Failing to Integrate Transformative Work

A group of people see the need for improving a process, a workflow, a meeting. They come together in a workshop, discuss the problem, find possible countermeasures, rank them on effort and impact, and decide which ones to implement. Satisfied, they close the meeting, and go back to their daily work. Some time later it becomes obvious that no work on the countermeasures has been done at all. While the group was able to name the problem and create and rank ideas to counter the problem, it was unable to implement the changes. The ideas sit on their miro board, and nothing will ever happen with them.

Have you ever been in such a situation? Chances are that this group does not fully embrace the idea of continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement requires us to not only do "the work", but also working on how we're doing the work. Great organisations incorporate this transformative work into their everyday culture to make sure those improvements actually happen.

Often, you find that transformative work is considered some sort of "meta-work", something that is definitely important, but not really part of our roles and accountabilities. The final decision on action items becomes more of a commentary than a commitment, and ownership is lacking, both individually and on a group level.

How do you spot when people have not fully integrated transformative work into "the work"? Here are some telltale signs:

  • Transformative work is tracked in a different format or a different place. For example, transformative work is stored as action items in meeting notes while work is tracked on a Kanban board.
  • Transformative work is always deprioritised against other work.
  • Transformative work is concentrated in the hands of designated "change people" like team coaches, Scrum Masters or similar roles.
  • Transformative work is never mentioned in regular meetings like daily standups, plannings, staff meetings or retrospectives, even if the same group of people who decided on the change is in those meetings.
  • Transformative work is never planned into the organisations heartbeat timeboxes (e.g. Sprints, weekly plans).
  • If transformative work is assigned to people, they are not held accountable for it (this even applies to the "change people").
  • Transformative work is contained in high-level "initiatives" detached from daily work.
  • Transformative work is considered done and complete as soon as the decision to do things differently is made.

All of this leads to ineffective transformations. Instead of meaningful, durable change, you'll end up with lots of change theatre, and very little actual change (if any at all).

To counter this behaviour, treat transformative work how it should be treated: As part of the work itself.

To do so, try one or more of these tactics:

  • Track transformative work in the same place as the work itself.
    • Simply treating transformative work and work equally can sometimes remove the artificial boundary between them.
    • If that is not possible, at least use the same type of tracking (for example, if you use Jira but cannot track transformative work there, use a different Kanban system like Trello)
  • Make it a habit to hold people accountable for transformative work in regular meetings. This can be as simple as closing a meeting by asking about the progress on transformative tasks.
    • This can develop into a dangerous anti-pattern of "the cat herder", where one person is holding the team accountable. This is not how it should be. Everyone in the team needs to hold each other accountable.
    • If you are in the position of a transformation agent, consider holding the team accountable for not holding their teammates accountable instead.
  • Include transformative work in planning sessions
    • As long as transformative work is not planned for, it will likely not happen.
  • Re-define the role of transformation agents
    • A common misunderstanding of the accountability of change agents is that they are responsible to perform the change. Instead, they are accountable for the change to happen, which is a crucial difference. Change agents like coaches or Scrum Masters guide and facilitate change, but they do not do it.
    • It is the accountability of the these agents to support the process, but not to be the process.
  • Design changes to address habits and rituals.
    • If changes address long-standing dysfunctions, simply agreeing on a change is not sufficient.
    • Habit and ritual are powerful, and the decision to introduce a change to our way of working marks a starting point, not an end.

Transformative work cannot be delegated, and it cannot be second-class work. It is equally important as the work itself. It is part of the work itself. By treating it as such, you give it the attention it deserves and requires.

Published 2024~04~09