Action Changes Things_light

Learning to Change … and Changing to Learn

When culture gets in the way of executing strategy, something has to give. Some organisations undertake large-scale change programs; some – either as part of that effort or instead – use Dynamic Development Projects.

Dynamic Development Projects (DDPs) are an evolution from the action learning process first popularised by UK management professor Reg Revans, who said “There can be no learning without action, and no (sober and deliberate) action without learning.” DDPs emphasise a performance goal for the organisation while providing a safe(r) environment for leaders to experiment with new behaviours. People test different ways of working with others while working on real opportunities to add value or to address an “itch” that the organisation has not been able to scratch through traditional means.

In other words, organisational change is driven through the projects that are chosen – ones that will have a significant impact in terms of strategy and/or customers – and the reflection required by leaders to see potential solutions and themselves in a different way. And through this, the new culture emerges.

DDPs are not for technical problems that need traditional linear processes and more expert thinking. Rather, they are for those more complex, uncertain or ambiguous situations; the “wicked” problems that leaders today face more and more frequently.

What needs to be in place for DDPs to be successful? In my experience, there are several prerequisites:

  • Executive sponsorship is critical. Project teams need guidance as they work through adaptive rather than technical challenges. Sponsors provide clarity around project scope and deliverables. They also have the organisational know-how and “grunt” to be able to remove the barriers that slow teams down. And perhaps most importantly, they serve as mentors to the team as a group and to individuals within the team.
  • DDP team leaders need to be on the same page as the executive team. In some cases, self- or group nomination of the leader can work. We have found that this role is vital to the development process; team leaders must be on side with the change agenda or at least ready to challenge the status quo. Otherwise, the process will revert to a technical problem-solving exercise, rather than an exercise in leadership.
  • Reflection and experimentation are the hallmarks of action learning. Project management disciplines will guide project team delivery, and thus achievement of the performance improvement. They are best supplemented by a process facilitator or coach – someone who encourages personal and group reflection, asks effective questions to promote deliberate risk-taking, and helps work through the issues of team dynamics that drive leadership capability building.
  • Clarity around the end game is crucial. DDPs need to be:
    • Clear on their strategic purpose – what performance gains are sought,
    • Consistent in their definition of the cultural behaviours that need to be dialed up or dialed down, and
    • Focused on the leadership behaviours necessary to sustain the strategic and cultural changes.
  • Language and symbols are important. Leadership team language can make or break these projects. If teams get the sense that there is “wiggle room” in commitment to the process or the expected deliverables, performance will suffer. One of the CEOs we worked with wanted his teams to understand he wasn’t looking for fluff solutions, so the phrase “lipstick on a pig” became the mantra for clarity of thinking and risk-taking.
  • Mutual benefit matters. In my experience, overcoming the fears and protests that can accompany the introduction of DDPs requires that people believe that what they are doing is valuable to the organisation’s health and well-being as well as their own.
  • Launches and celebrations aren’t always necessary. Big dramatic launches with declarations of new aspirations may be exciting, but may also set up a “here we go again” cynicism in staff. We find that the best changes come about because the leaders just get on with rethinking their roles, changing how they operate, and let the cultural shift and performance improvement cascade through the organisation.

Choose the right projects, led by the right leaders, and backed by leadership team courage; you may find you’ve implemented organisational change by stealth. You will have improved performance, and in the process, established new cultural orientations and new leadership practices.

How have you seen DDPs work in practice?

Marsha Sussman