Most change agents don’t survive their own change. Of course the organization needed to change. Of course they were brought in to lead that change. But the change process is often so painful and so many “good” people have to go away that the change agent becomes an ongoing reminder of bad times. Stepping into the brighter future requires a new leader. Change agents that do survive their change either lead an evolutionary change or have a fall guy.
If you’re going to shock the system and you want to survive, you need a fall guy to be the voice of the change, manage processes and get publicly hung to signal the end of the change. This could be an outside consultant or a trusted lieutenant that you bring in on a temporary basis. In either case, be clear with them that their job is to manage the change and then go away, compensated appropriately, so you can tell everyone how glad you are they are gone and get back to the new normal.
The key to successful cultural evolution is pulling the right levers in the right way at the right time over time. Pull too many too fast and the organization will reject the change – and you. Pull too few too slow and you won’t get traction. Your focus must be on attitudinal change, led by relationship and behavioral change.
Let’s unpack that. As described in my earlier article on "Corporate Culture: The Only Truly Sustainable Competitive Advantage," culture is a combination of behaviors, relationships, attitudes, values and the environment. Attitude is the pivot, nested within the other pieces. In brief:
Environment: Where to play/context – Figure out who cares most.
Values: What matters and why/purpose – This is bedrock and hard to change.
Attitude: How to win/choices – Change the frameworks to change the thinking.
Relationships: How to connect/communication – Change the words and narrative.
Behaviors: What impact/implementation – Change the processes to embed new habits.
Order counts. If you choose to evolve the culture, converge first, learning and using their vocabulary. Then bring in new frameworks to change their thinking. Then start creating a new narrative to drive the emotional changeover. Then, finally implement new processes to make a lasting impact.
As Covey told us, seek first to understand. Understand the current state of the organization’s environment, values, attitudes, relationships and behaviors. Learn and use their vocabulary. Honor their traditions.
Then, when ready, introduce new frameworks. You’re not suggesting their current thinking is flawed or their ideas are wrong, which would be threatening. You’re just bringing the benefit of new ways of thinking about things for them to apply. This will help them contribute or co-create new insights, conclusions and choices, leading to new behaviors, keys to higher levels of engagement. It’s the difference between teaching them new ways of fishing versus giving them new fish.
Once the leadership starts to embrace the new frameworks (and resulting choices), it’s time to start changing the narrative. We all communicate with stories. You don’t have to become the storyteller-in-chief. You don’t have to change the vocabulary. But you do need to become the narrator-in-chief curating what stories get told by whom when to promote emotional adoption of the new direction.
Not sure I can emphasize this enough. Without deep emotional commitment to the new culture throughout the organization, the change will not take root and last.
Processes are one of several mechanisms to embed new habits. In brief, per my earlier article on policies and guidelines:
Policy: mandatory, definite course of method of action that all must follow.
Guidelines: preferred course or method of action that all should generally follow.
Mindset: way of thinking about actions.
Framework: basic supporting part or structure on which to build or act.
Process: series of actions that produce something or that lead to a particular result.
With the frameworks and narrative in place, you’ve already started to alter mindsets. Codify the new processes and then turn them into principles or guidelines and policies to help future leaders guide the organization going forward.
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