The secret to lasting change – burn the manuals and learn to ride a bicycle

The sad reality of change is that most attempts at organizational change are destined to fail. Sometimes the failures are overt and obvious – the change encounters a wall of opposition that simply cannot be overcome. Contrary to the famous Star Trek quote, resistance is not futile. It’s often covert. But it’s also very effective.

But let’s say you do everything right and manage the resistance and you even get some initial results. Are you destined for success? Rarely. If you come back to that same organization weeks or months later you may see some of the trappings of the change – but it’s real effect will more often than not be undetectable.

But it’s better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all, right?

Actually, not really. Organizations are a lot more like people than we think. Organizations can learn. And when they learn to fail, it’s a hard lesson to overcome. We’ve all heard that change killing phrase — “we tried that before and it didn’t work.”

Also, all change comes at a cost. The obvious costs are the money spent on extra resources, expertise and all of that. There are people who do change without bringing in some real expertise. There are also people who cut their own hair. But most organizations, if they are serious, do invest in outside resources.

But that’s only a fraction of the cost. All change drains resources from the day to day operations. All change makes the organization less productive before it becomes more productive. If you tabulate the sum of internal and external spend for change, you know that it’s not something that you do on a whim. You don’t want to pay that price if you don’t get a payback.

So when you do change in an organization, you want ensure that if you really are going to make lasting change and hold onto those hard earned results.

How do you do that? You do it like you learn to ride a bicycle.

Remember I said that organizations are a lot more like people than we think. Organizations can learn — just like people. They can learn something using something that very much resembles our short term memory. Short term memory is what allows us to remember something for a brief period of time – a phone number, a grocery list, maybe even the words to a song. A few hours later, when the knowledge is no longer relevant or useful, it’s discarded. A lot of what we encounter or experience falls into that category.

We don’t retain every piece of information that we take in. That’s probably a good thing. There are lots of things that I really don’t want to remember. But even if you did, that’s not the way the mind works. And the more we get bombarded with information, the harder it is for it to stick.

Ever got partway through a movie or TV show and realize that you’d seen it before? A lot of what we experience is simply flushed away.

Yet some things are retained in exquisite detail. It gets transferred from short term to long term memory with incredible clarity. We’ve all had the experience of hearing the first few notes to a favourite song and not only knowing the song, but experiencing a flood of memories — where we were when we first heard it, what the weather was like, who we were with, what we were feeling — the sights, the sounds even the smells.

Even if we think they are long forgotten, to our surprise, a simple stimulus can bring them rushing back. Artists know this and use it frequently to inspire us and help us reconnect to things that we have forgotten. The connection is more simply memory, it’s often very powerful. But even these memories get chipped away and fade. Or they get rewritten. If you have spent any amount of time with an old friend or significant other, you know what I mean. Speaking of old movies that we’ve all seen, my wife seems to have lived a major part of her life in a parallel universe. We have been to the same places at roughly the same time, but she remembers a totally different set of facts and experiences. Go figure.

So even our long term memory gets compromised.

But there is a form of memory that never seems to fade and comes back with unerring accuracy. If you’ve ever learned to ride a bicycle and haven’t done it in a while, try it. You’ll wobble at first, but the whole thing will come back to you. An incredibly complex set of activities requiring coordination, balance and skill. Never forgotten.

It’s called “muscle memory”. It’s learned through repetition. It’s also learned at a level below our consciousness. We don’t actively recall it. It’s just there when we need it. It’s the way things are. Yes, we are a little rusty, but fundamentally it’s accurate. You don’t stop to question it, you just do it. Moreover, you can adapt these skills quite easily to a new reality. The type of bike I learned to ride ages ago is significantly different than today’s technical marvels, but I managed to generalize what I knew quite easily.

That ability to generalize these skills can give us the confidence to do new things. I think its why some people (my kids) are “good” at using computers. When you watch my son operate a new device, he’s not even really thinking about it. He just dives in and explores using what he’s learned before from countless hours of playing with all kinds of devices. Few new devices can stump him. Moreover, if the usage requires some form of skill, he masters it quickly.

What has this got to do with organizational change? Just this.

Most of what you see as organizational change uses a form of “short term” memory. For those who are students of theory, check out the Hawthorne Effect. This famous experiment showed that if you just pay attention to people, you can get temporary boosts in their performance. It’s the model that a lot of change is based on. Managers pay attention to a problem and they see a result. Job done. We start a program and there’s a flurry of activity. Job done.

But it doesn’t last. Shortly after you stop paying attention, things go back to the way they were.

In response, some practitioners and organizations attempt a transfer to long term organizational memory. This can be a little more successful. We persist. We put out more communications. We publish documents and processes. We put out manuals. We expect people to read them and learn them. Some even do. Managers are trained to reinforce them message over a longer period of time until they hear it coming back to them. Job done.

But an interesting phenomenon happens when we intellectualize change. Try this if you don’t believe me. If you ask someone what the procedure is for doing a task in a department, if they have had good training, significant repetition or been diligent in reading the material, they will describe a process to you in a way that is eerily close to what manual says. But then take it a step further. Watch them perform the task and you will find some real surprises. What they say they do and what they actually do are often as different as what my wife remembers versus what I remember. BTW – unless you draw this to their attention, most of the time they will be blissfully unaware of this difference.

When skills are learned at this level they can be fairly rigid. As every system analyst worth their salt will tell you, even a process which is not really followed can be vigorously defended as the way that it’s “supposed to be done.” You can point out the fact that things don’t really happen that way all you want. People have learned that they might be able to make some compromises in reality, but you can’t change the process. And if you pay attention to it, it will snap back like magic. The old process will be back temporarily in its full glory and often in its full inefficiency.

Then there are cyclists…

Some organizations don’t write their processes into manuals. Some write them into their culture. This came home to me when I heard Isadore “Issy” Sharp, founder of the Four Seasons Hotel speak at a dinner recently. When asked about his secret, Issy gave some principles. One of his principles – “the golden rule.” Treat customers like you’d want to be treated. Another — “every employee has their own ‘credit balance’ that they can and should use to do the right thing when a guest is unhappy.”

Note the distinct lack of specific details. He’s not telling people how they should do it. He’s also not allowing anyone to fall back on a procedure as an excuse for not making a guest happy.

How do people learn these precepts? They learn them from seeing them in action. T They learn them because their management treat them with that same respect.

Issy doesn’t teach his people to read a manual. He teaches them to ride a bicycle.

Sounds so simple. Why don’t more organizations do this? Two reasons. One — it takes time. hey learn them from the care that people take in hiring — Issy’s people spend way more time hiring for even what some hotels would class as menial jobs. If you want to work at this level, to quote the legendary Larry Bossidy from his book “Execution”. “You have to sweat the small stuff.”

The task of living the principles never stops. And it takes an enormous amount of effort and time.
When I work with organizations to do change, I’ve taken the model of the bicycle. Using techniques from Lean and other disciplines, we get people to make things visible. We challenge them to go out and look at how it is really done. And as consultants, we let them do the work. Because it is work.

It’s scary for some folks. They come prepared to sit at tables and talk. Or they bring in binders that show us that they have these things documented. Then we insist that they get up, they move around. We construct their processes on walls with post it notes and show them how easily something can be moved, changed or even taken out entirely.

We focus on outcomes and not on change for change’s sake

David Maister, the guru of Management Consulting said in his book “True Professionalism” that the old testament prophets didn’t go to pray for more commandments. They prayed for the strength to do the ones that they already had. The organizational equivalent of that is a focus on outcomes.

Amazingly, once you focus on these realistically, a lot comes into clear focus. Issy Sharp asks – “is the customer happy?” Not – “did you follow procedure?” Results are what count.

The customer is the focus, but the discipline extends to every aspect of the business. Issy tells a story of a group of employees who were setting up a room for an event and had one of the team who was doing the bare minimum. The team sent him packing saying that “if he didn’t want to work, he should get lost.”

Organizations that ride bicycles are incredibly disciplined at all levels. I wouldn’t want to face Issy if customers were unhappy. But I also wouldn’t want to bring him excuses if a hotel was not profitable. Yet I would expect him to give me time to execute a reasonable plan.

Which I fully expect he does. You need a level of patience and dedication that goes far beyond what most management teams are prepared to defend. So many opt for short term memory. Some try the process route.

A few ride bicycles.

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Filed under Lean, Organizational Change, People, Process

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