One of the most pervasive “truths” about organizational change is what change is hard. It’s “common knowledge” that people resist change. We all “understand” that change is difficult, change is slow, and change initiatives often fail. We have ample evidence to believe this so. There are estimates that upward of 70 percent of all large-scale change efforts fail. It’s just too 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 assert that’s what people say when they fail to understand and do what it takes to really change an organization. I’ve been part of many large-scale change initiatives where the total opposite is true, where people freely, gladly, quickly, and dramatically change how they think and behave. Water does not have to be motivated, encouraged, or convinced to flow downhill (it does so naturally). Neither do people, when there is 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 toward 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. It was losing money year after year. People were despondent. Leaders came and went. The division had the most off-trend products in the company.
But a new leadership team was brought in. I worked with the team to craft a clear direction — to become 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 the Fleischmann’s Division began to shift. Levels of enthusiasm and pride began to rise. The willingness of employees 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 midstream 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,” noting that when he had been here before 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, and each of them important.
- The 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, and trust. And then, the leaders offered it to everyone in the organization to live by it. They modeled it and people saw, felt, and experienced it every day.
- They 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 — when 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 embrace of the vision and values. Everyone had a voice in the process and they took it.
- All along the way, successes and failures were celebrated and communicated so that everyone stayed invested, involved, and engaged.
The simple truth is that we gave everyone in the process 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. 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 in which I’ve participated. 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.
Thomas D’Aquanni, an executive and leadership development coach, is principal at D’Aquanni and Associates in Cazenovia. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 464-4734, or visit www.daquanni.com