In a world where “Agile” and “Transformation” are becoming commoditized, I explore a different approach to cultivate an organization’s ability to work in new ways to innovate, execute, and deliver value. Join me as I share the journey of an unlikely team to lead a behavior and mindset transformation at VMware.
Head of Transformational Culture and Change, VMWare, Inc.
Chemistry to coach - how’s that for a non-traditional career path? Yet for those who imagine beakers, chemicals, and reactions that transform matter into magic, you’re not far off in the way Liliya approaches change within an organization.
In her life as an R&D chemist Liliya quickly realized, while mixing chemicals and accumulating patents was fun, her true passion was around the human elements of work. As she shared her findings as a scientist with colleagues, the spark of joy was found in the learnings through experimentation and what new things could emerge as a result.
Tossing the lab coat aside in favor of face-to-face interactions with humans on the daily, Liliya stepped into the world of tech to catalyze change one team at a time. While her environment today may look a little different, her tools are the same - experiment to learn, find data to make informed decisions, and understand interactions and connection points to deliver delightful employee and customer experiences.
Hi, everyone. It is such a pleasure to be here today. I'm super excited to talk to all of you about the exciting work that my team is doing at VMware to transform it undercover. I want to share a little bit about who I am because I myself have gone on a transformation journey over the last 20 years or so. For the first 12 years of my career, that's me at the bottom right of the screen. I hid behind my beakers and spent a lot of time in the lab working on very exciting things for the papermaking industry. Yes, I looked for bacteria in paper. It was really exciting. After spending some time there, I decided that, yes, like my introduction, I do really enjoy working with people. So instead of doing experiments in the lab, I now do experiments on humans, which is a lot more fun, and organizations. I now have the privilege to lead my amazing team, and a subset of that you can see on the left-hand side of my slide. I lead the culture and change lifecycle team at VMware. When I'm not doing that, I am also climbing mountains. Back in October, I went to Mount Everest base camp, and it was one of the most profound journeys of my life. You will see a lot of mountain climbing analogies within my slides because it is near and dear to me, and we're always going on a journey and my team is always climbing the next summit. I want to tell you what I walked into when I walked into VMware about 18 months ago.
I think a lot of you have seen this picture. It should be very near and dear to all of your hearts, right? Agile was a bad word. Don't use that word. It is a bad word. We've tried it. It didn't work. Please stop using that word. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Customer? We don't have customers. We're in IT. We support internal teams. There's no customers. We don't make money for anything we do. We don't work with customers. And then there was a lot of silos. We like to build things in silos. What was in my box was in my box. I don't care what's in your box or this box or the other box. I work in my box. But there was a silver lining to all of this. Change management was going to make the magic happen. If we build it, they will use it, because change management is going to send an email and they're going to build a training deck. Poof. Done. The charter of change management at VMware was you will send an email and you will create a training deck when we tell you about what we tell you. Great. Change management is super useful, super valuable. However, this is where change management plays, right? See those little red bars overlapping that release time frame? That's where change management was brought in. Not in planning, not in execution, not in definition of anything. They were there at the 11th hour to build some emails and training decks. Oftentimes they were brought in so late that they couldn't even meet the release time frame. All of the information that was being pushed out, because nobody else was communicating to our end users, was coming after the release. We'll make a big change, but you won't hear about it for a week and a half, so you're trying to figure out, "What the heck did you do to my system?" How do you think that made our stakeholders feel? Super frustrated. We're building these disjointed things. We're building them in silos. We don't care about their experience. And we're releasing things ad hoc. There was no delivery predictability. Whenever the thing was ready, we released it. Front end was ready without the back end? Sure, let's go. They can write quotes. Somebody will catch them somewhere in a black hole. Or we'll build the back end and we'll screw up everything in the front end without an API to connect it. Great. How do you run a transformation in an organization like this? Well, I'll tell you. You do it undercover.
This wonderful group of change managers that were seen as so important rolled up under my organization, my brave organization of two people. The team came over, and this is what the team felt like. Again, seen as super important, because they are the ones that are putting all of this information out to the broader organization and telling them what's changing. Again, no seat at the table, no ability to participate in any kind of planning or execution decisions, lack of visibility into what's going on. Nothing was done by persona. Persona was but a pipe dream. We did everything by projects, and these projects were super disjointed. There was absolutely no ability to think about the experience of our end users. Also, this team was not used to saying no. When you're brought in at the 11th hour, do you even know what to say no to at that point? I don't think so. You just sit there, hunker down and get your job done. The team felt extremely defeated and they felt beat up. How do you transform an organization with a team that feels beat up, undercover or otherwise? Well, you have to start by transforming the team to make them a high-performing team that believes they can achieve anything. Lisa Atkins, anyone? That's exactly where we started. We needed to build a foundation of psychological safety. We started with a bold vision. We break down silos by working across our ecosystem and blaze the trail for persona-based, experience-led approach to change and transformation. There's a lot of really bold statements in here for our organization. One, we break down silos. We are not working project by project, box by box. We actually look at the entire process end to end, and we connect all of the dots. Next, we do everything by persona and experience, not by your pet project, your pet project, or your pet program. Everything is by persona. We really bring that end user lens to everything that we do. And ultimately, we drive transformation. This was a huge, bold vision. I'm not going to lie, the team was a little freaked out when I showed it to them the first time. They're like, "How the heck are we going to do this?"
We moved on to the second part of my plan, and that's to build trust. Not only did they have to trust me to lead them to achieve this vision, they had to trust each other to deliver it. I know all of you are coaches and leaders of teams and organizations. How have you all built trust within teams? Maybe one or two-word answers. Shout them out as they come to you. Communication. Collaboration. Empathy, that's right. Yes. Food, yes. Food and parties. Parties work really well. Yes, so one of the ways that we did that on my team is that we had each other's backs. Remember I told you we were brought in at the 11th hour? We were basically order takers, so we needed help to push back. Whenever we joined a meeting, we had each other's back. We never deviated from the vision. They knew that when I joined a call, I would have their back. And eventually, my leadership team started to emulate that behavior. Next, we trusted each other to deliver the vision. We needed everybody else to trust us as well. We did that by building empathy for our end users, right? We were serving a lot of different persona, and we decided that how we're going to build empathy is we're going to create all of our content by persona, not by project and not by program. To do that, we had to change our own behavior and how we talked to our various stakeholders. We actually had to care about what was going on within their organizations. We had to ask them what else was going on within their respective areas. Did they also have their own transformation they were doing? Did they have a number of layoffs? Did they just hire 50% of their new workforce? What was going on with them, and build that empathy for them, so that we can create those bespoke persona journeys for them, for all of the change that was coming out of our portfolio. Once we did that, we had our empowered, high-performing team that believed they could do anything. We started doing some of our own experimentation. I put my scientist hat back on, and we decided to do some experiments. One of the things is that a psychologically safe and empowered team will experiment and innovate freely, and that is precisely what they did. One of the things they wanted to experiment with was this end-to-end journey. Remember I showed you where they came in at the very end of the release? You can't do a proper impact assessment. You can't really assess what's going on within an organization when you're coming in at the 11th hour. You can't do it piecemeal.
What we do now is we look across our entire portfolio, we synthesize everything that is going to go live in a particular release, and we parse it out by persona. Somebody in sales only hears what goes on in sales. Somebody in deal management team only hears about what goes on with them. We really understand and let them tell us what is that experience like for them. That helps us create our persona-based content. We really work very closely with our end users to craft content that is relevant and meaningful to them. Not only do we do that, we also check in with them on a weekly basis. We have our change readiness sessions. You can't assess change readiness of an organization when you only talk to them right before the release goes live. We're having those frequent touch points. The beauty of our change readiness sessions is one, we are the only team in the portfolio that talks to 22 different persona within VMware. We bring that information back to our product folks, to our program folks, and we help them decide what goes into these releases. We've changed the behavior as early as this week. They are now calling us and they're asking, "Hey, can we come to your change readiness sessions?" Which is huge. Product talking to end users? Come on. That's a huge behavior change. This is where the fun part starts. We transformed our own team. Now we're transforming the broader organization. As we bring that end user mindset to every conversation, we are now influencing the mindsets and behaviors of others. One of the... It's not a crowning achievement, but one I'm pretty proud of.
Our product management organization does not believe that they have to talk to their end users. They now have change impact, early change impact assessment as part of the definition of ready for every single epic that they have to put into a release, which means, shock, they have to talk to the end user and have to validate that. Here's the thing I want to build. How impactful is it? Is it a big change, small change, or medium change? Never happened before, but now it's part of the definition of ready. I'm super proud of the team for doing that. We are also seen as the team that is the connective tissue between people, process, policy, technology, and data across. And I'll tell you, there's probably five or six different transformation efforts going on right now at VMware. We are the connective tissue across all of those. We are the only team that is looking at all of these different pieces and putting them together for our end users to be able to absorb and understand. And guess what? Product really likes that as well, so they're coming on board. They're coming to join us. Our change impact assessments and our readiness sessions. Right now, one of the things that VMware is experimenting with is having minor versus major releases. We started with quarterly releases. We had one release that we released on the date we said we were going to release it, which was pretty amazing. Now they feel really confident, and now they can do it monthly. So now we're moving to this monthly release cadence, and everybody's trying to shove as much functionality as they can into these things. Like, yes, we have all this capacity and we have this huge backlog, so let's just start shoving stuff in. However, if you talk to our end users, they're like, "Please stop, just stop. We can't absorb this much information, this much change all at once." We keep asking. Just because we can doesn't mean we should.
We have this conversation regularly with our program teams. Now what's happening is our change readiness scores are being used to determine how much functionality and how frequently it gets released to the broader organization. That's a really exciting thing. We went from being at the very tail end of the train, missing the mark with the release, to now, we are pervasive throughout the release process. We're part of planning, we're part of delivery, we're part of execution. Everywhere that you see the red bar, that's an end user perspective that is being applied to that conversation. We are really bringing that customer-centric mindset into every single conversation throughout the release cycle, which I'm super proud of that, and the team is super proud of that. Where are we now? We've climbed our first mountain. I feel like we have, at this point, transcended our original vision, and we have set forth a new vision to be the team that brings the purpose-driven culture to all of VMware. What's really exciting is that we have created this center of gravity with what we're doing because we have such an engaged team and just a happy team. We have a really happy team. Other parts of the organization are looking at us. By the way, we're also going through an acquisition, so there's not a lot of happy teams at VMware. They're looking at us and they're going, "What are you doing differently? Why are you all so happy and engaged? Why do you have no attrition on your team?" Now we're starting to build out a hub and spoke model. We are the hub, and there's other groups that want to be like us. We're sending our agents in there to infiltrate and help to drive those cultural and behavior changes that they need in order to be able to build their own high-performing teams that can deliver anything. We're constantly advocating on behalf of our end users.
You saw that in where we are throughout the release cycle. We are a trusted partner and a therapist to the 22 persona within the VMware ecosystem. Therapy is very important and we provide it for free. What I want you to take away from this talk is that transformation does not need to start with pomp and circumstance. We've all been there. We need to have leadership alignment. We need to have this huge kickoff. We need to have a transformation roadmap. We have these big workshops. It doesn't have to be that way. It can also start quietly with a team that's often overlooked, that does something differently, and it starts to catch and it starts to grow and it starts to impact the broader organization. So you can do transformation undercover. With that, I want to thank you all for your time.
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