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Where Love and Life Collide: Organisational Change

Apply the rules of love and watch your organisational change program work

Change management continues to consistently fail (we’ve been sitting around 70% failure-rate since first reported in the early 1990’s), yet we face more change than ever before.

I often work with enterprises that have spent tens of millions of dollars on change programs only to see little appreciable result (hence the call!).

So, why do these processes fail and what can you do to make sure yours doesn’t?

Distilling through A LOT of research, the answer invariably lies in the realm of communication

Robert Half of Management Resources recently led a research program that interviewed leaders and staff at 300 top US companies (Where Change Management Fails). The source of the failure of change programs was predictable (poor communication), but they went a little further.

They found that 65% of people felt that "communicating clearly and frequently" was the source of failure, 16% felt the source of failure was "managing expectations" at 9% a lack of clear goals.

So, communicating ‘clearly and frequently’ is important, but what does that actually mean?

Many people assume ‘clear and frequent’ communication means putting your mind on loudspeaker: telling people how they’ve pissed you off for example. Alternatively, many think (or default to) creating carefully crafting ‘strategic messaging’. Speaking from personal experience, that simply occurs like a manipulation.

There are many form of communication, but for the change manager, there are there are specific rules the most effective use of the tool that is communication.

For the change manager, communication is not just the transfer of information (though it must encompass that), nor is it the sharing of thoughts and feelings (though it must encompass that as well!). To successfully achieve change communication must be wielded in a way that is unique to the change-game: it must be used in a way that creates and reinforces particular kinds of relationships.

Here are three basic rules the change-manager must follow if they are to see their commitment to change fulfilled:

  1. You have to know what it is that you’re trying to achieve

Sound obvious? It’s not.

In twenty years doing this work this is piece I find most commonly missing. We love to ‘do’ but thinking hurts and thinking about the future is particularly confronting … so we avoid it.

The important thing here is that the goal is CLEAR! It has to be a concrete vision: something that can be translated in specific and measurable outcomes; that could be written and even drawn on a piece of paper (something I literally get people to do in my workshops).

  1. Everyone (at least everyone you need for delivery) has to AGREE that that is the goal
This is not as obvious as it seems. In a recent workshop I led, everyone was excited and inspired by the vision they’d created for the agency, until we started really drilling into specifics. Then it became clear people meant different things with the same words!
  1. You need to create the relatedness (not relationships) around the accomplishment of the goal

This is where the communication comes in.

Communicating for Change: being in a ‘relationship’ vs. being ‘related’

Being ‘in a relationship’ is personal, based on affection and grounded in a shared (presumably positive) past. Being ‘related’ is functional, impersonal and based on a commonly agreed (presumably positive) future.

An analogy I often us is a football team
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The reason a football team exists is clear: get the ball into the net as often as possible.

The relatedness is also clear and described in terms of roles: goalie, striker, mid-fielder, sweeper, defender etc. Everyone knows their role and stays in place, even if the ball passes them by. Imagine a football team with 11 goalies (or worse perhaps, 11 strikers!).

To win the change game everyone needs to play their part (i.e. be related), but they don’t have to like each other (i.e. be in a relationship). In fact, recent research (precipitated by who-can-imagine what query) indicates that grumpy orchestras actually play a little better than orchestras that enjoy each others’ company[1] which indicates (weakly) that liking each other might even be a draw-back.

In the change game, knowing your part comes down to knowing who you are for others in the team and then communicating from there!


[1] published in Senior Leadership Teams, Ruth Wageman, Debra Nunes, James Burruss.

Know who is on your team

Harvard Business Review reported a finding that, of 120 executive teams from top-flight enterprises worldwide were interview, fewer than 10% agreed about who was actually on the team!

Why Teams Don’t Work

This gives a very different modality to communicating for change then the loudspeaker or ‘strategic messaging’. Coming from a clear vision of the future and an agreement pertaining to what might be required for its fulfilment, communication becomes a tool that transects the ‘normal’ use of language (transferring of information or expressing emotions) and becomes a tool for the creation and maintenance of particular kinds of roles.  

Sound a bit full-on? It’s not, we do it all the time. The only difference for the change manager is that in most instances, rather than create forms of relatedness premised on the fulfilment of a new future, we use language to reinforce past-based (inherited) forms of relatedness to scaffold our relationships.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this of course, unless you want to create something new!

What’s love got to do with it?

Marriage is a good model for distinguishing relatedness and relationship, if only because it’s an area where they can get so often mixed up.

All partnerships (including teams) exist for the fulfilment of a particular future. We get married (or create long-term relationships), because we want a particular future and that person is part of it.

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Increasingly, the future people envisage for themselves diverges in critical areas from more traditional, inherited norms of marriage (e.g. promise to love and obey). Consequently, an increasing number of people are choosing to invent their own promises (vows). They do this because they intuitively know that there is something about the promises that is critical to the kind-of future they end-up with. They publicly make promises (because it’s harder to back-out of public promises) about who they will be with each other (promises that usually include monogamy, mutual respect and being good with the kids).

If a member of a marriage doesn’t keep those agreements too often the partnership will most likely dissolve. Even if they stay together, it is unlikely the common future envisioned when they made their vows will be realised.

Why Change Works and Why It Doesn’t

Change fails because the rules of the change-game are broken.

I know quite a few relationships that have broken down when the parties realised they are not in fact working towards the common future they had assumed they were (sometimes for decades). I’ve seen others breakdown when one party wanted to renegotiate fundamental agreements (often inherited and/or assumed) that had previously underpinned the relationship and the other person didn’t. These breakdowns in relatedness is often at its clearest when a specific measurable result is at stake: e.g. having children or not having them; stop working (often older men) or start working (often older women).

From the change managers’ perspective, the key points to distinguish in the marriage example are that:

a. Marriage vows are grounded in the future the pair want to create, not the present and especially not the past’

b. Life-partners make promises to each other that deliberately go beyond how they feel about each other in a given moment, and;

c. Whether conscious or inherited, spoken or assumed, these promises fundamentally inform the roles people have and consequently the kinds of communication that is inherent or possible in that partnership (that is, without risking breaking it).

It is these promises, whether consciously created or inherited, that represent the true currency of change, the foundation of the kinds of communication Robert Half of Management Resources was looking for when he penned his report and a key, often overlooked source of a successful change program or a failed one.

[1] published in Senior Leadership Teams, Ruth Wageman, Debra Nunes, James Burruss.

Actually Getting Change Done!

To create change-ready teams your purpose needs to be very clear and everyone needs to agree that it is, in fact, the goal. However, as Robert Half so poignantly identified, to actually achieve change, people need to communicate effectively. That communication flows from the relatedness that exists between people, not how they feel about each other: don’t ask the striker to be the goalie (that won’t work) and don’t ask if they like each (that’s irrelevant).

Just as in a marriage, these promises are not random, they must represent behaviours that specifically correlate to the outcome (the vision) the team exists to accomplish. There are an endless number of wonderful attributes to choose from, it’s the one’s that will get you where you’re going that count.

So, to bring it back to organisations: if you want your change program to be successful, bone-up on the rules of the change game, especially the rules that apply to the kinds of communication that make change work. Do this so you can consciously (with your team) create the relatedness required to see-the-game-through. Trying to implement change using inherited roles is a bit like turned up at a wedding in shorts, it just doesn’t work!

Don’t assume you can transfer the rules of other games you play at work or in life across to the change game because they don’t apply.

Why do 70% of change programs fail? Mostly because that’s what we do.

At the risk of being a little twee… if you do want to actually change something, don’t be a statistic and learn the rules!

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