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Game Changing Beliefs for Knowledge Working Organizations

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Game changing beliefs carry the strength of the strongest walls to shape our behavior. The beliefs we choose to take on in our professional work are a leverage point. They can help us to change the culture and behavior in organizations to increase agility.

The concept of agility itself is evolving. At the team level, agility gives everyone freedom to perform and opportunity to contribute, where at the organizational level it enables managing at the speed where you can afford to lose.

Morten Elvang, chief project manager at Nordea, spoke about game changing beliefs at Agile by Example 2017. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&As, summaries, and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Elvang about game changing beliefs and how they can change the culture and behavior to help organizations become more agile.

InfoQ: What are "game changing beliefs", and how does it work?

Morten Elvang: The world is full of useful information. If we choose to listen and believe in what is right for us in any given moment it will give a leverage point - any thing else equal. This is game changing beliefs in all its simplicity. The other side of the coin is that we all too often end up making things far too complicated for ourselves - by not listening to the advice which is all around us.

What I ask is: can you choose to believe in something that will change your luck? Does this question even make sense? If it does, what should you choose to believe in?

The talk was about the two first questions and a cliffhanger for the last.

InfoQ: How did believing in something help you?

Elvang: There is one that I keep coming back to, which is that as a change agent you need to make sure that you have your sponsorship in place from an accountable sponsor - not getting a clear mandate and solid sponsorship in place up front always seems to bite you at the least opportune moment in the change process.

InfoQ: You mentioned in your talk that "most ideas are bad". Can you elaborate on this?

Elvang: It’s a quote from "Innovation as usual" by Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg. It’s a picture perfect example of a game changing belief. Most people think that ideas are great and the more the better. What "Innovation as usual" tells us is that most ideas are bad and that we should not just blindly foster ideas. Accepting this as a fundamental belief will help you constantly challenge your own ideas and see if they hold true. In some way it’s the foundation of things like Lean Startup. Extremely powerful and with heartbreaking consequences in almost every company and organization throughout the world where people fight every day to protect their great - but often bad - ideas. Once you find out how bad it really is, you are typically in too deep and unwilling to face the consequences - often driving you in even deeper - a truly vicious circle.

InfoQ: What beliefs could increase the chance of success with agile- can you give some examples?

Elvang: That’s a great question. My perspective is agile at scale. If I should pick just one, then I would be "The worst cost is what you can’t or couldn’t do because of what you did". In most larger organizations there’s just too much stuff going on - unknowingly organizations easily become 3-6 times overloaded compared to what is a natural, sustainable load. The impact on reduced productivity and quality-of-life for everyone involved is devastating. If you are overloaded you are simply not agile.

Overload is a very impactful thing to work with - because reducing load is simple - it’s taking stuff you are doing and putting it to the parking lot while you finish the most valuable parts of what you are - or should be - working on first.

InfoQ: How can game changing beliefs help to change the culture and behavior in organizations?

Elvang: Game changing beliefs is not a method. It’s not a framework. Each of them are free flying and independent bits and pieces of information which are easily accessible and free for you to use. On the question of culture and behavior I would start with the famous Lewin equation and its simple statement that behavior is a function of an individual and the environment in which this individual is in. This gives us a constructive approach to working with behavior and culture.

InfoQ: Does Lewin’s equation link to game changing beliefs?

Elvang: Yes, in the deepest sense. On the question "does it make sense to think like this?" Lewin’s equation is an important piece in the puzzle. The environment is in a sense a structure forming behavior. Structures are a bit like walls. If a wall is there, it doesn’t matter if you believe it or not. In the far majority of cases, if you bang your head against it, you will hurt yourself. On the contrary, if you believe the wall is there, it doesn’t actually matter if it is or not. That’s the essence of game changing beliefs … if you believe it, it’s there and it carries the strength of the strongest wall to shape your behavior.

InfoQ: What’s your advice for organizations that want to bring out the best in people?

Elvang: To give each and everyone freedom to perform and opportunity to contribute.

If I take a step back, I would say that agile is evolving into two distinct directions - one is about people and teams in the organization - it’s how agile started in the first place and is all about what I just mentioned. The new thing is that you see agile practices being applied in an increasing number of areas - many of which are far outside the original IT domain where it all started. Simply because it’s a much better way of dealing with knowledge work.

The second direction is about the organization - here it’s all about managing at a speed where you can afford to lose. This is why overload is so devastating. You often go too deep in on too many areas - many of them undetected bad ideas - and then when the unexpected happens you are unable to react - you have no time to do with and you cannot afford to change because much too much stuff is already half done on the wrong assumptions.

That’s about agility in the organization.

In essence, agility at the team level is all about giving everyone the freedom to perform and opportunity to contribute. At the organizational level, it’s about managing at the speed where you can afford to lose.

Combine these two, and that’s in my mind how you bring the best out in people - and how you enable people to bring the best out in your organization.

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