Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Adapting to Change

Adaptation is Essential

Stating the Obvious

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
― Albert Einstein

It may sound obvious, but in healthy systems things change often and frequently. The fact that change exists is less important than how we respond to change. I've worked for several companies that have a poor response to change - it's both treated negatively and the unfortunate requesting the change is treated as a pariah. I've worked for other companies that embrace change as opportunity, treating change as a normal consequence of doing business in an ever changing world.

So what am I writing about here? I'd like to explore how you can help change the attitude of your team regarding change (so it's more positive) and review a few methods to embrace change for a better outcome. I'm using the larger context of "company" in what follows as I believe for this stuff to work it needs to spread across the enterprise. However, what I'm going to write about can apply at the team or macro level too.

First we should establish a list of assumptions:
  1. Businesses that are successful, with very few exceptions, are constantly dealing with change, whether in the market, through competition or ideally due to company innovation.
  2. How a business responds to the changes listed above, can often have a critical impact to company success.
  3. Many times changes are external, a response is required and the speed of that response becomes critical to success.
  4. With software development and new technologies changing the market landscape so quickly, multiply everything above by several factors.

Don't be Oblivious

"I put a dollar in one of those change machines. Nothing changed."
- George Carlin

Before talking about change I think we first need to have a frank discussion about why companies have such a hard time recognizing that they need to change. I've found that there's a very bad trait that becomes inherent in some companies that are very successful - it's the fallacy of success. What happens is that for whatever reason, a company is extremely successful (often through timing and luck and NOT through skill) regardless of questionable practices, to the point that the executive management doesn't take criticism well if at all. This is exhibited when employees recognize inherent flaws or risks in the business, the information is disseminated and consequently ignored. It becomes a "we can do no wrong" attitude that can actually be quite self-fulfilling as long as the market doesn't change, or there are little to no external forces exerted on the company's success. Because of the success management argues that their initial plan is doing well so why change? These are companies that are often blindsided - when change happens they're left in the proverbial creek without a paddle.

It was this mindset that propelled many a start-up during the dot-com era - pretty much unlimited funding, a good idea and huge growth in numbers led many companies to expand quickly with little idea of revenue acquisition. It was all about registrations and not real users. Think about how many of those companies have survived, or better yet, how many of those companies you remember that were hugely successful, only to wither on the vine or become acquisition targets with little benefit to the founders on exit. I have three boxes of swag in my basement - they are full of stuff like frisbees, squeeze toys, pens, mouse pads - you name it and I have it. I acquired this stuff at any number of gigantic conferences (remember Internet World?) and not one of those companies is still around. Someday I hope someone will be interested in that stuff as a research project - or I may just take it to recycling...

Before exploring change factors, we should consider company culture.

Habits

“We first make our habits, then our habits make us.”
― John Dryden

Just as the example above provides some insight about how a company can fail, there are some very good habits that can lead a company from moderate to great success. In most cases, these companies are very good at dealing with change. For it to work, the company's corporate culture has to drive the ideal of change and responsiveness from the top down through example. This needs to be reinforced via company core values, communication and message delivery style; and every level of the company needs to buy into the idea. It also needs to be an automatic response - more good habit than reflex, to proactively look for the opportunity to any change rather than finding reasons not to change. Not that you should jump every time someone says frog, but you have good processes to evaluate change with a managerial support structure to effectively deal with it.

Too often business have complex change control procedures that act as a barrier to change rather than determining if change is first necessary and second worthwhile. Instead its become the norm to only take on change after some upper level management type has "signed off" - more as a CYA technique than as a considered opinion. This often results in someone holding the bag, so to speak, if things "Go South." You'll often see old-school management types keep some unqualified sycophant around so any big problem can be pinned on that unfortunate soul so he/she can be sacrificed if needed.

“It's too late to be studying Hebrew; it's more important to understand even the slang of today.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walking

Adaptation

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
― Bruce Lee

So how to be successful or at least survive change? It's called adaptation - just as some cultures found that survival could be found in assimilation, it's often necessary to consume a change rather than spitting it out. This is most important when confronted by an external pressure, like a change in the market or the presence of a new, disruptive technology. I've always liked that term "Go with the flow" but not in the original context (which as I recall was more of a concession to events), but rather as the idea of adding your voice to the chorus to make beautiful music! Take the positive aspects as opportunity and you can survive devastation - you may get bruised a bit along the way but even those bruises can be turned into learning experiences. If the task looks insurmountable, try breaking it up into smaller, more manageable pieces. Remember, a journey of a 1000 miles begins with one step!
 
A good recent example of adaptation is the current incarnation of used-to-be internet giant AOL. The platform has lost most of its user-base and has become little more than a landing page - however due to brand recognition and fairly-decent news feeds, the portal still gets a worthwhile number of visitors, which equate to eyeballs and advertizing revenue. The company adapted and parlayed that adaptation into a $4B+ acquisition by Verizon - not bad!

Being Nimble

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”
― Charles Darwin

Being nimble is a bit different from being adaptable - in my mind being nimble is defined by your ability to respond to change quickly. If your company has a host of processes you have to go through to make even small changes, then you're probably always going to be behind in execution. Somehow, you have got to spearhead an effort to get things into production environments quicker, remembering the resource triangle (cost, time and quality) and determining what a release can take advantage of to increase speed (hopefully it's cost and not quality, but at times quality can be relaxed - it's all about what you're trying to get out quickly).

To illustrate this idea, how many of you have heard about garage-style start-ups who have pushed what amounts to beta software into the public for the sake of speed. If they are lucky, they'll gain a ton of market share and not lose it due to crappy quality. These start-ups are much more nimble than most large corporate entities - while those are still writing requirements and making marketing plans, the smaller companies are scooping up all the customers, effectively diminishing the pool of fish .

"When you're finished changing, you're finished."
- Ben Franklin

Change Can Be Painful

“We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity.”
― H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

So what's the plan, man? How, with all this opportunity hanging around there can we best use what's happening to be successful, and make great software? This is fairly old-school, but I recommend as a first step to perform the SWOT exercise. I won't go into too much detail about how to do that - it can be a topic on its own and there's plenty of information available online. You're basically coming up with an analysis of the company's current state and how it stands in its current environment. Please look it up and it will give you some ideas. I do have a recommendation - use the largest pool that you can to come up with your SWOT - that includes executives, middle-management, your core employee pool and anyone else that half-way knows your business, even vendors. Make sure you are clear with everyone that there are no wrong answers and that there will be no repercussions to those who express honest opinions. This needs to be a frank look in the mirror.

I remember the first SWOT I attended. I had never heard of the technique, which was brought to one of my first companies by the COO who was a GE alumni. We got the entire company (about 50 employees) all together in an auditorium, explained what we were about to do and then proceeded to come up with an honest assessment. From that analysis, we had a foundation that we integrated into our company plans, software and sales roadmap, and initiatives and thinking of our leadership - shake well and you have something worthwhile. We ended up being extremely successful and became profitable within 3 years, surviving the dot-bomb. I won't attribute our success to the on-paper results of the SWOT, rather to the interaction that helped to shape our habits, creating a consistent message across all levels of the business, and aligning a program that considered all aspects: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. We were also very adaptable and nimble (it's also how I got my first taste of agile software processes and frameworks). Not to say it was all gravy - there were certainly mistakes made, however we were fairly good at learning from those mistakes, improving our business and processes; and having some fun along the way. Thanks for reading.

-- John

"Adaptability is not imitation. It means power of resistance and assimilation."
- Mahatma Gandhi

(also posted to LinkedIn)

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