Making it Real

Organizations launch so many initiatives:

  • Culture change
  • Integrating new mission, vision, strategy and/or values
  • Developing high performing teams
  • Employee engagement
  • Leadership development in general, or developing high potential leaders
  • Diversity
  • Respectful workplace, anti-bullying
  • Effective performance dialogues
  • Self-awareness and understanding others using typologies like the Enneagram, MBTI, DISC, Colors, etc.
  • Integrating new processes or practices (often using words like “transformations” that have little real meaning)

Almost all of them fall short of expectations. They don’t make a sustainable difference. Sadly, organizations rarely have a way of even knowing to what extent any of the desired changes have actually become “baked into” the culture. Why is that?

  • Awareness ≠ Change. Real changes in how people think and act take time, through ongoing individual and collective cycles of action and reflection, and working in a context that supports those changes. New organizational and individual behavior patterns don’t build through awareness and good intentions. At the end of a workshop, executive PowerPoint presentation, or training exactly nothing has changed except for, at best, temporary awareness. On an organizational level, the context(s) in which the organization exists haven’t changed, nor is the culture any more aligned toward desired outcomes. On an individual level, new neural pathways have not yet formed.
  • Failure to take a systemic approach. Most organizational leaders see their teams as a collection of departments and/or individuals rather than as a system. They don’t realize that organizational culture drives most of organizational behavior, that all the parts are interdependent, that there is already an organizational culture that likely is supporting current behavior and performance, and that the context has to be intentionally addressed to make changes real.
  • Not understanding how organizational culture is formed and changes.  Ed Schein, perhaps the pre-eminent organizational culture theorist and practitioner, has studied the factors that are most important in shaping or shifting culture.  The primary mechanism for forming and changing a culture is what the leaders attend to, measure, reward and control. Therefore the most senior leaders need to be centrally involved in any intentional change effort.  They need to be actively modeling the desired change. They must hire, promote, and allocate resources and status in ways that are fully congruent. Otherwise, people in their organizations quickly dismiss any new initiative.
    • For example, if introducing coaching skills, the most senior leaders need to be actively coaching their direct reports and focusing on skill acquisition in this area and expecting that of other leaders. If desiring a respectful workplace, in order to not present a mixed message, they cannot promote or give status to those who are not acting in alignment with these values, no matter how successful those people are in other ways. If desiring increased collaboration they need to first take a more systemic approach rather than seeing their organization as a collection of parts and individuals, and examine the factors driving collaboration vs. unhealthy competition, including how people get power and influence.
    • Whatever the desired outcome, they also have to initiate the examination of supporting and detracting organizational and other contextual factors, building on strengths and establishing clear accountability for removing barriers. Doing so, particularly in an open and cross-hierarchical way,  aligns the organization in desired directions and also increases mutual ownership and engagement.If there’s not an understanding of the importance of intentionally forming and shifting culture, then culture is formed by default and is generally misaligned with organizational objectives, and leadership messages are not congruent.
    • This is a short summary of a dialogue one of our colleagues recently had with Ed Schein and here are  Schein’s Twelve Steps to Culture Change
  • Leaders believe that change initiatives can be delegated. Establishing organizational values, for example, does not Make Them Real. As already discussed, leaders cannot delegate responsibility for change until they have first taken appropriate responsibility at their level, because what leaders pay attention to largely drives organizational behavior and performance. They need to first model, address organizational barriers, etc.
  • Activation without installation.  Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson uses these terms to describe why awareness doesn’t equal change. Practitioners on an individual level (coaches, psychotherapists, trainers, human potential workshop leaders, etc.) or on an organizational level (organizational consultants, human resource practitioners, etc.) are sometimes very good at giving people positive experiences or introducing something new. This is “activation.” But they are generally not good at introducing what’s needed to lead to lasting shifts in how people think and act, or “installation.” What’s needed is a mutual understanding of what needs to be accomplished, mutually identifying the strengths and challenges, and then evolving a plan to move forward including removing barriers as much as possible. Our work focuses on supporting installation on both individual and collective levels.
  • Impatience. It takes time to have the desired outcome become real in an organization, even with an effective process (see below). Impatience often comes from the erroneous belief that a good, clear introduction is sufficient to sustain change, Most organizations move on to the next initiative before the current one is solidified.
  • Failure to build leadership capacity. Higher capacity thinking is needed to lead and sustain any organizational change. Leaders need to understand the power of context and how it’s influencing them and those they work with. They need to develop both/and rather than either/or thinking. They need to be able to integrate multiple factors. The key drivers of leadership capacity are reflection, perspective taking and seeking, use of polarity maps, and applied self-awareness tools. There are particular ways of thinking and acting that are demonstrably more effective for leading in times of increasing complexity, ambiguity, volatility, uncertainty and rapid change. See our data as well as our developmental model.
  • Cynicism. As organizations introduce more and more initiatives, without knowing how to “make them real” people gradually become cynical about the next “flavor of the month.”
  • What does it take to make a desired outcome real in an organization?
    • Lead from the top. Senior leaders must be centrally involved in the process and must commit to measuring, rewarding, controlling, and modeling in ways that are fully aligned with the desired change.
    • Ensure mutual understanding of the purpose, what is to be accomplished (big picture).
    • Mutual understanding of what that means. Spend time on why this is important. How is it meaningful to those involved? What will be accomplished? Why does it matter? Who will benefit, and how? This becomes the Desired Outcome.
    • Next is Current Reality. Identify the most important strengths and challenges, internally and externally, relative to this desired outcome. Integration of multiple perspectives from diverse stakeholders is very important, cross-hierarchical and cross-functional.
    • Examine the challenges through the lens of Circles of Influence: what’s under our control, what’s under our influence, and what’s out of our control?
    • Develop plans that build on the strengths and address the challenges as much as possible.
    • Build the capacity of those involved through regular ongoing reflection, perspective taking and seeking, use of polarity maps and integration of self-awareness tools (the Enneagram is by far our favorite).
    • Build in ways to have ongoing evaluation of effectiveness, and then evolving based on what’s learned. Dynamic steering in a complex environment requires “steering points,” data that can be used to adjust and adapt over time. Those involved need to get together, celebrate what’s working well, uncover and strategize about new challenges, etc. This is collective reflection.
    • Integrate that learning (collective and individual) back into the culture.
    • Support this integration with approaches that “build in the good” and help overcome the brain’s “negativity bias.” Internalize the positives that have happened. How has the organization and its different stakeholders (employees, customers, vendors, etc.) benefited? What’s the value of what’s been learned? Why does it matter? How has it supported meaning, connection and growth?
  • Initial Data Gathering. There’s an important caveat regarding the initial gathering of organizational strengths and challenges to reach desired outcomes. Our organizational clients often engage us in this process, for several reasons.
    • Trust/Confidentiality. Very few organizations have created the level of safety needed for people to fully share their perspectives. They have norms that require people to not bring in the outlying, differing perspectives that are needed to address the complexity required for effective and sustainable change.
    • Objectivity. Organizational cultures impact how people think. It’s hard to think outside of the context you currently work in (organizational norms and biases), no matter what your capacity. Put another way, it’s hard to see the box you’re in. “Outside eyes” guided by experience and wisdom will be able to ask different questions and gather more fulsome information.
    • Systemic Perspective. Our background in understanding systems enables us to probe differently and thus assist the organization in optimizing overall effectiveness.
    • Capacity-Building Perspective. We work from developmental models that have identified the kinds of thinking and acting that are sequentially more effective in these VUCA times (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity). The extent to which leaders think and act in developmentally sophisticated ways depends both on their individual capacity and on the kind of thinking driven by the current culture. Examining these factors is vital.
    • Objective Assessments. We use an objective measure of organizational culture, both the current culture and the ideal culture that’s needed to support organizational objectives. It also identifies the most important factors to address for positive change. Engagement surveys generally measure organizational climate at best, rather than organizational culture. They tell you what’s showing up at the surface, but not why and what’s actually needed. These objective assessments provide powerful support for change.

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