After the enthusiastic response to the February Masterclass on Bendelta’s Alchemy of Change framework, it has been a great pleasure to deliver this Masterclass again in both Sydney and Melbourne this week. This was followed by a major breakfast event in Brisbane, using the Alchemy of Change framework to understand transformation at the individual, organisational and societal levels. Finally, Anthony hopped over to Auckland to work with a leading professional services firm looking to drive change in their culture.
The diverse but related experiences prompted me to consolidate some of the key insights on what is needed for successful change, especially if it needs to be widespread, transformational, rapid and sustained:
1. It’s about the how, not the what
Knowing the steps of a change framework doesn’t count for much. While bringing project management disciplines to change is helpful, simply treating change as a project won’t suffice. As many studies have shown, change efforts typically don’t fail because of budget, strategy or structures. They fail because of inability to create a situation where most of the people want to change. And no matter what people may articulate from the logico-deductive parts of their brains, the reasons are usually emotional and come from their limbic centres. This means that a practical appreciation of psychology and neuroscience is essential to understand what causes people to embrace or reject change.
What this also means is that charging straight into engaging stakeholders usually fails. Our default approaches to dealing with problems come from how WE see the change, including its risks and benefits. We only start getting our approach right when we pause, and start seeing the change through our stakeholders’ hopes and fears.
2. It’s about democratising the ownership of change
Getting the 10 smartest and most knowledgeable people in a room doesn’t get you very far, even if they come up with the right answer. Having a lot of people sharing the passion, vision and belief for change is what makes change work, far more than having the right technical solution.
And if you want that to occur, the very best thing you can do is create a situation where as many people as possible feel a sense of authorship of the solution – that, at some level, they contributed to the ideas for change, not just their implementation. No matter how large the organisation, this is always possible.
3. It’s a process of discovery
As historian John Schaar put it “The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”
In the most successful change efforts I’ve been involved in, the ‘magic’ was not known at the outset – in fact, it was unknowable. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan. Rather, it means that our planning should be focused on creating fertile soil for inspiration to come from anywhere, even the most unexpected places. So often, the important insights reside not in the Executive Leadership Team but in the frontline, or even outside the normal horizons of the company. Why do the insights from the frontline not make their way into the solutions? Sometimes they aren’t shared, sometimes they aren’t heard, sometimes they get lost. Often though, it is because we need to combine two or more insights from different people or places. Change leaders must focus on creating the conditions for such insights to flow and to connect easily with other insights.
4. It’s about two organisations co-existing
Organisational hierarchies and structures are important. But one thing they do is suppress change and reinforce the status quo. So, while formal authority and role modelling from senior leaders can contribute positively to change, it’s counter-productive to attempt to make all of change occur through the mechanisms that are very good at keeping things the way they are.
Instead, effective change owes a huge amount to the power of volunteerism. People can achieve the greatest things when they are intrinsically motivated, because they want to contribute, not because they have to. The greatest driver of self-determined motivation is a sense of autonomy, that people feel they are sovereign beings exercising meaningful choice. But what do formal organisations do? The opposite. They use extrinsic rewards (e.g. money, status) to incentivise performance. And what happens when you give an intrinsically motivated person extrinsic rewards as well? Their motivation actually goes down.
The key, as John Kotter has observed, is to use both formal structures and informal networks. However, we must do so judiciously. This means using different levers for each and creating a semi-permeable membrane through which to manage the inter-relationships.
5. It’s hard, complex, tiring and a marathon, not a sprint
Every human brain is complex and each human brain is different from the next. There’s no single element on which change success rests.
Major change efforts take time. Even the best planned ones seldom stick immediately. Persistence is required as is the willingness to use failures to improve the approaches. However, change is likely trying to get through a garden hedge – you may get quite a few scratches, but it’s not a brick wall.
The ultimate test, though, is whether you can get it to a point where it is self-sustaining. That doesn’t mean the change leaders should relax, but it means that if they do take a breather, there is now enough support for the momentum to continue. Always keep in mind that the measure of your success is whether you’ve created the next waves of change leaders. If you focus your efforts on this, rather than setting a few people up to be Atlas, carrying the weight of the world forever, it will help you make some very valuable choices on best approach.