Strategy Perspective Blog Posts: 2010

Learning through Mistakes*

December 15th, 2010

“The only sure way to avoid making mistakes is to have no new ideas.” —Albert Einstein

It is often said that experience is the best teacher, but experience also charges a high tuition and can take a long time. The normal learning cycle from a change effort – from the beginning of planning to full implementation – can take years. Any sort of after action review or lessons learned can help provide knowledge to apply the next time around. But waiting for the next time is just not good enough. We have to learn faster.

Using a simulation adds a low risk, cost effective engine of learning. It is a safe environment to make mistakes and learn from them. A simulated environment leads to experimentation and discussion that broadens understanding. It also compresses time – we can see the effect of the interactions play out in a few seconds rather than several years or months. It leverages the knowledge of the team, it allows participants to see and evaluate their results right away. It helps them learn concepts that can be applied to current change initiatives.

Taking part in a Tipping Point workshop demonstrates that the simulation works to focus dialogue and create a shared idea of change implementation. Objective field research backs this claim. (See Michelle Shields in the 2001 proceedings of the System Dynamics Society.) She found that the Tipping Point simulation improved both participants understanding of the complexity of change management, and their sense that their own ideas were better reflected in their team’s final strategy. The opportunity to experiment and discuss lead to better understanding and collaboration.

*These ideas are explored in more detail in Creating Contagious Commitment.

Tags: Experiential Learning, Tipping Point Simulation

What does a computer simulator do for you?

December 3rd, 2010

An intellectual understanding of the dynamics of change is important. Even more powerful is experiencing them. The Tipping Point model is captured in a powerful simulation. When used in a workshop it helps participants experience the dynamics and interacting factors that affect the spread of organizational change. This is experience that they can bring back to their own change implementation. As with all management simulators, the value is not in the predictive power, but in its ability to catalyze reflective conversation and foster understanding. Too often people responsible for implementing an organizational change rely on familiar techniques – such as poster campaigns and mass training – despite experiencing limited success with these methods in the past. Getting these people together to play with the simulation in a friendly workshop atmosphere creates an experiential and experimental learning environment. It helps teams improve their implementation strategies, and it is also fun.

It is important to be clear about what to expect from the Tipping Point simulator. It is not an answer machine. It is a powerful tool that can focus dialogue on change implementation. Using the simulation in a friendly, competitive environment helps teams see each others’ assumptions about change. As people play the game they get new ideas, both from their teammates and from the simulation. Through experimentation and discussion, they see interactions that they had not considered before.

Through the steps within the Tipping Point workshop of cyclically seeing some background theory and using a simulator and then repeating with more information– teams learn together. They get a richer picture – a richer mental model – of the task at hand. Even more important, as a team, they get a shared mental model. Armed with this richer, shared mental model, teams increase their likelihood of successfully implementing an important organizational change.

Tags: collaboration, communicating change

Leveraging the PEST*

November 18th, 2010

To thrive, an organization must be capable of creating value and competitive advantage from the political, economic, social, and technological (PEST) constraints that act on it. But competitive advantage does not come from change for its own sake but change that makes organizations more adaptable, nimbler, better able to leverage the PEST and even influence it to their own gain. They will be more responsive to customer needs; their products will have strong market positions; and they will be better able to attract the best employees. Without the ability to adapt to the PEST, companies cannot compete. So a business must be able to broaden its goals and improve the way it thinks about and does work—and do so rapidly. Expanding a business’s goals demands organizational changes. Some examples of organizational change efforts could include implementing a quality initiative, moving an entire firm to a different computer network, changing the compensation structure to reflect new corporate needs, leveraging a customer relationship system to understand customer and market needs better, putting a supply chain management system into practice, increasing workforce diversity, making use of computer-based training, or creating a usable knowledge management system.

Despite the need for change, organizations experience inertia, questioning of or resistance to important change initiatives by affected employees that can become deliberate undermining. The best organizational change is useless unless it is adopted and becomes part of how people do their work. Unless it is put into operation and used, the business sees no gain from it. To face the challenges of the PEST we need a fresh, new way to think and talk about organizational change; we need a new way to understand how change happens in organizations. The Tipping Point model of change focuses on the area of greatest leverage—the people side of change. It describes how leadership can help create an environment that encourages people in the organization to adopt a change. It looks at the function of those who advocate and those who resist change, and how each can make a difference to employees feeling committed to seeing it through to success or just waiting it out.

Defining Organizational Change

What: A planned effort to increase capacity and improve effectiveness.

Why: Respond to or leverage PEST forces.

How: Organizations change when people in them change.

*This post is adapted from the first edition of Creating Contagious Commitment

Tags: Change management


November 11th, 2010

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” —Proverbs 29:18

Vision is about the future. It is a clear, well articulated picture of where a change initiative is taking the organization. A good vision makes plain the problems with the current situation and the value offered by the change. With a good vision all stakeholders know the criteria for success and the basic plan to achieve them.

textA vision should engage and inspire employees. This is of critical importance in the modern workplace that depends heavily on the knowledge and skill of every employee. Not so long ago, both authority and know-how rested in the group of individuals at the top of the company. Back then, it was probably easier to gain compliance for a change initiative, because workers brought less specialization and were more dependent on direction from the top. In today’s workplace, authority and a broader view of the company are still vested at the top, but know-how and vital skills are distributed throughout the organization. To change the way that they work, specialized knowledge-workers need to understand what is wrong with the current state, what the new state will be, the plan for getting there, and who it will affect and how.

An inspiring vision gives direction and focus to the people closest to the action – the employees affected by the change. When they understand what is needed and why, they can focus their skills make the initiative a reality.

Tags: Leadership, Vision

Getting to Fundamentals

November 3rd, 2010

I want to continue with the analogy of firefighting (a couple of posts back) to shed more light on applying systems thinking to improving the way organizational change initiatives are implemented. When a fire breaks out is not the time to inspect buildings or give lectures on fire prevention. However, the fire department which routinely spends time inspecting structures and teaching fire prevention will ultimately get fewer emergency fire calls.

Fires are so damaging and urgent that it is tempting to think of them as the source of the problem. However, fires are symptoms of a bigger problem, which is the situation that allows the fire to break out. This could be nearby flammables, leaky gas pipes, or faulty electrical wiring. Fighting fires might be an immediate necessity, but firefighting doesn’t address the underlying problem or create a safer environment.

Firefighting has an analogy in implementing change. Suppose there are active resisters to your change initiative. It is tempting to think of the resisters as the problem, and just shift them out – to another department less affected by the change or even out of the company. But resistance is often just a symptom of bigger problems, such as lack of infrastructure, insufficient rewards for implementing the change, or unclear leadership. All of which could be addressed, if you heard and understood the concerns of the resisters.

The fundamental approach would be to listen to the resisters. If they have concerns that are legitimate and can be addressed, then do so, with all possible speed. Otherwise, make sure that the resisters know that they have been heard and understand why their issue is not something that can or should be addressed.

There is no doubt that addressing issues with the change or its implementation can take time. It is easy to be seduced into believing that the time just isn’t there and we can get the same results by simply moving the resister out. However, doing so hardly creates an atmosphere of enthusiasm for the change. It is more likely to create fear—or at best reluctant compliance. Further, seeing their colleagues whisked away will hardly create a tone where other employees will want to raise issues that could be used to improve the change or its implementation. Problems remain hidden and so resistance is likely to increase, further increasing the temptation to shift resisters out.

This is described by the systems thinking archetype called Shifting the Burden, illustrated below.

Shifting the Burden Shifting the Burden recognizes that a problem can be addressed in two ways, by a fundamental or a symptomatic approach. In the case of organizational change, the level of Active resistance is the problem that needs to be addressed. Both a Shifting resisters out (symptomatic approach shown in B2) and the Understanding causes of resistance and addressing problems (more fundamental approach shown in B1) will affect the employees’ Active resistance. It takes time for Understanding causes of resistance and addressing problems (B1), indicated by the hourglass on B1. Shifting resisters out appears quicker, so it is tempting to start with it (B2). However, without understanding the causes of resistance (through the B1 loop), then the effect of Shifting resisters out is temporary, since the causes of the resistance remain. If people see valued colleagues shifted out, for resisting a change it Creates an atmosphere of fear. Further, Shifting resisters out draws resources away from Understanding causes of resistance and addressing problems—prompting even more Active resistance. This, in turn, can lead to further Shifting resisters out, yielding a large reinforcing loop resulting in more and more dependence on the Shifting resisters out (R).

Tags: shifting the burden, systems thinking

Using the Tipping Point Simulation

October 23rd, 2010

A couple weeks ago, HR Anew ( hosted a public certification training for the Tipping Point Workshop. President and CEO Deborah Stallings, together with several consultants with HR Anew, attended. It was a great group to take through the certification training. The depth of experience they brought reflected a clear understanding of leadership and implementing change.

I spoke with Deborah afterward to get her impressions from the day-and-a-half training. She told me that even before she finished the training, she recognized opportunities to apply the concepts in a major change within HR Anew as well as in a volunteer organization on whose board she serves. To me this is very gratifying, because it means not only that she sees the value right away but also that she will have immediate opportunities to leverage the ideas in real organizational changes. Applying the Tipping Point concepts is the best way to understand them and to help others recognize their validity. Deborah also mentioned that several of the HR Anew consultants told her that the certification training did a good job preparing them to facilitate the Tipping Point workshop. I’m looking forward to working with them in the future as they use the workshop.

There is more about the certification training here.

Tags: experiential Learning, facilitator training

Getting the Smoke out of Your Eyes

October 7th, 2010

When you are in “firefighting” mode and faced with problems that need to be solved now, it feels imperative to react immediately. It is easy to ignore the long-term effects of your actions. However, dousing the current fire can produce a flood in the basement. Without seeing the problem in context, firefighting can make the underlying situation worse or even create unintended consequences. What is needed is a way to see the effects of actions in their larger context, which is where systems thinking comes in.

Systems thinking is a disciplined, methodical way of understanding how the components that make up a whole system influence one another. It is a way of getting the smoke of the current fire out of eyes so you can see the dynamics of the whole system and address the underlying problems. Used properly, it becomes fire prevention rather than firefighting.

Fundamentally different from traditional linear thinking and analysis, which looks mainly at individual components separately, systems thinking looks at the relationships, feedbacks, and interactions of those components. It allows you to see how affecting one part of a system can have an effect on something quite distant.

Systems thinking is critical to implementing change because it provides a way to understand where your actions can have the greatest and longest lasting positive effects. The systems thinking concepts built into the Tipping Point simulator are central to what makes it a unique and powerful learning tool. From time to time this blog will have posts on applying key ideas from systems thinking to implementing organizational change.

Tags: holistic, systems thinking

Keys to Successful Change*

September 21st, 2010

Support for a significant organizational change must include two important factors. People Support and Environmental Support. People Support is designed to be sure everyone is informed about the change and what to expect. It includes awareness training and opportunities for employees to share their experiences with the change. Environmental Support creates the atmosphere where the change can grow. It includes proper infrastructure, strong leadership, and rewarding success.

If neither Environmental Support nor People Support are sufficient, people will not recognize the value of the change initiative to their own jobs. Thus, no one will advocate the change to their fellow employees, making the initiative almost a guaranteed failure. If People Support is high, but Environmental Support is insufficient, then people will see the change effort as simply “happy talk” because no resources are behind it. It will appear that management’s commitment to it is insincere. This causes cynicism, making people slow to adopt the behaviors needed to make the change successful. Cynicism has a long half-life and can pollute the atmosphere for the next change. Conversely, if Environmental Support is high, but People Support is low, then confusion will reign—leaving people unfamiliar with the tools and confused about their role. Clearly the balance is persistent attention to both People and Environmental Support.

*This post is adapted from an article I wrote in Leverage in the previous millennium. The ideas are further developed Creating Contagious Commitment and play a foundational role in the learnings of the Change, Dialogue, and Action workshop.

Tags: organizational change

A new edition of Creating Contagious Commitment

September 15th, 2010

Contagious CommitmentThis year brought a second edition of Creating Contagious Commitment. The new edition condenses some of the theory and adds a number of new first-person accounts of using the Tipping Point Workshop to make real change. The application descriptions represent diverse industries (including healthcare, finance, manufacturing, and engineering) and a varied array of changes (including quality, career management, and an IT intensive program). There is no substitute for the narrative of someone who has realized the value offered by the Tipping Point Workshop and applied it to an important organizational change.

Writing the second edition of Creating Contagious Commitment gave me the opportunity to change the name of one of the levers of change. The function of the lever is exactly the same. The previous name of “Shift Resisters” was somewhat emotive and sometimes got in the way of workshop participants’ understanding of the concept. While this is not a change to the working of the simulation or the ideas behind it, the small name change has gone a long way toward helping people understand the whole model and recognize its value.

Tags: experience from the field, organizational change

Involving Employees in a Change Initiative

June 23rd, 2010, on on

A colleague recounted an experience implementing a company-wide quality initiative in a multi-national manufacturing firm. The initiative required employees to make significant changes not only in how they did their jobs, but also in their attitudes toward their responsibilities and the outcome of their work. My colleague was outlining to a senior executive the importance of affecting employees’ mindsets, and his plan for doing so. The executive cut him off, saying, “I’ll write them a memo to change their attitudes. Now, where is the project plan?”

“The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.” — John Wooden We can hope that few managers would admit to such a simplistic belief in the power of a memo, despite how easy that would make change management. If there were a magic wand or a magic memo that could transform people’s attitudes, then the success rate of implementing new ways of working would be greater than the 15-50% reported by researchers.* Getting people to use a new technology or process—not as an overlay to their “real” work, but as an improvement to it—is no trivial task.

When the failure rate for organizational change is more than 50%, apathy is the sensible, rational attitude for an employee who has just learned about a new initiative. If he or she ignores the change, there is a greater than 50/50 chance that it will go away. Strong change management has to correct this reality by recognizing that the best advocates for the merits of a new technology or process are employees with expertise in the area affected, who have experience with the change and appreciation for it. There is no substitute for their know-how and enthusiasm. Find those early adopters, and involve them in implementing the change. Give them opportunities to share their experience and reward their successes.

But even the best advocates cannot take the place of leadership. No degree of enthusiasm can outweigh the apathy of an employee who lacks the tools to make the change initiative work or has only a vague notion of the business case for it. Employee apathy is increased by leaders who give lip service to the change, but whose attention and budget are elsewhere. Change is successful when everyone has a vision of the end state, the plan to get there includes the needed infrastructure, and results are rewarded along the way. Aligning the management team, the infrastructure, and the reward system with the vision is an ongoing process that is not for the faint-hearted. Perhaps there is some utopia where this sort of active leadership could be done with a simple memo, but I probably don’t need to tell you what happened with my colleague’s quality initiative.

*See Creating Contagious Commitment for more on success rates of change.

This blog first appeared on Engine for Change→

Tags: leadership, organizational change

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