A lifeboat in a sea of change

At the beginning of this year, I got a note from a woman whose department was undergoing a “transformation.” It’s a word I come across in every company I visit. While most people I meet may recognize the need for some kind of change, almost no one likes the process, or the uncertainty that comes with it. 

She wrote to say that she was in Week 6 of a Working Out Loud Circle, and that her “WOL family gave her stability." Despite anxiety related to the transformation, she was getting new energy from her network each day while she made progress toward her goal.

I wrote back:

“There are many times when I worked in a big company when my network was like "a lifeboat in a sea of change" (a good title for a blog post :-)) 
At first it was just a relief to interact with nice people at the firm amidst the fear and defensiveness that came along with "transformation." Over time, it came to be a source of ideas and ultimately a new career.”

A Circle offers you a safe, confidential space where you can work on your goals and your development without worrying about judgment or competition. For me, the relationships I developed turned out to be a source of strength in addition to a source of ideas and feedback. They gave me the perspective to see things clearly, and the confidence and encouragement to take action.

If you’re facing a change in your work or life, do you have a lifeboat? Who’s in it?

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Changing organizational behavior: top down or bottom up?

I’ve seen the change management movie so many times that I know the script by heart. 

  1. The dramatic descriptions of the burning platform and its dire consequences. 
  2. The overuse of the words “transformation” and “journey.” 
  3. The recognition of the difficulties ahead, and the appeal to everyone to engage despite them. 
  4. The management announcements listing who’s in and who’s out.
  5. The lack of actual change.

Some of the movies were pure farce. During one reorganization of a large IT department, thousands of people were forced to play a board game so we could understand the new operating model. Then there was the firm-wide program to change our culture, complete with new values on posters and mandatory meetings to discuss them. One executive made a video, making clear his impatience with the bad behaviors he had seen, only to be fired himself for those same behaviors. 

“Change management” has become an oxymoron, a caricature of bureaucracy captured in popular cartoons. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Grassroots or “Grass ceiling”?

I was thinking about this during a Knowledge Jam event organized by Cogneon in Nürnberg last week. All the participants were interested in change of some kind, whether it was developing more collaborative cultures and new kinds of leadership or more agile teams and engaged staff. One of the methods discussed was Working Out Loud Circles, and how they helped make change sustainable.

Then came the discussion and debate. “What’s they best way to drive change? Top-down or bottom-up?”

The trade-offs are obvious. If management leads the change effort, then employees know it’s expected as part of their job and is likely to have resources to implement it. If employees lead it, it’s because they believe in it.

As Peter Senge said, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.” So, appealing to employees’ intrinsic motivations is important. Yet without the support of management, grassroots efforts can be trampled, or spread too slowly, or hit limits - “the grass ceiling” - that prevent them from driving meaningful change.

An emerging pattern

Now that Working Out Loud Circles are spreading in dozens of organizations, there’s a discernible pattern. 

Quite commonly, it starts with a single person deciding to form one or more Circles. They don’t need budget and they don’t ask for permission. They just find a few colleagues who might be open to change, download the free guides, and start. In most cases, the early adopters have such a positive experience that they tell others, a second wave forms, and they begin collecting feedback from people.

Then comes a shift. The people in the first few waves use the feedback they’ve collected to get management support of some kind. This could be in the form of an official event or other activities to encourage the spread of the practice. In some cases, HR will get involved in sponsoring the event or include it in their training offerings. Or they’ll commission customized guides that refer to company goals, examples, and technology. These kinds of things make it easier for more people to feel safe that they can join a Circle without fear of getting into trouble in some way.

Start where you are

When I worked in large corporations, we spent millions on messages and management related to change, but close to nothing on actually empowering people to do things differently.

One way to fix that is to help people help themselves. By equipping and empowering early adopters to drive change, you learn what works and doesn’t work while you collect real stories from real people about the benefits and possibilities. Then, armed with those results, you can leverage the institution to scale and accelerate the change you’ve begun to see. 

The best way to drive behavior change inside your organization isn’t top-down or bottom-up. It’s both. 

Next week, I’ll describe a new kind of on-boarding process that’s a good example of this.