Bob the Builder is my name and agility is my game!

Daniel Burm

My brother is a projectmanger in construction. He builds complex stuff and I admire him for that. During the build, he transforms large sums of money and a set of mandates into a set of sellable real-estate features (sellable...did I really just write this in the midst of our crisis?). When his projects finish, the deliverable is a tangible end-product that people can use for living, working or to generally enjoy.
In Dutch language we have the saying that something “stands like a house” when it is well built or well organized. So in that sense, when we change organizations into high performing highly adaptable entities, could we say change agents are builders as well?

Let’s take a closer look at this comparison and see if it makes any sense.

For my brother, to successfully manage a construction project from start to finish, he needs to fill in at least 4 blanks.

1. Have a goal and the ability to monitor progress

My brother needs to know what his goals are at the start of the build and make sure he is able to measure progress to see if he is getting any closer towards those goals. In construction, goals can be unclear and contradictious. Is our goal to make profit, to stay in budget and time boundaries, be as eco-friendly as possible, to create structures that people love or to show off your design skills and taste…?
The same goes for me. Organizations need goals to justify change. Change just for the sake of change means nothing. There needs to be something to fix and a sense of urgency to take responsibility and change.
The second element here is measuring progress. The problem in construction is that the process involved is often linear. So if a builder sees he is not on track, can he actually change the plan or the situation? The truth is, most of the time he can’t. My brother cannot inspect, adapt and experiment like me. Yes, if he should see he is not on target, he could use other materials, but only if cancelling the existing orders is still possible. Lucky for me, my outcome is not shaped from bricks and mortar. Only the goal is fixed. The means to reach our goals is subject to change and inherently unpredictable surpassing pattern levels due to the self-organizing abilities and continues improvement cycles we try to advocate.

2. Know the soil and what to build on top of it

The builder also needs to make sure the ground he is building on is suited for building purposes. The different build-ups of the soil have impact on it’s suitability. What if a building sinks and all kinds of cracks appear? Also he needs to check whether the ground could be polluted from prior use. The build can’t take place if there are health hazards involved!
This is the same for me as a change agent. I need to get a feel for what I am working with. I have a look at the facts and get some sample data from the part of the system we would like to change. I have to do so, because I need to be able to judge the realism and ambition of our goals.
Some parts of organizations are easier to change than others and some aspects, like culture for example, change slower than others. Slow changing parts take longer to feedback the results of our efforts. If culture needs change to reach a short-term goal, this will not work.
The second part is to have a design to illustrate the future situation. The construction expert needs these designs to get a mandate from local building authority, to explain the vision to all other stakeholders and to get a buy-in from end-users. This is also the case for change agents. The only difference is; we can let go of the design. We create a new design for the system once, as it gives room to discuss with each other how to proceed. After that we consciously try to experiment our way towards our goals, more or less updating the final design as we go. This gives room for learning. There is next no room for learning in the build though. It is plan driven, mistakes are only made for correction according to the plan.

3. Knowledge of the surrounding area

We shouldn’t forget that our structure would be part of an existing eco-system. I live in a rural part of the Netherlands. If there is new construction going on, I’m always afraid for how the build will affect the existing landscape. My brother will have some vision on how the new structure will enhance the landscape in some way, but the most important thing is to keep the balance and harmony in the system.
I am sure that this is exactly the same in construction as in agile consultancy. When I change one part of the organization, I need to check whether or not the surroundings of the new form are still in balance with each other. If we preach co-operation within a business unit and we overlook that the companywide HR system only rewards individual achievements, we will not likely get the results we need. So if the extended system is not aligned with the part we changed, we need to inspect and adapt further. Either implementing further changes within the system in scope, or try to involve the surrounding systems more and adjust over there. Some call this organizational gravity by the way. I just call it common sense.

4. Involve the right people

During the whole process of the build, the right people need to be involved: the one who ordered the build (of course), government inspectors, sub-contracters, customers and other stakeholders. My brother is full of stories of construction projectmanagers not paying enough attention to having the right people at the table. The consequences of these mistakes are often severe.
The same goes for consulting. You need a group with the right mandates (with regards to the system you are changing) to form the change along with you. This also includes the people doing the actual work on the work-floor, as they have natural mandates over how they think their role is best performed from day to day. This group should be focused on their tasks and basically adhere to all other things we know to work for agile teams; dedication, co-location, working from a prioritized change list etcetera. Implementing agile and lean as a means to reach a higher goal, is not something you do in between meetings, it takes serious effort, focus and determination to get it right.
The change effort is much like a large construction project in the sense that it can be highly complex, both in following what is actually happening and processing all the data and feedback at the same time. This is why in both construction and consultancy this process should be facilitated as much as possible through the above measures.

Conclusion

Oh.... ok, maybe I am trying to compare apples with oranges, and maybe I really like the idea of sharing professional commonalities with my brother, but it Looks like my brother and I at least have some similarities in our work. The most fundamental difference to me is the fact that construction is hugely plan-driven. In my line of work we also need some sort of plan or future state picture, but only at the start of the change. This picture itself will change anyway, because we will find ever-improving ways of organizing and executing our work. We will only need to update our future state as we go along, finding those elements that add the most in our quest of reaching our goals and try to implement them more.

Were my brother remains working on a change, the center of my work shifts from the first change to perpetual changing of the organization itself.

Thanks for inspiring me bro!