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Organizations Have to Change How They Change

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 — October 19th, 2022

Organizations Have to Change How They Change

A room full of senior executives, flanked by high-priced consultants, all disconnected from the realities on the work floor, huddle in some over-airconditioned meeting room to design the perfect new way of working.

Once they have confirmed their genius, backed up by abstract data points and elusive best practices from “industry leaders”, they turn to you to define the change communication strategy. The “why” is always some version of the same glib sentiment: this change is critical for us to be able to compete in the future. Sounds familiar?

The why statement is not the only characteristic these top-down changes share: they never capture the nuances that matter; they rarely consult those who will be the most impacted by the change; and they rush the communications. Yet these leaders have convinced themselves they will beat the odds (70% of all change programs fail), because it has been expertly designed and therefore it will be easy for you to communicate.

But what if there was a cheaper and more effective way to change? Bottom-up, participatory change, inherently secures buy-in, increases employee engagement, and builds additional skills for the future.

It starts with bad traffic management.

In his book Brave New Work, Aaron Dignan uses the traffic light and the roundabout to describe the two primary operating systems that underpin how organizations work.

The Ultimate Guide to Change Management Communication

The traffic light is a traditional command-and-control system that assumes traffic can be accurately predicted. Thus, traffic will be better managed if people are told what to do by using elaborate rules, processes, and technologies.

This system ignores the fact that you cannot accurately forecast things with multiple non-linear variables, and it intrinsically doesn’t trust people.

The roundabout knows it cannot foretell traffic patterns and that individual drivers are capable of making good decisions. Instead of trying to control everything, the system provides some basic rules: traffic must all go in the same direction, and drivers must yield to those in the roundabout. The rest is up to you.

The traffic light system is more expensive, less effective at managing traffic flow, and results in more accidents. Yet this is how most organizations operate, and change management is one of its most unfortunate manifestations.

Look at the Prosci change management process and others like it. It requires enormous amounts of time and money to make it “work”, and the senior management rarely has the time or commitment to invest in it. Even when they do, according to Prosci itself, they only fare 33% better than having no formal change management process. 

Despite your dedication to communicating changes in your company, how many of these change programs failed or didn’t meet their lofty objectives?From my experience, the answer is close to 100% and the problem starts with the operating system.

The roundabout way.

The further you are from the work, the further you are from the solution. That’s the reality that many companies don’t realize when they pursue top-down change. Instead of dragging people through a change program, have them lead their own change.

This starts by leaders asking their team, not consultants, what is getting in the way of them doing their best work. Based on these answers, the team can narrow it down to the one or a few major problems and co-design an experiment to change it. 

Participatory change is a game changer. First, there is finally skin in the game, with the team taking full accountability and ownership over the change they designed. One reason top-down change fails is because there is no real ownership. The consultant still gets paid if the change fails and rarely will someone get fired or demoted.

Second, leaders inherently start to build psychological safety within the team when co-designing solutions. Pick up any serious text on innovation, and you will discover that psychological safety is a prerequisite.

Next to that, regardless of the outcome of the experiment, the team will learn from it. They can then adjust their experiment to increase the likelihood of success and build valuable experimentation skills along the way.

Start a revolution

With this new way of doing change, the role of internal comms shifts from elaborate persuasion campaigns to celebrating experimentation success and failure. (Note: Celebrating failure is critical to build organizational psychological safety.) It is your job to get the story out about how teams are taking control of their own destiny and, in doing so, you will help incite a revolution.

Not all teams will be ready to embrace participatory change, and it would run counter to the principles of the roundabout to force them to do so prematurely. Therefore, your role is to find a band of misfits that want to shake up the status quo and will not be afraid to share their story, the good and the bad.

Through continuous communications about the experiences of these teams, you will start to build interest across the company to do the same. Others will look to these teams enviously as they innovate and collaborate in empowering ways.

They will want it to, and eventually, it will be hard for the senior leadership to ignore it. Are you ready to revolutionize how your company changes? 

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