Stop Trying to Change Your Company!

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As I work a lot with driving change in software-intensive companies, the people that I work with typically have already an idea of what needs to happen. However, many of them struggle with organizations that are incredibly resistant to change. In fact, someone recently shared his view with me that organizations are designed to be resilient in the face of different forces that are exerted and that the resistance to change is a feature.

One of the reasons why change is so difficult is that the leaders in the company want to have their cake and eat it too. On the one hand, they seek to implement a change, e.g. an agile transformation, adoption of continuous deployment, new data-driven services, etc. and they want this to positively affect the entire organization in one go. On the other hand, of course, these leaders want the benefits associated with the change but without needing to change anything that is the norm today. The Germans have a great saying for this that translates as “wash me, but don’t make me wet”.

The result of all this is that the people that I work with and that are trying to realize change in their organization often are frustrated and tired because of their constant battling of what often feels like windmills a la Don Quichotte. Driving change in organizations is an area where reams of paper have been filled with wonderful conceptual notions, but where my favorite definition of “theory” applies: A theory is beautiful thing killed by a gang of ugly facts. For all the books, theories and experts, in my experience, change management in practice is messy, inefficient and frustrating for everyone involved.

So, what is going on here? To me, there are at least three issues that are at the root of this problem, i.e. risk averse leaders, the gap between responsibility and authority and the mismatch in incentives. Below, I discuss each of these issues in more detail.

First, in most hierarchical organizations, individuals get promoted to higher positions because of their predictability and reliability. Imagine you are a higher level leader who has an open position in your leadership team. Who will you pick to fill the spot? A noisy troublemaker or a reliable employee who always dots the “i”s and crosses the “t”s? In practice, most of us will pick someone who will not rock the boat and can be relied upon. As a consequence, however, the result is that the higher up you go in the Christmas tree of the company’s hierarchy, the more risk averse the individuals tend to be.

Second, because of the risk averse nature of leaders, these leaders tend to avoid taking personal responsibility for implementing relevant changes. The arguments are often very convincing and leaders have learned to rely on delegation as an effective mechanism to increase reach. However, when it comes to driving change, the model falters as there are no existing processes, ways of working and tools to fall back on. Most leaders appoint an individual, typically the person that has been clamoring the loudest, to drive a transformation and assume that this person can magically drive the necessary changes by sheer belief and personality, but without the necessary authority. The gap between responsibility and authority tends to lead to a stalemate in the organization or, as one of the people that I work with calls it, a guerilla war.

Finally, because the individual or team looking to drive the change is different from the teams that actually need to change their behavior, ways of working, tooling and often even their norms and values. As the organization at large is responsible for delivering on the current business priorities, their incentives are focused on short-term business results. The change team’s incentives are concerned with long-term effects of the changes that they are looking to realize. The conflicting incentives will only slow down the change. The operational teams are made up of well-intended people that often want to realize the required changes, but are incentivized to maintain the status quo. And as humans, according to research, experience the pain of loss about three times as strong as they experience the joy of gains, changes that are not obviously improvements are generally resisted by our basic, human traits.

Realizing effective change requires, in my experience, at least three key elements: charismatic leadership, focus and time constraints. As long as we have hierarchical organizations, leaders will model behavior that is emulated by the rank and file. If the leader interested in accomplishing the change does not take personal responsibility to drive this and makes this his or her most important task, the rest of the organization will be even less inclined to get into motion. And the leadership has to be charismatic as there is a significant need to paint the bright new future to overcome the fear of loss in people.

Second, in many organizations there are many change initiatives ongoing in parallel and each of those have very long running periods. The typical argument is that change is hard and we need to give it time. In practice, however, many change initiatives means that the organization is unable to set priorities and because there is no real, short-term deadline and these change initiatives may actually negatively affect each other, the end result is often no change whatsoever.

My recommendation is that organizations, at the relevant scope (team, business unit, etc.), should have one and only one change initiative ongoing and the time period for this initiative should not be longer than 12 months and preferably significantly less, such as three or six months. The change initiative should be carefully planned, committed and executed as a project with full backing of management. Often, the period before kicking off the initiative can be used to create awareness and build understanding in the organization. However, once the initiative is set in motion, the execution will happen come hell or high water.

Concluding, in many organizations, everyone talks about change and has their own pet change project. Many are trying to influence the organization, but the end result in most cases is exactly nothing. We need to stop trying to change the organization and start to really change the organization. As Yoda famously said: Do or do not. There is no try!

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