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Become a change agent: Stop procrastinating

Don't be like the white-haired bride and groom who put off the big event until they could afford it. Now is the time for action, says organizational agility expert Joseph Flahiff.

I love this poem.

The Bride, white of hair, is stooped over her cane,
Her footsteps uncertainly guiding
While down the opposite aisle,
With a wan, toothless smile,
The bridegroom, in wheelchair, comes riding.
Now who is this elderly couple thus wed?
Well you'll find when you've closely explored it,
That here is the rare
Most conservative pair
Who waited till they could afford it.

I first heard it recited in the distinctive southern drawl of that legend of sales, Zig Ziglar. Set to music, the cautionary ditty could well be a theme song for many of the work problems I tackle.

As loyal readers know, I help business and IT leaders rip apart their organizations and put them back together -- stronger, better and faster. Improvement is often predicated on adapting an Agile approach to IT and business operations, and it always requires the leader to become a change agent.

The Ziglar poem rings in my ears whenever I hear an executive say, "Let's get together next month and talk about it. Right now, we are really slammed with …"

There are three problems with the not-a-good-time attitude:

  1. There will be another fire.
  2. When there isn't a fire, we create one.
  3. The cost of doing nothing is not nothing.

Let's take them one by one.

There is always another fire

When was the last time there was nothing to do at work? When were you last bored, or had nothing urgent on the agenda? Yah, I didn't think so.

There is always something that needs to be fixed, a fire ready to ignite. If it isn't something big, then it is the day-to-day issues, time sheets, staff meetings, that hard conversation you need to have with a co-worker and a million other little things that fill every waking minute. 

Here's a secret that change agents in the organizations I've worked with know instinctively: When work is busy, it's a great time to make changes because you can field test the changes immediately.

Improvement is always going to be disruptive, and there will never be a calm time. Now is the time to be a change agent leader.

When there isn't a fire, we create one

If work isn't slammed with fires, then we tend to believe that we have everything under control. However, if you are anything like me, when it is slow, you feel like you should be doing something more and immediately add things to your schedule, setting the conditions for more fires. 

Here's another secret that change agents instinctively know: When work is calm, it's a great time to play a change agent role because you will have the full attention of the team to try new things.

The cost of doing nothing is not nothing

The default option is doing nothing. Deep down, when you put off change, you are clinging to one of the following -- unspoken -- beliefs:

  • We can just keep doing what we are doing.
  • We aren't doing badly.
  • It is the way we have always done it.

Stop procrastinating. Significant change can happen during busy and slow times. Let's consider a client of mine, the Washington State Department of Licensing. They wanted to improve productivity. They had a project that was planned to take 24 months or more. They then learned it needed to get done in less than half that time.

This team decided to bite the bullet and learn a new way of working while they were under this significant time crunch. In other words, they were making an important change during an extremely busy time. They adopted a new process for writing software (Scrum). This involved changing:

  • How requirements were gathered
  • How planning was done
  • The organization's roles and responsibilities
  • The organization's culture, including the leadership

In the end, the agency took just nine months to complete the full scope of work that was originally planned to take 24 months. That is a 62% improvement. (I have a case study written up that I did with the DOL that we can share.)

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.
Chinese proverb

Another client, a publicly traded software company, had a highly matrixed organization that served them well when they were smaller, but they had grown significantly -- from 100 to 800 people -- in the past few years. The matrixed structure was hindering their work. Teams of 12 people would often have as many as 10 managers. Team members didn't know who to talk to if they needed something.  Those managers had direct reports on six or eight teams, and they couldn't keep track of all that was going on. A reorganization was necessary. The new structure had two managers per team of 12 and nearly all of the teams remained intact.

The reorg was a huge success. Under this new organizational structure, the managers estimated they were 200% to 250% more effective. That added up to between $14.9 million and $22.3 million in additional revenue.

Many organizations find all sorts of reasons why they cannot embark on organizational change: They are too busy or busy adding more work to their schedules. Let me leave you with another bit of literary wisdom I love -- this hopeful advice from a Chinese proverb.

 "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now." 

About the author:
Joseph Flahiff is an internationally recognized leadership and organizational agility expert at Whitewater Projects Inc. He has worked with Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, startups and publicly traded firms, where he has been recognized as an experienced, pragmatic and innovative adviser. He is the author of Being Agile in a Waterfall World: A practical guide for complex organizations. Learn more at www.whitewaterprojects.com.

Next Steps

Read more from Joseph Flahiff:

An argument for project status reports

Focus on these three areas when scaling your business

This is how to delegate

This was last published in September 2016

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