Case Study 1 – What is the Context? A regional Chief Technology Officer (CTO) proposed a novel solution to a “hot-potato” public safety problem. Dropped calls, 911 wait times and failed hand-offs between police, fire and emergency medical agencies resulted in well documented loss of life and property. It was a frequent highlight in the local news and a big headache for politicians. The CTO moved fast with a highly publicized analysis asserting she could solve this problem while saving the government money. She would build a state-of-the-art “Unified Call Center” modernizing and combining the Police, Fire, and Emergency Medical Response agencies call centers. With an abundance of money, political power, and ego she selected her best technology project manager for this undertaking. Four years later, the building was complete, and a highly visible test of the new technology brought accolades. Next the agencies were to occupy the facility. To the bewilderment of the project manager, the agencies simply did not show up, which brought the project to an abrupt halt.

What Happened? I was called in and began confidential assessments among the stakeholders. First, I met with the frustrated project team. Their plan had all the right artifacts but failed to be resourced by anyone with human or organizational dynamic skills (which are the foundation of the first Phase of our Agile Organization Design…” Sensing”). There was ample evidence of trouble brewing because the tensions in play had been meticulously logged and then systematically ignored. A dominant image of “Damn the Torpedoes, and Full Speed Ahead” was whirling in my mind in concert with a duly noted tightness in my chest and a twisting in my stomach.

After a week, it was clear what had resulted in the mutiny. Because of uneven power dynamics, the three agencies were told to participate, not asked. Their interests were disregarded when raised. The technology team had not considered the human challenges of integrating three very different and historically conflicted cultures. The intended occupants of the new facility became passive aggressive resistors rather than stakeholders. They never showed their hand to the project team but knew that they could not be forced to move.

What are the Lessons? Rather than treat the existing call center operations as complex human system, the project team assumed they were three compliant cogs that would understand the project benefits and with a little nudge, move into the new facility. I candidly reported back to the CTO that the parties were polarized, and the project could not be rescued. One agency moved into the facility while the others modernized their old call centers. This is not an a-typical project in government. Be wary. Without human dynamics “Sensing” from the start it is easy to miss red flags that can derail a project.

Agile Organization Design challenges the mechanistic mindset operating in the background of traditional organization design, change, project, and planning approaches. That mindset generally leads to neglect of the human dimension as illustrated by the example above. “Sensing”, when starting a project, identifies and names a rich variety of the important invisible human dimensions. The work of “Sensing” in the first Phase of Agile Organization design sets the stage to use it for continuous adaptation through the other Four Phases as well: Mobilize, Frame, Customize and Resolve.

Answering the question, why is Sensing is so important requires, us to dig deeper into one of its most powerful skill subsets called “Use of Self” (UoS). The 2020 Global Use of Self Research Report defined Use of Self as “the conscious use of one’s whole being in the intentional execution of one’s roles.” In practical terms, it means not limiting yourself to your rational brain when taking in information. It enables us to sense the actual situation without bias, blindness, avoidance, and agendas. It harvests deeper meaning when conducting the internal and external environmental scans. Becoming more aware of data beyond the bounds of what we “think” is highlighted in the following example on Sensing:

Case Study 2 – What is the Context? An inspection agency leadership team goes on a highly interactive strategy retreat, intended as the basis for a reorganization to shift the organization out of its long standing operating culture of “If in doubt, keep it out” to a new perspective, that did emerged from the retreat: “Facilitating International Trade and Protecting Homeland Interests.” After what was considered a highly successful event, management rolled out a change management strategy similar to the popular ADKAR which failed miserably.

What Happened? There had been plenty of “Sensing” among the leadership team, but with no one else, particularly not the Unions. Curiously, the charismatic leader leaned into the resistance. He told the organization they would go back to the drawing board but this time with extensive “Sensing”. He hired four new organization development consultants and selected Marvin Weisbord’s Future Search methodology for collaborative co-creation. Leadership was coached to facilitate visioning sessions across 12 national workshops.

What are the Lessons? After 9 months of engagement, a collaboratively developed redesign plan emerged. And in the mind’s eye of the leadership team, it looked almost identical to their rejected plan. However, their hearts and guts told a different story after experiencing the robust collaborative Future Search process and outcomes. First hand they experienced an effort can fully engage David Rock’s neuroscience SCARF Model to bring out the hidden potential in people and organizations. The visioning was designed to engage the creative capacity of the mind, the hopes and passions of the heart, and the body intelligence through physical interaction. This illustrates the power of “Sensing” as built into Agile Organization Design.

About the Author

Bill Zybach is a member of the instruction team for the “Mastering Agile Organizational Design Certification” Program. He has a long history of supporting organizational change in local, state and the federal government. During the Bill Clinton administration, he worked on “reinventing government”, which led to a balanced federal budget and increased public confidence in government.