Cultural Evolutionaries

Leading Transformational Change in the Modern Workplace

If you have ever worked in an organization, it’s likely you have had this experience: Management heads off for a 2-day “strategic planning” retreat and returns inspired with big ideas and eager to get started on a bold new course of action to be rolled out with great fanfare and fervor! Most employees hate it when the management go on planning retreats because they know that at least in the short-term it means more work and change for them. I say “in the short-term” because most employees also know a little secret—if they just give it a few months, the excitement will die down, ideas for big change will be put on the back burner, old habits and comfortable work flows will settle back in, and all will return to business as usual. That is, at least until next year when the whole process is repeated.

And for many decades, this cycle of big, audacious ideas followed by a general return to comfortable norms and expectations doesn’t really do much damage to an organization. Sure, a new idea might have increased the bottom line a little, but sticking to tried and true “bread and butter” work also paid the bills quite nicely over the company’s history. But, the trouble with today’s modern workplace is that as we emerge from the Great Recession the old methods of “business as usual” aren’t working as well anymore. Perhaps it’s because the business is growing obsolete, or perhaps it’s that the customer base is evolving and you need your staff to evolve to serve new target demographics, or maybe the old ways have grown too expensive and your methods are no longer financially sustainable. For many businesses it’s all of the above!

And so it’s time for change. But not the big-announcement-followed-by-eye-rolling-in-the-breakroom kind of change – no, this time we mean real and lasting change – you know, the kind that means the culture needs to evolve. Oh yes, that’s right, there I said it. “CULTURE.” Now you know I mean business!

Why People Resist Change

Surviving and thriving in the new economy means most companies today need to embark on a path that involves significant change and transition. In our strategic work, we often hear senior executives complain that “employees resist change”. And that’s true, most employees do resist change. But it’s usually not in a malicious attempt to annoy senior executives or hold the company back – there are much deeper drivers at play. Many adults today are struggling in a world that is modernizing at a pace that’s simply not compatible with our rate of biological evolution. What this means is that most people resist change, not because they don’t want to succeed or excel, but because they are simply not able to comprehend, digest, and act upon all of the information coming at them in today’s technologically advanced society. Without the aid of big computers to crunch big data and spit out simple conclusions, most of us are downing in information – put simply, we are in over our heads.

Leading People Through Transformational Change

FACT: More attempts at changing organizational culture fail than succeed. One of the primary reasons for failure is that management is lacking a grounded understanding of what works to “trigger” change, and how to maintain change momentum over the long-term. In last week’s blog post, my partner Randy Harrington introduced the concept of being “thrown” – the basic idea that when we are confronted with a situation we don’t expect and we have no choice but to act, we tend to fall back on our core values as a mode for making decisions. These core values win out over all other decisional inputs when we’re operating under stress. Change is stress. Any attempt at change always involves risk and uncertainty, and in that kind of environment we fall back to our core values for guidance.

The implication is that if we want to change the way people think and behave, we must either (1) explain how the desired change aligns with the core values they already possess; or (2) change what they value.

Simple. But not easy.

Cultural Values and Change

The culture of an organization is made up of the assumptions, beliefs and values shared by the members of the organization. These assumptions, beliefs and values are generated through a combination of consistent leadership messages and the general norms and behaviors of the people working together in the organization. The culture affects the way individuals make sense of events, how they make decisions, and even the ways in which they will organize and retain information. So, for example, changes in leadership or significant changes in the employee population will naturally “disrupt” the culture and therefore often be met with strong resistance. But it is also this same sort of disruption that can work as a “trigger” that drives the impulse to change.

This may be why the fastest way to change organizational culture is to change the personnel of the organization. In management theory this approach is often referred to as the “baseball team model” for cultural change. The idea is to go out and recruit and hire the best and brightest people you can afford from external sources rather than developing and promoting people from within. Then let these “champions” of the change you are seeking take the lead and the rest of the team will follow – or be cut, should that need arise. This method is fast, but runs the risk of fostering deep, long-lasting divides between the old guard and the new guard in the company, creating an “us vs. them” mentality that rears its ugly head in later organizational efforts and initiatives.

While investing in the development of existing employees and creating an environment conducive to transformational change is often a longer and more complex journey to cultural change, the rewards of a loyal, engaged, and motivated workforce are well worth it. But this sort of transition will not happen without a dedicated and sustained leadership effort. If you are ready to make the investment, you will need to engage in a three-part strategy to succeed:

  1. Use the Art of Myth & Storytelling. There is no better way to guide people through times of complexity and instability than through the telling of myths and stories. While many companies choose to issue a “Nine-Pillar Strategic Plan” or a freshly revised “Financial Key Performance Indicators Scorecard” to kick off a cultural change effort, the problem is that financial models alone can’t explain the “reality” of an economy or industry in tremendous flux. People don’t naturally make meaning from financial statements. People make meaning from the myths and stories that help us explain our purpose, our world, and its varying demands. These myths and stories often explain and reinforce our values, which is why social historians believe they are the glue that binds cultures together. Like our values, stories can cut through the “noise” and can quickly make the complex clear. In the face of rapid technological advancement and information overload, myths and stories bring a sense of security to an otherwise unpredictable marketplace.
  2. Speak With One Voice. Countless studies of organizational change indicate that cultural shifts succeed when leadership speaks with one voice – offering clear and compelling messages that are grounded in basic “truths” and organizational values. Members of the leadership need to be telling the same stories, and those stories must connect the desired change to the values people hold most dear.
  3. Change the Environment. Because change is difficult and risky, people tend to avoid it unless they are challenged in some way. The challenge is the “trigger” event that necessitates change. This challenge doesn’t have to be a burning platform (though that can work quite well!) – it can be a positive opportunity like leading a project team, authoring a big proposal, or job shadowing another department. Without a challenge to operate as a trigger, most people won’t willingly engage in change. But posing a challenge is not enough to create an environment that fosters change, there must also be appropriate support. Because the change process is filled with uncertainty, anxiety and discomfort, support designed to lower stress, reflect on experiences, and evaluate capacity is critical. Support might take the form of coaching meetings, peer conversation groups, classroom time, high-potential development programs, and so on. Where most organizations fail is in posing the challenge but not providing the corresponding support necessary to create an environment for cultural change.

evolutionaries-coverIn researching successful drivers of change for our book Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership several shared characteristics of transformational or “Evolutionary” leaders emerged. One that stood out was how Evolutionary leaders tend to shun traditional change management programs in favor of more flexible and adaptable notions of “developing people through the work” –  using combinations of team and individual challenges, formalized coaching and support, and inspiring storytelling techniques to effectively facilitate learning and change in the midst of chaos. Sure, it’s not easy. It means there’s no fast food, drive-through, one-size-fits-all, seven habits, weekend bootcamp way to creating a “change-ready” organization. But that’s OK. We’re betting you’ll find the real rewards for your culture and your business well worth the long-term investment in the end!

About Carmen Voillequé

CEO of Best Practices Media.
Co-Founder of Strategic Arts and Sciences.

Voillequé is a senior consultant and partner with Strategic Arts and Sciences and the CEO of Best Practice Media. Her background features deep experience in education, curriculum development, and management training. Voillequé works with a wide range of client groups including government agencies, financial institutions, and health care companies. Last year Voillequé completed a scope of work that allowed all of the public and private agencies who serve the needs of children in Oregon to plan and work together to maximize resources. She is also a sought after speaker and strategic planner with a reputation for tackling tough issues.