Keeping the end in mind

As we consider how to transform our enterprises - in whatever form that might take - we often only have a vague idea of what the ultimate target for transformation might be. Of course, we spend a great deal of time elaborating what the ‘next’ step should be - say a single product team for a single product - but we are often so engrossed in the pragmatic next step that we ignore the visionary ultimate goal. After the synaptic sugar of stating the destination, we devolve quickly to checking the signposts.

The ultimate goal is important. This is what keeps us going when it appears that nobody is listening, or those that are, are bent on opposition. It is also the stuff of the stories that we tell internally. However, it is here that we find the reason why so many of us shy away from that story; stuff it deep inside ourselves and only talk of its first few chapters.

The easiest way for someone to cast doubt on what we propose is to ask, “How”. This has been wonderfully described, as an organisational narrative strategy by Peter Block in “The Answer to How is Yes.” The core insight is that asking the ‘How’ question before understanding purpose and value inevitably reduces the subsequent conversation to one of justification rather than explanation. It closes down conversation rather than opening it up.

I am sure that you have tried, before today, to paint a picture of a compelling future - seeming rather remote from the current state it was either met with bewilderment or with, “Well, that’s just great, but HOW [much will it cost], [will you get it done], [will you scale it]. And the truth is, you had no idea.

What we learn from our Agile experience is that all we can really bet on is the next one or two steps toward a contingent future state, our understanding of which evolves as we get closer to it through action. So the circumstances of people sharing this contingent, perhaps ephemeral, definition of the future are fraught with risk. We learn to have different kinds of conversations and create strategies to manage internal stakeholders’ perceptions and expectations along the way while we try to subtly guide the process in what we think is the right direction.

Sometimes these strategies are mundane, innocuous, and effective; perhaps a simple omission of the broader context - “let’s not worry about scale until it becomes a problem, let’s just focus on making this team better..”. I have used this many times before and it works.

But they can also be dangerous. Most dangerous is when these approaches crowd out our reflection on the target itself. To return to our opening argument, We become so obsessed with progress that the destination recedes from our consideration.

These strategies seem inevitable. Understanding the underlying dynamics that make them so is important to understanding how to more effectively drive change and truly empower teams.