Why Change Fails: Four Ways To Hack Your Culture

Org Structure

All over the the world our organisations are experiencing profound change. The most common way to react to that is the corporate change programme.

Every year businesses will embark on a series of reports , meetings, visioning sessions , training events and communication strategies. In almost every case the goal will be the same: to make fundamental changes to how business is conducted in order to cope with a new, more challenging market environment.

70% of these programmes will fail. And it will largely be down to your culture.

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Generally organisations don’t change. They don’t like it and don’t see why they should.

They adopt a culture – a unique blend of practices , beliefs and customs – that takes a long time to form and an age to break down.

Think how hard is to is to make a significant change to your personal life: quitting smoking , losing weight , ending a relationship. Multiply that difficulty by the number of employees you have and the hundreds and thousands of inter-relationships.

Just as your body is designed to fight a common cold, most of our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any irritant antibodies. Add something new and it’s likely to get rejected.

The challenge then is not to embark upon another change programme , but to disrupt your culture. To deliberately set out to mutate your organisational DNA.

But this isn’t easy and will be resisted. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is often a cognitive bias against new introductions – a “hierarchy of no”.

It’s going to be difficult for any of us to abandon our organisational structures – but there are ways you can create a “hierarchy of yes.”

Here are four ways to begin hacking your culture and challenging the status quo:

1 – Hack your Hierarchy

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As Tony Hsieh has said – one of the biggest organisational barriers to change can be managers themselves. Hierarchies simply aren’t built to accommodate change. If change is going to happen, it often has to be project managed a year in advance!

We don’t necessarily need to go the ‘No Manager’ extremes that Zappos are doing, but we do need a more democratic work environment. One where employees’ input is sought into areas once reserved for a select few. Social networks are wonderful opportunities to do this but, even in 2015, are still underused.

It’s more than seeking inputs, though. If we are serious about hacking hierarchy it means employees co-creating solutions with managers, not just feeding into meetings.

2 – Innovate from the edges

One of the mistakes change programmes often make is starting with managers. It’s almost impossible to innovate from the centre of the business. It’s easier to start at the outer edge and work your way in towards decision makers.

At Bromford Lab we’ve had to distinguish between wicked problems which might require widespread organisational change – and the smaller changes and innovations we can introduce from the edges of the organisation.

It’s why Jeff DeGraff argues for the creation of a “20/80 rule” to innovation: “It’s easier to change 20 percent of your organization 80 percent than it is to change 80 percent of your firm 20 percent,” he notes. Work your innovations from the outside in.

3 – Create an innovation dispersal system 

Keeping innovation locked up into a Lab or Hub type arrangement will only get you so far. You are going to need to infect emergent leaders if you want to bring about widespread change.

Leadership development programmes are a great way to make creativity part of everyone’s role. However they can often instill too much adherence to past organisational behaviour rather than a more disruptive future model.

As part of our own Lab work we helped formulate ‘squads’ as a way of cultivating problems and getting things to test quickly. This is also a way of seeding innovation throughout the organisation and beginning wider cultural transformation.

4 – Make everyone a disruptor 

Philippa Jones has recently called for people to use common sense rather than policies. For Bromford colleagues to bin the rulebook and think on their feet. For leaders to praise those who bend rules as long as it gets the right results for customers.

The organisation of the future will be one that differentiates their customer experience from the competition. Those who rip the rulebook apart, rather than slavishly follow the herd,  will be rewarded.

Giving people permission to create new rules is the quickest way to eliminate fear , the biggest enemy of innovation

These are all big, bold ways to hack your culture – but there are lots of mini-hacks you can do that will make a huge difference. Most colleagues are annoyed with a limited number of things which breed mediocrity.

The endless emails, the one to ones and appraisals, the meetings, the reports they have to write and the reports they have to read.

Most of us have the power to change these things. The power to test ideas and run experiments on doing these differently.

Our track record of introducing incremental change programmes is abysmal. And yet we now need to rewire our organisations for disruption. For sustaining as much rapid change as possible without falling apart.

The challenge is to develop a DNA that embraces those new and foreign ideas and quickly assimilates them.

  • A culture where change is led by everyone – not initiated by leaders and consultants.
  • Where everyone is actively questioning the status quo.
  • A culture that constantly asks: “How can we do this better?” or “What would we do if we started again?”.

If we all get to that, we’ll never need change programmes again.

[ Lead image rights: Integration Training

10 Comments on “Why Change Fails: Four Ways To Hack Your Culture

  1. It fills my heart with happiness to read this and reflect that in the organisation I have the privilege and joy of working for (Dudley CVS) I think we:
    1. Have hacked the hierarchy (more on that below).
    2. Are actively and pro-actively innovating from and beyond the edges.
    3. Have an array of ‘squads’ acting as innovation dispersal systems – from emergent, self-organising groups of likeminded folk, to people with common areas of work, and we’re now seeing some of those looking to come together in more explicit ways which are visible in an organisational sense – for example by forming as groups with work to do recognised as existing by our board of trustees.
    4. Would love everyone to be disruptors (though a number of people don’t seem to want to be).

    Hacking the hierarchy is the idea above which feels most pertinent to me at present. I must write about this more fully sometime as the whole thing is fascinating me. In brief, back at the beginning of the year our staff and trustees agreed 5 priorities to push forward together, based significantly on some listening work we had done with our members over the few months before. Staff were invited to sign up to one or more Task & Finish group – there is one for each priority. Trustees were coaxed to join the groups. Then our Chief Officer let us know who had signed up to each group… …. …. …. and that was it.

    We were left to make stuff happen. No Terms of Reference, no goals, no objectives, no plans, no expectations, no appointed chairs or leaders … just beautiful flat platforms for us to step up and co-create on. Obviously I joined 3 of the groups (I so wish I had joined all 5!) and am thriving in this way of working. It has been fascinating to me to observe how others respond to a lack of top-down instruction or direction. A few are working with assumptions that the board or Chief Officer will tell us what they want. I am saddened by their lack of exposure to environments in which people co-create and just get on with stuff with agency.

    I am having constant internal struggles between my desire to get cracking at pace and do amazing stuff which will leave some staff behind if they don’t choose/want to step up vs wondering how to work in ways which fully draw them in (potentially to discomfort) and slow/reduce the impact we might have. This has been helpful reflecting out loud – I think perhaps I need to make this dilemma explicit and find out who is up for the journey and the commitment. Maybe there are a range of roles we could create which complement and support rather than act in tension/opposition.

    Advice / ideas / pointers to resources warmly invited.

    And just to finish… how cool is my Chief Officer?!!!!! I might have to make him a Hack the Hierarchy t-shirt 🙂

    • That’s possibly the best and most positive comment I’ve ever had on this blog Lorna. Wow – what achievements. The action here is: you and I to meet up and connect a few more people and see what happens! Will message you

  2. Hello Paul,
    This got me thinking about the alleged Enstein quote: “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”
    The evidence from Mickisey that 70% of corporate change programmes will fail surely proves the case – yet there will be huge amounts of money and other resources wasted again this year on organisations trying to effect exchange using the ‘tried and tested’, corporate change recipe book that had failed in 70% of the previous outings.
    If this was a ‘pilot’ of any other project in an organisation – with a 70% chance of failure – I’m pretty sure there’s not a board or committee that would sign it off – yet lots of organisations persist.
    Your 4 points are exactly right – number one for me though is the hierarchy which equals power.
    There’s so much invested here that almost anything else will be nullified unless an organisation can do something to work around it.
    The old models of change don’t work (they probably never did) – we need something better to cope with the complex world we live in.
    Testing, probing and finding out is possibly the best way.
    Great post
    Chris

    • Thanks Chris. I think you’re right. I’ve just noticed this post has become most popular I’ve done this year and I’d suggest (from comments I’ve had on Twitter and Linkedin) it’s because people identify with it. We’ve all been there and seen change programmes fail. We KNOW the McKinsey stat to be true. And yet we still repeat the behaviour. Back to your Einstein quote!!

      “Testing, probing and finding out is possibly the best way.” Agree. Not as sexy as a big change extravaganza – but far more likely to gain traction.

  3. There are two real problems with hierarchies in my experience.

    The first is that the people who rise to the top tend to be the most risk averse. If you are comfortable with taking risks you will tend to make mistakes (or at least mistakes that are perceived as such by the status quo) and mistakes will result in progression opportunities being closed off for you.

    The second is that people who get to the top of bad systems tend to view the system as benign. They have made careers out of managing the system as it is, and to suggest the system is wrong is to undermine their skillset. They will thus act to protect the system in whatever way they can.

    Actually, I’ve just thought of a third problem with hierarchies. Final salary pension schemes, which still exist in some spheres. These result in leaders not wanting to rock the boat in anyway which might risk putting their retirement income in jeopardy.

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