Don’t Let The Cuckoo Effect Ruin Your Organization

Book tours can sometimes make for tough presentations. The author wants to whet the appetite of the audience to elicit more purchases without giving too much away. The audience wants to hear from the speaker about exciting topics without hearing the words “buy the book” more than once. Yet, when you have a speaker like Jeff Sutherland in your back yard, you show up early with your notepad ready.

Thus went October’s meeting of the Agile Leadership Network in Dallas.

For those that haven’t read his book, I highly recommend picking up a copy. This was the book that I feel has been inside of Mr. Sutherland for some time. His research and passion for Scrum comes bubbling out of each story of organizational change and one of the best explanations of the Agile practice I’ve read in some time. This is the Scrum book your boss and your spouse could get into.

Speaking of organizational change, there was a principle Jeff mentioned when speaking of resistance to Agile transformations that piqued my interest. Famed management guru Peter Drucker once explained change using something he called the Cuckoo Effect:

“Any foreign innovation in a corporation will stimulate the corporate immune system to create antibodies that destroy it.”

The color must have left my face when I heard that, because I felt faint. That’s why coaches of all type are met with resistance when they start asking questions. Regardless of how badly leadership may need change in a company’s life, there is a natural resistance that will stiffen the more you push.

Why does this happen?

Is there security in failing methodology, because their yours? Does the person representing the new idea threaten the state of affairs? Could it be that work is challenging enough without trying to improve how we accomplish it?

Changing how things get done is tough. Wrapping change up in a process can just galvanize people to buck against a single inanimate object (although it is effective against actual people as well — am I right Agile consultants?). I would love to solicit your thoughts for combating a company’s immune system, and provide a few of my own:

Can you simply rip the bandage off? There are natural times where this theory could present itself. After a leadership change at the top, a round of layoffs, or a large hiring (among others). These are moments that provide an opportunity for process improvement, because they happened for a reason. Is it best to just flush the old way of working out like an oil change?

Possibly, but providing the right messaging and training are key. Your legacy employees might see this as an indictment of the work they have done up till then, so you must give them the tools to succeed. This is why consultants are in such high demand at the moment, because there are opportunities like this every day in the business world. Plus, if it fails there is a single person to blame for a failed transformation.

Over-communicate the entire way, and the bumpy road of change could amount to more than just a small speed bump.

What’s the smallest change that you can make? Sutherland presented this thought in his Scrum presentation for a way to build products better, but it works for the way products are made as well. Making a list of improvements and implementing them one at a time could prove less abrasive.

Pick a small change to the strongest part of your process. Why is change needed there first? Because it can withstand the trauma, and help prove that you can make the best part of your process better.

If this approach is going to be made, you can’t hide the “transformation backlog” from your co-workers. They will be apprehensive while waiting for the next change, not knowing when they are done bending. Making it visible can also give people the opportunity to provide feedback. I’ve found that this helps in not only the wording around change, but also builds consensus as change approaches.

Show your work as you build consensus, and you could find your transformation gaining steam as you work.

Don’t do it alone. Regardless of the experience and training you may have received on organizational change, your ideas have a single perspective. To help an organization of many, you have to have their vision as well as yours. You accomplish this by building a team around you to grow ideas organically.

Sure, the initial conversations around change will be tough. While they probably volunteered to be a part of the discussion, they may be against some of the directions the conversation takes. Encourage your team’s discomfort, because that is the result of good conflict. When you lean into discomfort, you have to possibility for true innovation in the realm of organizational change.

Ideas that come from your team will be constructed better, worded better, and agreed upon before its ever sent out to a larger group. You also have a ready-made group of evangelists set to preach the gospel of improvement.

So, how does this all fit together?

For the last month, I’ve been a part of an amazing group at Bottle Rocket that has been utilizing all three of these ideas. The group was represented by team members from all disciplines and also had management from those same work groups. We shared our perspectives, found common pain points, and decided on the smallest amount of change. Then, we ripped the bandage off and shared with the rest of the company our ideas to help start projects off better.

We are not done by a long shot. Some training will be happening on core activities that should be happening on a sometimes daily basis. We can then share what’s working, what’s not, and continue to listen to all those around us for better ways. My hope is that by the time we reach the end of the calendar year, we will have a real head of steam to propel us into 2015.

How has your company enacted organizational change? If you did anything different, I would love to hear stories of failure and success. Together, we can build better companies.


9 thoughts on “Don’t Let The Cuckoo Effect Ruin Your Organization

  1. Hi Chris,

    Can you share where in which book that Peter Drucker said about the Cuckoo Effect? I try google it but there is no information about he said that before.

    Thanks for your help,



    1. Andrew, you’re right it doesn’t show up. Funny enough, the post I wrote gets quoted and I heard about it second hand. 🙂

      I got the quote from Scrum co-founder Jeff Sutherland, but I believe the book he got it from is Drucker’s Innovation and Entreprenuership.


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