Tiny Changes & Micro Steps

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Tiny Changes & Micro Steps

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Esther Derby has recently published a book entitled: 7 Rules for Positive, Productive Change – Micro Shifts, Macro Results.

I delivered a keynote at the Gatineau Ottawa Agile Tour (GOAT) conference in Ottawa on November 22, 2019. Esther delivered the morning keynote and I the afternoon. I attended her keynote out of heavy interest because I’d purchased her new book, but hadn’t read it yet. So, I was looking for a bit of a peek under the covers of it.

Here’s the GOAT keynote description—

It may seem paradoxical that something small leads to something big. Yet this is the case. Big changes can feel like an existential threat and cause major disruption. Tiny changes, working obliquely, evolving towards a more desirable pattern may lack drama, but get you where you need to go.  So how does this work? The same way agile does, iteratively, incrementally, with learning as you go. I’ll share some small ideas that will add up to a big change in how you go about changing your organization. 

Just for context, I’ll share the 7 Rules from Esther’s book:

  1. Strive for Congruence

  2. Honor the Past, Present, and People

  3. Assess What Is

  4. Attend to Networks

  5. Experiment

  6. Guide, and Allow for Variation

  7. Use Your Self

Instead of thinking of them as rules, think of them as heuristics. All of them with a focus on making micro shifts (changes) as a strategy within organizations.

When I walked away from the keynote I was struck with a few things.

First, is the notion of baby steps. While Esther hadn’t used that terminology, I was struck with her recommendation of tackling organizational change in baby steps or bit-size chunks. And I think there’s something sensible about that advice when approaching major change initiatives.

Second, is the notion of running experiments and then seeing what happens. Then learning and pivoting from one experiment to another experiment. So, your change journey is an experiment-driven one with lots of learning and direction shifts. Instead of planning/directing change, you’re sort of triangulating towards the change (future). Again, these words are my takeaway.

It reminded me of the idea of Culture Hacking where you run sort of hidden experiments (hacks) to expose the system to itself and inspire change.

Finally, there was the notion of safety leading with small changes. That they were much less risky and created much less organizational turbulence. But the tradeoff for the size of these changes (small) was that it could take quite a while to (inspire, instigate, initiate) larger-scale changes.

And again, this isn’t directly related to the book, although the keynote seemed to reflect it. It more concerned about the keynote content.

As I looked around the room, I observed something:

  • Esther is incredibly well-respected in the community, so the crowd seemed to be taking everything she said as “gospel”.

  • Everyone seemed to be drinking the Kool-Aid of small changes; lots of head nods.

  • I got the sense that, as everyone smiled, anyone who was a change-agent would be pivoting their approaches towards Esther’s suggestions. Leaving behind any notion of large-scale organizational change…

And that’s my concern.  

I can’t imagine the approach Esther talks about being the ONLY approach in most of the clients I’ve served or experienced.

Point being – there is something to be said for: 

change initiatives. For example, as applied to an Agile Transformation initiative.

Yes, they are large and hairy, and risky, and unwieldy at times, but they can also be an incredibly effective way to initiate the change. Particularly if you need it at a faster pace than the (culture hacking, baby-step) approaches will inspire.

I guess my angst is around setting a tone that micro-steps are the only approach for sustainable and humane organizational change. And in my humble view, they’re not. Now to be fair, Esther didn’t say it this way, but I think the audience interpreted it this way.

And the other thing is that her approach is safer, less visible, and easier. Which is very attractive to many folks who are intimidated by (or scarred by) larger-scale change efforts and the inherent personal risks. But sometimes, that’s the best approach and we simply need to get over our fears.

This is much less a review of Esther’s book, as I’m just starting to read it in detail. It’s much more of a review/reaction to her GOAT keynote.

I would recommend reading the book and adding the concepts to your change management toolbox. But that being said…

I think the best way to view change is via tools & tactics that cross the boundaries of small to medium to broad sized changes. And not shy away from the larger initiatives simply because they’re more complex.

In fact, all of Esther’s ideas (rules, heuristics, guidelines) apply in the larger change contexts as well. AND, if you’re in the business of being a change artist, as many of us agile coaches are, I think having a broad change palette is a much better approach.

And don’t fear the reaper of larger-scale change 😉

Esther, thanks for inspiring me to think more deeply and carefully about changes both large and small.

Stay agile my friends,


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