21 Oct 22
Technology companies weren’t the first to experience pivots, growth pain, or mismanagement, but they dominate the conversation today. I’ve always worked for technology companies as a software engineer/manager, whereas my father was an automotive engineer/manager. He and I have discussed in length the similarities and differences. Maybe not completely surprising are the parallels. A lot of which boils down to making rational decisions and treating people like human beings. These two things are highly influenced by the leadership of the company. Many times the leadership has no specific prior experience for the challenges they are facing. Everyone has to have that first management position. Or that first reorg. It often takes a few different experiences before you can settle in. After settling in, many will start to find their rhythm and will aim for doing more than just the day to day. They want to be involved with and influence meaningful change. But what is meaningful and how do you go about it?
Michael and Clint do a wonderful job of explaining exactly what meaningful change is inside of an organization. Change is inevitable, meaningful is the key word. As they say: “Let’s face it. Organizational life, with its inevitable failures and setbacks, becomes livable through meaning-making.”
The book successfully prescribes a path to realizing meaningful change. For managers, this means following a process of making sense of your place in the organization. It means understanding your role, as well as your team’s role. They refer to it as ME-WE. They use the creative analogy of plumbers and poets. The times you are a plumber, you are keeping things flowing. When acting as a poet, you are creating meaning. Plumbers schedule meetings and have an agenda. Poets find the beauty and meaning of failure. As a manager, in order to be successful and influence meaningful change, you have to switch back and forth between the roles.
The analogies and processes advocated for in this book would resonate with any managers from any of the organizations I have ever worked in. Large or small. Software or not. I would especially recommend this for managers just getting their start. Understanding how to approach From-To scenarios and finding meaning in the work when you are no longer an individual contributor is well described and easily approachable. Michael and Clint have done a great job keeping things brief, but descriptive enough to get the point across. Creating Meaningful Change is a relatively quick read but well worth the time spent for anyone wanting to influence meaningful change inside their organization.
Change Is Inevitable. Meaningful Change Is Not.
Let’s get into a little more detail. I’m going to relate some of the content specifically to software teams, but the book itself was not written specifically with this purpose.
The introduction starts out with this great quote from John Gardner, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson talking about meaning and how it is something you build into your life. I’ve met a lot of engineers and managers that are motivated the most when they feel like something they are putting effort into is meaningful. Compensation and promotion don’t match meaningful. Viktor Frankl’s classic gets a few mentions.
The Meaningful Change Framework
Michael and Clint refer to the process they advocate for as a framework. It’s made up of three parts:
- Wayfinding - A purposeful direction, betweenness, FROM-TO
- Sensemaking - A sense of knowing, Not knowing, (Thinking-Acting)
- Self-Developing - A growing identity, Self-determined vs. Belonging (ME-WE)
The first two resonated with me the most. The third is just less team focused. I’ll provide a few details and thoughts on each.
Plumbers and Poets
I really really like this analogy. Plumbers do the day to day managing. They keep things flowing. They provide the structure, whether that is regular meetings being scheduled with agendas, or facilitating collaboration. Poets on the other hand are creating meaning. They are the truth tellers and the motivators.
Sometimes managers aren’t good at both of these traits. All of us have had that manager that just does the day to day. That isn’t very inspiring. More than likely they have been promoted simply because they have been at the company for a while.
Change is a journey. Finding our way during the change journey can be difficult, fun, challenging, fast, slow, you name it. Ultimately, we want to go in a purposeful direction. We want to help steer the organization we are a part of. As a leader, the book talks about defining the From-To journey.
I think this is important to define. I’ve seen many teams want to be more involved, or more influential. That doesn’t come easy. You have to move from the state you are in, to a position of influence. How you get there needs to be defined and purposeful. First, the book talks about defining your current reality. The To requires establishing a vision that will guide you in the journey.
The next thing talked about is the “betweenness.” This is the timeline of your transformation from where you are today, to where you arrive tomorrow. This is the interesting bit in my opinion. You are in between the From and the To. This is where analysis and decision making occurs.
Maybe you are a team that is the first in your organization to use a tool that you think would be beneficial to the rest of the organization. Maybe you are using Terraform to provision infrastructure and everyone else is either setting things up manually, or using CloudFormation. Just screaming “use Terraform” isn’t going to get the other teams to switch. That isn’t influence, that is just making a harsh suggestion. If you really want to get to a place of being influential, Michael and Clint suggest tapping into emotion. I really liked this callout:
“You can’t create meaning for others. They have to find and develop it for themselves..”
Maybe during the “betweenness”, your team holds office hours and helps other teams realize how they could begin using Terraform for their next project. Some of my teams have held office hours and it was very beneficial. It helped us network and in the end, we were able to influence things. The book itself talks through a case study highlighting a financial department. It’s very relatable.
As mentioned, the financial department is highlighted in the book. They want to transition from being the book keepers or money people to business partners. But that is a big change and needs to be thought through.
Sensemaking is about surviving the “betweenness”. It’s about managing the change yourself or your team is going through. More than anything the authors provide some structure.
There is this really thoughtful piece in the middle of this section of the book that shows the journey from where you begin to where you are going. It’s not a straight line. It’s a bunch of circles. The circles represent all of the learning that is done throughout the journey. The previous circles learnings inform the next decision and the process starts over. The illustrations really drive this idea home.
This may be my favorite takeaway. A lot of times we try to push through change. We try to make it happen quickly. I made this highlight:
“Given the unknowns of the situation, what would be the next best action that would further our understanding?”
The assumption with the straight line from point A to point B, or the From-To is that we really know what the To is. Or what point B is. But that may very well change throughout the course of change. We may learn something along the way that changes where we’d like to go. Or the organization needs us to go. By taking one step at a time, learning, and responding, we make sure we don’t prevent ourselves the ability to change the To over time.
These thinking-acting, and I’d argue responding, periods are referred to in the book as learning initiatives. By framing them, the authors give them some meaning and structure. The learning initiatives need some leadership. But the team needs to be involved. Typically some analysis needs to be done during each learning initiative and the team should be responsible.
I really liked the example the authors used to describe this. By contrast they talk about a software upgrade mentioning that all of the steps can be planned ahead of time. That isn’t the case with sensemaking. With sensemaking, you have to learn along the way. You have to analyze and think. You may have a desired outcome, but that may very well change based on what makes sense, for the team and the organization.
I really liked the sub-headline for this chapter of the book:
“The Art of Developing, Not Finding, Our True Self.”
I really like that idea. It reinforces the point of sensemaking. I like the idea of developing ourselves over time versus finding ourselves. In leadership this is especially true. Teams and teammates will surprise you. Teams don’t find their place in an organization, they develop it over time.
Personally, this idea resonated. I like learning. I like developing new skills. I’m still learning from my mistakes both personally and professionally. Finding myself eliminates the learning. It means I’ll magically just become my true self. Does that mean, none of our proudest moments or mistakes influence our true self? Is it predetermined and we just fall into it? I don’t believe that.
As a manager, you can never predict your path. Things come at you from the organization, team members, reorgs, health issues, natural disasters, etc, that you could never predict and plan for. You have to develop how you manage over time.
The authors describe this balance of developing yourself and developing your presence in the organization as ME-WE. It is framed as: “What does it mean to be both differentiated and integrated?” On one hand, you develop yourself and your management style and it will inevitably be different than anyone else, but how does that integrate you into the larger organization?
As you develop, you are changing and that is meaningful to you but is it meaningful change to the organization? How can you be sure? The authors offer this quote:
“As we shift what we do, it begins to change who we are.
As we change who we are, it begins to shift what we do.”
What we do is typically beneficial to the organization. We do so with our best intentions. As long as we are on the journey, moving From-To, making sense of our actions, finding our way, it is more than likely beneficial to our organization.
In 127 pages, this is a quick read that provides a framework for managing change. In ourselves, our teams, our organization. Change can be scary. It can definitely be rushed. But it can be meaningful, it just requires some mindfulness and the authors provide the tools and methods to apply along the way.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s a quick read, the illustrations are spot on, and the authors present stories to drives points home. It’s not a software industry specific piece, in fact, the authors were drawing on their experience at Toyota, but I think it can really be applied and is relevant to the software world. I’d recommend this as a quick read for all of those going into management in the software industry or any industry that is open to change.