Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. ~ George Bernard Shaw


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Organizational Change and the Vertical Slicing Approach

Organizational Change and the Vertical Slicing Approach

posted by Dave Dame date-icon August 04, 2015

When implementing an agile transformation, do you start from the top or bottom of the organization? My experience has shown it is best to take a complete vertical slice of top, middle, and the bottom.

“Organizational design is the methodology which identifies dysfunctional aspects of your organization’s workflow and realigns them to fit current business goals (and supporting values).” (Dr. Allen, 2012). The best way to align the organization’s workflow to fit the current business ways is an approach I call “vertical slicing”.

Vertical Slicing is a holistic process where an organization is split the organization into small cross level and cross functional change teams. Each change team consists of members from each level of the organization (i.e. Scrum teams, middle management and executives). The organization will be moving together as all three levels will be involved in the implementation of change. Selecting a few of these teams as the change champions (pilot teams to test the change on), will provide you with a small sample of the organization to experiment with and test the interconnections between the different levels of the change. This is a cross-level approach.

There’s an important distinction to make between a cross-functional approach and the cross-level approach. The cross-functional approach involves removing barriers between roles within the same level. For instance, an organization employing the cross-functional approach would share knowledge between developers, testing and QA. The cross-level approach involves removing barriers between different levels of the organization. For instance, an organization employing the cross-level approach would be sharing relevant knowledge between finance, developers, and post-sales. The vertical slicing approach encourages you, as change agents, to combine cross-functional and cross-level approaches forming teams of different roles and different levels. This will increase the variety of your change champions and limit the areas of the change that are not tested.

Any change moving the organization from traditional job models to new job models, from individuals to teams changes the interconnections of the organization. To re-align these interconnections, you will need to visibly show the employees how this benefits them. This can be achieved through incentives:

  • Learning Paths: Employees will be able to interact with different facets of the organization. This allows them to experiment and learn. This will motivate employees as they will see the vertical slice teams as way to progress through the organization.

  • Performance Reviews: Employees will be evaluated on how well they interact with their new role from individual to team.

Vertical slicing will improve the communication between the different levels of the organization thereby increasing the feedback loops and ensuring the middle management stays involved. The middle management's main role is to find the balance of where the organization currently is and where it wants to be. However, the middle layer is typically forgotten about as the change agents prioritize convincing the executives to implement the change and the Scrum teams to adapt the change. Without the middle management, there is a lack of communication between the organization’s executives and Scrum teams. Implementing vertical management will start the the transformation of your traditional middle managers into new middle coaches (Providing customer focus/empathy, company values, relationship/professional development).

Vertical slicing will guide the organization towards a culture of innovation and leadership. Each “change team” will consist of different levels of the organization where each level will be interconnected and allow the change agents to validate their experiments. Yielding control of change validation from the individuals to the teams will push autonomy down and build an environment where decisions can be made at any level.