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Why true agile transformation requires apex predators

Most of you have probably seen the video 'How wolves change rivers' (it's embedded below). It famously describes how the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone national park changes the entire ecosystem. It triggers changes in deer behavior, which in turn allows vegetation to regrow, which eventually even changes the course of the rivers in the park. It is a powerful story of how you can make a small change and have a big impact. Or is it? It has certainly been used that way. Simply start working in an agile way in a few teams and watch the organization change around you as a result. If that were the truth, then why is true agile transformation so hard?
Date
30 July 2019
Author
Michiel van Gerven

Let’s watch that video again. Crucially, it describes the reintroduction of wolves. It is quite unlikely that the introduction of squirrels, even in quite large numbers, would have had the same effect. Not all small changes are created equally.

In other words, making a small but significant change at the top of the food chain can change the entire ecosystem. This is what biologists call trophic cascades. So how does this translate to the work environment? Making a small but significant change at the right level can change the entire organizational system and culture. It can change the behavior of local deer, diversify the flora and fauna, and reduce erosion. The right behavior at the top – setting the right example – will change the behavior of the entire organization, will make your organization more attractive to a more diverse workforce by being a great place to work, and thus improve employee retention.

 

trophic cascadeSource: The City University of New York

Fundamentally, what ultimately changes the ecosystem is different behavior by the deer, who start to graze in different areas. But what triggers the change in this behavior is the wolves. You simply can’t expect all the deer to change their behavior without a catalyst. Organizational agile transformation is the same.

What does this mean for agile transformations?

Many agile transformations start out as grassroots movements that gradually attempt to scale the organizational ladder. The movement is admirable, but it lacks what is ultimately required to make wholesale significant change – the deer can’t change the ecosystem by themselves. The simple truth is that the grassroots movement rarely includes the most significant apex predators in the organization. Agile transformation cannot succeed without leadership support, but more importantly changes in behavior from those in the position to truly influence the behavior of mammals down the food chain.

One of the ways the wolves in Yellowstone National Park have helped to change their environment is by rewarding and discouraging certain behavior. Driving deer from valleys where they are vulnerable is analogous to setting clear boundaries, changing decision making processes and reward structures. For the deer to change their behavior they need to see the value in doing so. In effect the deer in Yellowstone have self-organized towards the areas that deliver the most value. Leaders in organizations can do the same by setting clear boundaries, funding and supporting the right initiatives but at the same time affording teams the freedom to self-organize around the right areas.

Crucially wolves, like leaders, give new life to an ecosystem exactly because they kill coyotes that prey on the organization. In that sense, they clear unsuitable projects and initiatives that take up considerable resources but have no place in the value/food chain.

Wolves not dinosaurs

So what does the organizational apex predator look like? It is not necessarily the loudest, the largest or the most dangerous individual. It is not your typical organizational carnivorous dinosaur. Large, powerful, extremely dangerous, but slow to change its mind. Let’s consider the wolf more closely. It is a social, engaged and intelligent team player. It is the individuals, or rather close knit packs of such individuals that have the power to change the ecosystem in the organization.

So who might this include? Certainly the top management in an organization comes to mind. But how do they operate? Is it a true leadership team? Do they serve to optimize the whole or do they seek to maximize their own interests? Do they engage in constant infighting and turf wars? Is their goal to strengthen their own position or do they put the needs of the pack above their own? Like the wolf pack a leadership team cannot function well – and ultimately will not survive – if its members go it alone. Like the wolves in Yellowstone National Park, top organizational leadership and its behavior have a massive impact on organizations. Conflict between directors of different departments is reflected in proxy wars between those departments themselves. Ultimately, it slows down the whole organization. Conversely, setting the right example can energize and streamline an entire organization.

Apex predators can also be found outside the ranks of top leadership. Crucially these informal leaders will still need to have the clout to truly impact the organization. Someone leading a highly visible strategic initiative can still have a strong impact, but it is hard to truly influence the center from the periphery.

Conclusion

You cannot change an ecosystem by only working with squirrels and deer. Small changes will not result in large scale transformation unless they are made in the right place, by the right people. True lasting change requires introducing or changing apex predators. Organizational transformation requires changes at the top of the food chain, be it from formal or informal (but influential) leaders. The good news is changes at the top can be introduced to the top of the organizational food chain. A new CEO for instance, who ‘get’s it’.

Another way to reorganize the food chain is to change the existing top dinosaurs into a cooperative, social, intelligent wolfpack. That starts with awareness amongst leaders that they are in fact influencing an ecosystem instead of a machine. Which is why ecosystem thinking is a central theme in our Agile Leadership training.

Like organizational change, forging a top wolf pack can be a hard road, but if you want to change the course of the river, that’s where you need to start.

Finally, please remember ecosystems don’t change overnight. The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park eventually resulted in a quintupled average tree height, but it still took time for the trees to grow.

 

Other insights by Michiel van Gerven

Tackling Crime: How one police unit and prosecutor use Scrum to eat into their backlog of cases

Experiments with Holacracy: Why we stopped doing it, and what we learned along the way

Key challenges to Agile in 2019

Why Agile is the most important Social Technology of this decade

Michiel van Gerven