Organization and process changes are full of challenges. First, the existing structure and process is (probably) a ‘stable state’ that people are comfortable with and whose very position in ‘the machine’ reinforces. Even if no one likes the existing state. Second, there are forces within the organization that will actively oppose the change because people or processes disagree with the proposed new configuration. Let’s explore how to improve our chances for successfully navigating this change and having it stick in the long run.

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One of the ways I think of this change management process is in terms of the chemical state phase transition process.

Org Change as Chemistry - Phase Transition Diagram from Libretexts
Organization Change as Chemistry – Phase Transition Diagram (Libretexts)

Announcing the organization’s change to a new structure or the formation of a new team marks the end of the private planning process and the beginning of the public transition process.

Changing the organization’s configuration requires energy to activate the transition from one state to another. An “re-org” announcement signals that teams should change:

  • who they should work with most closely — their team
  • what outcomes that team should create
  • how those outcomes fit into the tech org’s value chain and business’ values treams; you need to figure this out first, hence The DevOps Organization Build Trap

The phase diagram shows how this transformation effort proceeds and reshapes the organization to the announced target state or goes off track and ends-up back at the start (or worse), perhaps after only creating a bunch of chaos and losing people.

So what are some things we can do to move the organization safely to and through the liquid phase towards the target?

First, you must address the above points signalled by the announcement and help people understand the new model and how it benefits them by:

  1. Creating clear role descriptions and standards for each position
  2. Creating a training curricula and support to qualify for a position
  3. Creating greater mobility up through roles of increasing seniority, and horizontally across functions or business units
  4. Letting them choose and commit to a new position

A credible model and message for how individual contributors and managers fit into the new model is critical to successfully transition to a new, stable state close to the target. If you don’t have one, you won’t be able to “sell” the change to the org, at least not for long. You’ll know if the model and message are working by measuring the escape rate of people you need for the target state.

Improving your chances of success

Honestly, relying on a direct approach from above to organization change feels risky to me. Also, I’ve never really had the ‘power’ to execute change from that position. In most settings, there’s really no one with less ability to command change than an external consultant. I rely on getting both the classic and guerrilla tactics in-place to influence and execute change successfully.

People have to want to change.

But how do you do that?

We need to do much more than change the titles of Systems Administrators to DevOps/Site Reliability Engineer and shuffle which Managers report to which Directors.

I use the model described in Influencer (Grenny, et al) to develop and execute a program that creates the motivation and ability for the change. Influencer describes how there’s many ways to influence effectively by creating motivation and ability across the organization’s: structure, society/culture, and people.

An Influence Program Outline to Effect an Organization Change
An Influence Program Outline to Effect an Organization Change

In the Influencer model, a change program needs to cover four of the six boxes well for the major change to be likely to succeed in the short term and be sustainable in the long term (helpful intro to the Influencer model).

The four points we started with to help people understand the new model and how it benefits provide partial coverage of Personal and Structural areas in three of the six boxes. The bullets in green show ideas for how we can bring influence coverage and likelihood of success up.

For Structural Motivation, we can:

Provide clear rewards and accountability. This is really a must-have for the official organization and role change we’re discussing.

But we really need more…

For Personal Ability, we currently have partial coverage and can improve that with:

Ongoing support for professional development to deliver on professional mobility.

Adopt core practices of Deep Work at the personal, team, and organizational level so that people have the time, focus and energy to actually:

  1. learn the new practices of their position
  2. Do the Work

To change the Social and Cultural connective tissue, you can:

  • Encourage the development of Guilds that provide a community practice for engineers across teams and business functions. Guilds can also be a solution to scaling decision making.
  • Run Hack Days, Internal Conferences, and Lunch and Learns to get people mixing-up and building relationships.
  • Establish a writing culture that helps people clarify their ideas and communicate them across the limits of synchronous chats and meetings. You can do this through ‘regular work’ like design docs or code reviews, but also via (internal) blog posts and mailing lists.

It’s really important to call out that it’s often straightforward for any leader to create and support change in the social and cultural areas at any time. And you can become a leader if you want to. Not ever having been a Director or above with ‘official’ power, I’ve played in this space extensively.

I’m not sure I have ever asked for permission, and I’ve definitely never had to ask for forgiveness because the efforts have always aligned to business goals.

Returning to official organizational changes, the social influence area is a great band to work in to test ideas and start to layout your proposed organizational structure before you announce it.

Conway’s Law says that an organization’s systems reflect the communication patterns of the teams that created them. What communication paths, especially forums like chat channels, are needed to support your target organization and value streams?

Can you get immediate value through improved communication or low risk for your organization change by establishing them today?

I’m available to help you through this process — hit reply and we’ll get started.



p.s. This is the last in this series on org change (I think!). We’ll be diving back into Cloud security.