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

We need more people solving problems – not professionals.

Everyone has a story to tell, everyone has strengths beneath the conceptions that you have of them. But if you’re curious enough, you may just find that the answers you’ve always been looking for are there, often right beside you. – William Lilley

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Everywhere you look at the beginning of 2015 you will see a crisis.

In case you missed it there is currently a crisis in Accident and Emergency Units which is part of the wider health crisis. There’s a housing crisis as well. And a crisis in social care , unemployment , education and policing. Not forgetting the welfare crisis which is wreaking havoc on millions.

There’s crisis everywhere.

The current trend in mainstream politics , and on social media , is to talk of Britain as broken.  And then we act all surprised and outraged when people turn to parties like UKIP who hark back to a golden age that never truly existed.

People are so sick of hearing about crisis they lose faith and begin searching for someone who appears to offer a more compelling vision. Who can blame them?

Except if you scratch the service on any of those things you’ll find the crisis label to be untrue, or misleading at the very least.

What we have is an excess of demand over supply and deeply dysfunctional systems.

Most of our public services were designed pre-decimal never mind pre-digital.

We really shouldn’t be surprised they aren’t fit for purpose.

The problem lies with the people who created those systems and who work within them. Us.

Over new year I had a break at one of the Red Sea resorts seeking a bit of winter sun along with scores of pasty faced Europeans.

One of the benefits of being locked into an all-inclusive euro-mashup is you have some very random conversations with people we are told are hugely different to us , but are of course not.

The best conversation I had was with an Italian guy and one of our Egyptian hosts.

We were talking about the various crises our countries are experiencing and the role of communities.

Sal was telling us of the boom in the ‘suspended coffee’ movement in Italy.  The concept is pretty simple: You walk into a coffee shop, and instead of buying just one cup of coffee you also buy one (or more) for someone in need. Your get yours and the second coffee is “suspended”. It can be claimed or given out by the barista to people they think deserving. I always believed that the movement was a modern viral phenomenon but Sal told us it was a Neapolitan tradition that originated in World War II. The principle is that in a time of hardship, Italians can lack many things, but not coffee!

Ahmad told us about the rise of the “Town Helper” in parts of Cairo and Alexandria. Because of the huge drain of young men to work in the Red Sea resorts many of the families left behind face a significant skills gap. These guys work incredibly long hours with hardly anytime off. When they do  get a few days off – every few weeks – they return to their families for precious time with loved ones. To make sure they spend the maximum time with their families they fund , largely through tips from tourists , a number of people to do tasks whilst they are away from home. Each Helper , is shared between a number of families , to plug the gaps that have been left in communities.

I talked of the growth of Food Banks in the UK which we largely view as a sign of failure but actually speak of tremendous generosity – of communities looking after their own. I don’t pretend to give lots, I just throw a few things in the collection on every visit to the supermarket – to the extent that I’ve actually stopped thinking about it. It’s just a little pay it forward gesture that millions of us are doing without prompting. I also told them of the Bromford Deal and how we are embarking on a huge cultural shift to unlock potential in people rather than seeing ourselves as professional rescuers.

I talked of how the Deal is – at its essence – a belief that people don’t exist in a state of need and can do amazing things if we empower them and step out of the way.

Due to excess brandy the conversation veered off in all sorts of directions: but the important thing is we all agreed that some of the best initiatives don’t come from Government. None of the above did.

For many years we’ve built infrastructure and services that people neither need or want. We make interventions without outcomes. We produce reports that have no readers. 

We must ask ourselves how we became so removed from the people we were set up to serve. 

Our communities are not in crisis.

There is a massive untapped reservoir of skill and talent that we chose to ignore because we thought we could do it better as professionals.

We couldn’t.

Let’s put it right.

Making a Deal: Unlocking Potential In Communities

 There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.

 Ask “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?”

 Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

Margaret J Wheatley

One of the many challenges for the public sector is that it must start believing in people and communities again.

If you take the Social Housing sector as an example you’ll see it has spent a long time making life as easy as possible for people.

Free telephone calls , a 24 hours repairs service and if you’re on benefits you don’t even have to worry about the rent getting paid – we’ll sort it for you. Neighbour’s dog barking? Leave it with us. 

I exaggerate of course – but only slightly. Huge parts of the public sector have designed services around what people can’t do for themselves rather than nurturing what they can.

Now we have to reverse it.  Not because there’s a lack of money but because it fundamentally disempowers people. It was a lovely, thoughtful thing to do but it leaves people ill-equipped for life in the 21st Century.

And , worst of all, it massively under values the skills and passions that people have.

Last week I spent time with a great group of people from all sectors looking at adopting preventative approaches rather than being reactive.  It’s an initiative of the Wales Audit Office and their partner organisations.

What most impressed me? Here were people actually making change happen , rather than just talking about it.

This is by no means easy. Radically changing your service usually means you’ll encounter disappointment and failure at some point. It’s easier to stick to what you know.

I was asked along to talk about the Deal – which is the most significant and far reaching innovation I’ve worked on at Bromford. And like any innovation – it has its critics.

The Deal starts from the position of believing that people want to move forward in life. And Bromford have begun to reshape their entire service around that belief.

  • Residents complete an online assessment where they get to talk about their skills and hopes for the future. Many have said that it’s the first time they have ever been asked about aspirations.
  • Goals are being set around what they want to achieve , in their words. They are coached that they can do it , not expected to fail.
  • And the Bromford service is being gradually reshaped as something that propels people forward and builds on what they can do. Rather than keeping them locked in a moment in time.

And it’s not easy. Changing a service that’s been delivered the same way for years is really hard work.

The top messages I wanted to impart were:

Think Big. Start Small. The reason most public sector innovation stalls is people spend so much time thinking , talking and writing reports it becomes too big and scary to tackle. Start doing small stuff as quickly as you can. At the early stages of the Deal we were only offering it to 15 or 20 people a week – genuinely co-creating,  learning and adapting together.

You Will Fail At Some Point. So Fail Fast. Don’t start a really expensive IT project to replace your legacy systems when you haven’t even tested if the service works. Prototype. Test. Break. Rebuild. We developed a micro IT system for about £20,000 to kickstart the Deal. Losing £20,000 is bad. Losing £200,000 is bloody awful.

Take People With You. Involve them in the design. Let them try out new roles and play in a different position. Don’t go through restructures before you know what you’re doing. It kills momentum and by the time you’ve done it you probably need to do it again. But remember that not everyone will go with you. Radical change means some people will want to get off the bus at some point.

Keep The KPI Simple Stupid. Measuring what’s working is really important – but don’t obsess about performance management before you’ve started doing anything. Does if feel like the right thing to do for the customer? Is it hurting your business? If it’s not you’re probably safe to proceed.

The message I took away was the need for us all to be braver. To be unafraid of being laughed at.

Most of us work in sectors that are frighteningly risk averse – that fear the new and the different. That’s why many of us have the same structures, the same policies, the same job titles and even the same IT suppliers. And we go to the same conferences as there’s safety in numbers.

Believing in what people can do means being brave enough to admit that we won’t always be needed.

This is about us all being brave enough to start a conversation that really matters.