Moving From ‘Big Change That Rarely Happens’ To ‘Small Change That Always Does’

We’re obsessed with big change, but what if we’re underestimating the power of the small changes that lie more easily within our reach?

In 2002 the UK Government announced the beginning of a £12.7 billion NHS National Programme for IT . The aim was seemingly simple: to replace paper medical records with a centralised national electronic database, allowing a patient from Manchester to walk into a hospital in London and find all their details readily available online in one place.

At the time, this transformation was meant to constitute the most extensive, and expensive, IT healthcare development of its kind in the world. “The possibilities are enormous if we can get this right,” Tony Blair promised whilst clearly overlooking the possibility of getting it wrong. Nine years later, in September 2011 the government announced that the scheme would be scrapped.

That £12.7 billion investment into nothing is now dwarfed by the UK Test and Trace System that has so far cost £37 Billion, which is significantly more costly than getting a sustainable human presence on the Moon.

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

The hallmarks of these programmes are big, 2-5 year initiatives with a number of drops and a greater number of consultants. The first release is usually many months, sometimes years away.


According to Barry O’Reilly, the growth of investment in digital transformation is compounding at 18% year-on-year. By 2023, an estimated $7 trillion will be spent on these initiatives annually. To put that in perspective, total US expenditure on healthcare for 2020 was about $4 trillion—during a pandemic.

70% of these programmes will fail.

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Why? Well, generally organisations don’t change. People 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, many 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 hack your culture. To deliberately set out to mutate your organisational DNA and make it more receptive.

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.”

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As Tony Hsieh 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 need a more democratic work environment. One where employees’ input is sought into areas once reserved for a select few.

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

One of the mistakes ‘big change’ programmes often make is starting from the top. 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 change from the outside in.

Keeping change 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.

Instead we need to develop more curiosity in our organisations. Socially curious employees are better than others at resolving conflicts with colleagues, more likely to receive social support, and more effective at building connections, trust, and commitment on their teams.

Giving people permission to be curious and to create new rules is the quickest way to eliminate fear , the biggest enemy of change.

There are 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.

Our track record of introducing big change programmes is abysmal and yet your organisation is almost certainly about to embark on one right now.

The challenge is to think big about everything you want to change, but always to start small.

We’re obsessed with big change, but what if we’re underestimating the power of the small changes that lie more easily within our reach?

Creating The Right Culture For Innovation and Change

I’m not sure I buy into the concept of organisations having a culture of innovation.

After all, innovation is a process consisting of four things:

  • Having an idea that solves a problem
  • Doing something with that idea
  • Proving that it delivers new value for people
  • Translating it into reality and making it part of the everyday

The idea then that innovation is everyone’s job is naive at best.  Successful organisations need to be boringly reliable and radically disruptive at the same time, living with two competing sets of values.

However I do believe in creating the right culture for innovation.

Indeed, for an organisation to support innovation the culture must accommodate the risk and uncertainty that accompanies it.

What kind of culture are we looking for?

For me there are four elements to this:

Just enough friction: the most effective teams have regular, intense debates. As leaders, we need to help our teams disagree more. Discord has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

The practice of high standards: innovation requires a set of crosscutting practices and processes to structure, organise, and encourage it. This requires a steady supply of high performing people who are committed. And if you create an environment of energy and high performance it will attract other high performers.

Permission to be different: a culture where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. Everyone should be OK with questioning assumptions,  calling out inconsistent behavior and challenging old business models.

The ability to think and act experimentally: a tolerance for failure through practical experiments that show whether the fundamental assumptions about innovation are correct and what they mean for the business.

These traits only happen through a commitment to creating the right conditions. These are cultures that are reinforced every day, not just by the leadership , but with active collaboration from people at every tier of the organisation.

Let’s face it – most Mission Statements and Company Values are a complete waste of time. They exist as tacked up bits of paper on a wall rather than something that sits in the hearts and minds of people.

Here are three organisations from very different industries whose values are conducive to supporting innovation:

Zappos

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Zappos , the online shoe and clothing store, are known for their unique culture and values. Their CEO Tony Hsieh has said his company’s number one priority is the company culture. “Our whole belief is that if we get the culture right, then most of the other stuff, like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand or business, will just be a natural by-product of that.”

Here are the Zappos core values that are designed to be different:

  • Deliver WOW Through Service
  • Embrace and Drive Change
  • Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  •  Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  •  Pursue Growth and Learning
  • Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  • Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  • Do More With Less
  • Be Passionate and Determined
  • Be Humble

With the call to “create fun and a little weirdness”, Zappos are making it a place that supports innovation.

Buffer

I love the culture of Buffer, a service that helps you share to social networks.  You can feel the genuine enthusiasm for the organisation from the people who work there and what they tweet and blog about.

The Buffer team has jointly decided which words define the culture and put together this list of the 10 Buffer Values and how they live them.

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What’s impressive here is that they are a continual work in progress, with all members developing them in the open.

Having dealt with Buffer on a number of occasions I can say their values are displayed both in 1:1 dealings and in their online social presence: Listen First , Then Listen More.

Bromford

(Disclosure:  I work for Bromford and have a hand in developing the DNA – but I think it’s worth sharing the story)

Imagine screwing up your mission statement , vision and values and handing it over to three colleagues to start all over again and pitch it direct to the CEO. That’s what Bromford did and it’s how they came up with their original Bromford DNA.

The latest version of the DNA though, developed under new CEO Robert Nettleton, had a completely different genesis – focusing on collaboration. Bromford held more than 30 workshops with over 500 colleagues attending and sharing their views.  After these sessions a smaller group of colleagues took part in a fusion session with Bromford Lab – and from this the final definitions of our DNA emerged.

DNA Slides

 

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The fact so many people have co-developed the DNA gives Bromford a head start in embedding the culture. When you’ve energised the early adopters, you have given the framework for the culture added impetus and traction.

Bromford have even provided colleagues with a personalised notebook for them to record their actions and barriers to consistently living the DNA.

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Supporting ideas from fruition, selecting the best ones, experimenting and growing them is a very fragile process.

All we can really do as leaders is to create a climate that supports innovation –  a climate that will help to sustain a future ready organisation over the years to come.

The Big Problem With Change Programmes

People don’t resist change, they resist bullshit – Peter Vander Auwera

A friend of mine told me last week that their organisation was about to begin its third change management programme in just seven years.

Each of the two preceding programmes had a number of things in common:

  • People were unclear why a programme was needed in the first place.
  • They had – seemingly – never been evaluated. Neither demonstrated what had been achieved or learned.
  • They had all been accompanied by processes, tools and practices that had long since been abandoned.

“The only thing that really stuck,” he said ” were the buzzwords”.

In his book Business Bullshit, Andre Spicer looks at how organisations have become vast machines for manufacturing, distributing and consuming bullshit. He takes us back to the birth of the management change movement – the 1960s and 1970s – when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’ and ‘being their best self’.

Alongside this came the development of a distinctive, pseudo-scientific language of change which was needed to pitch themselves to clients.

Quite coincidentally the book I read before this was Selfie by Will Storr, about our culture of personal narcissism and self-obsession.

Events in both books intersect at the Esalen Institute, in California, where people get in touch with their hidden selves through group therapy and sensitivity training. Esalen gave birth to the dubious Human Potential Movement (simply believe in yourself more and you too can be Beyonce, fail and you simply didn’t want it enough.)

I’d never before made this connection between the personal self-improvement movement and the world of corporate change.

Both philosophies propose that there’s always a better version of you out there in the future. And by following a series of best practices, toolkits and templates that version of you can be realised.

Arguably, our obsession with business change is as much a symptom of modern narcissism as is the fact we take 1 million selfies each day.

Your change vision, like that perfectly framed Instagram pose,  is bullshit – and everybody knows it.

Do You Really Need Another Change Programme?

Change is not about going from one point to another, reaching a mythical ‘to be’ state and stopping there. The most important thing is what takes place from point A to whatever happens next – and that will almost never be what you predicted or what it says on a Gantt chart. Nobody can possibly know what will happen when you change things.

That’s why large-scale transformations become too big to fail – resulting in a ‘wall of silence’ when objectives don’t get met.

Spicer maintains that today bureaucracy comes cloaked in the language of change with our organisations full of people whose job is to create change for no real reason.

Change, both personal and corporate, simply isn’t always needed.

Knowing the problems you need to fix and the ones you don’t is a key advantage.

Crucially, the evidence base for change is often suspect. In his book Will Storr argues that the origins of the whole self-improvement industry were founded on very shaky evidence from the start – with scientists’ less than enthusiastic findings being airbrushed from a final report.

Far from pursuing some unrealistic dream, perhaps we’d be much happier if we learned to live with our imperfections, neuroses and human frailties.

How To Avoid Corporate Narcissism

Maybe we need to accept that not all problems are there to be fixed.  That our organisations are flawed. They always have been and always will be.

Perhaps we need:

  • Reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity.
  • Devolving resources and influence to those closest to the problem.
  • Changing little and fast through small-scale experimentation.
  • Not rolling out anything until we have evidence that it works.

And that’s led me to consider the failure rate of change programmes and the impossibly high goals that organisations set.

The weight loss industry is booming – and so is obesity.

The change industry is booming – and productivity is tanking.

  • Maybe your organisation is unique because of its flaws.
  • Maybe you don’t need to follow a consultant led template of what great looks like.

Being a human organisation means resisting someone else’s idea of perfection.

It means recognising you’ll always be flawed – and there’s a beauty in that.

I’m never going to be Elon Musk. Your organisation is never going to be Apple.

Maybe you’re meant to be that way.

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.

Blog 2.001

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

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