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I was hired a little over a month ago by a very specialized (but by no means unique) technology company, which I have consulted for in the past, with common understanding by my new department's leadership that I've come to leverage my experience - consulting dealing with exactly the kinds of dysfunction they have - to help improve things. The C-level who sponsored my hiring keeps telling me that I need to be a "radical element" and shake things up, pushing things to improve, and generally encouraging me to be an independent operator to fix the problems I'm seeing, without giving me any more authority than a senior-level dev would have.

For background:

The vast majority of their development staff has been with the company for most of, if not all of, their careers and are very comfortable with the product domain, but incredibly resistant to anything resembling change from an architectural or conceptual standpoint; the department itself is plagued with instances of needless Not-Invented-Here syndrome, the sunk-cost fallacy is deeply endemic to their decision-making process, and at the moment are trying to figure out why their architecture camel-committee can't produce a decision about a component design. While discussions about the architecture itself use terms from modern best-practices, the resulting product and development all looks like stuff from a decade ago that has aged poorly. Every time I bring up that these don't align with what they say they're trying to design/build, I get a lecture from middle management that "this is just how things are done here" and that "this is a very unique environment, and best-practices don't always work here".

Beyond that, they attempted an organization-wide adoption of Agile a couple of years back, which seemed to have gone well for a while, but first decayed into cargo-cult, and now is bordering on being non-existent again. When inquiring with the agile coaching lead (none of the coaching staff are full-time coaches, it's treated as a "floor safety marshal" kind of role) the reason given for all of the changes which have effectively created a scrumfall environment was either "it's more convenient this way" or "the devs are happier with this".

Development is agonizingly slow, amazingly inconsistent (based on velocity charts and cumulative-flow diagrams), and every decision is either rushed to the point of slapdash or drawn out to death.

How can I fill my remit as a "radical element" and drive positive change when it seems like no one wants any real change? I've started down the "win them over" route, but I can't in good conscience not fight back when I'm seeing things that I know are going to lead to a worse product, which hasn't endeared me to anyone.

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    Have you discussed this already with the C-level who hired you? – Milo P Mar 5 at 16:24
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    I don't have a 1:1 with him for a couple of weeks, and I'd rather come to him with solutions than problems. – Garandy Mar 5 at 16:27
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    Break out a handful of developers into a sub-team for the express purpose of experimenting with methodology, make it clear that they will 180 degrees change current practices, let developers volunteer for this, pay them extra. Let them share experiences w/ the others after a year. – Pete W Mar 5 at 16:52
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    Were you hired on the basis of previous experience of introducing radical change? How was it accomplished previously? – matt freake Mar 5 at 17:44
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    TBH, sounds like you were hired for X and doing Y. You should have hire-fire authority otherwise I'd jump to somewhere else (and state that the company hired you under false pretenses) because spending years fighting a bunch of multi-decade+ employees inch by bloody inch is not worth it. You need to clean house and start cracking the whip. People either need to get with the program or start emailing their resumes. Simple as that. Make this clear ASAP with your C-level manager and/or move on. – David Mar 5 at 18:39
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You are facing a challenging but interesting opportunity. Change is so hard. And because it is, and because the worst possible outcome at the end of the day is that, well, nothing has changed, there is no risk in just trying – other than wasting your time and your company's money.

That said, I would, right away, abandon the idea that you will change anything in the organization. Instead, you let the other people change the organization, and be no more than a facilitator of change. Ask them what they want, what their goals are, their wishes, and so on.

The important point here is that you watch and listen carefully, within the right group of people (or possibly one-on-one), because although it may seem that nobody wants anything to change – I do believe that everyone truly has some aspects they do not like about their work. If you manage to listen long enough in the right environment, you will learn about these ideas. When things come up, facilitate disucssion and lead them in the right direction. Start small, with a selection of people that will drive (and not inhibit) change, bring them together, establish a safe place for ideas to unfold. When implementing anything new, also start small, maybe in one team, start things as "experiments" so people are confident that they can always go back if they do not like the new way of doing it.

There is much more to say on this subject than I can cover here. I would like to close with an excellent quote from an excellent article by Bruce F. Webster:

There are, in my experience, three things you need to do in order to accomplish this change: establish credibility; build consensus upwards; and prepare to be fired.

Good luck!

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    Accepted this, because it gives the most "useful" advice for solving the problem. Being prepared to jump is an obvious "solution" to the problem, but doesn't address how to do this before resorting to that. Thank you for the reminder about starting small and growing influence - I think my C-level sponsor is expecting me to go this route of my own volition before giving me more authority. – Garandy Mar 16 at 17:20
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This sounds like a relatively typical scenario: senior executive management wants to see changes and evolution (because they see the writing on the wall) but either cannot or will not put in the backing power to the game changers or take on the risk of making sweeping changes. Middle management and senior management are too disconnected for a variety of reasons.

It seems you were hired under false pretenses (e.g. told one thing but got another) and has no support or backing from the executive committee. You should either look for a new position at another company or try to persuade your C-level manager (and the entire executive team) to get behind you and your ideas. If you want to go down this route, you need to start taking the helm of the conversation and situation and starting carving time out of your C-level manager's schedule. Draft a plan of how to solve the problems (incl. budgets, SOP's, hiring timelines, goals, objectives, etc.) and get time with him to discuss this one-on-one (ASAP because you cannot wait and need to show initiative) and get a firm yes/no from him (will he back you up). If he says yes (in writing), then schedule full meeting with the entire executive team to get started, otherwise ... you need to face the facts and start considering other opportunities.

However, if you do not get backing and do not have the authority to clean house then you are really waging an unwinnable war. If there are people who've been there 20, 30, 40+ years then you are in for a long drawn out political s***show that is just not worth the frustration for most people (maybe it is for you, maybe you have stock options in the company or other financial compensation agreements such as sales/revenue metrics / etc.). People who have embedded themselves deep into a company are tremendously difficult to get rid off (they have tons of connections, lots of tribal knowledge, know where bodies are buried, etc.).

If all else fails, I would recommend you seek employment elsewhere and simply explain that you were hired under false pretenses at your last employer. They wanted you to fix several of the issues plaguing their company and teams but did not give you the authority or tools to do so. You were more than willing to help whip them into shape but you cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs and management did not or could not see that.

I wish you the best of luck! :)

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If you are getting lectures from middle management, I have to ask: What level were you hired at?

If you are getting lectures from middle management, then you are at the wrong level in the organization.

You need to immediately go to the C-Level who hired you, and tell him that you cannot operate at this level. You need to do this today.

You need authority OVER the middle management (i.e. director-level) that includes personnel management.

You need to shake things up. And that means staff changes. Sorry, but if you've got an entrenchment like this, you need to get rid of 10% of them (management included) immediately and bring in "new blood." As bad as you describe it, I would expect a 50% to 60% turnover in the next 18-24 months, so you'd better be sure things get documented well, also.

If you can't get that level of authority, you need to leave. You have been given a task without the resources to do it. This will burn you out, and fast.

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    At a minimum they need authority independent of middle management, as a simple dev the OP has exactly zero ability to be radical or make changes. At that level the most you can be is an advocate of change. – jmoreno Mar 7 at 14:20

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