Creating an Effective Coalition to Lead Change in Your Software Organization
How to Find the Right People, Create Trust, and Establish the Vision

Creating a Coalition to Lead Change in Your Software Organization : How to Find the Right People

A Tale of Two Developers - Alex and Andre

Alex, a developer at a large banking organization, had a great idea! His organization had been using a popular software framework for years. However, this framework had a number of deficiencies. While the framework certainly had redeeming qualities, there were a number of features that were cumbersome to implement.

A Great Idea is Born

Alex had been looking into some newer frameworks, and he'd recently discovered one that was a significant upgrade. The tasks that had been so cumbersome in the current framework were made incredibly easy in the new framework. Even the strengths of the previous framework had been improved on. While it would require a significant effort to port the current application to the new framework, it was still a no-brainer!

The loss of productivity for the significant porting effort would be recouped in a matter of months due to the increased speed in which new features could be created. The organization had been looking for a long time for ways to improve the speed to market for new features. Changing frameworks would increase their competitive position in the marketplace.

Alex was a passionate technologist. He was constantly looking into new technologies. While regarded as a brilliant developer on his team, he hadn't gotten much organizational exposure. This could be his opportunity. His manager, recognizing that he may be unto something, suggested that he get on the agenda for the developer community forum meetings that happened every other week.

A Great Idea is Presented

For a couple weeks, Alex prepared his thoughts. He came to the meeting armed with facts and examples. During his presentation, he demonstrated the ease at which new features could be developed. He outlined every way in which the new framework was better than the existing framework. He was passionate and excited, and when he was finished, he felt extremely satisfied. Clearly the development community would recognize how great an idea this was. The idea would win out, simply on its merits.

When Alex was finished, he asked for questions or comments. There were a number of developers that seemed to be rather excited about the possibilities. However, that was before Ted made his comments. Ted was a rather well-respected, long-tenured developer who was part of the architecture team. Ted also was the one who'd lead the charge on implementing the current framework. He proceeded to give an impassioned speech about the stability of the current framework and all of its virtues. He also was very vocal in his opposition to the new framework. He spent a number of minutes talking about the cost of implementing new frameworks, and all of the problems that would likely be encountered. When he was done, Dave, another developer, spent the next few minutes bringing up all the potential problems that that Ted hadn't thought of.

A Great Idea is Shot Down

When he was finished, a lively debate followed. While there were a decent number of developers that supported Alex's idea, the majority appeared to be against it. It seemed that Ted and Dave's comments had turned the tide.

Alex was deflated! He'd invested an enormous amount of time and emotional energy into this presentation. He was sure it was going to be a success, yet the feedback had been more negative than positive. Determined not to give up, he rounded up the developers who'd been in support of his idea. They formed a coalition, and for the next several months, tried to change everyone's opinion. However, after Ted's impassioned speech, it seemed like they weren't able to get many to sign up for the cause. Very few developers wanted to participate in what seemed to be a risky proposition. After several months of very little progress, Alex and his coalition gave up.


Andre, a developer at a large banking organization, had a great idea! His organization had been using a popular software framework for years. However, this framework had a number of deficiencies. While the framework certainly had redeeming qualities, there were a number of features that were cumbersome to implement.

A Great Idea is Born

Andre had been looking into some newer frameworks, and he'd recently discovered one that was a significant upgrade. The tasks that had been so cumbersome in the current framework were made incredibly easy in the new framework. Even the strengths of the previous framework had been improved on. While it would require a significant effort to port the current application to the new framework, it was still a no-brainer!

The loss of productivity for the significant porting effort would be recouped in a matter of months due to the increased speed in which new features could be created. The organization had been looking for a long time for ways to improve the speed to market for new features. Changing frameworks would increase their competitive position in the marketplace.

An Organizational Historian at Work

Andre was a passionate technologist. He was constantly looking into new technologies. In addition to his wonderful technology skills, Andre had another invaluable skill. He took interest in organizational politics and history. While he hadn't been at the organization very long, he had a deeper understanding of organizational history and hierarchy than most of the developers who'd been there much longer.

He knew that Ted, a well-respected, long-tenured developer on the architecture team had lead the implementation of the current framework. He knew that Allison, the head of technology in the Card division, had been vocal about her desire for a faster way to implement new features. He knew that Amit, a senior developer in Financial Services division, held enormous clout with his peers. He knew that Dave, while not the best at coming up with new solutions, was extremely good at spotting flaws in just about any plan that existed.

The Proper Support for a Great Idea is Cultivated

While he knew that eventually he'd need to present the idea to the larger development community, Andre had a few thing to do first. After fleshing out the main idea of his presentation, he scheduled a short meeting with Allison. During this meeting, he outlined how this new framework may be the solution to the problem that she'd been vocal about for a long time. She was excited, and immediately signed up two senior developers from her organization, Aahana and Santino, to help him.

Next he met with Dave. After explaining his plan, he asked Dave for his thoughts. Dave spent an hour trying to poke holes in his idea. After thanking Dave for his feedback, Andre, Aahana, and Santino spent the next few days thinking of ways to address a number of Dave's more legitimate concerns.

With potential solutions to Dave's problems, the four of them met to discuss them. Dave was impressed! It was one of the first times that somebody had solicited his feedback. Most developers usually avoided him when they had a good idea, as his uncanny ability to find flaws made them uncomfortable.

Next, Andre met with Ted. He knew that Ted had led the implementation of the current framework, and he didn't want him to feel threatened by his proposal. During his meeting with Ted, he mentioned how Allison was really interested in this idea. Allison was really well-respected in the development organization as a leader who was great at recognizing valuable ideas. Her endorsement of an idea carried tremendous weight.

Andre made sure to mention that Allison was extremely interested in Ted's feedback, as he was the resident expert on the current framework. Andre also talked about Dave's feedback, and the work that he, Aahana, and Santino had done to address those issues. Ted was impressed with the work they had done. While he had some additional concerns, he liked the direction they were going in. He agreed to help out.

Last, Andre met with Amit. After walking him through the plan, he mentioned that Ted and Allison were on board with the idea also. He solicited his feedback. Amit, recognizing a good idea, was excited about the possibilities and volunteered to help out as well.

A Great Idea is Presented

Andre then scheduled the presentation to the development community. Prior to the presentation, Andre, Dave, Ted, Aahana, Santino, and Amit met to make sure they'd come up with a solid plan, and covered any potential weaknesses. After his presentation was finished, Andre asked for comments. Ted was the first to speak. He echoed his agreement that a number of the current framework's deficiencies could be overcome with this new framework. He also mentioned that Allison was really excited about the idea as well. Since he was part of the coalition, Amit also gave his public endorsement of the idea. While Andre wasn't particularly well known in the development community, it was clear that Allison, Ted, and Amit's endorsement carried significant weight.

A Great Idea is Supported

However, the most surprising comment came from doubtful Dave. First the first time in recent memory, he was actually on board with an idea. Andre's initial solicitation of feedback had actually made him feel validated. For once, somebody had actually engaged him from the start instead of trying to avoid him altogether. He gave an impassioned speech on how great this idea was and what he felt its potential could be.

The excitement and momentum was obvious! The developer community was engaged, and numerous developers were signing up to help with the cause. Andre was elated! He'd been informed by numerous developers who'd presented great ideas in the past how he'd likely encounter significant resistance. While not sure exactly why his experience had been so different than some of the others, he was thankful that it had been.


Practical Application in Software Development Teams

Leading change in a software organization can be difficult. Resistance can come from many unexpected sources. John Kotter, in his book, Leading Change , talks about an 8 step process for leading change. The eight steps of this process are the following.

  • Establishing a Sense of Urgency
  • Creating the Guiding Coalition
  • Developing a Vision and Strategy
  • Communicating the Change Vision
  • Empowering Broad-Base Action
  • Generating Short-term Wins
  • Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change
  • Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture

While I will explore other steps of the process in future article, this article is focused on Creating the Guiding Coalition. It is very difficult for one individual to single-handedly create change, even when the idea is extremely valuable. It takes a coalition of people.

Gather the Right Type of People for Your Change Coalition

While many individuals have organized coalitions, they have often been unsuccessful because their coalition has been lacking in one or more of the following four key areas.

  • Position Power - there needs to be enough key players in the position of power, so that those who are not part of the coalition are not able to easily block progress or create significant impediments.
  • Expertise - there needs to be significant expertise and points of view to sufficiently accomplish the task at hand. It is not enough to simply have a large group of willing participants. There needs to be a diverse group of skilled individuals who not only have the skill set to get the job completed, but who also have the knowledge and intelligence to judge whether the idea is worth pursuing.
  • Credibility - do members of the group have a enough reputation that their statements, suggestions, and pronouncements will be taken seriously. This is extremely important to mobilize the masses.
  • Leadership - does the group have enough proven leaders drive the change process. These leaders will be need the ability to establish urgency, communicate the vision, and come up with an implementation plan. It is important that this group contains both leadership and management skills, as both are required to make sure the progress doesn't stall out.

Avoid the Wrong Types of People

While getting the right people involved is essential, it is also extremely important to avoid the wrong types of people. The following are a couple of types to avoid, or at least be wary of.

  • Large Egos - those with large egos will ultimately be looking for ways to self-promote or push their personal agendas, even at the expense of the coalition's goals. While many of these individuals are extremely talented, they should be avoided at all costs. They often cause irreparable damage to morale and group credibility.
  • The Underminer - you have likely worked with this type of individual before. They are continuously undermining relationships and causes. They are experts at telling John something about Suzie and Suzie something about John that undermines their relationship. They are continually working to undermine the direction that is being set by organizational leaders. They also should be avoided at all costs.
  • The Uncommitted - while not as bad as the Large Egos and Underminers, you should at least be wary of these people. They lack the urgency and don't truly understand the danger of the status quo. While they won't do anything to actively damage your cause, their apathy will weaken the cause and create more work for other members of the coalition.

Build Trust

Often when creating a change coalition, there may be key players in the group who haven't worked together. It is important to make sure there are numerous talks or meetings that involve the entire group. This will help create a team environment in which everyone feels like they are working together for a common goal. It may be helpful to schedule some offsite activities to help the members get to know each other and build trust.

Develop a Common Goal

While it is critical to find the right people, and establish a trusting relationship with this collection of individuals, it is also important to form a common goal and vision. The entire coalition needs to be in agreement on what the objectives are, and what success looks like. This vision should be appeal to the heart (address a urgent need or problem), and yet be sensible to the head (there needs to be a well-planned set of tasks to get to the destination).

Summary

Implementing change is difficult, especially in large organizations. When attempting to build a effective change coalition, remember the following key steps; engage the right people, build trust, and develop a common goal and vision. For the psychological reason why change coalitions are effective, see Leading Change in Software Teams.

Are you interesting in creating trust and accountability on your software team? Then continue reading...


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