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Many say this is the new normal: no normal. You may be doing great or you may be struggling, but one thing is clear: what got you here won’t get you there. We flex and writhe to survive and thrive in a crazy world.

Teal Unicorns at work

This page is a work in progress

The organisation (or society) will change as fast as it possibly can, and no faster, only if the people want to change. If they don’t, if they are coerced, it will be slower.

In a VUCA world where adaptability is survival, this principle isn’t just self-evident,
it’s essential.
Only by new ways of managing which restore humanity to work can we achieve the speed of change we need to be agile and resilient, to adapt constantly to the world.

This is the message of our S&T Happens, of which this page is a part.

So we need ways of advancing (we don’t like the word “transform”: it implies magic, external agency, and step-change) which rise from the people, done by them not to them.

Here is an idealised approach we might use with a client. Of course the reality will be entirely different. We won’t know what it is until we do. Only by exploring with the client do we uncover the activities required, and the journey we follow emerges:

1 Get started

  • Visualise work. Put activity on a wall (or a virtual one). Start to get a picture of where the issues are.
  • Communicate. Get in a room (even with COVID19, we should really get in the same space whenever we can. Virtual isn’t the same, and no written medium will do at all). Develop mutual respect for each others’ challenges and needs.
  • Create some headroom to start improvement, with initial tactics to get some breathing space. If people are 100% busy (or more), nothing is ever going to improve until you prioritise improving work over doing work. This is cold hard logic. Don’t move on until the concept of slack is accepted by all who control workload.
  • No, really. Don’t move on until there is headroom for improvements. Otherwise you’re all just dreaming.
  • Explore the delivery value stream(s) together. Take managers to the gemba, to where the work is done. Develop a common understanding of value flow, where the bottlenecks are (theory of Constraints view), and where the overburden, inconsistencies, and waste are (Lean view).
  • Have you organised that headroom yet?
  • Visualise flow of work. Develop a common view of the value stream. [Common to all three groups: management, Devops, and ITSM]. Value Stream Mapping may produce the first-ever holistic view of the work. Usually, at least one senior person is shocked by how it really works.
  • Wait for the pennies to drop: management will see places where they are part of the problem (see the first half of John Seddon’s Beyond Command and Control). Set management to find ways to get out of the way of flow. These are low hanging fruit and very good for morale. (See Gary Hamel’s new book Humanocracy for a sizzling attack on bureaucracy).
  • Broker a common set of principles for everyone to work by, at least within the scope of our control. Who are we? Who do we want to be? What do we stand for? How do we do things around here? We have a long list of examples.
  • Go long on vision. Strategy and goals need to be far enough out to provide direction through all the intervening VUCA. Build a consensus around vision, principles, policy. OpenSpace rituals are good.
  • Introduce and evenly distribute three sets of ideas: new ways of working (“human systems adaptability”), new ways of managing (especially servant leader/manager), and new ways of thinking (teal, humanistics, new age…) . This is why foundation training and even certification are OK. It creates a baseline of common concepts and language. Some evangelising is good.

2 Manage the backlog.

  • Have only one for all work to be done: new features, improvements, refactoring, bugs/defects, maintenance, housework.
  • Have only one backlog for products and your own work systems. I.e. all of the above “new features, improvements…” encompasses both what you deliver and how you deliver it. It’s important to include it all in one funnel of work to be done, not multiple conflicting funnels.
  • Prioritise for now. But be careful how you interpret “now”: don’t let it mean that the urgent trumps the important. Work on what is important now. That includes building resilience, and laying groundwork for future options. Address current needs, problems, and risks.
  • Always maintain headroom. Spare capacity, “slack”, is essential. Focus on creating even more headroom, through:
    • demand management – how to say “no”
    • backlog prioritisation – how to say “not yet”
    • tighter product management collaboration – how to say “after you”
    • low-hanging fruit of flow optimisation – quick wins
    • automation of work – typically pays for itself in three iterations if you share it
    • faster incident resolutions – e.g. see Intelligent Swarming in ITIL
    • reduced failure demand – higher quality through DevOps

3 Explore the Zone of Uncertainty.

  • Push the envelope. Explore the boundaries of your organisation. The edges are interesting. They define the entity.  Shifting them changes who we are. Change happens at the margin: the “adjacent possible” (Stephen Johnson,  Where Good Ideas Come From),
  • Grow experimental thinking. Encourage it. Build an experiment programme to promote, track, share, and consolidate experiments. Walk the walk on embracing failure as learning.
  • Start scenario mapping and generating options.
  • Create small teams to chase options and generate backlog tasks as preparations for options. What can we add to backlog now to lay the groundwork. What contingencies are needed for survival resilience.
  • Roadmap if you must. Show a possible sequence and dependencies but no timeline. Don’t waste time on detail that is guesswork.
  • Track fixed milestones for informational purposes (and risk management). Don’t plan to meet them beyond short term. We just don’t know.

4 Build resilience.

Resilience engineering is as important as developing organisational changes. We will fail in our experiments. The VUCA world will slap us. S&&t happens. Build a RE capability to improve the odds of our continued survival . I nearly said “ensure” survival. Nobody can do that – there is no Zero Risk. Doing anything creates a risk of catastrophe. So does doing nothing.

  • Grow a community of people who are positive, confident, and mentally strong to deal with challenges and shocks. Help and support those who slip.
  • Grow people’s capabilities to do what we need to do, as identified by current needs and scenarios. Identify and develop strengths not weaknesses. Do what you’re good at.
  • Build antifragile systems and practices to learn from failure.
  • Build resilient systems and practices that absorb shocks with minimum damage through redundancy, robustness, and recoverability.
  • Grow situational awareness. Keep radar on to detect emerging conditions. Build sense-making capabilities[1] (learn, map, test[2]) using available methods: OODA, Cynefin, Standard+Case …

5 Grow organisational agility

to develop changes quickly and responsively. Plenty written about that.

  • Create an improvement “machine” of people and activities to keep improvement moving.
  • Create bubbles of new ways within the broader organisation. Protect them with buffers: white space between them and the rest of the work system. Produce proof points evidence that new ways work.
  • Find triads of mutually supporting peers or near-peers. [from the book Tribal Leadership]
  • Create or wait for an executive mandate to develop (incubate) an organisation-wide model.
  • Once we have minimum viable version of the new way of working, start an invitational [pull don’t push] movement for wider adoption. Run interference on the organisational immune system: watch out for those who see it as their role to protect the organisation from these dangerous new ideas. Feed back to improve our new way of delivery. Use Toyota Kata or similar to develop it.

6 Break down the beliefs that hold you back


  • People as a resource.
  • Expectation of Zero Risk
  • Failure is not an option.
  • Accountability for goals and KPIs.
  • Alpha command-control management, fear, firing, lack of safety.
  • Change fatigue, cynicism, bitterness, distrust, learned helplessness, bad habits, obstructiveness, corruption.
  • Silos, barriers, handoffs, demarcation, fixed roles, isolation, fiefdoms, tribalism.
  • Hierarchy, top down, rarified heights, ignorance of gemba.
  • Managers are smarter, deference to seniority, HIPPOs.
  • Secrecy, need to know, closed door decision making, suppression of bad news, elephants in the room, theatre.
  • Insular resistance to diversity (e.g bro culture; nationalism; alignment to a religion)
  • Middle management bureaucracy. Reporting, management by numbers, controls preventing work … (Don’t eliminate them. Managers can be your most important resource if they’re mobilised properly.)

7 Grow capability

New ways of managing and working will require new skills in individuals and new capabilities in groups.

  • Recruit for new vision of who you want to be. Hire exemplars.
  • Protect your people. Offer opportunities to grow into new skills so they can stay with the organisation.  They’re too valuable to lose. And it’s the decent thing to do.
  • technology, cognitive, collaboration and emotional skills will be paramount. Specifically 12 skills and capabilities needed for the future that aren’t changing. We can grow these now –  things like problem solving, insight, team building, resource management and implementation skills.    [3]

8 Engineer for adaptability

Recall that adaptability = agility + resilience.  Technology does play a role.

  1. Software tools.  On its own, technology solves nothing. Technology makes our advancement more efficient and effective, but on its own it doesn’t create advances.  Buy tools to help the work improvements that are going on, not to make them happen.
  2. Automation. We want to change faster (agility) with less errors (also agility) and less impact on existing systems (resilience).  Humans can’t do both manually beyond some ceiling, beyond which speed and quality are traded off with each other.  We must automate to go beyond.  Here are some points about automation to bear in mind:
    1. We can only automate that which is defined and repeatable, i.e. transactional work not knowledge work. In Cynefin terms: we can automate work in the Clear domain, and maybe some Complicated domain by applying machine learning.  In other words, we automate toil, drudge.
    2. Automation of work is only of value once that automation is made available to others.  If it is held close to those who built it, they are still a bottleneck.
    3. Automation is antifragile: we improve it every time we fail.
  3. Modularity. Over time, we should minimise dependencies through modular architectures, for our systems, our software, our machinery. This increases our ability to change (agility) and reduces failure blast radius (resilience).

9 Measure your wake

Vision forward but measure progress looking back. Don’t benchmark against perfect.

For more on this topic of advancing an organisation see our Unicorn Management Model.

We develop these ideas – and others – under the banner of S&T Happens: Surviving and Thriving in a VUCA World. Come see the latest here.


[1] create a plausible understanding of the complexity around us, and then test that understanding to refine it or, if necessary, abandon it and start over 


[3] 2019 the Prime Ministerial Business Advisory Committee presented its Future that Works