Influencing transformational change

Transformational change chart

Designing a new integrated management system is relatively easy. The difficulty lays in getting everyone to stop what they are doing today and adopt the new ways and standards going forward. Implementing a new integrated management system, when none existed prior, is a transformational change and demands leadership.

The more that people are involved in developing the new, the easier the change can be. However, an overly accommodating democratic process does rarely yield anything but incremental changes. If transformational change is required, then everyone have to discard the old and embrace the new. This is not always easy to achieve.

An organisation is a complex adaptive system, made up of many independent actors. It can easily become unstable, and even on the edge of chaos, when forced by transformational change. Although the organisation can be stimulated and steered through a change, it is practically impossible to effectively ‘manage’ a transformation. In the main, people have a natural change-avoidance reflex. The longer term gradual threat from maintaining the status quo often feels less scary than change does – even when the rational mind knows that doing nothing will only make things more painful in the longer run. The transformation project is therefore largely about overcoming resistance, preventing chaos and minimising damage/pain.

The transformational change problem can be addressed in two ways, by a ‘push’ or a ‘pull’ approach – where pulling people along is the preferred. Transformation is therefore primarily about leadership.

Transforming performance

Performance space is complex multi-dimensional. Generally, you want your organisation to improve in several dimensions simultaneously. For example, there is no point improving cost if this worsens quality. The ideal is that we improve both cost and quality simultaneously. The graph below shows just two dimensions, for illustration purposes. You can think of the two performance aspects here as effectiveness and efficiency, or quality and cost, for example. Or, you can add whatever titles that are most important to changing your own situation.

Transformational change

‘Chart A’ illustrates the options to either ‘push’ or ‘pull’ the system, including its people, from a sub-optimal start position to a planned ideal target position (the dashed circle). The start position has some metaphorical anchors, which cling on to the current situation. The anchors are motivated by all sorts of reasons, such as fear of inability to meet the new system expectations. People who are experts in the old system will perceive a threat to their status from the new. This can be particularly true when bringing together and integrating management systems that previously resided in different parts of the organisation.

Transformational change

‘Chart B’ illustrates what tends to happen if we try to push (force) the system towards the ideal target. The anchors will dig in. People who are not necessarily averse to the new ideal may still object to being pushed, dropping further anchors. Yet others will cling on to the anchors, out of human solidarity or fear from uncertainty. Some aspect of the organisation’s performance can now worsen, because the anchors dig in and discretionary efforts are being diverted into resisting the change, as opposed to being invested in doing the organisations work.

Transformational change

In ‘Chart Ct1’, an influential leader places him/her self at the ideal position. This may be yourself, if you are the person responsible for implementing the new system. If your role makes you influentially weak, then convince the ‘real’ leader to take this position. This may be a respected colleague from the peer group that is subject to the transformation. Start focusing on the positives. Engage and paint a picture for people, which describes what the final ideal situation will look like. Paint the picture in a way that people’s personal values fit in – to make them say: “Yeah, I can see myself in this picture”. Just keep on promoting and demonstrating the intent and its positives. Some people will start to naturally become drawn towards it. Be careful not to become frustrated if the speed appears slow at the beginning. Any attempt at pushing the system will cause the early adopters to revert to the anchoring positions. Focus entirely on encouraging the positives. Ignore the negatives. No pushing.

Trust people to get there by themselves. People will naturally adopt the best practice, once they recognise it and it aligns to their own personal values. You may discuss the intent and the target position, and energise the journey with celebratory events and fun, but there must be no attempt at pushing people.

Treat a man as he appears to be and you make him worse. Treat a man as if he were what he potentially could be and you make him what he should be.
[Johann Wolfgang Goethe]

In ‘Chart Ct2’ the open minded people, who in the main tend to reflect the majority, will come along, encouraged by the positives. They will gradually lose their fears and eventually dare to let go of the anchors. At every opportunity, celebrate the collective new achievements – to mobilise yet more energy. Some of the anchors also want to be part of the success and will therefore start to let go of the old system, to allow themselves drifting along some of the way. By now two sub-systems have merged. A growing new one and the gradually diminishing old one.

‘Chart Ct3’ represents the penultimate stage, where no more energising and pulling is required. Now the remaining anchor in the old system is standing isolated. This anchor represents a potentially contagious force that could risk pulling the system back towards its old ways. It must therefore now be either pushed or eliminated, to enable the full system becoming securely institutionalised at its final position. Sometimes you will eventually have to be somewhat ruthless in cutting the last remaining anchor. In soft sectors, this would mean moving people sideways, until you find a place where they do the least damage. In hard sectors, it means dismissing them.

Time factor

As hinted at earlier, don’t under-estimate the pull-force that is required. You and your proposed new position have to be credible. You cannot pull in people from a weak position. In general, if you have been unable to create any significant change-momentum by month 3 of the transformation project, then it is unlikely that the renewal will ever happen. There is no second chance, because people will remember that “we tried this before and it didn’t work”.

We are all influenced by the values of people around us. You included. If the ‘old’ system still exists by month 6 of the transformation project, then it is very likely that you will have normed with its culture and now found its ‘merits’. Your ability to transform is then much reduced.

Basically, you cannot afford to make a false start, before you have established a position of strong leadership pull. You can also not afford to delay or go too slowly either.

Leadership of the dancing guy

The above scenarios are illustrated by the dancing guy video below, popularised by Derek Sivers’ TED talk in 2012 (it may have been popular before then, and I was simple late noticing it). Watch the dancing guy energising and pulling people along. Had he approached the people sitting down and started to push for dancing, then they would most likely have resisted. He does not do any such pushing.

Some (noticeably an online article in the Washington Post) have criticised the dancing guy for not valuing democracy and diversity, because he came up with the idea alone and did not first involve people in what kind of dancing they wanted. This criticism misses the point of leadership. If we deliver to people what they think they want, then nothing will ever change. People will always prefer for everything to stay the comfortable old same, which in a progressive world is in fact rarely what is best for them.

The other dancers may not have had ownership in the dancing guy’s original idea, but they certainly have ownership in and enjoy the dancing journey he pulled them along on – more so than enjoying whatever they were comfortably sitting and doing prior. The dancing guy got them going by their free choices and he allows new diverse dance moves to evolve, which helps further growing the movement. New people come along, even though the dancing guy is no longer visible in the crowd. The dancing guy could eventually leave the crowd, and it would merrily carry on dancing and evolving on its own.

The dancing guy merely laid a foundation for people to use. Change can often be seen as simply laying a system foundation and attract people on to it. They will in fact make the change happen by themselves. Certainly, change cannot happen unless a foundation is laid in place. Saying: “Let’s change”, without providing a foundation for such change will invariably prove a futile attempt.

If you want change then become the dancing guy. Your confidence and conviction in the cause will make it happen. Be genuine and have the interest of others at heart. Self-interest is not leadership.

Although the dancing guy video illustrates the leader qualities and mechanism for affecting transformational change, there are a couple of more facets to leadership that the video does not illustrate. Think for example what the dancing guy’s role would be if someone in the crowd holds back, due to the feeling of being an inadequate dancer; or what he would do if the land owner suddenly shows up saying “no dancing here”. I will talk more about leadership in a later post.