One of the most pervasive “truths” about organizational change is that change is hard. It’s “common knowledge” that people resist change. We all “understand” that change is difficult, change is slow and that change initiatives often fail. We have ample evidence to believe this. There are estimates of upward of 70% of all large-scale change efforts fail. We say, “It’s difficult. People don’t want to change”. It’s obvious. We hear things like “A leopard doesn’t change its spots” and “People don’t change”.
I’m going to suggest that all that “truth” is just not necessarily true. I’ve been part of many large scale change initiatives where the total opposite has happened, where people freely, gladly, quickly and dramatically changed how they thought and behaved. Water does not have to be motivated, encouraged or convinced to flow downhill. It does so naturally. Neither do people when there’s good reason to be different.
It’s quite simple. People change when they are inspired by what they see and feel is being offered to them. When that happens they move naturally towards it. It’s not complicated and it’s not hard. It’s exciting, energizing and fulfilling for everyone involved.
The first time I saw this was at the Fleischmann’s Division of Nabisco Foods some 20 years ago. Fleischmann’s was the poorest performing division at Nabisco Foods. It was losing money year over year. People we despondent. Leaders came and went. They had the most off-trend products in the company. A new leadership team was brought in. I worked with them to craft a clear direction – The Recognized Leader in Innovative Refrigerated Foods – and a compelling culture of openness, teamwork, trust, innovation and collaboration. Within three months the entire feel of Fleischmann’s began to shift. Levels of enthusiasm and pride began to rise. Willingness to get out of their bunkers and interact with each other increased. Fostered by cross-functional breakthrough teams focused on cost-savings, new product development, and other exciting initiatives, people across the division, and those who supported it, began to feel that Fleischmann’s was the place to be. One Senior Manager who had left Fleischmann’s and returned as we were mid-stream with the Fleischmann’s Revival, looked me up and asked what had happened. I asked him what he saw. He said, “You’ve created a blame-ectomy here”, adding that when he had been here everyone blamed everyone else when something went wrong. Now he saw people pulling together to make things right when things didn’t go as planned.
Why was it so easy to change? Five things happened, none of them complicated, each of them critically important:
- A Leadership Team was aligned on a clear and compelling purpose for this Division.
- The Leadership Team created a way of being for themselves, a culture of openness, collaboration, breakthrough results, trust – and then offered it to everyone in the organization to live by it. They modeled it and people saw, felt and experienced it every day.
- We created avenues for people to participate in new ways – breakthrough teams where people were given the opportunity to work together in new and exciting ways
- Everyone participated in this journey from the beginning where we wrote the Case For Action which was brutally honest about the good, bad and ugly of the way it was then, to the organization-wide embracing of the vision and values, everyone had a voice in the process and they took it.
- All along the way, progress and failures were celebrated and communicated so that everyone stayed invested, involved and engaged.
The simple truth is that we gave everyone involved a much better option. Given a choice of being depressed or excited, isolated or connected, failing or succeeding, doing something big or barely surviving, being trusted or being suspect, everyone gladly chose the new set of options. It wasn’t hard. It didn’t require much persuasion. It didn’t take long. Even the most cynical and resigned employee had a revelation and a total change of heart when after an all-day meeting with the Senior Executive Team he said, almost teary-eyed, “I’ve worked here for over 15 years. In that time I’ve never sat in on an Executive Team session, let alone ever being asked my opinion about anything.” It didn’t require much for him to get on board and ride/drive that train! He was convinced and emotionally all-in.
These simple principles have held true for every successful large-scale organizational change initiative I’ve been a part of. Give people a much better option and they will take it. Get them involved and get them to believe and they will run through walls to win. Why not? People feel more fulfilled and excited. And the business results started to follow. It is in their self-interest to change and to create something they will remember forever.
Next Blog: Org Change Made Easy: Breakthroughs Start At The Top. The Tale of The Two Rons.