Throwing Pebbles in the Soup

How can we build ownership with a target audience when we are still building solutions within our project team? It’s a messy process but it happens one pebble at a time.

In short, this is where the crux of organizational change management lies. When an organizational change program has long been approved, the team has been working overtime; and even when the first deliverables (e.g.: the business case, target organization model, process design, etc.) have been validated. We think we have the ‘X’ is on the map. We are convinced that the project is going to be a walk in the park.

But’ it won’t, because future business owners, key-users and users have not been involved yet. Nevertheless we have indulged ourselves in a great sense of control and accomplishment. The advise is to get rid of this false sense of certainty as soon as you can. Future owners of this program are still sleeping and it’s time to wake them up.

Waking them up means involving them early on. Not just by sending emails or organizing a town-hall meeting. At best that will annoy people, not wake them up.

We need to create opportunities for people to choose to be accountable.

For instance, a program that I have been involved in recently intended a capacity increase by outsourcing some activities and reorganizing their functions in order to streamline their way of working with that of the outsourcing partner.

In such an effort we might as well wait for a full functioning organization to be cast in stone and for all business processes to be fully configured and documented before involving any target audience. But we chose not to wait and we had some reasons to do so:

  • We don’t know what we don’t know. Part of the effort consisted of implementing an IT service management platform. Those things don’t run by themselves, so we started to identify in an early stage all the people who are going to perform the roles in the processes. This is what it comes down to:
    • We are impacting a large organization (+20k staff) with quite some business units, so the first step is to have a single point of contact assigned per business unit. The appointment of these persons is done top-down by a business sponsor who has sanctioning power within the organization. These are the entry points
    • Next, we started having regular meetings with them.
    • Then, the time has come for a concrete assignment: we needed the names of the people within their business unit who will be driving the future business processes. This is an opportunity for them to choose to take accountability.
  • They don’t know what they don’t know.
    • When confronted with an assignment and a deadline, things all of a sudden get real for the team and they start to involve their colleagues. Those colleagues get back to you with a request for more details.
    • At this point you may start to think that this assignment thing was a bad idea because it starts to look really messy. To the contrary: the s**load of questions and the bunch of totally new people questioning you look like a B-movie where they are a chief inspector and you are the suspect of a criminal offense… Well… believe it or not… those are good signs. Things are moving in the right direction.
    • The black box of your target audience all of a sudden starts to light up and if you look very carefully you will see a pattern. Who are the opinion leaders and the real decision makers? What keeps them awake at night? All of this is valuable information, both for them and for us. Change happens at the speed of making sense.
  • Building credibility, one pebble at a time.
    • Do multiple iterations of this and you become a pro. In fact, all of a sudden you will become so invested in the challenges of your target audience that your own superiors need to remind you of the boundaries of your function description. Again, these are good signs.
    • Almost invisibly, you have adopted the cultural frame of reference of your target audience. This is what a relationship of trust is all about.
  • Building readiness one pebble at a time.
    • Even though it may look like you are losing yourself into details that are outside of your original scope, you are increasing the change readiness of your target audience by bringing structure to the conversation and the steps ahead.
    • The weirdest thing about this sense-making process is that people create the social reality of the program by talking about it more often. Make sure you are part of those conversations. Better even: prepare the conversation starters. The stories that get told over and over strengthen the beliefs of how the reality around us is constructed.

What actually happens with this approach is nothing more than a series of well-planned opportunities for people to choose to be accountable.  The reason I refer to it as throwing pebbles in the organizational soup is because it refers to the same dynamics as the parable of Stone soup. Have a look at the below video to find out more about that particular story.

Throw those pebbles in the soup as early as you can. They are the little provocations, the frictions that can turn into meaningful conversations. And when that happens, be the best version of yourself because that organization is revealing a little of its vulnerability to you.

Needless to say there are also downsides to this approach: it’s messy and it sometimes looks like you are taking a step back instead of advancing. But the biggest disadvantage is that you will not be able to play hero firefighter or crisis manager at go-live because you will have connected and empowered a lot of people and their teams (so if you are more of a firefighter project person, inverse the advice and brace yourself at go-live).