Culture of Chaos ,Great cultures ,Popular Articles
Everything you know about change management is wrong. (Part 1)
In 1996, John Kotter rocked the business world with his international bestseller, Leading Change. Considered by many to be the seminal work in the field of change management, his 8-step process (outlined below), gave meaning and order to what felt like pure chaos through any big corporate change (a merger, a turnaround, a new system, an enterprise-wide software change – anything that requires a massive change in behavior).
Kotter’s 8 steps to transform your organization are brilliantly conceived. But that doesn’t mean it will work for you. A strategy cannot succeed without the proper culture, thus the famous adage, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
In fact, without the right culture, the 8 steps can cause more damage than if you had never followed it.
Any military commander can tell you there’s a well-crafted battle plan, and then there’s what actually happens on the battlefield. So what happens if soldiers are handed the plan without the skills or resources to deal with the inevitable situation when the train goes off the rails? They’re dead in the water. That’s what happens and that’s why most transformational efforts either fail or simply have lukewarm results.
Here are the three reasons why Kotter’s plan may fail you.
Basic behavioral psychology shows us that unless a change is universally positive, it will produce an emotional response. It will provoke denial, anger, resistance, and avoidance before it finally turns to acceptance.
Asking people to let go of the past way is asking them to move on. And when people are attached, moving on doesn’t happen without grieving.
And where does an 8-point strategic plan include the space to process the emotions of grief? It makes no sense, unless one is so focused on the future that they want to forget the past. That may seem like a good intention, but letting pain remain unprocessed is the equivalent of telling someone in a hospital bed to just get up. Resentment remains, and that can derail cooperation.
Kotter’s plan makes us feel comfortable because we think that we simply have to follow 8 steps in sequential order and then we’ll have our new initiative in place. But change doesn’t happen that way.
Change is messy. Change can look like moving backward or sideways, or in zig zags before moving forward. Change can bring up a lot of painful conversations. The 8 steps are an attempt to process people like they are part of a linear supply chain management procedure.
That’s why operations people love the 8 steps so much. They don’t want to hear about the most effective way to get messy. They want to clean things up as fast as possible and move on.
In reality, you may not get the vision right the first time around. You may need to return to it based on experimental data. The coalition team you assembled may fall apart. Those “short-term wins” may turn into short-term losses and people start to give up and want to “return to Egypt.”
At this point, you as the leader will have lost credibility. Your people will have lost faith in you, and the board will want to replace you with someone who can “drive it through.” But there was nothing wrong with your leadership. You were just trying to follow a strategy, rather than working with the culture first.
One of the most insidious beliefs in corporate management is that we can make people do things. If that were true, there would be no need for an 8-step process in the first place.
People can drag their feet in all kinds of ways, from being unproductive to outright sabotage. And most of it will happen below the radar.
So what happens if we give up entirely on the idea that we can make people do things? What if everything were optional? What if all meetings, initiatives, projects and tasks were voluntary?
Some people believe this would be total chaos. But if you have strong people who care about your company, what might happen if you set them free?
And if you don’t have strong people you believe in, then you have a much bigger problem than any new initiative. Luckily, there are three stages of real change for natural leadership to emerge. That’s for a future post.
The Washington Post reports on the trend of exhaustion in the article “Exhaustion is Not a Status Symbol.” An excerpt here:
It’s the whole adage of doing more with less. To be really honest with you, I don’t think it’s doable. The expectations of what we can get done, and how well we can do it, are beyond human scale.
And because there’s always this readily available technology and you can get your emails all night long, there’s no stopping and celebrating or acknowledging the accomplishment of anything. Instead of feeling pride or recognition, what everyone is instead made to feel is, “Thank God, I can get to the next thing on my list.”
It’s strange to think of it as a business skill, but pausing to reflect and to celebrate is a habit I see in strong cultures. Google still hosts weekly town hall meetings with the founders. Zappos shuts down the entire company for half a day, four times a year, just to celebrate and learn.
Have you made celebration an unbreakable ritual?
I joined a stand up comedy class to improve my public speaking.
Or perhaps I’m just taking on more fears because I have to tell you – If you’re scared of public speaking, stand-up makes a speech feel like your own Bar Mitzvah.
My first time in class I bombed. And I felt depressed afterward. It felt like being picked last in gym class. But I was determined to be funnier. I studied the book, I went to comedy clubs, I looked for jokes everywhere I went. And it felt awful.
I suddenly related to the stereotype of comedians being depressed and lonely inside. I didn’t laugh as much because I was too busy deconstructing humor. And I certainly was not present for my life as I kept thinking about new material.
Ironically I was not listening to the advice I was telling friends and my own clients…
“Stop trying so hard.”
I did stop trying so hard. I stopped trying completely. I told my teacher I quit. Life is too short. I want my peace of mind back.
She told me I’m overthinking it and promised that if I come back she won’t let me down.
“Remember when I said comedy can drive you crazy if you let it? It’s just another thing the voice in your head is using. And if you quit now, that voice will tell you that you never even gave it a shot.”
I realized that at a sheer minimum this is an exercise in commitment – seeing something through from start to finish.
The next day in class we did a writer’s workshop, giving feedback and ideas on each other’s material. It was such a breath of fresh air to feel like part of a team again. I thought stand-up had to be lonely and it doesn’t. (I love that feeling of old beliefs falling off).
So now it’s Friday. There’s an open mic at 8pm. The sun is setting. I sit outside with my laptop, organizing my material. I feel so peaceful in my entire body. Something feels very right.
I print out my material and go to the garage to practice. I’m amazed that I can do most of the act without looking at my notes. The material feels great. I don’t know if it’s funny, but I enjoy saying it.
As I drive to the open mic, I’m in the flow. Every song on the radio sounds perfect. I envision myself on stage. I’m not even thinking about the laughs. I’m just thinking about how good it feels to be up there.
No matter what happens tonight, I did it. I feel like I’ve already won.
I arrive and there are 11 comics ahead of me. I remember our teacher saying that open mics are really just tests, so a lot of their material won’t be funny (And comedians don’t laugh a whole lot to begin with).
Well, not this night. Each person feels like they’re nailing it! I’m forgetting about my fears just because I’m laughing so much. I’m touched by their honesty and their vulnerability. I find myself oddly proud of them and rooting for them.
It’s my turn. I go up and my material flows out. People are laughing – sometimes just one person, but sometimes the crowd. By no means am I killing it, but it feels like a party compared to bombing.
I feel peaceful, confident, in the flow. My 5 minute act feels like 30 seconds.
I stay for more acts, then head home and sleep peacefully.
I thought comedy was analogous to public speaking (if you think of public speaking like going into the army, and comedy like joining the Navy Seals).
In public speaking, you can be a natural. With great presence and great stories you can kill it right out of the gate. But in comedy, the best will take you it takes 10 years.
I’ve realized comedy is less like public speaking and more like music. It’s all about timing, rhythm, flow, tone. And how many people pick up a guitar and instantly play songs?
It’s about word choice, and body language. And it’s about running experiments with different deliveries. It’s classic practice and play over perfection.
I don’t know where I’m going with this art, this craft (or this blog post!). But as always, I’ll keep you posted. Thanks for coming along with me for the journey.
At my 20-year high school reunion I ran into a friend who is now a director. When I told him about my work he said culture means everything for a great production. I was surprised. I thought the industry was driven by great individual talents. I thought great culture would be a “nice to have” but not a total necessity to create great movies and TV.
“People don’t know this but when you watch a scene and you’re not feeling it, there’s often a breakdown on the set. Cast are fighting with each other or the crew is upset, and they bring all of that with them to the scene.”
I started to notice the TV shows I like and realized that I can feel it. The distinction for me is I can tell when the actors really love each other. It’s easy to see it in a show like Orange is the New Black. You can tell they’re at the top of their game and they love working with each other.
I noticed that Ed Catmull confirmed the importance of culture in his book about the Pixar creative process. He was asked when he decides to let the director and crew run with a project and when they intervene. He answered saying it’s simple: They are completely hands off, letting the creative team do their thing, unless… the crew is not getting along. That’s when it goes off the rails. And that’s when they step in.
I’m sure they have ways to get back on track. For me, it’s the Obstacle Breakthrough process I describe in The Culture Blueprint. It’s a process of airing out all of the bad in a safe way, then acknowledging what’s really working well and then creating a shared future.
What do you do when your team or project goes off the rails?