The year 2020 will be etched in our memories for various reasons that are not positive. 

Most of us didn’t know what was in store for us, personally or professionally. Being a consultant, uncertainty on the professional front never bothered me much – not knowing what is coming after the current assignment is a way of life. When friends and acquaintances ask how I deal with it, I generally show them the meme which reads – A bird sitting on a branch is not worried about the branch breaking because its trust is not on the branch but its wings. 

If I were, to be honest, the pandemic did shake me up, and I remember being scared. When I look back to those dreaded times, I realize that the pandemic taught me a few valuable lessons, both personally and professionally. 

Here is me harking back the last two years and summarizing my experience working with organizations –

When the pandemic began two years ago, I saw many transformation success stories where the beneficial changes introduced disappeared in less than a quarter. It was hard to find any trace of the transformation work in most cases, and it was mayhem. 

Many of my friends, colleagues, and I froze, not knowing how to deal with what we faced. It was back to basics for us, but this time with the experience of having played a beneficial role in organizational transformation, albeit in a different world.

Back to basics, for we had a new change unfolding in front of our eyes and the clear and present danger of not responding to it staring at us from close quarters.

The biggest challenge we faced was the paralyzed management, for they were entirely out of their depths. The universal and non-negotiable management mandate to keep the current system running at all costs was the last thing needed. Yes, the struggle was absolute.

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The pandemic re-emphasized the need for a new system. 

Creating a new system demands leaders aware of the urgency and ability to envision and lead the change. The dire state of business demanded action but at the same time gave minimal maneuvering space.

It became pretty evident, rather quickly, that the enormity of the change calls for a guiding coalition constituting specific but complementary expertise, information, and reputation. 

Survival demanded alternate activities outside the formal and now-defunct boundaries, expectations, and protocols. This immense urgency created a team at the senior level despite their ego and widely varying opinions—a team united by the vision of overcoming the present danger.

A feat that most transformations in the pre-pandemic days failed to achieve, no matter what the strategic plans were or who led the change, or by the high-paying consultants hired. This fact made it amply clear that strategies led by individuals can make perceptible progress, but soon the antagonists gather to resist the change.

This unifying vision and the coalition kept the transformation from disintegrating into several incongruent disarrays of projects pulling the organizations in different directions.

The result was that changes needed in the technology teams’ ways of working, the need for people policies that promote collaboration in a highly remote workforce, and the changes in budgeting and accounting all started to evolve in a meaningful way. 

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These changes set the strong foundation for the transformation. It had such a massive impact that employees embraced alternate ways of working they rejected earlier. Fear probably did play a part in this shift during the initial days, but the realization that these changes are helpful played an essential role in changing their hearts and minds.

The management and leadership’s deliberate effort to communicate the transformation vision in words and action provided the requisite thrust for the transformation to take off. Nothing is more detrimental to a transformation effort than the inconsistency in the leaders’ words and actions.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing from then on. While most folks understood and signed up to make the vision a reality, the path was riddled with impediments. At times the narrow job responsibilities and, at other times, the fear of failure leading to justice being meted out got in the way of building the requisite cooperation and collaboration. 

The compensation-based appraisal system got people to prioritize self-interest over the new vision. The most challenging was the managers who struggled to visualize their role in new ways and made demands inconsistent with the overall transformation concept.

It was impossible to deal with all the impediments at once. However, the leadership’s stance on the pressing ones went a long way in maintaining the credibility of both the leaders and the change effort as a whole. 

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These changes that needed to succeed don’t happen overnight, and we couldn’t afford the magnitude of change lost on anyone. Keeping the energy and focus high when it was apparent that the change would take an extended amount of time needed a strategy of its own. Management’s active involvement in setting short-term objectives aligned to the vision, relevant metrics, and vital support empowers teams into action. Celebrating every milestone accomplished helped maintain the required momentum.

We were careful not to confuse milestones accomplished as the arrival of transformation. The focus, instead, was to use the credibility from the short-term win to go after the more significant impediments, including the systemic and structural ones. 

We spent time and effort to help teams understand how the new approaches and behaviors have helped us progress even in the most troubled times. There was also a deliberate focus to redefine management and leadership and align with the new ways of thinking, the new ways of working, and new ways of measurements to maintain for the short term and relentlessly improve in the longer term.

Any resemblance to John Kotter’s Leading Change is purely intentional, for that is what we used to maneuver the challenge thrown by the pandemic. It was this experience that drew me towards the Scaled Agile Framework. More on that later.

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Author's Bio

Preeth is a pragmatic coach, Professional Scrum Trainer (PST) & SAFe 5.0 Program Consultant (SPC 5.0) and is passionate about all things agile and leadership. With over 20+ years of experience and commitment, he trains and coach organizations to be agile and more importantly to stay agile. Preeth holds an enviable record of conducting over 10,000 hours of industry-specific training and coaching.