding and communicating the benefits of your ideas to others.
The Innovation Workshop
Your opportunity to address, head on, all of these issues has now arrived. The Innovation Workshop is similar to the Foundation Workshop but larger in scale. It is designed to give a ‘whole system in the room’ experience to all the participants and has a mini-U architecture. The participants must include the upper ranks of the organisation, including executives and senior managers. The purpose is to give those who have been leading the transformation journey thus far the opportunity to share their learnings, have them tested by the expertise assembled in the room and gain acceptance on a formal program of work required to standardise and scale the most valuable insights gained during the U Journey to date.
By design, the workshop should ideally run over two days in a relaxed and inspiring venue close to nature. As with the Foundation Workshop, establish the workshop’s social field in such a way that deep dialogue can take place. Allow time for walks in the woods and make extensive use of social processes such as Appreciative Inquiry and the World Café.
The people who have been running the learning-journey phase as stream leads are asked to prepare an immersive experience for those they are looking to influence into adopting the best of what they have discovered. Whilst it is important to present facts and figures, nowhere is it mandated that this should be in the ditchwater-dull tones of an endless PowerPoint presentation. It is worth investing in professional help in the arts of communication to provide compelling visual design, graphics, video, writing and storytelling. Pay as much attention to selling your best ideas as you would if you were about to launch an important new product or service into the market.
“It takes real courage to put a safe job at risk and call to attention what most colleagues do not want to hear.”
Over the last few years, I have had the pleasure of working with people who have deep roots in branding. I am now convinced that the approach that masters in branding take to build trust and belief in their client’s product or service is perfectly suited to delivering large-scale change within organisations. Good brand work always asks questions about vision, mission and values and is able to communicate the resulting purpose in aesthetically and cognitively arresting ways that engage the organisation.
Up the capability ladder
So, what is it we’re actually trying to achieve? In the diagram below is a representation of an ascent up the ladder of capability maturity. By committing to the hard work of building process capability within a structured framework of the development of organisational maturity you develop a better way to do better work.
Note how the delivery time initially pushes the target deadline back [1-2]; reality bites as you account for what’s actually going on with your current processes. As you proceed up the capability ladder [3-5], the way of working changes winding in the target date with it. It all adds up to more successful projects, on time, in less time—every time.
As the saying goes, ‘you campaign in poetry but govern in prose’. For us, the left-hand (downward) side of the U Journey is the poetry and the rising right-hand side the prose. It is advisable to check in on who will form the core team and hence lead the streams of work associated with the newly envisioned organisational future. There’s a definite shift towards leadership by the competent and conscientious administrators rather than the creative innovative dreamers. They have the skills and temperament to bring order, repeatability and scale to the new way of thinking. The more open creative types need to remain deeply engaged in the process, if for no other reason (and there’s always another reason) than to be the jealous guardians of the spirit of change dreamed of in the earlier phases of the journey.
It is essential to convene all decision-makers for the Innovation Workshop. Its power and magic lie in the fact that the hard work of developing and testing prototypes has been done. The wheat has been sorted from the chaff and it’s time to decide which initiatives are going to be given the nod and in what order. Decisions on matters such as the process of governance, the allocation of resources, which products, services and markets will be pursued, which technology platforms will be used, how the organisational hierarchy will be designed, what the learning curricula will comprise and what methods are used to run operations. Having all decision-makers in the room means that anyone can mount their case for their point of view, debate its merits with their colleagues and understand, and hence accept, why any given decision went the way it did.
The important point coming out of the Innovation Workshop is not that everyone agrees on every decision, but rather that there is strong alignment behind the decisions taken. The energy and momentum that’s built around a leadership team aligned around a mighty purpose is inspiring to the troops and serves to strengthen the relationships and bonds of trust within the leadership. The Innovation Workshop works best when people empowered by the crystal clarity of their intention feel inspired to do meaningful work with people with whom they share a vision. They know in their bones that the world would be a poorer place if they and their colleagues had not committed to making this contribution.
There’s much more on Theory U in my own book, More Than Just Work, which distils my thinking about three decades of managing work into a manageable framework. It’s edited and proofed—and looks gorgeous—but my editor and I are calling it the ‘advanced reader’s copy’. Soon, I’ll incorporate a few suggestions from some early trusted readers and make some changes based on new ideas I’m discovering.
You can buy the book here (with free shipping anywhere in Australia). If you do so now, I’ll send you the next edition for FREE later this year, bundled with the ebook and audiobook versions.
[Background photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash]
“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like.
Design is how it works.”—Steve Jobs
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As we heard the burbling stream and inhaled the crisp mountain air, he described a boundary on one side—a dry-stone wall with a country gate leading out of the meadow. When our scene was vivid enough, he asked us in our mind’s eye to rise from the chair and walk slowly but confidently through the gate. We were told we’d now crossed a threshold and were our future selves looking back on the person sitting in that chair. What did we see? What did we have to say to that person? What was our intent as we crossed the threshold?(more…)
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