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The Complexity of Change

I participated in the AYE (Amplify Your Effectiveness) Conference in Phoenix this week, which is clearly not your run of the mill conference. No PowerPoint allowed, no stodgy rows of chairs facing a lone speaker in the front, very little nodding off, and only the people with iPhones were distracted from the sessions. Indeed, the line between audience and speaker is intentionally blurred and engagement is increased significantly. A highly recommended conference. The topic of change comes up frequently, and these discussions are often centered around the Satir Model for Change. We all deal with change in our lives, generally doing so by avoiding it at all costs. Change is not trivial topic to deal with, which is likely one of the reasons it is so intimidating to all of us.

One of the best introductions to the Satir model comes from Steven Smith, one of the hosts of the conference. The model is simple and clear, but most importantly makes sense because we can instantly see ourselves in the model. We naturally have an affinity for the status quo, and for myriad reasons, change is something we detest. Quitting smoking, traveling to exotic places, developing software in a way that differs from the way we’ve done it in the past (in some places, that 'past' can span decades). There’s the unknown, the anticipated chaos, the displacement from our current way of doing things. It is easier to just stay where we are, even if we can envision a better place at the end. As a physicist I know how to express the strength of inertia through formulae. From the perspective of change, we all feel the inertia keeps us in our place of familiarity, whether or not it is comfortable.

Change is far more than simply deciding to do things in a different way. The greater we appreciate and understand all the complexities and nuances, the more effective we can be at fostering effective change at home and in the workplace.

Most critical of these issues is the recognition that change is embodied in a clear sequence of stages, and that for meaningful change to stick, you can expect to go through all these stages in turn. Deep change will drop us out of our comfort zone, our status quo, and carry us through a stage of disruption and chaos. Quite often we will see this as bad, and leap back to our old ways, back to that soothing place of familiarity. It can take significant effort to continue on our path, to find some mechanism or transforming idea that allows us to recognize the value of seeing the change through. If we have done well, we will reach a point where we have been successful in changing. This can be a tough journey, and at each stage of change we can find new reasons to fall back to where we started.

Often, though, we attach change in ways that make the journey tougher than it needs to be. At the conference, it was interesting to note that several people saw their role as one of a change 'inflictor', and indeed this is the way many people try to foster change as consultants ("You guys need to adopt Scrum...", or "I can help you get to CMMI Level 3..."). While simply recognizing the sequential nature of change is important for accepting that it’s not as trivial as switching on a light, there are other ways to simplify things, to make change easier to swallow.

A critical element of driving successful change is controlling the magnitude of change. Often, in software development or in life, we take on ludicrously large elements to change: we’ll go from a totally chaotic ad-hoc approach to development (often in the form of every participant using their own preferred successful approaches from previous jobs), to a complete single way of developing software. Great in theory, but extremely disruptive in its implementation. Whether agile or not, this complete system is made up of a collection of individual elements, each with their own change profile. Some of these may have little chaos and huge return, while others may be extremely chaotic, and actually have a net negative impact. Throw them all together, and you will have washed out much of the value of the best elements, and imposed an overall change that can be quite daunting. The team can easily find the status quo quite attractive in comparison. We need to find those atomic elements that will provide us the most value with the least disruption. If we select them correctly, we will find far less pushback, faster adoption, and we also benefit from demonstrating to the team that this change stuff doesn’t have to be so painful after all.

The other side of simplifying or making change more attractive is cranking up the engagement from the participants. Last time, I talked about the challenges of jargon as a barrier to adoption: we have to be careful to present the potential change in a way that is clearly understood in terms that people understand. In addition to this, we need to avoid simply handing this change over as a task for them to do. While we may not see these elements as disruptive, this is because we have already made the required journey, we have already internalized the value and overcome the disruption. Any change will be easier if the participant is carefully supported, given the time to acclimatize to the different way of doing things, reminded of the value of the change in making their life easier. Each participant needs to understand how the change brings them more closely into alignment with their own value system. They need to see what is in it for them, and this attraction will vary dramatically across the team.

In the minds of most people, change is frightening and diametrically opposed to remaining in the status quo. If we are careful in how we present change, selecting the low-hanging fruit and fostering the change through our teams, we can dramatically reduce the barriers we often face. Indeed, we can get to the point where change becomes an attractive ongoing way of doing business, we can become a true learning organization. We can remove the apparent dichotomy between change and the status quo.

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