We've all heard this sort of thing before - "I can't swim 800m until I get fit enough!" or "we aren't ready for kids/pets/whatever". This really boils down to "I can't change until I am ready". Organizations are just the same. The need for an organization to embrace change is a reflection of its ability to read the market and move to take advantage of opportunities. Unfortunately organizations operate the same way as people; change is hard. Change is doubly hard in successful(1) organizations; after all they got where they are today with the process/structure/culture that is in place - why change?
This last is actually a corollary to the axiom that "change doesn't happen at the pace that you want it to." Change will either come too quickly or too slowly. In some cases some of the change will occur too quickly and the rest too slowly, or in others, vice-versa. The key here is to accept that change is a process and that achieving goals requires change.
Take the case of Uber - a company that embraced a toxic brogrammer culture and made itself into a unicorn. Why on earth should they change? They went from 1 smallish city (sorry San Francisco, but it's true) to a global force in 6 short years before they saw the fallout from their culture. In financial terms they launched in June 2010 with angel investment. Grabbed capital investment of a huge $1.25MM (yup - that's a decimal point) 6 months later and watched Kalanik take over right around then. The next 6 years (2011-2017 inclusive) saw a meteoric rise - from Series A in Jan 2011 ($11MM) to a 3 stage Series E in 2014 totalling $2.8BN At the time of the IPO they were at $82BN
The fall from grace and the damage to their reputation has been dramatic. The IPO failure has been seen by some to be because they waited too long for change, not only in the culture, but also in their approach to going public.
So what could have happened to continue the success? The same thing that makes all businesses successful, whether they are Google or Bob's Own Software Store. Change and adaptation.
That's at the company level. But what about at the internal team level? The same is true. Companies that let their engineers revel in their past produce technology that remains rooted in the past. New practices and tools introduce solutions to known problems. The failure to adopt new practices or tools stagnates the team in the following ways
- Ongoing Learning
Clearly then, embracing change is important - so why is it so difficult?
Firstly change is hard. It involves being self-aware and objective. It also involves setting clear milestones and striving to achieve them. This has to be done while remaining healthy. It is easy to fall back into old patterns because they are comfortable and, crucially, faster than the new processes/tools because of familiarity. This familiarity is a huge time savings, it removes the learning curve.
Secondly there are real concerns about being "ready" for change. Getting the mindset in place to accept change is key to being able to handle change. As humans, we managers (and yes, we are human, mostly) know that top down delivery of edicts isn't going to work. Getting consensus to change therefore becomes important, and as we all know - consensus is hard to achieve without data.
Thirdly, there is a high value placed on predictability and risk reduction. These 2 qualities tend to go hand in hand and lead to slower adoption of change because the risks are unknown. (see the C&H cartoon from my last post : C&H at gocomics )
Within those 3 reasons though, lies the approach that should embrace change. After all, the team didn't have "old patterns" or "familiarity" when it started out... knowing this then, should be a way to overcome that "legacy" process/tooling/etc hurdle (the costs here are obvious - time and learning curve). The same is true of risk reduction - the team didn't really know what the risks were when they started, so they looked at them as obstacles to be overcome, not things to be avoided. As for being ready for change, companies grow up with the idea of change as part of their DNA. It is an incredibly rare company that has the mission "keep the status quo".(2) Even when looking at conservative politicians, none of them are trying to keep the status quo. They are about creating spaces for change, even if it is changing back to a different position.
With this in mind, then, it becomes clear that change is something that should be accepted and embraced. It is probably a good idea to take a quick look here at the type of change. Change for the sake of change is detrimental because it doesn't build on previous lessons. Just because something is shiny and new doesn't mean it is something that you should move to. However, identified change and specifically planned identified change is something that we as an industry really do well. Tool sets improve. Companies will adopt them when they are seen to be useful. This sort of change is welcome and can be easily planned for and can bring huge benefits.
So - re-iterating - Planned, Identified change is something that should be accepted and embraced. Without accepting that this will happen, then the change itself CANNOT happen effectively. Take for example the person that wants to quit smoking. In order to quit smoking, there are some things that need to happen:
a) the smoker cannot buy cigarettes
b) don't put the smoker in a place/situation where smoking is a norm
c) provide crutches/small steps for where the addiction is too hard
Note that this is exactly the behavior that a non-smoker has. A non-smoker doesn't buy cigarettes. Most non-smokers don't frequent smoke shops or places where smoking is normal. Non-smokers have a variety of other habits that are different than the smoker and that replace smoking (e.g. get a coffee, go for a run, knit, etc.)
Physical addictions (like smoking) are truly the epitome of "not ready". With an addiction, it's not fear of not succeeding that holds sway. The body itself has been given stimuli that it now requires in order to function properly. No body and nobody is ready to quit something to which it/they are addicted. The mindset that overrides that is "it will be better after the hard work, BUT THE WORK MUST BE DONE".
This reminds me of the old “how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? - only 1 but it has to really want to change” joke. When we look at change in our organization, we have to accept that the change is going to happen. If you want a transparent culture, for example, it is important to embody that transparency - whether or not we are “ready for it”. The very act of being transparent brings about transparency.
|| A quick aside. It is often said that people do not resist change that they believe is in their best interests! So - coaching note, it isn’t about the fact that the change is in their best interest. It’s about the BELIEF that it is in their best Interest. Anyway back to the post. ||
When we want to stop smoking, the first thing that we do after deciding to quit is to not have a cigarette. A triathlete wanting to run an Ironman? She starts training like an Ironman. A couch potato wanting to run a 5k? He gets off the couch and starts walking. The very fact that these people have accepted that the change is going to happen means that they start the change. And the start of the change drives the change.
This acceptance comes also with the proviso that the change is going to be hard, and that it will bring about new experiences. And that we need to adapt to these new experiences. This understanding that adaptation is a consequence of the process of change and not the change itself is key to the adoption of the change itself.
Take the organization that wants to move from a siloed model to a collaborative working model. The first thing to do here is to start collaborating. This will throw up all sorts of issues. The commitment to this change though means that the collaboration will start to spread. It is so easy to slide back into previous patterns, but the commitment to the change means that each occurrence is met with a renewed vigor to adapt to the problems thrown up.
Of course, this requires a vision that the longer term goal is worth the pain of short term failings. Take our siloed to collaborative organization. Likely things will move more slowly during the adoption of this change. People are used to being able to do things in their own way without involving others. People will feel second-guessed, empire builders will try to influence things their way, and projects will feel as though they are stalled. BUT it is clear that collaborative teams are able to more effectively execute, with greater speed and accuracy - ONCE they have sorted out how to collaborate. And every organization is different - there is no map to this that can just be laid down and followed.
The direction is clear - Adopt the behavior, and Adapt to the problems that come up, because once the change is embraced and is working well, the team becomes adept. Once our old siloed team is adept at collaboration, then the benefits become much clearer.
We must also recognize that the change is not the goal. The continued evolution of the system is the goal. This is akin to the crash diets that many of us have been on. We believe that it is in our best interests to be at a healthy weight (whatever that might be for each of us). We start cutting calories, or eating only avocados or drinking 2,467 glasses of water a day or whatever, and we achieve our target weight of $RAND kilos. At this point, we are human and we say “YAY! I have achieved my goal!” and we stop. We go back to cake and wine. We stop running, we add toast to our avocados or whatever. And guess what - sooner or later we find ourselves back in the state that prompted the change in the first place.
Change is a move to a new mode of behavior. That new mode also takes work to maintain. The same is true of work behaviors - work change. When we change things we aren’t trying to achieve some mythical goal where everything “just works” because that doesn’t exist. What we are trying to do is optimize for whichever behavior we have set our sights on. This means that even when we Adopt a change, we Adapt to the change itself, and we become Adept practitioners of the change, the fact is we still need to practice the change.
So... Overall, when we want to make changes within a system - be that a person, a team or an organization, we need to map out a path:
- Show the benefits to the audience in such a way that they believe that the change is in their best interests - this takes time, persuasion and data.
- Adopt the change in a planned manner, but avoid the trap of “we aren’t ready”. Adopt the change before the state of readiness. Plan the change, and adopt it as soon as is practicably feasible.
- Adapt to the changing circumstances as they arise. Keeping an eye on the prize (See #1 above) so that when slipping back into old habits, the commitment to the change is renewed with enthusiasm and understanding
- Recognize that becoming Adept at the new model is a result of the process of change, and not because the change itself is intrinsically easier/more effective/self sustaining.
All of this is a very long winded way of saying that the way to becoming good at something is to do the thing that you want to be good at. And keep doing it. And keep ON doing it.
If you want to have an organization that is collaborative and open and transparent? Collaborate with your peers, be open with your teams, and be transparent about what you are doing.
Even if “you aren’t ready yet”
(1) or those that think of themselves as successful
(2) originally this read “No company has ever had the mission ‘keep the status quo’.” I really can’t think of a company that has this, but I am sure that at least one of my readers will let me know.