Organizational Transformations Need Coaches

Agile Change Management Connected Organization Innovation + Transformation


Most modern organizations see the value in becoming more agile. Who wouldn’t welcome increased innovation, faster responsiveness to external competition, and employees who are more engaged? Yet many companies are reluctant, or unsure how, to transition the entire enterprise to greater agility. Agile transformation requires more than educating employees, changing org structures, or developing the best strategy. You must also change old habits and mindsets, which means transforming people, and this is where transformation coaches enter the picture.

Humans, for better and for worse, aren’t cogs in a machine. I go into greater detail here, but our emotions, nervous systems, and brains are layered with conscious and subconscious processes. Despite our best intentions, we are not always logical. To create the kind of change that really sticks, you need to send coaches into the trenches with your leaders and teams.

Why Transformation Coaches Are Necessary

Change management initiatives usually start strong when leadership shares the reasons for and benefits of transformation. This is an important first step. Next, companies typically impart new skills and mindset shifts at a high level via trainings. Employees will eat this up—they are fully on board!

But it’s not that simple.

Early adopters will be the first to change since they have already been working and thinking in these new ways and have been eagerly awaiting mainstream adoption. They are your change champions who will model new ways of working. It is vital to reward and celebrate their efforts early and often. However, to reach the tipping point, you will need to catalyze the early and late majority—only with their support will the transformation really stick.

Many people will consciously, if superficially, understand the transformation mindset and tools but will have a very difficult time meaningfully changing their behavior. Communication styles, decision making, tolerance for risk taking, and many other behaviors are largely conditioned by powerful unconscious processes that were mastered long ago. Social cues of status and belonging also constantly reinforce these behaviors. You can repeatedly empower an employee to prioritize meetings and decide which to attend. But if they perceive that their status or sense of belonging will be threatened if they miss a meeting, they will prioritize status over a corporate mandate every time.

With such deeply ingrained neural pathways, the biggest leverage point for behavior change is repeated, high-touch interventions at key moments when employees act out of alignment with the new ways of working. Transformation coaches can point out, and thus make conscious, actions that come from unconscious conditioning. Only at that level can employees examine and adjust their behavior. Repeated many times, this process lays the foundation for new unconscious behaviors. Without such high-touch interventions, employees will make minor incremental changes, but inertia and social cues will block the path toward transformation at the scale and pace that enterprises desire.

Coach Roles and Leverage Points

Organizational change is riddled with uncertainty. Therefore, finding transformation coaches who can move fluidly between roles—as illustrated in the 9-box model below—is key. To increase effectiveness, identify coaches with a basic understanding of your industry and business model, or provide in-depth onboarding.

Credit: Growing Agile, Esther Derby and Don Gray

In addition to these roles, there are three areas, in my experience, that coaches can leverage to significantly impact the quality and speed of adoption during agile transformation.

1. Manage overwhelm—focus on psychological safety

No matter how much you communicate, for early and late majority employees, change will feel sudden, overwhelming, and threatening. If your organization decides to combine transformation with layoffs, these feelings are exacerbated. On a biological level, a minor fight or flight reaction is activated. Neuroscience and evolutionary biology tell us that when individuals enter fight or flight mode, their brains have less access to reasoning and logic. Learning capacity is significantly diminished. One of the biggest mistakes companies make during change management and transformation initiatives is ignoring this elephant in the room. Ironically, by triggering fight or flight responses, organizations often see a temporary decline in productivity and creativity in the face of carefully orchestrated attempts to increase productivity, cut costs, or increase innovation. To combat this pitfall, organizations undergoing any type of transformation need to be acutely aware of psychological safety.

Coaches manage overwhelm

Organizations and transformation coaches can partner to reduce this temporary decline in productivity. Nothing degrades trust faster than an organization saying one thing and doing another—or hiding information that inevitably gets leaked. Build trust through transparent communication and follow through with action. If, financially, the only way to stay afloat is to cut staff, don’t call it a re-org. Be honest. It might be difficult, but at least people won’t feel deceived, and those who remain will respect your honesty. People, in general, tend to be uncomfortable leading from a place of vulnerability. A coach can provide support during this difficult learning process.

It is important to measure, communicate, and take action around psychological safety. Transformation coaches can provide strategies, such as asking questions like, “What could enhance your feelings of psychological safety?”

In my experience, leaders are good at communicating policies and ideas. They are less adept at asking open-ended questions that may lead to feedback or self-reflection. Beyond providing learning opportunities for leaders, open-ended questions send a signal of non-judgement and curiosity, which are strongly linked to psychological safety. For example, I had the opportunity to coach a leader who, just one month after taking on a new role, asked me to help him get feedback from his directors. I facilitated the discussion and supported the entire leadership team in having an honest conversation about his performance. Not only did my client gain valuable information, but he also felt safe speaking up and having honest conversations within the LT in the future.

By building trusting relationships, listening, and asking questions, coaches support the organization through the inevitable uncertainty of a transformation.

2. Catch slide-backs

A slide-back is a moment when an individual’s old, conditioned response supplants the new learned behavior. For example, imagine a scenario in which a manager repeatedly explains that individuals should feel empowered to make decisions rather than asking for permission. Yet this same manager may request a weekly report on the project or request a presentation for stakeholders. His request may seem logical at first, but telling somebody to run the show then mandating how to do that is confusing at best. In this case, a coach in the trenches can skillfully make the manager aware of his actions and impact. And while it may seem like the manager is acting hypocritically, his actions are a natural part of an imperfect process of change and learning.

Coaches catch slide-backs

It is important to note that an individual may act in an agile way one day and slide back the next. Focus, reward, and celebrate agile behavior first, and the individual and team second. By focusing on behaviors before people, you will reinforce new norms for socially acceptable behaviors.

3. Just in-time teaching

Often times, what appears to be a simple new process like using a kanban board can die on the vine when a well-meaning manager introduces it to her team, only to be met with resistance and minimal adoption. After a few weeks, the kanban is abandoned in favor of the old ways of working, and the manager is left deflated at her failed efforts. Such instances happen often, and “change management headquarters” rarely has visibility into these failures. A coach can provide feedback and insights to the manager, as well as the needed visibility back to change management HQ, so that the organization can adopt tactics at scale.

Coaches are there for just-in-time teaching

Another area for just-in-time teaching is around communication skills. Agile organizations operate under principles of greater personal empowerment, increased transparency, and higher tolerance for ambiguity. This all looks great on paper, but what happens when an employee is invited to a meeting that lacks clear objectives and outcomes—a seemingly unnecessary meeting? Overcome with discomfort at saying no or questioning the organizer, the employee will typically show up and stay quiet while feeling resentful.

I have seen this, or a similar flavor, play out many times, resulting in time wasted and a lack of transparency. The coach’s role in such situations is to point out the missed communication opportunity and support the individual in learning how to have the difficult conversation. Such moments are crucial for building resilience by being with uncomfortable feelings and taking action anyway—this is one of the biggest growth edges for employees in agile organizations. Such micro interactions ultimately lead to empowered employees who model autonomy and transparency.

Have a coaching exit strategy

While coaches are an excellent asset to any organization, maintaining a coaching department or consultants indefinitely does not make sense from a capability transfer standpoint. Thus, it is best to plan an exit strategy early in the transformation journey and look for signs that the end is near.

A coach friend of mine tells a great story about carefully plotted capability transfer. When he first started working with a team, he set agendas, facilitated meetings, and provided feedback to the team lead. After a while, he sensed that the team felt enough psychological safety, and he started asking some team members to take on facilitation roles and others to build out agendas. As his role dwindled, he began to skip meetings to send an unconscious message that the team did not need him there. In just a short time, the team was off and running, and his role was reduced to occasional spot coaching for the team lead.

Without being prescriptive, the following general steps make for a good initiation to exit the process:

Phase 1: Support psychological safety and trust
Phase 2: Co-create, model, and teach
Phase 3: Step back gradually and explicitly

It is a good idea to agree on some indicators and goals of what “success” looks like for your organizational transformation early on. Once underway, adjust and stay flexible as the process unfolds. No two organizations are the same and, therefore, no two transformations are either.