Transformational Change – An idealist’s point of view
How to create it and make it a more energising, humane process
I’ve been an organisationalchange consultant for over a decade. Early in my career, I remember when organisational changes were being announced, glossy banners and presentations would be shared around declaring “change is the new norm.” It seemed that if we normalised change, that people would buy into it. Recently, I was on a webinar and heard “transformation is the new norm.” I paused for a moment, slightly shocked, and realised, “wow that feels very true.” The stakes have become even higher; we’ve upped the ante on change in the workplace.
So what really is transformation demanding of organisations if it’s becoming the new norm? Well, at the heart of any transformation is a big ask of us as humans to behave differently. Whether you want to drive more innovation, be more agile, become more customer centric, implement process rigor, enhance your risk and compliance frameworks, etc., at the end of the day your transformation programs all need organisational culture to change in order to succeed.
Some people miss the boat on this point, so let me say it again. If you want your transformation programs to succeed, you must address your organisational culture.
Are you still with me? Ok. Well, say you buy into this line of thinking but find yourself thinking, “where do I start with organisational culture?” Seems big and vague. Organisational culture is made up of various components so let’s use a very simple framework – the cultural iceberg model – to explain. At the depth of every culture, hidden below the surface, are a set of assumptions and beliefs about how things work. As humans are wired to connect and fit in, their less evolved brain tells them that their first and foremost task in being a part of an organisation (or any group of people) is to figure out “how things work around here” whether they are stated explicitly or not. Talk to any new hire and ask about their observations and this will give you a really good indication about your organisation’s culture.
There are two challenges that arise up until this point. Firstly, leaders who want to drive transformation don’t always understand that this involves cultural change. Secondly, if they do make that connection, they typically start with changing structures (e.g. re-structuring their team, introducing new systems, policies, or processes, hanging up fancy posters that outline their values, etc.) rather than beliefs, which leads to superficial outcomes and shallow change. And let’s face it, if you don’t recognise this, chances are the process you undertake will be unnecessarily painful and stressful.
What if you’re the leader that decides to do it differently? What if you do understand that to drive transformation, you must change the culture and that you need to address the deeper beliefs of an organisation to create real, sustainable change? You may also sense that there’s a better way to create change – one that is more energising, exciting, and frankly more humane. (I hope you are!) While every organisation size, scale, scope, history, industry, etc. are different, over the course of my consulting career, a few things remain the same in trying to change culture at the “beliefs” level. Based on my own experience, I propose a more energising and humane change process here:
1. Even if your organisation’s culture is toxic, you must start from a place of appreciation.
Your organisation has survived, maybe even thrived, until this point. Something about your culture has created a level of success. Take a moment to really reflect on and understand why your culture is what it is, clarify what cultural elements should be appreciated and preserved, and only then start to identify what cultural elements are not serving this organisation anymore. Giving time and attention to making a clear and informed decision on what to let go of is extremely valuable in recognising that the culture isn’t “bad”; it may have bad elements in it that have creeped in over time but inherently there is no such thing as a bad culture.
2. Sense-making is a key part of defining and enabling change.
Once you’ve decided that there are some clear cultural elements you want to let go of, sense-making is, in my humble opinion, the only way to help people move through the change. Most cultural change programs focus on defining a case for change. Well, yes, this still holds true. However, it’s the process of defining the case for change that has become stale and ineffective, almost sterile. Sense-making involves engaging with people to have conversations that reflect on past, present, and future. Plainly stated, we need to understand how we got here. Why do we feel now is the time to change our culture? And if we decide to take action now, what do we hope to influence for the future? As one of my mentors once said, “change is built on a firm foundation of the past,” and we need to understand and appreciate the past in order to influence the future.
3. You must create focus. It is unrealistic to have it all.
Most organisations, if they’ve gone through this process, will likely have a list of 5 or more things they want to change. Most organisations will also tell you that their people are struggling with change fatigue. Proliferation is the enemy of change, and it dilutes your ability to successfully drive change. In this world of information overload, multiple priorities, and fast pace, I dare to challenge all my clients to get down to 1 change they want to see that will help them start the cultural change process. It doesn’t mean they have to only stick with one forever, but in order to ignite change, it must be easy to understand, digestable, and desirable. Focus is your friend.
4. Enlist others in the organisation to co-create the future.
Any external person driving the program should also support this process and design ways to solicit meaningful input in a structured way, as it is you and your workforce that will live in this new cultural home. It is also you and your workforce that best know how things work today and how you would like things to work tomorrow. Engage as many people as possible. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to be involved in everything, just the conversations and decisions that really matter. This is your best chance at making the changes stick and energising people around topics that should matter dearly to them – how they and others treat each other and behave at work.
5. Make possible incremental change.
Sometimes leaders get hung up on the word “transformation”, assuming it implies big, grand sweeping changes. Well yes,it does, but major changes only happen as a result of small, incremental, and daily shifts. When there isn’t an immediate crisis on your doorstep driving rapid, significant changes, incremental change can be your best friend in helping people adapt over time in a way that is supportive and energising. And for many who are affected by multiple changes across the organisation, incremental change may be all that they can handle.
6. Hold each other accountable.
Say you’ve made it all the way to this step, now you must draw on some seriously emotionally intelligent skills – giving feedback. Maybe you saw one team member not holding up their end of the bargain, or your leader has slipped back into old habits. What should you do? Give feedback. What do most people do? They let it slide. And this triggers a shadow process that begins to eclipse all your efforts at driving change. Given enough sliding and time, this shadow process will overtake the change process and become the norm again, leaving all your hard work a distant memory and instead creating another change horror story that ends up in the transformation program graveyard.
7. Come together to reflect and refine.
The final step that underpins it all is probably the hardest step of all. Progress can only really be seen and appreciated when you are able to pause and reflect. Because of the pace of change, many organisations skip this step of reflecting to take stock of what has happened, what worked well, and what needs refining. This step need not take a lot of time, only the discipline of consistency. The change process is never linear and never perfect, you must reflect and refine as part of the process. This is also key to creating resilience so that people can celebrate progress and achievements along the way.
Over the course of the next few months, I’ll deep dive into each of the above topics to explore them more in depth. More specifically, I’ll offer stories and case studies to bring the ideas to life as well as share where I see most organisations get stuck. Finally, I’ll offer simple strategies to experiment with and take action. I’ll also invite questions, so please post your comments and questions.