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Refactoring Organizations to Reduce Organizational Debt

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Organizations can accumulate organizational debt when adopting new ways of working. An agile mindset can be a driving force to remove organizational impediments and promote continuous improvement, said Jess Long, enterprise Agile coach at LeanDog. At the ACE Conference 2019, she presented how we can reduce organizational debt by refactoring organizations.

Organizational debt is what we acquire when we adopt new processes or behaviors without retiring the old ones. Long stated that we’ll almost always have organizational debt any time we introduce a new way of working across multiple lines of business. "Just like technical debt, it’s only bad if we don’t manage it," said Long. "It can be toxic if we continue to accumulate and hoard old or dysfunctional processes without planning to confront them," she said.

When we embrace the core values and principles of agile to the point where it drives our overall approach and actions, we can propel change, Long said. An agile mindset is one that relies on collaboration amongst the people experiencing and driving changes. Increasing our overall engagement and inviting feedback allows us to talk through our desired outcomes and try different approaches to remove these impediments collectively, she said.

Long referred to the way that we refactor code through small changes intended to improve an overall structure. Seldom are we able to solve for everything on our technical debt backlog all at once, she said. This reality of not being able to boil the ocean also translates to organizational debt. When we think about problem areas as a whole, it can be overwhelming and leave us feeling defeated and hopeless.

Long stated that when we work together and focus on smaller pieces, we can continuously improve and preserve our sanity.

InfoQ interviewed Jess Long after her talk at ACE Conference 2019.

InfoQ: What are the techniques that you use to promote change? How do you apply them?

Jess Long: I am constantly experimenting with techniques intended to engage people. I might personally do a gemba walk through a call center and tell others about it. Maybe I invite a colleague to join me. Next, I might schedule a team-wide gemba walk within the area. Perhaps I even offer a scavenger hunt type-challenge to the invite. The goal is to inspire by means of invitation, demonstration or a combination of the two. If a practice evolves or inspires others to drive their own experiment, we’re on a good path.

A few years back, several colleagues had expressed disdain for what was described as an outdated, prescriptive and limited learning suite within the organization. This was coincidentally during a time the management team had emphasized a need for increased professional development.

We tapped into our own skill sets and knowledge and began offering learning sessions. These were facilitated by anyone willing to teach and offered to anyone who wanted to learn. We started promoting these sessions through a very rudimentary calendar we had hung on a wall in the common ground. Eventually, the calendar was migrated to a shared site online.

What started off as a view-only tool quickly became interactive. We even established a method for requesting specific types of topics and a way to volunteer as a facilitator. Besides the increased engagement and frequent collaboration enabling us to change our organization, we were inspired to continue on with more experiments and be the change that we so desired.

InfoQ: In your talk, you used the terms "refactoring your organization". Can you give an example of how that can look?

Jess Long: Several years ago, I had the opportunity to be part of a conference in Portugal. There is one experience from this event I find myself retelling and reusing constantly. The organizers had provided a feedback WIP board and invited participants to make suggestions via sticky cards. The suggestions included a variety of topics ranging from "menu does not call out vegan options" to "wish there were more sessions about design thinking".

The organizers would regularly review the comments and move the cards to the proper swimlane of this carefully thought out information radiator. You could see what was currently in the process of being addressed, what would be considered next year and what had been resolved.

What fascinated me was what happened on the second day of the conference. All of a sudden, it wasn’t just the organizers pulling the cards. The attendees had stepped up to the plate. We saw attendees pulling cards and providing solutions. Attendees were adding their own notes to the cards and even moving them across the board. Several comments indicated a certain topic being added to the open space agenda. Other comments extended invites out to happy hours at restaurants that accommodated certain dietary needs.

Now that everything was out in the open, anyone and everyone had an opportunity to inspect and respond. Nobody was assigned work or to deal with chores. Drivers of change volunteered willingly and enthusiastically.

I’ve replicated this in a multitude of work spaces and it has had the same effect. We can’t fix problems without first acknowledging they exist. Transparency and visibility are the first steps to inviting change. Little by little, those changes add up and we find ourselves continuously improving our environment.

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