Scaffolding – solidifying a change with temporary supports

Posted on September 19, 2022.
four people painting wall on scaffolding
Photo by SevenStorm JUHASZIMRUS on

Have you ever tried teaching a young child how to ride a bike? If you think about it from their perspective it’s a terrifying prospect. You’re asking them to give up their balance, voluntarily hurl themselves forward at speeds they’ve never generated on their own before and trust that, at some point in the future, there is some kind of payoff. You know there is because you’ve ridden a bicycle before. You’ve experienced all the good that comes from it. So you explain the process. You model it for the child. You sell them on the benefits. And then it’s time to ride. They try. They fall. You convince them to pick themselves back up and try again. With each attempt you support them by running behind them one hand on the seat ensuring an artificial balance that gives them a taste of the independence riding a bike can bring. 

Trying out a new way of working is similar. There are promises of future benefits with a series of immediate obstacles to overcome. As change agents we promote a similar “get back up and try again” attitude. We support with our coaching and our experience. But, have we ever considered what temporary supports, like running behind the early biker with a hand on the seat, might look like for us?

In recent years I’ve worked with some teams who were determined to build a more agile, customer focused way of working. After taking the proper trainings and building a shared understanding of their desired goal they continued to struggle to put the new ways of working into practice. In these cases, their change leaders looked for ways to build trust in the process as the teams practiced in a safe way. They decided to build in some scaffolding — support activities that, by their very nature, were temporary. The ideas was that once the teams didn’t need these supports any longer, they could easily be removed. Here are a couple of examples of what these teams have done:

Scheduling time in the calendar for new activities

A recent client decided that scheduling time in the teams’ calendars to practice specific product discovery activities was how they were going to build comfort and trust in the new process. Rather than waiting for teams to figure out when to use which technique they put invitations in the calendar for “write business problem statements” and “schedule 3 customer interviews” and other related activities. The client’s change agents wanted to make sure the teams remembered to try the new process. In this way, not only were the teams expected to do the work, there was an accountability system in place as well. 

As the teams’ comfort, success and maturity with the process improved the explicit, calendar-based prompts to “do the new process” were no longer necessary. The process had evolved to include these practices. At this point, the scaffolding was removed  revealing a smoother, cleaner process the team was doing all on their own. 

Measuring how many times process activities took place

Another practice a recent client began was setting success criteria for teams that measured how many times they executed specific parts of their new product discovery process. For example they’d measure how many customer interviews they held or how many experiments they ran. They set quarterly quotas for each team and held them accountable for “executing the process” a certain number of times. 

There was a time, not too long ago, where I was not very supportive of this type of scaffolding. In my, now-dated opinion, these were vanity metrics. It didn’t actually matter how many times a team talked to a customer or ran an experiment if they didn’t learn anything. In addition, there isn’t a specific number of interviews or experiments that is guaranteed to reveal the answer the team is seeking. However, I have changed my mind. 

By fixing activity quotas for the teams, the change agents ensured the team practiced the activities. At first, they didn’t a great job. With practice though, their experiments got better. Their interviews were sharper. Ultimately, their learning was more valuable. In the end the teams not only learned how to do the new work but built a level of comfort that made it simpler for them to integrate it into their process. And the scaffolding was removed again. 

If, after getting the right training and setting the right incentives, your teams are still struggling with process change consider putting up some scaffolding. Make the activities safe and clear. Give the teams the space to practice without consequence and help them build trust in the system while experiencing the benefits of the new ways of working. 

What type of scaffolding has worked well for you?