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Leadership and Management Approaches from Radical Companies

Introducing and managing change in organizations can be challenging. The Spark the Change Canada 2015 conference brings together people from different disciplines to explore leadership and management approaches from radical companies to create lasting change:

Today it is essential to be able to rapidly innovate and respond to changing business conditions. Organizations with motivated employees grow faster and are more profitable. They have lower rates of absenteeism, lower turnover and reduced costs. These aren’t "soft" benefits – they are the marks of success. As the world of work changes around us we need to change with it.

Learn how to grow high-performing teams through inspiring leadership. See how to harness the creativity that surrounds us. Learn how to structure your organization and your work so that people are happy, productive and innovative. Spark is devoted to making your company a dynamic, joyful place to work.

The conference will be held in in Toronto on April 23-24.

InfoQ interviewed Jason Little who is involved in organizing the conference about the leadership and management approaches that radical companies use, on finding better ways to manage people and about what will happen to management in the near future.

InfoQ: Where does the name "Spark the Change" come from?

Little: I met Paul Dolman-Darrall at Agile 2012 and while lurking around Linked In, I saw he was organizing "Spark the Change" so I called him up to ask what it was. He said they came up with the name because after a bunch of experiments, it resonated with people who wanted to help improve their organizations despite the "functional role" they were in. It wasn’t appealing just to an Agile crowd, or HR crowd or OD/CM crowd.

Most conferences cater to specific disciplines and I believe building resilient organizations is everyone’s job, not a solitary discipline. I was looking to run a conference in Toronto for a while, but it’s a really conservative market and I wanted to really find something that was inspiring. As soon as I heard about Spark UK I was sold!

InfoQ: Which themes are covered at the Spark conference? Why these themes?

Little: Organizing the Organization, Unleashing People and Disruption & Change are the themes. In today’s organizations, there is trend of moving towards more creative thinking, cross-functional teams and a break down of traditional functional silos. These themes are discipline agnostic, and regardless of the industry you’re in, or the title you have, you’ll discover some amazing ideas for how to improve your organization.

InfoQ: At the Spark conference presenters will share leading-edge experiments of radical companies. Can you give some examples of the leadership and management approaches that such companies use?

Little: One of our sessions is being delivered by Leena Malik and Bonnie Langer from AGF Investments. AGF Investments is a 1,000 person organization that has radically changed their performance reviews. They’ve thrown away traditional approaches that simply don’t work, and have moved towards modern practices. What’s different about our sessions is that we not only have speakers and authors presenting, we have real people from real organizations that are doing this, not just writing about it.

What I’m seeing today is the move towards applying Agile thinking to management. By that I mean, management doing daily stand up meetings and making what they’re doing transparent to front-line workers. I also see managers repurposing existing meetings, and using Agile retrospectives as a way to get feedback from front-line workers. While that’s not a radical notion in the Agile community, it’s a fairly huge, and simple, shift traditional managers are making to focus on improving the system of work.

I’m working with a client right now where the VP of the group gave up his office and sits out in the open space working area with everyone. And this is a 40,000+ organization so it’s a pretty radical shift from the status quo.

InfoQ: Can you tell us some more about how AGF Investments changed their performance reviews? What did they change and what’s the benefit that it brings them?

Little: Without giving too much away, they decoupled compensation from the performance review process. They also completely scrapped the annual conversation that managers have with employees and showed managers how to have more meaningful conversations with employees more frequently.

By decoupling the compensation, they’ve essentially removed the "carrot".

InfoQ: We hear a lot about things that go wrong in management. Many suggest that there are better ways to manage people. What’s holding managers back from managing people so that they will become happy, productive and innovative?

Little: There’s enough written about how to make that happen, but I find people in most organizations are afraid to make the leap towards a new management system - afraid to try something new. Managers today have been groomed by a broken system their whole career. It’s difficult to unlearn that behavior. I think the intent to discover better ways to work there, but sometimes its easier to stick with the status quo than take the risk and try something new that is too far outside the organizational norms.

I once ran a Management 3.0 course for a client and one of the participants asked how he could get his people to innovate. When I asked him what he tried, he said he made it a performance mandate for them to innovate every Friday at 1:00 pm but they still wouldn’t innovate.

That’s the problem. The intent is good, but the execution is flawed. It’s not the managers fault, they’ve been beaten by a broken system for so long, it’s hard to try something different.

InfoQ: Changing the approach of deploying change can indeed be hard, I’ve also seen companies struggle with this. Do you have an example of a company that managed to properly executed a change? What was it that made it possible?

Little: I recently ran a lift-off session with 10 managers and directors who brought me in to help them figure out what "going Agile" meant to them and their department. In that session, I de-emphasized the "agile" part of the discussion and moved them towards what it meant to them. What would they want to change? What were their concerns? What support would they need from me? From their leadership?

To close it off we created 5 of the simplest changes we could do over the next couple of weeks. The team committed to implementing the changes in an iterative way. What I usually see is, a centralized change team becomes responsible for changing management. Then management feels they don’t own the change and it simply stalls. Perhaps worse, this centralized team puts more emphasis on planning and ends up being another level of governance in the organization.

What made it possible, in this case, was I made it clear that I don’t own the outcome. I can help them achieve their goals but they have to be committed to it.

InfoQ: Last year InfoQ covered the Dare Festival in Antwerp, where we heard about transparency and decentralization, and about reinventing organizations and lean change management. How do you view these developments about how we manage organizations?

Little: I know of about 12 different GPS based trackers being sold to people who lose stuff. The devices are tiny and simple and they popped out of no where over the last year. That’s one example of probably a million other new and innovative ideas and products that are driving rapid, global change. With Kickstarter, and all the Kickstarter clones, disruption will only increase and that disruption is coming from all over the world. Today’s organizations cannot predict and control the market as they once could. A 12-year-old in their basement can disrupt an established industry and centralization isn’t allowing organizations to respond to rapidly changing markets.

Traditional management structures aren’t equipped to give the people on the front lines autonomy to make decisions about how to best serve the market and their customers. Darefest opened my eyes up to a whole bunch of companies all over the world that are structuring differently, and in a decentralized way. King, the makers of Candy Crush, was one of them. Matti Klasson described how they’re using a more cell-like structure where different groups operate autonomously and improvements spread from cell to cell. Frederic Laloux told the story of Buurtzorg, a home healthcare organization, that has over 8,000 nurses and operates with no hierarchy in a similar, cell-like structure.

Simply stated, today’s organizations are proving that in order to stay competitive, they need to radically re-think their structure, processes and policies around people. Given the number of articles about this topic that get posted to popular business sites like InfoQ, HBR, and Forbes, the movement is on!

InfoQ: What do you see see happening in organizations when it comes to management

Little: Over the next decade, I think management as we know it will radically change. The next generation of leaders are growing up knowing only rapid change. My generation is focused on how to help organizations adapt to this pace of change, but the next generation doesn’t care about that...they’re living through it right now. What I mean is, tomorrow’s leaders will intuitively understand that organizations are social systems and they won’t have the associated baggage of living through the industrial and manufacturing eras where hierarchy and structure were more appropriate models.

Traditional organizations aren’t going to change, they’ll need to have their world turned upside down before there is enough urgency to change management. Organizations that get it will fight through the pain of radical change and that’s what we’ll be celebrating at Spark the Change in Toronto.

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