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Is Vision Scapegoating keeping you from collaborative change?

Wed 8 Jun 2016
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Operational Dead Reckoning may help you get back on track, says Joe Auslander, senior agile consultant at Assurity Consulting.

Have you ever seen a group of people who believe they cannot collaboratively take action until they can collectively agree on the vision for their future?

It looks like a team of leaders who have worked for months to agree on the perfect delivery model, with little real change to show. It sounds like a cacophony of arguments about what we should name the different structures and teams in the future. It feels less like collaboration and more like begrudged collective territory sharing.

Welcome to Vision Scapegoating

This pattern is a descendant of the almighty Analysis Paralysis, where progress to a solution is blocked by the act of trying to develop the perfect plan before you begin – the major difference being that Vision Scapegoating specifically relates to groups of people and shifting the responsibility to collaborate from themselves to an agreed-upon vision of ‘a perfect future’ - illustrated as:

We won’t collaborate until we share the same vision of the future - versus - We will collaborate to discover our collective vision of the future.

There are many reasons and scenarios in which Vision Scapegoating can appear. In my experience, it often emerges from the best intentions slamming into old behaviours.

Here is an example:

A large international company needs to become more competitive in the market. They’ve spent decades building their business to be stable and careful moving. Now they say they want to become more flexible and be able to pivot quick with change in their market. A few ‘People In Charge’ (PICs) are asked to lead the change to make their environment more agile and are given support to do so. They look into the talent pool around and hire experts who paint a beautiful picture of what the future could be.

The PICs are told legends about other large organisations which are universally renowned as profitable leaders. These organisations are working in ‘X model’ or ‘X framework’ and all of their people are happy and productive and no one tells them how to dress to work.

The PICs listen as their hired experts tell them they will have to completely change the way they think about their organisation. Job titles will change, they will have to become a different kind of leader, people may be let go, new tools will have to be used… they may even have to stop wearing suits!

While the PICs recognise this Utopian future is exactly what they are being asked to produce, they also begin to understand the cost of what this change will bring. They play around with where to begin and quickly realise any first step will begin to unravel the business as they understand it. They begin to feel dread at the dawning of how fragile their environment is. The change their company needs is extremely complex and ripe with risk.

The PICs begin reading articles, calling experts, visiting other companies who are ‘already doing it’ and ideas begin to flow. Each PIC starts bringing their own versions of the future to the table. Hours and days of independent research has bolstered the belief that each of them have the right answer and can lead the first steps forward. As they begin to share their visions – even though they all agree that they want a beautiful utopia – for some reason they can’t seem to agree about what it will look like. When they share their plans, it seems like they are speaking different languages.

The PICs quickly move to drawing pictures which helps to focus the conversation, but as they begin to agree what they are talking about, their collective attention exposes flaws in any design that’s proposed.

Months go by as the model changes with every new bit of resistance. In fact, now there are several different models circulating and gathering troops – each model aligning to a particular PIC’s function. The PICs start to feel less like they are working together and more like they are blocking each other. When it is clear that no movement is happening and the PIC’s leaders ask why progress is so slow, the first bold PIC (often with the most people) steps into the space, uses their authority and ‘implements’ their model. Hands are thrown high as the loudest dysfunctions begin to emerge. Everyone feels like they are fighting fires, but it’s progress right? Why is it so painful?

The new standard becomes ‘whoever creates the change controls the space’ and now all of the PICs begin to tweak their environments to what they think is the perfect model. Clearly, it is so perfect that the others will thank them later for just going on ahead. They begin putting names on this change, using a large dictionary of new-found terms to explain structures they don’t have a definition for yet. If they name it, they own it.

They begin hearing that many of their direct reports are fighting with their colleagues’ direct reports and heels dig in. The need to protect their own becomes imperative and they give focused support down their functions. If they’re lucky at this point, they will see the need and begin to centre their attention in a collaborative way. If they are not, their kingdoms may pull themselves apart.

I’ve seen variations of this scenario at most of the companies I’ve worked with in the past and I believe it’s ripe with lessons.

First is the recognition that for any organisation trying to become more agile or lean, this sort of story (did this sound eerily familiar to you?) is normal, natural and ironic. Almost everyone I’ve worked with or talked to in this arena is looking for a big-bang solution to become more iterative.

Second is that these teams will build up extreme pressure to justify the first bit of change. It’s almost like there is a group subconscious at work saying “We are just too unsure to start changing things. If we increase the pressure in our environment to change, the need to change will justify the risk and we limit liability”. Which, on one hand is good, because things begin changing, on another it likely increases the risk they were so concerned about in the beginning.

I’m not a huge fan of the word ‘dysfunctional’. When something is labelled dysfunctional, you tend to view it as something that ‘should not be’. I find that this natural thought process limits my ability to understand and learn what is in front of me. I become more concerned about the thing not being what it should be and don’t pay attention to what it actually is.

I’d like to propose that we don’t see Vision Scapegoating or the behaviours that may come with it as a positive or negative thing, but rather a functional pattern that comes from the best intentions and can serve a purpose. Any repeatable pattern can be used to get an outcome. If that is my outlook, then my observations can leave the ‘that shouldn't be’ category and can become about two important questions:

Are we using the pattern or is it using us? If you find yourself in a situation where you suspect Vision Scapegoating may be using you, there is an alternative pattern that may help.

Operational Dead Reckoning

This comes from the mariner phrase ‘dead reckoning’, a practice where you calculate your position by estimating your direction and distance travelled from your last measurement. It’s often used when stable landmarks are not available and you need to know how you are tracking towards your destination (developed well before GPS).

Operational Dead Reckoning is where you calculate the direction and speed of change by measuring your current operational state at regular, short, increments and then reflecting on that change. You can think of it as a GPS for your business change that you can use to track if you are still progressing towards desired outcomes.

Operational Dead Reckoning takes the argument away from ‘Is it the right future operational model?’ to ‘Where are we now and what’s the next outcome we’d like to develop?’. The team can then have several future state operational models and test the effectiveness of them by introducing small incremental organisational change.

Truth is, Operational Dead Reckoning is useful even if you don’t have Vision Scapegoating. It makes building a cross-functional leadership team easier. It encourages discussion and experimentation. It also can be used as a tool to bring transparency to – and manage change – with stakeholders and constituents, with a minimum amount of effort.

Also, it’s not an entirely new concept. Lean Change Management and other scaled agile and lean approaches tackle the subject in different ways. What I’ve noticed though is, in reviewing different models and delivery philosophies, it’s easy to miss the ‘why we do it’ bit. Without having an experienced coach or extremely insightful leader on staff, many of the ceremonies or practices each scaled solution presents at this level can seem like you are just going through the motions. Operational Dead Reckoning should bring transparency to the operating model, as well as the buy in of the people who are a part of it.

My hope with this article is to lightly explore Vision Scapegoating and Operational Dead Reckoning, both functional patterns but with different outcomes, and throw it back to the readers to share their insights into these two topics.

What sort of scenarios have you seen that have lead up to Vision Scapegoating in places you have worked or are working? Has your organisation incrementally and collaboratively tracked its change towards desired outcomes during a transformation? If so, how was it implemented?

Article by Joe Auslander, senior agile consultant at Assurity Consulting.

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