We need reassurance. Therefore we plan. There are situations, mainly in our personal life, when we recognise that our plans are just wishful thinking. Sometimes we are so sadly skeptic about our bold plans that we cut ourselves from our dreams. Then comes the professional life. Here, on the opposite, we often push ourselves in an extreme state of denial and believe that our wishful thinking plan is the only acceptable reality. If a little inner voice tells us that universe may care little about what our view of acceptable reality is, we seek ways to obtain some extra-reassurance via extra-plans: we perform risk management, estimation of time to complete tasks … and other complex expert analysis on everything-that-could-happen-in-the-future. All these tasks we need to reinforce our self-reassurance about our ability to control the future, have a cost. I call it the cost of fear.
The (Agile) Change: from Intention to Action
Organisations today aim to change toward a more collaborative, customer-centric, flexible format. Leaders have a genuine intention to create an Agile organisation, where people thrive, are allowed to wrong, as long as they learn from their errors:experimentation will the new way.
This is the dream, the quest, the purpose. Then, as in all stories the tension between the intention and the status quo steps in. Stories of change have the same pattern than all stories :).
Let’s look a little bit at what can bey the impact of the status quo on the aspiration fo change.
Peter Senge says that true tension is born when the theory exposed (what I aspire for) is different of the theory in action (what I actually do). There is no problem with this tension; as long as it acknowledged, learning can occur and effective alignment between the exposed theory and the theory in action can be achieved. Peter Senge, in his book, The Fifth Discipline, who is for me the father of system thinking – says that tension is an opportunity for learning.
If you’re familiar with coaching terms, seeking alignment between intentions/speech and actions is called “congruence”. So far, so good, and how can be the Nirvana of congruence be achieved?
I believe that there is only one magic formula to address the gap: becoming aware of it. Is this easy?
No! Why? Because we have a genuine state of denial that makes uns think that as long as we believe in what we say we’ll do, means that whatever we will do is in harmony with what we say we’ll do.
Our first trap is trying to achieve change with tools of our status quo.
One common example is “planning the change”. We believe planning is “a professional attitude”, when it’s only utility is to reassure us. Farer we are of our comfort zone, more we need to be reassured.
And here is the gap where the cost of fear sneaks in: the gap between the needs of the ecosystem (market, customers, teams, organisations) and the natural need of leaders to control their ecosystem.
Here are some of the sources that sum-up as important costs for organisations and that I call “the cost of fear”
Continuous planning vs continuous delivery
Planning as a reassuring activity that addresses fear of not controlling was already mentioned above.
Over planning need stakeholders and teams to be involved and spend (sometimes) an impressive amount of time in planning meetings. While planning is happening, decision to deliver is deferred.
While planning is on the agenda, value does not reach customers.
The cost of fear is the cost of continous planning
Ongoing estimation and frozen development
What about a team more that 10 people focused on estimating backlog’s User Stories for 6 weeks in a row? Meanwhile PMOs, Project Directors, CxO people and other coordinators spend at leas half of their time taking decisions on how the future will look like when the estimation will be done. No development or delivery happens before leaders are reassured with a number (estimation).The value of an approach like NoEstimates, domain where Vasco Duarte and Woody Zulli have had major contributions), lies also in reducing the delay to deliver.
While estimation is ongoing, no value reaches customers.
The cost of fear is the cost of ongoing estimation.
Risk Management vs Emerging Architecture
Locking our options in early decisions about architecture of our future product is another way we address our need of reassurance that the future will behave as we decide it. Personally I still recover of IT architecture committees I’ve been in years and years ago ;). The protocol is the following : a lot of talented experts meet to analyse all the risk of the future and address them with a list of operational actions and or adequate design. Usually these Risk Management committees end-up with a deferred decision as a new risk revealed in the just closed committee has to be addressed and discussed over in the next one.
The only decision is to defer decision£.
While analysing risks, no solution is emerging and no value reaches the customer.
The cost of fear is the cost of focusing on risk management.
The Cost of fear, a systemic description
System have self-regulating actions called feed-back loops. The feed-back loops are rather reinforcing : system behaviour is reinforced by the feed-back loop- The Cold War period is an example of a system within a a reinforcing loop – or balancing: system behaviour is regulated to stay in given boundaries.
I think the cost of fear is causing a reinforcing loop that leads to growing frustration of leaders and increasing organisation bureaucracy.
How to reduce the cost of fear?
Well, my part of the answer is in the title of the paragraphs above, and to pit it in only one word it is : Experiment!
Experiment has some magic powers for two reasons. One is that triggers a mindset where we know we are allowed: to try, to be wrong.
The second is that it puts organisations on a learning path, that addresses the systemic nature of an organisation. And by the way, true learning is fun, true food that keeps our brain happy.
Principles that (may) reduce the cost of fear
Deliver a prototype rather than plan,
Define a team capacity rather than estimate tasks
Drive by emerging design rather than performing risk management.
The cost of Delay is included in the cost of fear, as we don’t act until we are reassured.
Okay, this looks like reduce cost-of-fear just-to-try-principles cheat-sheet. It’s not enough. An additional question to answer is “How to address the fear that generates these costs?”. And this is the most tricky question. Fear is the strongest symptom that some basic needs are not met.
Just telling leaders/managers/architects/teams/stakeholders/Decision makers/ that their action is not aligned with their intention ( of delivering true value to customers fast, collaboration, self-empowerment, test&learn) is simply not enough.
Were you more brave when someone just told you “don’t be afraid!”?Addressing the fear needs compassion, listening and observation.
Epilogue : The (mostly) hidden cost of fear
Peter Senge also says the 2most powerful motivation drivers are fear and aspirations. Aspiration leads to positive vision: “We want to achieve something” , fear to negative vision : “We want to avoid something”.
Vision lead by fear trigger compliance behaviour : people do their job to be compliant to a vision issued by hierarchy its related rules and regulations. Vision lead by aspiration trigger commitment : people do their job because they want that vision, and they can empower themselves to change the rules and regulations accordingly. The 20th business “led-by-fear vision behaviour” was considered “professional”. I believe that the only thriving organisation model is the “led-by-aspiration” one. I do hope the 21st century will consider “led-by-aspitration” behaviour to be nevertheless “professional”.
Ultimately, what is your best guess about the cost of a non thriving organisation?