Five Secrets of Very Fast Organizational Transformation
Most managers today, most change agents and people in organizations doubt that something like organizational transformation is possible at all, at least not within their particular company, or organization. If they do not reject the idea outright, they figure that it would take forever to make serious transformation of the organizational model happen. “It would take years or decades! We are not ready for that.“ That was the predominant belief until this day. We hold a rather different perspective on transformation: one that we will outline in this article. We firmly believe, and indeed know, that profound organizational transformation is possible in any company, anywhere. We also hold that when it happens, it can happen fast — within just a few months.
The secret to Very Fast Organizational Transformation (VFOT), in companies large or small, old or new, local or global, lies in appropriately complex, robust transformation methods, or approaches. Such approaches now exist. Not only that: they are open source and available to all. This insight was not pulled out of thin air. The new breed of fast, and highly practical approaches to Very Fast Organizational Transformation, such as OpenSpace Beta (developed by Silke Hermann and myself in 2018) and OpenSpace Agility (developed by Daniel Mezick and others in 2015), hinges on several foundational sources and movements that have existed for quite a long time:
› OpenSpace Beta applies insights from more than 20 years of BetaCodex Network/Beyond Budgeting case research and concept development that started back in 1998. Since then, it has taken into account insight from sciences as varied as business administration, psychology, organizational development and sociology. OpenSpace Beta is also inspired by the Lean and Agile movements, and original research on Beta concepts such as Relative Performance Systems, OrgPhysics and Change-as-Flipping, which I have outlined in separate articles here on Medium.
› OpenSpace Agility applies insight from Scrum and Agile concepts, implementations and movements. Idealized some 20 years back, Scrum, for instance, has been applied in software development and beyond, worldwide, but it has also often fallen short of expectations, due to feeble, un-systemic, “industrialized“ adoption techniques.
› Both OpenSpace Beta and OpenSpace Agility make use of systems theory and cybernetics advanced by pioneers such as Kurt Lewin, Mary Parker Follett, Eric Trist, W. Edwards Deming, Russell Ackoff, Niklas Luhmann, Ernst Weichselbaum and others. These pioneers contributed to our understanding of how to effectively set up & irritate organizational systems.
› Both VFOT approaches derive their conceptual architecture from the Prime OS social technology, which was developed by Daniel Mezick and others, a few years back.
› They both employ OpenSpace, the large-group interaction format that was idealized by Harrison Owen in the early 1980s.
› They build upon whole-systems approaches advanced by organizational development sages such as Marvin Weisbord, Paul Tolchinsky, Kathie Dannemiller and Bill Pasmore, who pioneered, among many things, the use of large-group techniques and OpenSpace derivatives in organizations, from the 1990s onwards.
The two VFOT approaches have been outlined in separate handbooks, or practical guides, that allow readers to make transformation happen within any organization you might be part of, or with your clients. But how does this new kind of approach change or transform work at all? What makes it different from ordinary change management, change leadership, or known systemic approaches to organizational development?
The answer is five-fold.
Principle 1. Principled, not ambiguous
The best, most practical organizational theories are principle-based. Very Fast Organizational Transformation cannot be brought about if the underlying content, aim, or practical theory is not principle-based. The kind of practical theories we are talking about do not promote prescriptions, rules, tools, or mere “best practices.” They are not vague or esoteric. They are not mechanistic frameworks. The distinct feature of principle-based theory is that it can at the same time be specific, while not pre-defining a solution before it exists in a specific context, or organization. This is because principles, by nature, must be interpreted by groups of humans. What makes principled approaches so powerful, durable and robust? They must be constantly socialized, or agreed within the specific social group that wish to adhere to them. Examples of principle-based practical theories, or social technologies are:
› Lean, or Total Quality (TQM) — when applying the 14 key principles by W. Edwards Deming, for example.
› Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM) — when applying the
10 QRM principles articulated by Rajan Suri.
› Agile — when applying the 4+12 principles from the Agile Manifesto, or the principles embedded in the Scrum Guide.
› Beta — featuring the 12 principles of the BetaCodex, which were derived, in 2007, from the principles of the Beyond Budgeting model.
As an illustration of what such organizational principles look and feel like, take the principles of the BetaCodex. These principles are called “laws,” and the full set of laws of Beta is depicted below.
Principle-based, practical theories such as Beta, Lean, QRM or Agile come with twists. For instance, they are all indivisible, by nature. Which means that their sets of principles are not menus to choose from. The principles are clearly interdependent, even if it may not appear like that, at first glance. Additionally, in order to agree on principles, or to socialize them, a certain level of awareness of group participants, or a certain level of willingness to face conflict with peers are indispensable.
Principled practical theory allows us to be focused & specific, while refraining from the foolishness of pre-defining solutions within complex contexts. Challenges: Such theory is indivisible; it must be constantly socialized within a group.
In other words: Principles are the only way, and the natural way, to convey the nature of complex systems to social groups, large and small. Which is why manifestos, constitutions, or statements of intent are usually articulated through principles. Principled practical theory will provide an indispensable type of boundary to Very Fast Organizational Transformation, contributing to the robustness and the reliability of the process, as well as enabling self-organization and emergence.
Principle 2. Time-boxed, not indefinite
This concept provides a second kind of boundary to Very Fast Organizational Transformation: Boundaries in time. We grasped this concept more fully through Daniel Mezick’s pioneering work around OpenSpace Agility. Daniel figured this out some years ago, in the context of helping organizations with adopting Scrum as a work method for teams. Scrum, of course, relies heavily on time-boxing, or setting boundaries of time. So it seemed natural to apply this concept not just to work within the system but to work on the system.
The insight here is quite intuitive, really: We should always time-box (or: “restrict“) periods of time during which specific organizational development work is supposed to take place. This way, we do not artificially fix the scope of the work, but the time allocated. Combined with principle-based theory, participants in the change work will experience a sense of safety and reliability through time-boxing, even throughout phases of disruption. Daniel Mezick had the idea of time-boxing the change work, or giving it rhythm, by “starting in OpenSpace and ending in OpenSpace,” and allocating a period of roughly three months, in-between.
The problem with the assumption that “change takes a lot of time“ is that it annihilates the possibility of working the organizational system when it is needed.
Let’s remember: Based on their past experiences in the context of work, most managers or employees in larger companies will naturally assume that change usually drags on, endlessly! Consequently, something like profound transformation would, in this mindset, inevitably take years or even decades! In other words: Change is all too often perceived as hard, slow and overwhelming (in addition to it being forced upon the many by the few).
The problem with the assumption of change taking a lot of time and change work not having a specific horizon in time is that it annihilates the possibility for working on the organizational system, not just within the system when it is needed. As humans in social groups, we cannot focus our collective energy well within undefined, vague time-spaces. This trait of social groups invalidates indefinite, or long-term phases of change. “We will sort out that strategy issue during the next six months,” or “We will reduce cost over the next 18 months“ — such statements are predictions of their own failure. Humans need to be capable of seeing the horizon. This creates safety. It creates conditions for peer pressure and a sense of orientation.
When organizational development work is principled, inclusive (more about that later) and time-boxed, then transformation is turned into a joint rite of passage. This means that it will be ritualized, with a clear and evident beginning and end, with iterations set by rituals. In OpenSpace Beta, for instance, a full chapter of approximately 180 days contains a total of five iterations, at least. Look at the Open-Space Beta time-line in the following illustration, and you will be able to spot them.
The first 60 days of Build-up clearly is the first iteration, in itself. OpenSpace Meeting 1 is another, then there are the 90 days of Practicing-Flipping-Learning as the core iteration, or as a “large sprint,” followed by the “large retrospective“ of OpenSpace Meeting 2, which may count as iteration number four, before the closing iteration of the 30-day Quiet Period. Within a roughly 180-day time frame, OpenSpace Beta thus takes participants and teams through at least five major iterations. That may be followed by another OpenSpace Beta chapter that is structured along the same cadence.
The paradigm-shift comes with changing the mental model: “Transformation does not take forever. If we time-box the transformation to, say, 90 days increments, then it will take exactly 90 days!
Time-boxing, combined with principled practical theory, helps social groups large and small to raise the energy level during the collaborative sprint period, and also to provide for a different energy during periods of looking back and ahead, allowing the same groups to engage in reflection and retrospective.
Principle 3. Radically inviting, not imposing
This is another concept we got from Daniel Mezick, whose OpenSpace Agility served as a foundation to OpenSpace Beta. This principle is delightfully simple, yet also quite novel in the context of organizational development. You start with everyone who wants to join in, by radically inviting them, while accepting that the invitation may be declined. This way, you will always start with the right people, those who are willing to engage at that particular time, by accepting the invitation.
Radical invitation or opt-in participation means the invitation can be declined without punishment. When an invitation is declined, you can never quite know why. You must keep inviting!
A key aspect of change management work is that they are most often forced upon people. Little wonder they usually fail! The language we use to describe change tells the whole story. We speak of status quo, kick-offs, roll-outs, getting in the boat, implementation, execution, convincing, aligning. If that does not work, we force and bribe those who are affected, crushing their resistance to change. The intent is to inflict solutions upon them which have previously been worked out by others. Look at the actual practices in change management approaches and you will see that, say, 95% of them are fundamentally imposition-based. This will always produce resistance against the change method, erode social density, provoke disengagement and de-motivation. The price of imposition is too high to ever be weighed!
Radical invitation or opt-in participation means the invitation can be declined without punishment. You can also opt out! What sounds like a problem really isn’t. Because full engagement among those opting in will be the result. Those who accept will be the right people. “An invitation accepted means the specific object of the invitation is wanted,” Daniel Mezick once told us. “When declined, you can never quite know why.“ Which is why marveling about rejection of invitation is of little help. It is far better to make invitations very attractive. And to keep inviting.
Principle 4. Whole-system, not piece-meal
Over the last couple of years it has become somewhat fashionable to promote piece-meal transformation. Piece-meal approaches come in many shapes and varieties. As “slicing and dicing”, for example, so that interventions will be applied to individual business units, departments, areas or functions only (“Agile HR“ is an example). So called “pilots” and “labs” are usually no more than slicing and dicing, either. At present, most Lean, TQM, Scrum and Agile is applied by slicing and dicing, sadly. Piecemeal approaches, at first glance, seem to offer quick wins or low-hanging fruit. But, as many have learned the hard way and through expensive efforts, these approaches do not work, and cannot work, and for a simple reason: One cannot transform departments or functions (or: mere parts of a system) individually, because we will inevitably end up just dabbling within the system, instead of working on the system. Notions of experiments, hacks, or other forms of dabbling of course also fall short of transforming organizational models, or systems in a coherent and potentially lasting fashion.
Counter-intuitive insight: To produce profound change fast, we must take whole organizations into view — not slices, bits or pieces. By intervening on the whole system, or flipping the system, we can speed up transformation of organizations large & small to Very Fast.
What piece-meal, non-systemic change management, as well as tools, rules & frameworks do not take into account is that actual transformation requires:
› First producing insight among members of the system, or change of mental models of many,
› Then working the system, together, for behavioral patterns and
iterations to actually adapt and change.
To make that happen, there must be a rite of passage that all members of the social system in question can pass through. There is no alternative to this “working-the-entire-system-together” approach. Otherwise you will end up trying to change people, or force behaviors upon people — while achieving little. The counter-intuitive insight here: We must take whole organizations into view to make profound change fast. Only by intervening on the whole system, or by flipping the system, consciously, can transformation of organizations large & small be sped up to Very Fast.
Principle 5. All at once, not stacked
Another dimension of whole-system approaches is to include everyone, at the same time, early-on. This is very different than “scaling,” phasing, slicing and dicing, or stacking involvement. While change management relies on having solutions developed behind closed doors first by chosen ones, then “rolling them out,” Very Fast Organizational Transformation does the opposite: Inviting everyone at once to work the whole organization, together, based on a principled approach and through time-boxed iterations. Question is: How do you get everyone involved & engaged at once? Answer: You need an additional piece of social tech: An engagement model.
Question is: How do you get everyone involved and engaged at once? The answer: You need an additional piece of social technology: You need an “engagement model.”
The engagement model that both OpenSpace Beta and OpenSpace Agility employ is of course the social technology called OpenSpace, which was already envisioned by Harrison Owen way back in the early 1980s, but which only now returns to its home turf of organizational development. OpenSpace itself is based on a total of six principles — it combines extreme simplicity of setup with radical self-organization. And it easily scales to a few thousand participants for a single event.
In the overview below, you can see what OpenSpace looks like, articulated through six principles, all in all, of which one is called “the one law.”
Involvement of everyone up-front who accepts the invitation through an opt-in engagement model has several functions: It allows to build a shared mindset quickly, and then involve all the right people immediately to perform many, many interventions on system and interactions all at once. This is where the speed in VFOT comes from: Organizations exist so that many can share in the work. Why not develop the organization together, too?
Involvement of course works best when a couple of conditions are met, i.e. when the time-frame is restricted and when the effort is focused on a specific, principled purpose. Humans can commit more easily then. That is the very opposite of getting in the boat, convincing, aligning, or hustling people into action.
In this sense, Very Fast Organizational Transformation attempts the opposite of aiming at quick wins. While quick-win-approaches will always push the great achievement of the “real transformation“ into the future, usually resulting in some quick wins and then nothing. VFOT adheres to the old Yoda adage: Do, or do not — there is no try!
So in order to get VFOT, you must really, really want it, first.
Very Fast Organizational Transformation: Let’s make it open and available to all
We believe that social technologies are born to be open source. They should be available to all. Their creators should always be credited: It should be natural to build upon other’s creations and remix, tweak & develop further, while referencing the sources!
We believe that all social technology is born to be open source.
Only if we set innovative social technologies free can we expect to solve the urgent problems of our time, together. Such problems as hopelessly outdated organizational models that infest our companies and workplaces, worldwide. Such problems as the dramatic lack of learning, development and advancement in organizations and in work.
Essays on Beta, Vol. 1 is Niels’ first collection of essays. It is his 10th book, overall, and his third to be published in English. Niels’ previous books include the best-seller Organize for Complexity (2014) and OpenSpace Beta (2018, with Silke Hermann). Together with Silke, Niels is the creator of concepts such as OrgPhysics and Change-as-Flipping, and of the open source social technologies OpenSpace Beta, Cell Structure Design, and Relative Targets.
Hashtags: #betacodex #workthesystem #leadership #openspacebeta #vfot #essaysonbetavol1 #pflaeging #beyondbudgeting #agility #agile #agiletransformation #change #changeleadership #changemanagement #agiletransformation