It’s a cliche that organizations and people resist change. This cliche is nicely embedded into change management initiatives to “manage resistance” – although way less frequently than you may think. When it happens it is done politely, in a civilized way, usually by cheerful facilitators.
I think this whole thing is comical.
Reality is much more brutal. A good analogy is if we think about the organization as a body whose most vital functions we can’t control directly and quickly.
If we work on the execution of ideals that force the body out of inertia it will brutally pull us back. Marathon runners, long distance swimmers, pearl divers experience this at critical milestones and martial artists understand how important it is to maintain form when the body already gave up: the (control over) form brings the body back.
Before we set out to execute our plans we must address the somatic reflexes: we must be aware of them and brutally repress them until they are transformed and obey us; yes: this will often result in nausea, dizziness, fainting or worse; if you are serious be prepared and follow through.
I have witnessed several corporate transformation initiatives both in mature and young organizations, where the concept and the strategy was beautiful, the management team was talented and capable but the somatic reflex of the organization sabotaged the efforts… and in the worst case scenarios leadership simply gave up.
The most typical scenarios: we have become slow, we miss opportunities, the markets change way faster than we do. We MUST become nimble in our decision making process, in product launches, we must redefine how we reach our customers, we must hear and respond to their needs at light speed. We must transform the organization.
The company comes up with a new strategy, brings in a new leader or both and then starts executing as it’s usually done, following best practices, etc.; promises and commitments are made in context of the desired changes!
Then, very often quite early in the process, the organization, including the project owners, the project sponsors, the very people who launched the initiatives, literally shows the middle finger. These are the moments when you realize that the organization does have an identity that integrates everybody after all!
Promises are broken, commitments are withdrawn, incredibly creative excuses are invented, the conditions that were so ideal at launch ALWAYS deteriorate and the person who is responsible for seeing it through is left alone, often isolated and literally suffocated. The body wants to be left alone.
In such instance the person responsible finds himself in a career defining moment (corporate transformations don’t come along that often…yet):
Maintain form or succumb to the body.
If the person simply gives up, it will be easy to rationalize the failure: it was a complex issue with many stakeholders involved, the challenge was bigger than expected, unforeseen circumstances forced management to reshuffle the budget, etc. The person will get great references (he didn’t step on toes after all) and move on.
IF the person decides to fight and the company actually completes the transformation most of the participants will be heroes and the project will definitely decorate many resumes for years to come, contributing to stellar careers and everything that goes with it.
But the truth is: the person may easily die fighting (get fired, buried/demoted, etc.) even if he’s smart and does the basics right.
So if you find yourself in the driving seat of corporate transformation AND you are ready to fight the fight no matter what, don’t forget to address the somatic reflex of the organization:
– clearly articulate the patterns you want to change that currently define the organization; make everybody aware! Re-enforce their commitment. Get their permission to push them. Ask them to push you. Pick a team that -besides you- is also ready to make serious sacrifices.
– clearly articulate what it means in practical terms to break the identified patterns and repeat the first point: make everybody aware! Re-enforce their commitment. Get permission to push them! Ask them to push you! Have confidence that your team is also ready to make sacrifices.
– put the taboos on the board for everybody to see: doing the following (that pulls us back) is forbidden: it’s simply not an option for anybody and we will hold each other accountable.
It’ll be still a tough fight, taboos will be broken, you may still get fired, transferred, replaced, whatever: but you’ll know you have fought a good fight and fighting a good fight and loosing is much preferable in the leadership domain than fighting a bad fight and not getting hurt: nobody wins in a bad fight in the long run.