The one agile question I don’t know the answer to

I constantly get asked for certainty and clarity when it does not exist.

The most frequent question I get from people I am coaching (especially leaders) is

“What will the organisation look like in 12-months?”

Sometimes I can guess at what the answer might be but more often lately my answer is “I don’t know”. Closely followed by “We’ll know more by ..?” and/or “What would you like it to look like?”.

What this question is really asking is

“Will I be relevant in the new organisation?”.

As a coach I am learning how to handle this tension between certainty and the unknown/emerging. A coach’s job is to enable the adoption of change, moving the way of working towards a new “target” state. And here is the reason why frameworks and playbooks are so popular. They imply SAFety and certainty where none really exists.

Many playbook consultants and framework evangelists will sell you what they say is a turnkey operating model for organisational change. But changing an organisation is a complex problem requiring a co-designed solution; not the installation of a pre-defined target state.

In this post I’d like to share my views on how a coach can help clients deal with ambiguity as they move towards better ways to work and new organisational structures that enable agility.

When to provide certainty and clarity and when not to

Recently I sat down with an organisational change specialist to discuss training needs for an organisation moving towards an agile operating model. My advice was to work in horizons only analysing the training needs after the change team had captured insights from early experiments.

It was hard for the change team to not have a solution to the enterprise change problem of “who do we need to train and what are the topics?” Here I was encountering PROSCI/ADKAR sequential change management models that don’t natively support iterative, emergent change. I talked about lean change and iterative change plans as a means to deal with what we do not know but are seeking to understand.

My advice is to agree on planning horizons and only plan to each horizon; 2, 6, 9 ,12 months. Maybe put some OKRs against each horizon whilst running a lean change approach to generate insights as you proceed to learn your way forward.


What to do with all the people craving certainty

As a coach there ae always what I call “no-regret” change and communications messages. These messages are based on immutable principles that underpin the change program. Some examples of no-regret messages could include:

  • We are starting small and testing our new ways of working before we offer them out to the rest of the organisation; there’s no big-bang.

  • Their will be no headcount reductions as a consequence of this change program

  • We have a fortnightly information and question session to keep everyone informed; come along and ask. We have no secrets, it is an open process of change

  • Here is a list of resources (blogs, videos, whitepapers, books etc.) that contain practices, patterns or concepts we are actively experimenting with.

  • This program has the sponsorship of our executive team and is an important part of our vision and associated 3-year strategy

  • At some point we may make some changes to our organisational structures but not for the next 6 months

Of course, your list will be different and I have just suggested the above as examples. But the intent is to “calm down” people who crave certainty when none exists (yet).


Final thoughts

As a coach get used to saying “I don’t know”. Once you have announced that you don’t have answers don’t leave people in a state of confusion; instead provide them with something/messages to hold on to as the change team learns what the next horizon will look like.


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