Cerberus the Organizational Change Mascot!

In Greek mythology, Cerberus (/ˈsɜːrbərəs/;[2] Greek: Κέρβερος Kerberos [ˈkerberos]), often called the “hound of Hades”, is a monstrous multi-headed dog, who guards the gates of the underworld, preventing the dead from leaving. – Wikipedia

File:Peter Paul Rubens - Hercules and Cerberus, 1636.jpg

Hercules and Cerberus.  Courtesy Wikipedia

Change is hard.

Think about a time in your life where you wanted to make a change…”I want to eat better.”  “I want to start working out.”  “I want to dedicate more time to my blog” :).  The only person that can really work to make the above changes a reality is yourself.  Now think of how often you’ve made the above statements to yourself (New Year’s Resolutions, anyone?)  and how many times you’ve failed to not only enact the changes you want to make but also how often you’ve failed to make them stick and be part of your daily routine.

Now let’s take the idea of change to situations where it’s more than one person trying to make a change:  think of Phil Jackson taking a job coaching the NY Knicks and trying to get them to use his triangle offense (as much as I despise sports analogies).  This offense is universally considered to be highly complex and difficult to run effectively; add that to the fact that this changes requires cooperation from multiple people with differing levels of talent and experience and you quickly realize how much of an uphill battle is ahead for Coach Jackson in order to get the team to fully embrace this offense.

Lastly, imagine an enterprise-level organization trying to make a change; “We’re going to roll out this new tool/process/system.”  Or more relevant to this discussion: “We’re going to GO AGILE.”  Not only do you have the complexity of change at each person’s level, but also at each team level, and then at the enterprise level. Add in how different people deal with change (Kubler-Ross) and you begin to develop an appreciation for how difficult it actually is to effect successful, lasting change in an organization.

Kübler-Ross change curve

Image courtesy of Happy Melly

The next question is: how much easier is a change when someone is helping it/you along?  The last time you successfully started dieting/working out more/etc., was there a spouse/loved one/friend/family member pushing you along?  The last time I went on a serious diet (and lost 60 lbs. as a result) the wife and I were dieting and exercising together, which made a big difference as we were pushing each other to succeed…but don’t just take my word for it.

Phil Jackson was not the inventor of the triangle offense (Thanks Tex Winter!) but his adherence to it’s approach helped him win eleven titles with both the Bulls and the Lakers.  This type of shift required buy-in from the entire team, markedly more difficult than me trying to eat less junk food.  He pushed his team to follow the plan, and look what happened…Phil needs more fingers for all of his championship rings!

Organizational change is another exponential of difficulty above team-level changes; when you try to shift the flow of an entire organization it’s the virtual equivalent of swimming upstream as there is a consistent downward pressure against you.  Agile transformations are a great example of this type of change; you are trying to enact a paradigm shift along an enterprise that has many levels, contributors, more often than not across various geographic locations…the opportunities for failure abound.

The item that all three examples I gave above have in common is in each example there is a “change champion”; this is the person that is “leading the charge,” they’re the person in the front of the group saying “Come on, we can do this!”  I dare say that my wife and Phil Jackson had it easy compared to what someone like Jack Welch had to do when trying to shift GE in a different direction.

I have had many conversations with many other agile practitioners about agile transformations they have been a part of, as either an impacted employee, a coach trying to coordinate the change, or even at a leadership level trying to shepherd this new way of thinking, and the one thing that everyone I spoke to agrees upon is “good change agents help ensure successful change.”  I spent more time exploring this statement with each person and as a result I think it’s possible to split change champions into three (3) different buckets:

  1. Internal Change Champion – this is someone who’s already part of the organization looking to enact a change; they are “bought in” to the idea of change and may be seen as de facto “floor leaders” who through their influence drive the pace and culture of the organization.  They are commonly found at the lower levels of an organization’s hierarchy however they may be in middle or senior leadership positions.
  2. External Change Champion – this is someone from outside the organization who has been brought in to help lead the change (best example would be an Agile Coach); they bring with them the knowledge and experience about different ways to approach the change and best practices to make that change stick.
  3. Executive Change Champion – typically this is the executive that’s either A). sponsoring the change, or B). has familiarity with the change being put in front of the organization and can help guide this change from the “top”.  They are usually the “executive mouthpiece” of the change and help sell the idea of the change to not only their peers but have the cachet to pitch this idea higher up the food chain in the organization and get some buy-in.

I recently went through a (some would deem) successful agile transformation, and I took the time to look back on the lifecycle of the transition and see if this idea fits, and funnily enough it does!

  • We had a few Internal Change Champions: employees who through either experience or knowledge understood enough to champion the change, and had the respect at lower-levels of the organization to help “make it happen.”  We acted as the standard-bearers for the transformation and through constant communication and transparency we were able to lead the trenches through the doldrums of organizational re-invention with minor discomfort.
  • External Change Champions were there in the form of Agile Coaches; the enterprise brought in a few coaches with boatloads of experience, and they helped to answer questions that the Internal Change Champions couldn’t answer as well as help guide the organization around pitfalls and mistakes that they had seen been made in previous engagements.
  • As for the Executive Change Champion, we had half of one; our Executive did a so-so job at convincing the technology rank and file to adopt this transformation (honestly the success was driven more from the two champions above…but that may be a biased opinion!) but in hindsight they really fell down with convincing their peers in the organization about the need for the change and how it would be beneficial to them.  The enterprise expected the business units to cough up headcount (which anyone who’s spent any time in a large organization knows is equal to asking for keys to the kingdom) but it was never clearly laid out to them why, and how those resources would be used, and how it was in their best interests to get behind this change.

Which brings me to my next discussion point…what happens if you only have one of the above?

  • If you only have an Internal Change Champion, that person is usually maligned and ignored until they give up on their idea, or they leave the organization for greener pastures.
  • If you only have an Executive Change Champion, they will rail long and hard about the want/need for the change but without buy-in from the greater organization or rallying cries from the rank and file below them it will fall on deaf ears.  The executive will enact the change by will of being the HiPPo and any changes they enacted will quickly fall apart and/or be abandoned as soon as they move on.
  • I have seen some crazy stuff in my years, but I’ve never seen an External Change Champion just hanging around an organization so I’m going to say they never exist as a standalone position(but If you have an example please share!)

And on the back of that point…what happens if you only have two?

  • Internal & External – In this scenario there are internal employees championing a change and they have brought in external resources to help their initiative; they may succeed at enacting a change however because it is not backed by someone in the Executive level there are doubts to how long-lasting this change will be (if they even get a chance to complete the transformation).
  • External & Executive –  This scenario fits the “executive pet project” mold; someone in a senior position wants to enact the change and has brought in outside help to assist in ushering the change; this is an example of “inflicting Agile” on an organization, and the shelf-life of this change is limited to the longevity of the sponsoring Executive in the organization as there is a lack of “stickiness” in the lower levels where the change is actually executed.
  • Internal & Executive –   Of all three examples of having 2/3 change champions this scenario is the one with the greatest chances for success; there is a drive from the top of the enterprise to enact this change while simultaneously there are employees in the lower levels that are also “drinking the kool-aid” and have a vested interest in this change’s success.  While neither type of champion may have the experience that an External Change Champion may have they could potentially make up for that with guided learning & instruction.  However, the lack of an external expert may in fact be damaging to the change initiative as employees may become frustrated when they reach a point where a step-change is necessary and the people leading the change do not now how to enable that next iteration.

After having all these conversations and looking back I have arrived at the point that in order to enact a successful, lasting change you need all three: the Internal and their ability to lead/influence, the External with their body of knowledge and experience, and the Executive to lead from the top of the org chart…hence the Cerberus analogy!  Would he had been as effective if only one of his three heads were functioning?  Or what if only two were alive and active?  Possibly, but not likely…much like it takes three heads to effectively guard the gates of hell, it takes three different types of change champions to enact a successful change and make it stick.