I recently read “On Change”, a compilation of Harvard Business Review articles about change. I picked up this book on a whim but ended up reading it with software engineering and engineers in mind. What follows are some notes that could be useful if you want to initiate or lead change in engineering organizations.
“Leading Change: why transformation efforts fail”
There are 8 stages that an organization needs to go through in order for a change to become truly durable. Since most projects in engineering are fundamentally about change, this is a perfect set of guideline for good technical leadership.
1. Establish a sense of urgency
Change has to be rooted somewhere. In the software world it can be a deprecation deadline, some new vulnerability, a shift in the partnership landscape, a new feature released by a third-party, or some internal data about developer velocity. Whatever it is, change starts by identifying and discussing these facts/numbers and shaping them into potential threats or opportunities that the business needs to react to. A common pitfall at this stage is risk paralysis and underestimation of risk associated with a change. Have you ever been involved in an “easy” migration effort which lasts forever and never seems to finish?
2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition
That’s the idea of consensus building that’s often preached by technical leadership books and materials, so nothing new under the sun. I find the notion of “coalition” a bit more helpful to think about than “consensus” because “coalition” implies active help as opposed to passive “yeah sure this is fine” agreement.
It’s really important to get higher-ups aware of the initiative/project. If possible, try getting their active support.
3. Creating a vision
This is typically done with an enhancement proposal, RFC (request for comment), a wiki page, slides, etc. Whatever format is used doesn’t matter as long as there is a way to communicate what needs to change and how. The simpler the better. If the vision is too complicated people will often phase out, won’t be on board, or will tend to actively fight the change. Technically this means aiming for simplicity (KISS).
4. Communicating the vision
That’s the part that most engineers or technical leads who want to drive a change most often overlook. If a large change is required, communication around it should be loud, clear and consistent. The status should be available for everyone to check on, higher ups should be presenting it at engineering all-hands, etc. Another key aspect of this phase is “dogfooding”. Have the coalition (from step 2) support the change by going through it themselves (if applicable). A major hurdle to change arise when the people driving a change do not implement it themselves. They then risk being considered disingenuous or hypocrite.
5. Empowering others to act on the vision
Make sure that there is an “easy upgrade path” (whether or not the change in question is an upgrade), and change or fix systems/processes which make it hard for the change to happen. This sometimes involves a bit of brainstorming. What can you do to get out of the way and empower other developers to “work for you”? The ideal is to get to a situation where going through change is easier than not.
6. Planning for and creating short-term wins
Strategically reach out to potential early adopters. Plan short-term wins to demonstrate the value of the change, and actively break down blockers to let others go through the change more easily. If you don’t plan for these small wins ahead of time you may never find them, and building momentum will become more difficult.
7. Consolidating improvements and producing still more change
This is the refinement step of the previous one. The process to go from nothing to alpha, from alpha to beta, from beta to limited availability, from limited availability to general availability is the same: reach out, listen, break down blockers, modify other systems, fix yours. Rince and repeat.
It’s very important that you don’t declare victory too soon, otherwise you lose momentum and support from your coalition.
8. Institutionalizing new approaches
That’s when the change is truly over. When the new, proposed way becomes the One Way ®, and technical/process consistency is achieved. Yes! Celebration time.
“Leading change when Business is good”
Changing is easy when things are going badly. How do you change a system when it’s running well? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!"– in this case, try to focus on the larger picture and see how systems fit together. What do we want systems/processes to look like in 2/3/5/10 years? Can we align them better? Focus on tests, release agility, code quality, and architecture or infrastructure simplicity.
“Radical Change, the quiet way”
This focuses on the concept of “tempered radicals”. These are individual “deep” (not in high management, essentially) inside companies who take it upon themselves to change an aspect of their job. In engineering this happens all the time. I found that laying out how this can be done on a spectrum is useful. At the edge of this “quiet” radical change begins true public leadership. Below are the business-y terms from the article along with concrete engineering examples that I’ve seen:
- “Disruptive self-expression”: introduce a new code/test pattern/library/component to see how others react, start a communication trend (sending RFCs internally, regular private email statuses, some new way of organizing your backlog, or even how you communicate testing strategies to your peers). This should be common!
- “Verbal jujitsu”: translated to the technical world this refers to soft rebellion against the status quo. People who are advocate for clean testing, good naming, some particular technology or patter, are examples of this.
- “Variable-term opportunism”: instead of just complaining, these developers look for opportunities for change to happen. Example: “oh you’re touching this file, how about refactoring this system which sucks right now?". The “scout” rule (“leave a source file always cleaner than you found it”) is somewhat related to this as well.
- Alliance building. In the technical community these developers are often referred to as “champions”. They want an aspect of their job to change and they’re ready to lead the change. There begins technical leadership.
You’ll note that these methods vary in effectiveness. Small organizations benefit a lot from more private change initiators while bigger organizations benefit from champions the most. Startups are more likely to say “just do it”, whereas bigger structures can be hurt from excessive “disruptive self-expression”, which harms effectiveness as a whole because of the lack of consistency and predictability that it brings.
“The real reason people won’t change”
This is a way to analyze why people (or you!) are resistant to a change. In short, ask these questions, the article says:
- What would you like to see changed at work, so you could be more effective, or so work would be more satisfying?
- What commitment does your complaint imply?
- What are you doing, or not doing, to keep your commitment from being more fully realized?
- Imagine doing the opposite of the undermining behavior. Do you feel any discomfort, worry or vague fear?
- By engaging in this undermining behavior, what worrisome outcome are you committed to preventing?
- Identify the Big Assumption: create a sentence stem that inverts the competing commitment then fill in the blanks.
Lots of business-bullshit-type fluff huh? This idea of a “Big Assumption” is what we sometimes call “hidden motives”. Hence the importance of identifying people that are NOT on board with a proposed change, to address their concerns and understand the reason they’re opposing the change. Nothing really revelatory here.
“Cracking the code of change”
This talks about “theory E” changes (Economic capability) vs “theory O” changes (Organizational capability). It states that you need both to be successful. The direct application of this is OKRs. Top-level objectives metrics are the “E”, top-down driven component. Then key results and planning are the “O” component, letting engineers be free to accomplish what’s set for them however they want.
“The Hard side of change management”
This is a process to identify which change initiatives are “at risk” of failure. Critical components of a change initiatives are:
- Duration (time between meeting/reviews). The shorter the better (the article says ideally < 2mo, but in software it should be much more frequent!)
- Integrity: how skilled are people driving the change? Assessment can be by looking at how well-established/respected the leader is, and how much time is allocated to the change (ideally > 50%, which gives him/her focus and ability to drive that change to completion)
- Commitment: buy-in from upper management. Does it appear in quarterly report? Does upper management mention this change in email/updates? Do they get why this change is important? Do developers? Ideally, all of the answers should be yes.
- Effort: how much effort is this change piling on top of other people’s workload? Ideally less than 10%. In engineering it’s often a fixed or negative cost. Migration are typically done once, and process changes are usually there to make things faster and more efficient. Not slower!
You made it!
Thanks for reading all the way until the end. I found the experiment of reading a business-y book quite entertaining. Half of this book was, let’s be real, completely useless and felt over-the-top, vague, full of jargon and non-applicable to engineering. However, the articles I highlighted resonated somewhat and gave me some confirmation that what I perceived to be true intuitively in engineering is true in business and everywhere else. The first article is probably the most useful because it lays a framework to think about change initiatives that is relevant to engineers.