Innoculate Your Organization Against Change!

This just in. A group of scientists today announced that they has successfully created a vaccine which is almost 100% effective in preventing any change within an organization.

A spokesperson for the group claimed that they had decoded the basic DNA of organizational change and come up with a fool-proof method of ensuring that change was prevented totally or if any change variant did manage to get instilled in the organization, that it would be short-lived.

Since change itself can get started in a number of ways, the scientists stressed that it had to be systematically attacked at a number of levels. These multiple strategies, have an added bonus. They not only destroy the current infusion of change — but these anti-change factors actually work on the organizations own immune system. Initially, they work to destroy the initial change itself. But incredibly, they teach the immune system of the organization to find and tackle new and different changes.

“Soon, the organization becomes protected from change whatever the source,” said one of the researchers.

Okay…. I was just kidding. But it struck me today that this isn’t too far fetched. A lot of organizations actually DO things that build up their resistance to change. There are a lot of ways that this happens. I’ve covered some that I’ve been thinking of. Let me known in the comments below if you agree or add your own observation.

Here’s what I was noodling on when the idea of corporate immunity to change came to me.

An organization starts out on a program of change. Let’s say it’s some new processes. It usually starts well enough, with a good announcement or a meeting with a top executive to show how serious they are. There may even some training and communication. Everyone seems to be on board.

After the initial launch, it’s noticed that the changes aren’t being adopted as quickly as they should. There is quite a great deal of resistance to this new change.

Management has a great deal of trouble pinpointing the causes and even the source. As most of us know, resistance resistance to change can take many forms, but its rarely an all out attack on the new process. Resistance is usually less obvious than that.

In fact, if you do get overt resistance, for heavens sake, thank your lucky stars. Why? Because when resistance is in the open you can address it. So even though you may hate it, be careful not to try to squash overt resistance. All you will do is drive it underground.

Let me be clear, the type of overt resistance I’m referring to is not flagrant rule breaking or insubordination. I suggest that emotions can run high during intense change, so you have to watch how quickly you react, but in the end, you have to deal with these.

No, I’m talking about those who are frustrated, who don’t like the change and who are upfront with you. They are your friends. Trust me. You need to patiently (but firmly) work with them to help them through this.

But when change goes “underground” it’s really tough. People just keep messing up, forgetting, claim they are trying but can’t get it, they blame workload — lots of things. If this passive resistance ever comes above ground it usually is in response to a real issue or error. I’ve never been perfect myself, so I make mistakes – many people do. We usually just fix and forget or apologize and move on. When its a period of high change, sometimes were a little defensive and sometimes people really do take advantage of every error to discredit the change.

It happens.

When passive resistance happens, you have to be very tenacious. It’s tempting sometimes to just let it go. This stuff wears you down because its relentless. And sometimes you just want to say, to heck with it. I’m not going to sweat the small stuff. We’ll forget about this and try it again another day.

Don’t do that. When passive resistance is present and you give up, you teach every resister that if they dig in long enough, you’ll give up. This may not be true, but you will find that each time you give up, you give the organization the equivalent of a change vaccine.

Nope. You have to stay in the game until you can declare a victory and move on.

Not just for the resisters. There’s another group watching — they are the early adopters. We spend a lot of time watching those who resist — either overtly or passively. We tend not to watch those brave and wonderful souls who just get on board. But you should. Especially if you lose a battle.

Why? Because these early adopters will feel either cheated or misled. They got on board. They played by the rules. They believed. They put their credibility on the line.

You (whoever YOU are) walked away and left them high and dry.

When early adopters check out they still smile at you, but they take their resistance far, far underground. And they quietly circulate throughout the organization building that corporate immunity to change.

When you let them wear you down and you walk away – you build immunity to change. When you start and abandon change – you build immunity to change.

Wait a minute! What if a direction that we have taken is wrong? Does this mean we have to persist even when we know we are on the wrong track?

Of course not. Here’s what we do when we find a real failure. We listen, we think about it and if we are going in the wrong direction, we admit the mistake. Then we cleanly and openly cancel what we were doing, and give our reasons. But we don’t walk away.

Red Green, the comedian used to say that the three words men can’t say are, “I was wrong.” Those of us in corporate life have the same dilemma. We want to hide our mistakes and pretend they didn’t exist. When nobody mentions them again? We think we got away with it. No foul, no penalty. No price to pay.

Wrong. We only succeeded in helping the organization become more change resistant. We gave one up to the forces of “this too shall pass.”

So what do you do? As my friend Dave Howlett says, “Suck it up, buttercup.” Do you really think because nobody talks about it that nobody noticed? How naive can we be? Somebody noticed.

So disarm that. Quickly say – okay, that’s not working. Walk away from a failed solution – but never from a problem.

I once had a friend and client who took on a tough corporate problem – one where others had failed miserably. Success was by no means assured, and it involved going back to a group that had lived through the past failure. That was tough. Tougher still? Convincing senior management (no matter how visionary they thought they were) to tackle this problem again. Yet he did.

The best explanation I got from him was – “the problem was still there.” He bet his career. That’s corporate courage. But let’s be realistic. Most mistakes aren’t career shakers. Sometimes, it’s just being able to say those three magic words. I was wrong.

Or as I loved to hear it put – we have ruled out one possible approach. We’re that much closer to a solution.

I’m not trivializing this. Most companies talk a good talk about “learning from our mistakes”. They don’t mean it. I had a customer one time who at least was honest about it. I was talking about how we only learn from our failures. He turned to me and said, “Jim, don’t take this the wrong way, but we’d prefer it if you didn’t learn anything while you were here.” At the time it was funny. But there is a germ of truth in it.

So let me be clear. I’m not saying try to fail. I’m saying manage the message. Let people know that you are aware of it. You aren’t stupid and you aren’t unable to admit a mistake.

Because it’s not about you. It’s about the problem is still there, right? Now you need to go for another solution. Hopefully one that shows what you’ve learned. The trick is to ensure that people know that if they kill one approach, you’ll come back with a second, and a third and even a fourth. They need to know that you don’t give up.

Attack immunity to change the same way successful viruses do. Keep mutating your strategy, keep coming back until you find the way in.

Another amazing thing happens when we admit we aren’t perfect and we stay focused on the problem and not on ourselves. We get the freedom to not be the only source of answers. We get to ask those who are having the biggest problem — or causing it. If at all possible, I try to find some who are NOT having a problem. I bring them together with the ones who are. I facilitate them towards a solution. I actually refuse to own the problem — but I am committed to helping find a solution.

There’s a paraphrase of an American president (probably Roosevelt) that says something like, “anything is possible when you stop worrying about who gets the credit.” What a brilliant observation that was. If you want to change an organization, let someone who resists the change have the opportunity to take credit for making the change really work.

A funny thing happens when you succeed at change. You find that each successive change becomes easier.

So the choice is yours – to build a responsive and agile organization. Or to build a vaccine against change.

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Filed under Change, Organization, People

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