Nature gives us so many examples of rebirth after failure or destruction. One of the most dramatic is how quickly ecosystems recover after devastating forest fires. New growth can be seen springing from the fertile ashes of the fire, seed pods broken open by the heat will take root and spark the beginnings of the forests to come. In an organizational setting, it can be extremely difficult to sift through the ashes of a failed change and find the opportunities for renewal.
When working on change in an organizational setting, we often come up against change efforts that have failed or stalled. It is exceptionally difficult to ignite a desire for change when inertia has built up over time and has been reinforced because of successive failures to sustain change. This is what happens when an initiative fails to scale the change curve, cross the chasm or reach the tipping point.
In a previous post I talked about how Change Strategy is about changing direction when something unexpected happens. It can also be about getting injecting momentum into a staid situation. When things don't feel like they are moving forward, how do we get out of the doldrums and get wind back in the sails? Targeted intervention can refocus a team and find new opportunities, while keeping sight of the political, social and power structures that may be benefiting from the status quo.
The key thing to remember is that reviving a stalled or failed change often requires an abrupt change in direction. Trying to rally a team an organization and sponsors to surmount the same challenge again is very difficult. Psychologically, trying again after failure in a public environment is something that only the most resilient of us can do. In many organizations, failure is seen as an end point, and the "comeback storyline" has a specific narrative. A third way is to use the Change Strategy approach to create a sense of novelty in the initiative which will enable people to rally once again and help create momentum. Furthermore, the people who will resist the change can't use the previous state of failure to withhold their support for the new effort.
A key first step in using the Change Strategy approach to revive a failed effort is to paint a very clear picture of why it failed. This will create a shared understanding of what needs to happen differently in the new effort, but importantly, rehashing failure doesn't become part of the storyline going forward. Engaging stakeholders and listening carefully to the feedback is the most important step in the process. Once stakeholders see their feedback reflected in the new effort, it makes it easier for them to lend their support and starts to create the momentum that makes change happen.
Image via Shutterstock: When big change needs to happen: if you're part of the resistance, you might get left behind.
Events of the past week have made me think about resistance to change and the role of leaders in our current system and context. What does accountability in the face of resistance look like in organizations? Significant history and culture has defined our current state and it is important to remember that leaders aren't "other people" they are us.
Coming into 2021, we have all been changed in a transformative way: by COVD-19, the deaths of loved ones, losses of livelihoods, the breakdown of our society and by calls to action for anti-racism and equality in society and our workplaces. So much of my work at Charthouse involves making positive change happen for organizations and the people within them. We focus on advancing the goals of businesses while thinking deeply about how these changes affect people. Our goal is to help people and organizations be successful together in the new world that they have defined for themselves.
But there is always resistance to change. Why?
Humans are afraid of losing things they have. We are all afraid of loss. We try with all of our might to protect what we have and prevent bad things from happening to us. In organizations, this relates to loss of power, autonomy, and status. But, while people are experiencing fear, it is almost impossible for them to see what might be gained from the change, and what opportunities will come.
Organizations after all, are a microcosm of broader society. And, it is important to remember that North American society and culture was born of a colonial family. The roots of our cultural ancestry are deep, on this occupied land, some 500 years. North American culture and society has been elevated at the expense of others - Indigenous people, Black people, people of colour, LGBTQ2+ people, women. At the same time, change is happening, good and positive change that is working to upend this history and create something new. Those who benefit from this system have a lot to lose, so they resist.
Events of this past year have brought resistance to change to the forefront. This past week we are seeing this manifest in violence, threats of death to people of colour, women in power, and an attempted coup d'état. These few, represent many, and are seeking to resist change, people who are part of systems that enabled them are resisting change too. But when resistance is against change to a system that exploits others--it is time for leaders to stand for those that they serve and for the world they want to see. The status quo is no longer acceptable.
In the microcosm of an organization, we move on, collectively towards the new, and those who are left behind choose to be left behind. What that feels like in an organization is: "we've heard what the resistance has to say, and we've decided to move forward". This can be a hard stance for a leader to take, especially for empathetic leaders. Sometimes you can see the point of view, or understand where someone is coming from, the "agree to disagree" approach. But, leadership is accountable to the people they lead and change requires wholehearted commitment and consistency-- an in or out mentality. You can't bring about real change if you're only half invested. Every leader embarking on change must make this choice. Then, the time comes for those who remain staunch in their views, refusing to change, when they are no longer given the benefit of attention because we no longer believe that there is merit in returning to the past. Leaders must say: we reject the way things are today and we're invested in the future. We believe that what comes next is promising. The challenge, for us as people, as humans, and specifically for those of us who have benefitted from this societal system, is to turn our attention to the rising sun, and make the choice to invest in a future that isn't defined by us or the past anymore.
The most wonderful thing about people is that we are capable of change. Big, transformative, exciting change. We can bring these changes to others and uplift them in the process. Our organizations and systems are capable of this too. They can change with us. Change is powerful. In exchange, it requires decision, commitment and consistency. Even the strongest resistance fades over time, when collectively, we decide to no longer give it the attention it needs to sustain, to grow. It will fade because we actively reject it, and because we have chosen to invest in a different and better vision of the future.
Hands up if you've worked in this complex! One of my favourite spots downtown... image credit: Alexander Demyanenko via Shutterstock
Imagine that we're back in the fall of 2018: The leaves are changing colour, a brisk Autumn wind blows and the light is golden from a warm but waning sun. The kids are all safely in school and you are sitting at a boardroom table of a mid-size corporation with a hot apple-pumpkin spice beverage in hand, participating in an in-person strategic planning session with the executive and board members. It's Wednesday afternoon, the middle of a week long retreat at a downtown hotel ballroom. You're talking about the five year strategy for the organization, ambitious plans to go forth and do wonderful things between 2019 - 2023. The board has also committed to doubling the number of women in management and leadership from 15% (to 30%!) and everyone is very proud of this bold stance in the industry. At the end of the week the team feels great, and they make plans to present the strategy to the company at the annual holiday party. Later, the CEO publishes the new strategy and starts setting up the big changes to come, all before the ball drops on New Year's Day 2019.
How much of what you just read would be impossible today?
Fast forward to 2020 and we are in the middle of a shift in the way we live and work - amid a social movement for racial equality and global upheaval due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This change is happening faster than we imagined and we are still in the middle of it.
Change Strategy is about what happens to your plan when big change happens that you didn't expect. Change Strategy happens outside of the "mid-term strategic plan refresh" and works in three steps, determining:
We take a holistic approach to finding the gaps between the planned state and what we think the future will look like, chart the new course and then make sure that people are invested. We are starting to see that there will be lasting effects to the changes we are experiencing, and in order to survive and thrive we will need to change course now.
Change Strategy considers:
Change Strategy is how you move forward when everything has changed. This approach delivers a quick pivot, re-orients leaders and their people in a new direction and returns teams to delivering results. Once you know where you're going, the next challenge becomes how to rally people around a new direction -- culture and stories are a core part of Change Strategy implementation.
I regularly listen to a podcast by Seth Godin called Akimbo. One of the episodes earlier this year talked about origin stories and how they help a person understand where they came from and where they are going. The story we tell ourselves about our past dictates the choices that we make about the future. Furthermore, if we decide to change the story, a different future becomes possible. Seth discusses his own origin story about a sailing mishap on Lake Erie (a reason why I connected with the episode) and the power that we have to change the narrative after an event.
I recently used an origin story to help an executive team pivot towards a new strategy. The team acknowledged that they were at a crossroads and needed to refocus to realize their 5 year strategy.
The team had inherited an origin story from the company's past. While this story held positive messaging about the culture, how they built strong programs and their strong ties to stakeholders, the story bound them to repeat these patterns again. With the shift in strategy, the executive team needed to change direction but couldn't see how that was possible within the current narrative. The story they had been telling themselves was limiting their view of the future.
To help shift the thinking of the team, I told them a new origin story. This new story acknowledged their past strengths. It emphasized that to grow, and bring positive change to even more people, they would have to focus on achieving a new level of organizational maturity. Similar to a startup growing over many years to achieve global status, their company was changing.
The origin story was a powerful tool to help the executive team understand how their past linked them to their future. They were able to see how the change in direction would set them up for success. By changing the story, we were able to set the company on a new course.
Beyond the executive team table, an origin story is useful for developing change communications for staff, managers, stakeholders and customers. It quickly gets to the "why" of a change and helps rally support and momentum. It maintains that the work and contributions of the past are important, and it links to the future in a meaningful way. A new story enables progress towards a desired state.