Finding positive energy for business transformation
If you distill most approaches to their essence, they boil down to those two things: communication and involvement.
The beatings will continue until morale improves.
That sentiment, sometimes attributed to Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, usually sparks hesitant chuckles and shrugs when someone makes the joke in a business meeting. But we’ve all experienced it: “We need to fix the problem with [sales, service, morale, quality, other]. Or heads will roll.” (And inevitably they do, in companies where this is the default mode.)
Communication is key to successful corporate change – and language matters. That may be one reason “digital transformation” plays better in companies than just “building digital capabilities.” Transformation sounds aspirational. Managing data to enhance customer and employee experience sounds like work.
In addition, change is unlikely to succeed if it’s forced on people; it has to be created with them. And while change needs to be supported from the top, it works best if it comes from the middle. That is, involving the folks who make things happen day-to-day within an organization and are closest to the customers.
There are obviously more detailed steps to successful transformation, but if you distill most approaches to their essence, they boil down to those two things: communication and involvement.
A good example is the 8-Step Process for Leading Change, developed in the ‘90s by John Kotter of Harvard Business School and adopted/adapted by many change managers and consultants. Kotter’s eight steps:
- Create a sense of urgency, what some call a “burning platform,” by communicating through bold and inspirational statements the importance of acting – and acting now. For example, communicating how shifts in an industry open up new avenues for growth, or new challenges to be overcome.
- Build a guiding coalition, a group of leaders who can help support the change and communicate it from the top down.
- Create a strategic vision of how the future will be different from the past, and how we can make that future a reality with meaningful initiatives linked to the vision.
- Enlist support across the organization by communicating early and often the importance and the opportunity. People will rally around a movement but will resist yet another project.
- Remove as many barriers as possible in terms of processes, hierarchies, or unneeded rules to provide the freedom for people to achieve real impact.
- Create short-term wins and recognize those achievements to further engage people with the change and build excitement by demonstrating the doable.
- That’s the point where you might be encouraged to coast, but Kotter says it’s the time to press harder to keep the momentum going, and to turn that energy loose on other parts of the organization.
- Finally, lock in the change by rewarding and praising the new behaviors tied to the change.
Most transformations don’t deliver on their promise, mainly because they ignore the keys to successful change. Think about the last change project in your own company. Which of those stages of change can you identify as having happened? Which were missing? How did it play out?
Now, back to Captain Bligh and the importance of language and narrative.
CEO Bligh of Bounty Inc. calls a meeting and says, “We’re getting complaints about our delivery times and error rates. Our customer service is broken. I’m fed up with this. We need change – we need you to fix it. This is critical! If you can’t solve it we’re going to have to replace the lot of you. Who’s got an idea?”
At Company B, where customer service is also struggling, the CEO talks about the problem, but also about the company’s vision and strategy, and its successes. Then she says, “Think of a time when you gave or received great service. What did that look like? How were you involved? What made it great? How can we deliver that kind of experience here?”
Given human nature and neuroscience, the first approach has little chance of a successful outcome. In the face of threat, the amygdala takes hold of our brains, the prehistoric fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, and our tunnel vision focuses on only survival. All we see is saber-toothed tigers. Creativity and problem-solving vanish.
Company B’s CEO reframed the issue, drawing on something called the anticipatory principle, which says that organizations move in the direction of their dominant conversations. In other words, if we focus on talking about what’s broken, that’s where we stay; if we focus on the possible, creativity and engagement can be unlocked.
That kind of reframing is one of the core principles of positive (vs. problem-solving) change models like Appreciative Inquiry, which was also developed in the ‘90s, by David Cooperrider and others at Case Western Reserve University. Appreciative Inquiry aims to engage the “whole system” to build shared visions of a desired outcome using a five-stage process:
- Define the overall topic of the inquiry, framed as a positive outcome. British Airways once used Appreciative Inquiry to address a problem with misplaced luggage and focused on “Exceptional Arrival Experience.”
- Discover explores what works and the organization’s strengths and successes related to the topic.
- Dream provides an opportunity for stakeholders to imagine what can be based on the successes identified in the previous phase.
- Design moves into narrowing the options and prioritizing.
- Deliver/Destiny is about action planning and execution.
In case you’re thinking this “positive stuff” sounds too touchy-feely, it’s been used by organizations ranging from schools and cities to big industrial companies, the US Navy, and the United Nations. I worked on an inquiry at ArcelorMittal Steel where steelworkers, union reps, management, community leaders, family members, and others, gathered in a hotel ballroom to develop new approaches to significantly improve safety in the mills.
And even if you don’t choose to follow the process, I’ve found positive reframing valuable in more traditional approaches to change. During a strategy session for one client, getting the team to focus on strengths and opportunities of a SWOT analysis instead of the weaknesses and threats generated fresh ideas.
I’ve also been able to channel the energy of change-resistant team members whose default position is, “There’s no way that can work” by asking my favorite question: “What do you think things would look like if they were working perfectly?”
Take that, Captain Bligh.