Getting Down to the Bare Bones of Change
A rut is a grave with no ends – Alan Lampkin
If you are working in any kind of corporate role in the last few weeks no doubt you’ve more than likely heard the words, “change is the only constant around here.” So many organizations are either up against the ropes fighting out defensive positions in their marketplaces or taking proactive offensive moves by self-disrupting their own business models. Either way ground shifting or even seismic change is unfolding which is destabilizing the footing for a large percentage of folks clocking in every day. Indeed we live in VUCA times – times of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.
VUCA will force organizations to not only evolve their business models but substantially evolve their change management capabilities to entirely different levels or most likely they will not survive the rigors of change acceleration demanded in the 21st century. Current research is not promising – 70% of large change initiatives fail. So a tipping point is staring us in the eye right now on what to do about creating a company that can change rapidly.
The organizations that master their own evolution will do so in ways that seem counter intuitive to what most companies are trying today…
It won’t be about just getting the smartest, most technically domain rich talent on the floor and cranking them through the paces – it won’t be about more spreadsheets, pivot tables, and piling on even more data and analysis, and it won’t be about hiring more management consultants to deliver more studies. It will come down to culture focused on serious commitment to employee and talent engagement tied firmly to executive leadership vulnerable enough to fully tune into exactly whatever creates passionate focus for employees to feel the fruits of their labor in meaningful ways.
What we’ll learn in the 21st century is that the “soft stuff” of employee engagement, passionate connectivity into your workforce, articulation of purpose, activation of community, robust talent development, building high EQ collaborative environments isn’t soft stuff – it is survival. In fact, this soft stuff is the hard stuff. This represents the very bones of any company….without these bones, standing up any change is nearly impossible.
Ok. There is an exception…. but it is temporary.
The largest exception to this commonly occurs when a business model is existing within a momentary sweet spot in a marketplace – in that, there is little competition and the market remains “wide open.” It’s common to see companies thriving while riding on the back of a well-timed business model that is delivering a basic value promise the market is ready for and needs. Success in this stage can cover many sins – such as low investment in practical human resource disciplines, little talent development or succession planning, and a culture that instead of being intentionally built – is entirely dependent on the personalities at the top and/or its history. Although once either the strongest cultural leader exits or the market shifts into serious competitive volatility– the engine of deep engagement – the bones have to be there to weather the change.
The trap senior leadership teams risk falling into is this sneaky bubble that can easily form around them through interesting theory (backed by data), their own creative thoughts, and too few within the delivery of the business willing to challenge them. Senior leadership teams have a tough job. They have to predict a future they can’t always easily see. They put their jobs on the line and need to place some bets. They are doing this in increasingly challenging times. In fact right now, as elegantly illustrated TED talk speaker Eddie Obeng, the pace of change has overtaken the pace of learning. By the time we publish our forecasts and budgets they are already obsolete. Yet it is incredibly easy for executive teams that work with thoughtful consultants, data, and live in the “what if” of business theory to become comfortable with the notion that the organization feels the way they do about change. They can also dangerously underestimate workforce capacity and the emotional energy it takes for those in the business to execute change while delivering stretch goals in current state at the same time. If we look at engagement and employee motivation through the compelling work from Daniel Pink researcher and author of Drive, The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, people are motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Essentially we all love the kind of work where we can see the fruits of our labor make a difference – and we ourselves can grow our talents to give more in bigger ways.
So here is the subtle rub specific to employee motivation that makes change so difficult in the trenches…
Your most passionate and engaged people in the organization in most cases specifically experience how they make a difference for the company. They created a level of mastery in their role. They can feel it, hear it, and talk to it. Often when very large and encompassing change initiatives come into their world what tends to happen is everyone loses their day job. The job becomes much more about “working on the business” than “doing business.” We might say to folks, ok – do both – do your day job and the change job at the same time. Stress levels rise as two things impact highly engaged folks – they lose their clean sense of experiencing the fruits of their labor and they are working physically and mentally beyond their capacity – all of this saps their emotional energy. Some experience serious physical illness. Additionally, if there are no bones in the company meaning – the culture is weak, the purpose the binds the company isn’t understood, people feel like a number versus a part of a caring community, and there is little attention to cultivating engagement or on-going learning – then the engaged employee just lost the only thing in their immediate world that gave them their deepest purpose –their difference making that was always right in the backyard of their own job.
In addition to this subtle rub that risks impacting some of the most passionate performers there is a more systemic challenge when organizations take on too much change at once.
Change has to happen fast and it feels like we have no time to wait for any part of it – yet we may need to pick our lead horse. Failing to prioritize, stage step, ensure simple focus, and give people landing points to stabilize and deliver for while (to let them see hey we got this far and it worked) induces changes we don’t want. Instead of shifting the system we break it. When the system is overwhelmed and heading for complete shut down here are few concerning symptoms to watch for:
- No one has a clear sense of who is in charge, who owns a decision, or how to influence a key decision that is holding up critical and evident progress
- People are afraid to do their jobs – sticking your neck out is viewed as dangerous – so too many people play along to get along – tough issues grow and fester into unrecoverable problems are left to the side
- Turnover increases and some of the very best talent leaves
- Politics and fear increase so there is less and less candor being passed upwards or around at time when learning as we’re going couldn’t be more crucial to surviving
- People are more reactive than proactive cross functionally – (ask they draw a pie chart on this one)…
- Large meetings are gathered and there is a good vibe but little changes when people go back into their areas
- Simple things that created rapid value the business and customers still need and expect have become tedious and arduous to deliver
- People feel they aren’t using the full capacity of their talent
- Business performance is waning
That 70% rut of change failure is easy to understand.
What to do? Well we can’t say – retreat to status quo. Organizations must not only change but also become very, very good at change – yet it can’t be done without your bones. Do you have the bones for change? Ask this…
- How intentional are we about building culture here? Are our words consistently followed by meaningful actions create a culture something your truly experience across the company? How would everyone around here answer this, “what is the spirit of the company right now?”
- Am I as one of the top leaders feeling sucked into the weeds as much as the people reporting to me? Am I running between fires?
- In each areas of the company where do we see the most passion and difference making? What is the real story there? What do those people know that we could learn? How do we preserve that passion and repurpose that difference making through this change?
- Beyond our financial targets is there a shared and known aspirational purpose which ignites people to care about fighting through our tough seasons? Do they see where we are going? Do we they have real input?
- For the core groups, teams, leaders in the middle of the organization who are critical to drive and deliver this change – how are we setting them up to be successful? What will they need to let go of? What will they possibly gain if we work through this? What structural, managerial, and emotional support will they need? How do we help them learn to have productive meetings and make empowered decisions without the top approving everything small thing they do?
- Are we asking total strangers in the organization with different beliefs about the company to come together for the first time to work on very complex issues and if we are:
- How can we help them create more trust and empathy to understand their backgrounds before they come into the heat of the moment to work on hard issues?
- How do we create and model an environment for peer to peer feedback and accountability so they are equipped to get through the Crucial Conversations™ that will inevitable surface through this change?
- Are our expectations around current business delivery and change deliverables reasonable? How do we encourage them to not fear calling “uncle” when the capacity to get it all done just has been exceeded.
There is a way to avoid the perils of change. It’s all in the bones – the hard stuff of engaged and tuned in top teams, intentional cultural engagement, commitment to aspirational purpose, and robust talent development. Does this company have the courage to take the counter intuitive path toward its future? What change leadership bones have you experienced – would like to hear!