Stabilizing Culture During a Turnaround

February 17, 2023

Mathias Gran

A small business with a niche software product and 20-year history was at an inflection point. The innovative tools that secured their market position were aging, but still beloved by a loyal customer base. The years of responding to customer feedback had ballooned their flagship product into a collection of powerful product customizations.

The approach worked well for both customers and the business. Bespoke solutions increased switching costs for large clients and supported development of more generic solutions that created new sales. However, the fundamental technology platform for the flagship product was soon to be obsolete, posing an existential threat to the organization. Customers would soon have to choose to use old equipment or adapt to a less-ideal software solution, perhaps from another company.

What would it take to maintain this dedicated customer base, knowing that the entire product had to be re-engineered? How long would it take to rebuild the flagship? Were the appropriate resources in place to make this shift? And how many clients would simply move on?

With the clock ticking, there was immense pressure to modernize the product and platform as quickly as possible. The strain on the organization was unsustainable. Key members of the organization were removed by the board, technical experts left or were asked to leave, and the entire organization was in turmoil trying to find itself.

It was as if the organization decided to become a startup again. Such a dramatic shift in leadership and cultural expectations caused many challenging feelings to flood out of people. There was anger, blame, uncertainty, fear, judgment, stress, and more. People jockeyed for position and worked hard to appease those whose influence seemed less-fleeting.

We were contacted to help smooth the dynamics and processes in the technology domain. There was a sense that the team was behind on an immovable deadline and they needed to figure out why. They hired some great technologists, chose a modern toolkit, and were working diligently. But, the executive team and board were getting antsy. Where was the product? What do they have to show for the unprecedented investment?

It was clear what was happening when we arrived. For all the positivity, energy, and ambition being broadcast from the executive suite, this was a culture cemented in scarcity and fear. It was not a safe environment for creation, and apparently it was worse before we were contacted.

The VP of Engineering was a ball of stress and judgment that was masked by an only-good-news boardroom delivery. He also exhibited the classic struggle of a promoted expert. He could not stop “architecting,” although his ego needed the title and power of the CTO. He was a do-er, not a leader. No matter how much he thought he could charm his teams, his people felt his unrelenting need for control, reinforcing the fearful energy that permeated the building.

However, there was another dynamic. When we confidentially interviewed team members one-on-one, nearly everyone shared a deep sense of pride for the work they had collectively accomplished. It was a puzzling duality of submission and self-confidence.

After two weeks of observation, interviews, and data gathering, we made this plan:

  • Form three cross-functional teams of five engineers, rather than one large team of 15
  • Form a three-person team comprised of client expertise (product), design, and delivery (Agile)
  • Present findings and progress to executive team, establishing further engagement

We dedicated a half-day for a formal kick-off with the smaller teams. We shared the results of our interviews and named the common experiences and enthusiasm we heard. We shared what high-performing teams look like in other environments to help them see possibilities. We also created space for reflection, allowing the team members to share their experiences, perspectives, and discomforts.

Once everyone felt heard and valued, the teams had a renewed sense of shared purpose. The deadline and ambition was not changing, but they felt empowered to make good design decisions collaboratively, rather than waiting for the VP to bless their ideas. With smaller cross-functional teams, team members had the right expertise to efficiently create end-to-end solutions. And the emotional influence of the VP was immediately limited to a few technical leads and the executive team.

The three-person team of product, design, and delivery became the glue between the teams and the business. Before we arrived, everything was important and everything was behind. We worked with executives and technical leads to choose a set of work that made business sense, then built purposeful communications about the ambition to align the organization. We also built and delivered a customer product survey that gave sound statistical backing to our prioritization decisions. This clarity helped everyone understand what was both feasible and valuable, further reducing fear and stress, while bolstering the technical team’s delivery reputation.

Finally, we began to engage the executive team with the value of our work. We were able to identify the core feelings of fear and scarcity that were reinforcing a bottleneck in the VP chair. We were also able to engage the intrinsic motivation of the teams by providing a psychologically safe environment for them to be seen and heard. And we created operational clarity, reducing the feeling of being overwhelmed and providing a successful path to the deadline.

A version of the product shipped on the deadline and the team continued to build on the successes from our collaboration. The new product is on its way to becoming the next flagship, and supports the business with subscription revenue from a new segment.

Contact us today to start a conversation about what might be possible for your organization. Your people deserve it. (So do you!)