We have been facilitating change since the mid 1990’s when we had the opportunity to study a dynamic that was sapping the commitment out of prime talent in one of Intel’s key product groups. Once we helped them understand it, the projects suffering the most were able to re-establish team commitment and shine like they knew they could. And as we observed and reported a year or two later (in No Surprises Project Management; Esque 1999), despite the documented success, that product organization eventually went back to its controlling ways. They had a great success story, but they had not achieved meaningful organizational change. And we have seen this pattern many times over the years.
What constitutes meaningful change? Meaningfulness is a question of value and standards, so each organization must assess for themselves what would constitute it for them. Let’s look at an example outside of the organizational context that everyone can relate to. Most of the scientific community is saying there will need to be some meaningful changes in the way we treat our planet in order to avoid drastic climate change and the vast implications it could have for many humans. Naturally, because of the mounting evidence and high stakes of this challenge, everyone has decided to come together and address the problem at all costs. Just kidding.
As is evidenced in the news every day, governments, business and citizens remain divided on if and how to act to mitigate climate change. We would suggest there is a mindset that is preventing meaningful change. The mindset is that we can only take meaningful steps to address climate change through costly changes that would risk upsetting the current economic order. While some believe upsetting the current order might be a good thing, few believe that meaningful results can be achieved without radical and upsetting economic change.
Recently a book was brought to our attention that suggests the opposite. It demonstrates that the driver of the current economic order – growth – has been stagnant for awhile now, and that rather than hurting growth, a few adjustments to how we measure growth and output would spur new incentives in investment and product management that would get us back to sustainable growth, while mitigating the worst drivers of climate change (and depletion of resources which they argue is just as threatening).
Hopefully, we are not bastardizing too badly the well-researched and quite encouraging arguments in the book – A Good Disruption (2016). Our point here is that until we address the mindset that fixing climate change must be incredibly costly and disruptive, we will likely be stuck in the current mode of central gridlock, with marginal change around the edges. The new mindset they propose is that managing our materials and our energy from cradle to grave in both the public and private sectors is a huge opportunity for driving growth and all of its advantages, while mitigating the worst-case planet scenarios. We would call that meaningful change.
Back to organizations. We believe there is a long standing and dominant mindset in organizations that a key to organizational success is to control the resources (in order to optimize utilization), including the human ones. It is a mindset that made some sense back when all the expertise resided in management and change was mostly avoided (and disruption wasn’t even a thing yet). It is so engrained it is not necessarily even a conscious part of our actions, but it is an outcome of those actions and policies. The leaders and managers and even the employees of our organizations are often blind to it. And so instead of emboldening the very highest commitment and creativity and responsiveness in our employees, too often we create the kind of conditions where only a minority would assess that they are positively engaged with the mission and vision of their company.
Our conclusion, and our approach to change in organizations, is that along with improving key practices (e.g. strategy, innovation, allocation of resources and reporting), those at the top of the organization need to also step back and look at the assumptions that are driving their practices. In our experience, doing this requires deliberate dialogue within the management team around questions like: Are we satisfied we are leading in a way that brings out the best in our employees? What are our core assumptions about what brings out the best in others? Is the way we are running our organization sustainable for them and for us? Are we taking absolute responsibility for both the good and the bad that results from how we are leading today? As the authors of A Good Disruption point out, sometimes a subtle shift in the way we see things opens awesome new possibilities. Meaningful organizational change begins with leadership examining the mindsets that produce the results and the culture they have today.