Ancient Pharaohs built elaborate pyramids and sacrificed hundreds of lives in rituals designed to ensure the changes of death had little impact on their lifestyles and to guarantee their future relevance. Our corporate change rituals are no less elaborate, no less dangerous and no more effective.
The Rituals of Change
Fiona Tribe started a conversation on twitter yesterday about change with this question:
Answering the question led me to reflect on how many organisations are closed to change. In fact, the more closed an organisation is to change, the more expensive its change rituals.
We know the standard rituals of Change (I will use the Capitalised Noun to indicate its abstract nature):
- Make an elaborate announcement of the Change vision, supported with expensive multimedia resources
- Hire a large well-qualified team to lead the Change project over an extended time period
- Buy the Change technology with much hoopla
- Begin running the Change processes and creating the Change documentation
- Build a Change Lab as the centre of Change worship
- Create elaborate workshops, training exercises and other activities to enable participation and engagement in the Change
- Appoint champions as high priests of the Change
- Issue regular Change communications to encourage belief in the Change.
Belief in the Change is critical. The important point of Ritual Change is that it cannot be criticised as doing change to people. It is Change in purely a metaphysical realm. There is no connection between all these Change Rituals and the actual organisation or business activity.
No wonder the other members of the organisation look on bemused. They see all this Change as a waste of time and money that could be spent solving actual problems. Activities like these contribute to disengagement. Worse still they waste human lives and at times the money and effort wasted on Change can even threaten the entire purpose of the organisation and the lives of its employees.
Because this is purely an exercise in metaphysics and belief, success is also easy. All it takes to declare success is ardent belief. There are no real world consequences of Change and so no way to test effectiveness.
The cost of all this activity and its scale is important. The level of investment and wasted effort absolves people of the guilt that nothing is actually changing. The CEO gets to look on all the pharaonic investments with the satisfaction that Change has forestalled their own irrelevance.
Real Change is A Conversation
We know what real change looks like. Real change is when behaviours and mindsets in the organisation are different. That takes conversations, learning, practice and lots of encouragement to persist through the difficulties. It takes an openness and an outward orientation to learn and to grow.
This kind of change can happen quickly or slowly, but it occurs at a human level where the work is occurring. It occurs through every day activities like conversations, role modelling, practice and coaching.
If you want to survive, prosper and be remembered, don’t build empty monuments to Change. Embed your legacy in the conversations within your organisation. The positive impacts of better conversations and better learning will long out last you.
Utopias are tempting to change enthusiasts. Gathering a group of advocates and creating a community in isolation is tempting. We must remember that change occurs at the point of contact with the old system. We must remain engaged.
The Danger of Utopias
Khurshed Dehnugara, who wrote the book Challenger Spirit and runs the consulting business Relume, made the insightful comment on LinkedIn that
Challengers can’t afford to lose contact with those they are alienating.
When you are advocating for change, it can be easy to fall in love with the vision of change that you want to create. If you connect with a community who share that vision, your thoughts can quickly move to developing that vision and bringing it to life. Living in a Utopia and realising that vision can be enticing.
However, most Utopias fail. A common reason for this failure is that like any closed system these perfect utopias suffer from entropy. Without new energy and recruits from contact with the world, they begin to decline, wrapping themselves in ever less productive activity within their community.
Isolation can be valuable for connecting people in change and envisioning and nurturing the future. This is well highlighted in the Berkana Two Loops model of change. However, any change advocated needs to remember that while isolation might enable initiation, isolation is not where change is perfected.
Hard Contact for Hard Change
Change is perfected in contact with the real issues of its opponents. When we are enraptured by uotopian visions, the work of engaging opponents can feel frustrating and like compromise.
However, real world solutions meet the needs of diverse stakeholders. As frustrating as these positions may be they are issues that need to be engaged in change. We cannot ignore them. We are far better to use them as opportunities to refine and develop our thinking. That refinement only happens in dialogue with the world. We will not find it in the gardens of Utopia.
One reason that the organisers of social change spend so much time designing contact with the forces opposing them is that they understand the leverage of these moments. The attention and energy of the conflict of change is a source of momentum to our change. It energises our community and markets our vision of change to the wider world. Hiding out in a Utopia will not achieve this advocacy. We need to draw others to our vision to succeed and that will only happen if we continuously engage for good and bad in the world. We won’t convince everyone, but perhaps we can convince enough.
I’ll admit I have had my doubts on the trendiness of thought leadership. There’s such a vast amount of content marketing and content marketers claiming the term that I doubted it actually even existed. Not every thought can be a leading thought and not everyone who thinks can inspire actions of others. Too many thought leaders are simply entertainers with large audiences, but no influence at all.
However, I recently came across this useful discussion of what a thought leader might actually do:
Thought leaders advance the marketplace of ideas by positing actionable, commercially relevant, research-backed, new points of view. They engage in “blue ocean strategy” thinking on behalf of themselves and their clients, as opposed to simply churning out product-focused, brand-centric white papers or curated content that shares or mimics others’ ideas.
– Craig Badings and Liz Alexander
I like this definition as a test of thought leadership. It is specific, resonates with value and because most of what I see purporting to be thought leadership fails this high bar. The five elements of the test are elements of value in the quality of the ideas that many self-proclaimed thought leaders fail to deliver:
- Actionable: Ideas are great and can be entertaining but actions get results. Actions are where the real work is. For an idea to be actionable you actually have to have taken some effort to have put it into action. Preaching is fine but walking the talk is more persuasive.
- Commercially Relevant: Dreams are plentiful. Utopias are delightful thought experiments. Most people are looking for something that helps them in a way that delivers actual value to their business or life. If you are trying to make a living from ‘thought leadership’ start with this.
- Research-backed: Evidence is in short supply in the thought leadership industry. Reverse engineering case studies of popular companies to fit a hypothesis is not research. On brand messages and marketing is not thought leadership.
- New: Oddly, your ability to say what everyone else has already said is not that valuable. A thought leader is not a mimic. They must have something novel to say or why say it. This is particularly the case when in repeating an idea you simplify or remove an idea from its context, evidence or effectiveness.
- Point of View: Surprisingly, many self-proclaimed thought leaders don’t actually take a position on anything. They are so busy expressing the common platitudes and not offending anyone that they express every view of an issue. Taking a point of view matters because it is how you are proved right or wrong.
Importantly, there’s not a single element of that definition that depends on the size of your audience, your social media following or the blurbs on the jacket of your book. Thought leadership is about what you do, not who is watching.
Also, when I consider that definition, I come to the view that the few ‘thought leaders’ who might satisfy that definition are the rare, effective and innovative consultants, research analysts and academics who are able to capture new insights from their practical work with a variety of clients and distill that experience and insight into new plans of action. Each of those roles can meet the criteria but each work in different ways to do so. Thought leadership in that context isn’t one thing and is better described by each of those other terms. So I guess we didn’t need the term thought leader after all.
If thought leadership is just about a status, then we don’t need the term. Thought leadership has thought led itself out of business. This aligns itself to a broader trend the world needs a lot less focus on status and talk and a lot more focus on value in action.
Our fears creep.
They linger in shadows.
They grow as we feed them, practising their pouncing, unsettling our nerves.
These monsters won’t hurt us
As much as the hopes we ignore.
I have to admit it was a rant. I saw yet another post from a familiar self-help thought leader inviting me to ‘crush it’. Inspired by the rants that are common in that genre, I tweeted my own:
The tweet even has the typo that signals a rant. This tweet has got a far greater reaction than anything else I have shared. Why? People don’t want to ‘crush it’ – whatever that bro-speak means. The commonest comment is thanking me for being real and speaking a widely shared truth. People want to be real. They want real connection. The commodity that is most missed in this era of hype and instant fame is the simplest & potentially the easiest to achieve- purposeful work in respectful relationships with people from whom we can learn.
What the thought leader crowd don’t get is that achievement is fleeting. It is why they are so needy. If you have to be number one or if you have to monetise there is always a threat to your success. It cannot endure. Someone will always crush it better than you eventually.
Help someone else and they stay helped. Nobody can take away your impact. It’s not a race or a competition. It is a human contribution that helps make a rich human life.
There is a shortage of both respect and genuine relationships at the moment. Both are deeply needed for our souls and our sanity. When shouting is the way to get attention, we all appreciate the quiet voice of respect.
Relationships are more than transactions. They are based in deep understanding and they endure. They are rich with human qualities like trust and generosity. It doesn’t matter whether these respectful relationships are online or offline, at home or at work, in business or in civil society. We need more in all arenas.
A Chance to Learn.
Nobody is born perfect. Nobody has realised their full human potential. Realising potential is a shared human endeavour.
We need to learn and grow in communities. We need the support and collaboration of others to achieve anything close to our potential.
We need less crushing it and empty noise. We need to focus our efforts on our purpose, our relationships and realising our human potential. It’s as simple and as complex as that. The response to my tweet suggests that the desire to do that work is widespread.
When an entrepreneur dreams up a new product opportunity and launches their start-up, they are surrounded with advice on the steps to follow:
- Define the customer problem or job to be done
- Develop a minimum viable product as a solution
- Prove product-market fit by winning customer support
- Validate scalability, unit economics, etc…
While these steps are relevant and useful, they can create an unduly linear view of the path to success.
Success is never a simple straight line.
Discussing start-up and new product success in this way creates the impression that the path to market looks a little like this:
A relatively direct relationship between product and market might work for some simple product solutions, particularly those involved in offering a new product direct to consumers. However, lean start-up has reminded us that success takes loops of learning and iteration to find that match between product and market.
Help customers embrace change (despite resistance).
When you start to work on more complex solutions that involve systemic change or large changes in buyer behaviour, buyers can acknowledge the need and the value of the solution but still offer resistance. These buyers cannot simply buy the product. They must also decide to embrace disruptive change to long established ways of working. Disruptive business-to-business products require changes to systems, processes or jobs and have other implications for their target customers. Strong institutional forces will exist that are opposed to change. To realise the benefits, the customer needs to be prepared for a wider and more significant change.
Declining systems give way to new ways of working.
The Berkana Institute has a theory of change in large scale systems highlighting resistance will prevent straight-line adoption of new change. If the change threatens the current way things work, you won’t get direct adoption. Change under this approach may happen when the current system declines, giving way to a better system that will replace it. That new, better system is developed outside the current system as a small group of innovators name the need for change, connect in networks, nourish the new change and bring it forward as a new approach.
Disruption brings change and creates new markets.
The Berkana Two Loops model of change gives us a new way to look at the path for disruptive products that bring about major changes in organisational systems. If we consider the introduction of cloud computing technologies as the introduction of an alternative systemic approach to technology, we can map it against this model.
- At first, traditional technology organisations saw cloud services as a threat to their traditional model and particularly the end-to-end control of infrastructure.
- Cloud services grew with new and innovative organisations, in grey market IT and at the edges of organisations. This gave the new cloud services time to clarify the problems and use cases, develop the new approaches and connect the first customers. The communities of early customers helped the solutions to mature and foster the underpinning systems of delivery, management and support. Communities of practice grew up around these technologies and created a range of tools and processes that helped cloud computing become enterprise-ready.
- Eventually, a wide range of organisations are prepared to ‘leap the chasm’, seeing potential to migrate to these new cloud systems and embrace a very different way of working.
This approach of creating a new market for a new solution is why we commonly see disruptive technologies suddenly race into prominence. They have been long fostered by the communities of early innovators and have built the networks of partners, ecosystems and systems to propel rapid growth. They are examples of ‘seven-year overnight successes’.
Build a strong ‘ecosystem of relationships’ to bring about change.
At LanternPay, we have seen this scenario playing out. We have had strong support from our work with innovative early customers in plan management in the NDIS and in government payments with the Transport Accident Commission of Victoria and Lifetime Support Authority of South Australia. These relationships have helped us to develop strong growth in provider partnerships. Importantly, we have focused all along on the potential of an ecosystem of relationships to accelerate innovative change well beyond payments in our target systems of health care, aged care and disability. This approach has delivered us a rapidly growing pipeline of new payer relationships, a growing suite of integrations and a product roadmap across all our target markets. Each element helps make the change decision for a provider or a payer that much easier to make.
Simon Terry is consultant, speaker and start-up advisor who focuses on developing the strategy, leadership and collaboration to deliver complex innovation in organisations. He also puts these skills into practice delivering growth strategy for LanternPay, a claim payment platform for health care, aged care, disability and government payments.
One of the challenges in traditional management processes is that goal setting is a one-way process. The cascade of goals down through the silos of an organisation without feedback and adaptation inevitably results in misalignment.
Consider the implementation of a collaboration solution. The overall business goals that justify the project are likely to be high level, ranging from supporting cultural change to specific improvements in customer experience, innovation and efficiency. However in designing a project for implementation these goals end up becoming soloed. Technology has a launch date and costs. Employee communications end up with a goal of user adoption. All the other goals are either cascaded to people too busy to care or are assumed to flow. Not long after users start to wonder why all technology wants is to give them the solution and all employee communications seems to want is for them to use it. By defining the goals in terms of the technology, the business loses its original outcomes and users lose reasons to use the system.
The approach of division of outcomes mean that the business has little opportunity to adapt to change or new opportunities. Budgets are set. Goals are fixed and tied to employee performance. This often results in the situation where the goals of one silo, say a launch date & costs, conflict with the goals of another, say adoption. Because these goals are baked into unchangeable and undiscussable plans, people push ahead knowing they are doing the wrong thing. The strategy becomes ‘we’ll fix it later’, but the next plan rarely allows that.
Roger L Martin, a leading strategist and a former business school dean, has highlighted in a series of books that the best strategies are adaptive. They allow for conversations up and down the chain from goals to actions and adaptation based on the lessons from conversations and action. If you want to prevent your business strategy turning into soloed nonsense then allow two-way conversations about goals and approaches. Better yet, use your collaboration platform as a hub of this learning and adaptation.