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 doesn’t equal 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 neural pathways don’t build overnight. At the end of a workshop, executive PowerPoint presentation, or training exactly nothing has changed except for, at best, tem0porary awareness.
  • Not understanding how organizational culture is formed and changes. Organizational behavior and performance is driven largely by the organizational culture. The culture is largely determined by what leaders model and pay attention to. Making anything real requires understanding what the culture is currently driving, and intentionally adjusting it to support the desired changes. For example, an organization might see that increased collaboration would improve overall effectiveness, but in the current culture (a) top leaders don’t think systemically and view their teams as a collection of departments, (b) mid-level managers are set up to compete for limited resources and (c) employees are evaluated individually.  In order to facilitate increased collaboration, the organization might (a) train leaders to think systemically and have their department heads be “in it together” to support overall success; (b) have mid-level managers decide together how to optimize resources; and (c) have employees be evaluated on team as well as individual performance.
  • Leaders believe that the formation and change of organizational culture can be delegated. This relates to the first bullet. 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. If desiring a respectful workplace, they cannot promote or give status to those who are not acting in alignment with these values, no matter how successful those people are on other factors. 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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. 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?

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