A large media organisation was facing rapidly changing expectations from both inside the organisation and from external customers. The organisation needed to engage in massive change if it were to remain relevant and competitive.

In response to this challenge, an innovation team created and implemented a new operating model as well as a completely refreshing their organisation’s front-end technology platform. A major consulting body recently bestowed on the team a major award for this work.

Taking a very different approach, the team delivered this highly complex programme on budget and ahead of time. They did this by showing great leadership, demanding they were funded only for short iterations and working “out loud”. The consultants and client worked together strictly as “one team”. FirstHuman partner, Richard Atherton, in a former life, co-led this effort. We sat down to digest the six lessons he took away.

1.  Drip fund your way to glory

Courageously, the team demanded to be ‘drip-funded’. This was the single most important driver of the culture of the team.

Big bureaucracies like big budgets. Making major decisions in bureaucracies is expensive, so it’s natural that people want to make them as infrequently as possible. This means asking for big lumps of money all in one go. Those at the top would rather you come to them and ask them for three-years’ worth of money than to pester them every quarter. Corporate accountants also like the perceived certainty of the cash flow forecasts embedded in long-term business cases.

However, big budgets kill agility. If I ask you for £100k for three months, you’re going to ask far fewer questions than if I ask you for £1m over three years. If I ask you for £100k, I can get away with a high-level plan and some success indicators. The business case for £1m is another story.

The team boldly requested a ‘rolling wave’ three-month budget window. Despite the pressure to ask for more, the team were deliberately frugal in their ask. As Richard concludes, it forced the team into start-up mode. He explains:

We all now shared the jeopardy of delivering quickly. We had to prove to the bosses that we had done something useful with the money and we had to do it fast. It forced us to demonstrate value. Even during our design phase, we squeezed in a pilot for a new team structure to prove that we were having an immediate impact. This meant we gained trust from the start.

 

2. Remind people of their commitments

The team’s adherence to an agile philosophy wobbled on several occasions. At one pivotal moment, Richard pushed to time-box a planned design phase of 6-months down to three months, eliciting howls of protest. The risk! The client sent in auditors to review the new plans and they got close to kicking Richard off the project.

“How can we get approval to move forward without detailed designs?” was the common cry.

As Richard relays:

The route through the protests was to get all the protagonists in a room and remind them of their shared commitment to an agile way of working. I asked them what this meant for how we would work. This group-level inquiry and reflection re-energised our commitment to agile working and was key to us agreeing to the three-month design phase. This also provided the forum for the most senior client to really show her leadership. At the crunch moment, she took a stand for our principles.

The team ultimately prevailed. They created higher-level designs for all of the key facets of the initiative in the three-month time box and were able to move to implementation ahead of schedule.

3.  Be visible

After a few months on the project, the team put up a kanban displaying their work-in-progress in a public space. Client members of the change team were initially hesitant, understandably, given the reputation of previous change efforts in the organisation. Indeed, for the first few days, members of staff vandalised the board with the consultants roundly insulted. Some members of the team protested that they should remove the board, but the team stuck with it. As Richard relays:

The staff needed the catharsis and I was sure that the team needed to stick to our principles of “working out loud”. I was glad that we kept it going. The written abuse stopped after a week or so.

Ultimately, the board experiment helped to build trust with the wider organisation and paved the way for the team holding regular, open-invite ‘show-and-tells’ of their work. These became a great channel for communication and feedback with those affected by the change.

4.  Embrace dissent

Creating a ‘big tent’ for differing views was vital to allow a new approach to emerge. The Request For Proposal (RFP) for the project stipulated that we should take an agile approach, whilst also stipulating the thirty-seven documents the team had to produce before a line of code was written! So, from the outset, people differed strongly on how we should conduct the project. As Richard recalls:

In co-leading the initiative, I remained committed to not invalidating the voices calling for a more traditional, planned process. I strove to listen to and honour their perspectives. This permissive style helped with the transition.

Whilst consistently and actively promoting an agile approach, Richard allowed the dissent to flourish and for the team to integrate all perspectives. The net outcome was a major shift towards more agile working, although Richard had to accept this meant moving at a slower pace than he would have preferred. This leadership style meant Richard’s direction being frequently and openly challenged. He continues:

I didn’t care from whom the dissent emerged. I resisted using my positional power to create a ‘party line’ for the consultants and there was plenty of dissent from amongst them. I tried as much as possible to not be righteous, although I’m sure that I didn’t always succeed!

5.  Sit together

The team worked together in a cluster of four dedicated desks with a couple of permanently allocated meeting rooms. No awkward conference calls, no fighting to get hot desks next to each other, freedom to decorate the space as we chose.Furthermore, in a somewhat remote country house, the team’s home for the duration, they had one option for lunch: the staff canteen. Team members frequently ate together – a proven means of improving team cohesion.

Where we hear of teams trying to coordinate change efforts across ten sites and five timezones, our impulsive reaction is ‘give up now’! Of course, there are ways and means to work effectively in remote teams, but the is not encouraging.

6.  Blend the team

As the judges of the award acknowledged, a key to the initiative’s success was making no distinction between the consulting team and the client team. The goals for the project were the goals in the consulting contract. There were no separate deliverables for the consulting team, only deliverables for the shared project. The group were jointly accountable and co-owned the risk. This powerfully bonded those on the initiative.

The client team members also had their time fully committed to the effort. The consulting team members were not prizing client team members from their day jobs. Everyone was in it 100%.

Conclusion

We can best think of business transformation as a shift in operating principles. In this case, the new principles were “work in short iterations”, “work out loud”, “work as one team” and the underpinning meta-principle: “stick to your principles”. As Richard shares:

The transformation was easy, we just had to do what was hard. What was hard was sticking to our guns. We had to stick to these principles whenever the voices within the organisation wanted us to revert to the prevailing norms. The new form that emerged – the transformation – came from this shift in our shared context.

Often transformations focus on the plans, targets and desired solutions. Goals are important of course. They can inspire teams and are often vital for getting organisational buy-in and releasing funds. However, a more powerful organising force day-to-day was the team’s discipline of sticking to their principles.