Throughout my career, at just about every place I’ve worked, I’ve been in the thick of some kind of change. At the New York State Senate, it was the modernization of IT infrastructure. At NBCUniversal, it was the introduction of Responsive Web Design, Content Strategy, and Agile. At IBM, it was design and dev collaboration. And the adoption of Slack and GitHub. And building front-end development community and teaching modern development through Hackademy. All within a larger culture shift focusing on design. At Google, it’s been the transition from ChromeOS Apps to Progressive Web Apps and Fugu APIs, and the introduction of ChromeOS.dev as a space for ChromeOS to come together to share our technical and partner work. While I may not have seen it at the time, they all have the same things in common: even if they were small or fairly self-contained, they all required a strategy to keep them focused and needed a cultural and organizational shift to actually pull off.
As I’ve grown in my understanding of these topics and related topics, connections have emerged. How strategy underpins how you should approach organizational change, and how organizational change is inherently cultural change. Who to target when in the process, and how to understand if it’s likely to resonate, then stick, with the target audience. This isn’t a definitive guide, there are plenty referenced, but this should help you get started in your journey (and get this out of my head into a place others can benefit from it).
I often joke that I only read while on vacation, and then, only really business books; I’m slowly building my own MBA while on the beaches of Jamaica. From my years of doing this, I’ve picked out a few key readings that have shaped how I think about strategy, culture, and organizational change (SCOC) and divided them into two groups: core readings and supplemental readings. The core readings are the primary building blocks of knowledge, whereas the supplemental readings add additional insights that can strengthen how you think about the core readings and approach work in general.
- Leading Change - John Kotter. Describes the 8-step process that’s needed for change to start and stick inside organizations.
- Good Strategy / Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters - Richard Rumelt. Lays out a foundation for all strategies called the “Strategic Kernel”, describes the difference between good strategy and bad strategy, and how strategy relates to vision and mission.
- Organizational Culture and Leadership - Edgar Schein, Peter Schein. Defines what culture is, how it arises, its parts (both visible and invisible), different concepts that come up when examining cultures, and how micro and macro cultures interact with each other.
- Dynamics of Effective Teams - Google re:Work. Google research on effective teams, specifically focusing on the five pillars that they identified as the most important indicators of success.
- The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error - Sidney Dekker. Proposes that there’s an old way to think about errors focused on individual blame, a new blameless way to think about them, and why the new way is better for understanding systems, actions, and working to fix problems. This new way is foundational to Resilience Engineering, blameless retrospectives, and even identifying problems that may form part of a strategic kernel
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions - Thomas Kuhn. A scientist’s approach to the history of science, challenging the long-held belief that scientific progress happened linearly. Most importantly, it introduces the concept of “paradigm shift” as we know it today, which provides important insight into the first step of Leading Change: having a sense of urgency.
- Diffusion of Innovations - Everett Rogers. A set of research, followed by analysis, describing how new ideas, especially new technology, takes root. The concepts presented can be used to understand who to target and when during organizational change.
- Design Thinking (Ideo, IBM). A human-centered approach to problem solving and innovation approachable by everyone, not just “designers”. Helpful for ideating on problems and potential solutions, especially useful when creating coherent actions in a strategic kernel, identifying patterns in cultures, and prioritizing work.
While both the core and supplemental readings, and the related works mentioned in them, are really worth reading, there’s a lot going on in them (I’ve got nearly 40 pages of personal notes between Good Strategy / Bad Strategy and Organizational Culture and Leadership alone). There are some terms and concepts, though, that really stick out for me, and form the basis of how I think and talk about SCOC. While many of the definitions are taken directly from their source, some are instead amalgamations from different sources based on my understanding of how things work together or how I’ve come to teach the concepts over time. While it may seem counter-intuitive, I generally start with the core concepts from the supplemental readings, as I feel they form a a set of building blocks to better understand the core readings.
- Blameless errors
From The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error. The “old” way of thinking about error is, roughly, that someone did something wrong; they didn’t follow the rules or they intentionally or unintentionally missed something or skipped a step. It’s therefore their fault that something went wrong and they’re to blame. The “new” way to think about error is through context. Assume the actor is trying to do their best, and if they didn’t follow the rules or missed or skipped something, it’s because they were trying to route around problems that would have prevented them from completing their task in good faith (for instance, lots of false positives in tests could condition them to skip testing, which may let a bug through). Examine when things go wrong through the eyes of the actor, the context they’re in, and the context they had at the time, not from an omnipotent point of view after. Work should then be done to reduce problems in the systems and contexts in which those decisions were made, instead of, for instance, blaming the actor for not following procedure correctly. In software engineering, this is the core concept for “blameless retrospectives”.
- Paradigm shift
From The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A paradigm is the current way something exists. In the book, it’s the set of scientific principles currently considered mainstream, but it could be the current team culture, current software engineering practices, current organizational structure, etc…. A paradigm shift happens when a new paradigm arises and wins enough followers over to break from the previous paradigm, leaving it behind. New paradigms arise when practitioners (often those new to the paradigm, like young scientists entering the field) feel that the current paradigm no longer meets their needs (for instance, doesn’t fully explain the results of their experiments) and seek out a new way of understanding their work to resolve those issues. In Leading Change, this would be described as a “sense of urgency” (defined below). An old paradigm shifts to a new paradigm when enough members of the old paradigm agree that the problems the new paradigm aims to solve are worth solving and that the new paradigm also solves their problems, too. New paradigms will not take hold if they aren’t able to satisfy the needs of the majority of the practitioners from the previous paradigm.
- Diffusion curve
From Diffusion of Innovations. While there are a number of different rearticulations of this theory, I use the terms from the original book. The theory discusses how new ideas (innovations) spread. The Wikipedia article is an excellent summary of the theory, but the key items I take with me when thinking about how to apply this to SCOC are the elements that go into the diffusion of an innovation, and the adoption curve.
The key elements of diffusion are:
- Innovation - The actual idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new and someone would like others to adopt. Can, for instance, be a new paradigm, a new piece of technology, or a new organization structure.
- Adopters - The people (individuals or groups) that the innovation is meant for
- Communication channels - How information is transferred between adopters and innovators.
- Time - Adoption almost never happens instantaneously.
- Social systems - Micro and macro cultural influences on adopters.
Because of the social systems adopters find themselves in and the communication channels they have (especially with how “close” to the progenitor of an innovation), adoption can be broken down into 5 cohorts: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards
- Innovators - Individuals who are willing and able to take risks on adopting a new innovation, usually thanks to high social status, financial stability, and/or close contact with the source of an innovation and other innovators. They have a high tolerance for failure and can absorb the cost of failure with their existing resources. They usually make up the first roughly 2.5% of adopters. When looking to apply this to SCOC work, these are the individuals or groups who are eager to try something new, knowing that their work isn’t likely to be negatively affected if the change doesn’t succeed, are willing to work through learning pains, are happy to help shape the direction of the work, and can see a large positive future if it works out.
- Early adopters - Looked to as thought leaders within all adopter categories. They have similar resources to innovators, but are more picky in what they choose to adopt, less willing to take risks if something ultimately fails. Because of this, they hold a key communication position across the adopter board. They usually make up the next roughly 13.5% of adopters. In SCOC work, find the individuals or groups that others look to for guidance, are far enough from the innovation progenitor that their opinions are viewed as genuine endorsements, and are willing to put in work to help spread the innovation.
- Early majority - Usually individuals or groups with average resources who aren’t considered thought leaders. They’re one of the largest cohorts, at roughly 34% of all adopters, and usually only start adopting after some time has passed. The point at which the early majority starts adopting an innovation is the tipping point where an innovation moves from niche appeal to mass and self-sustaining adoption. This is sometimes called “the marketing chasm” or when an innovation reaches “critical mass”. In SCOC work, look for individuals or groups who are willing to adopt after having been convinced by innovators and early adopters that the innovation will be a net positive for them.
- Late majority - The late majority starts after around 50% of an innovation’s potential audience has adopted. They approach innovation with a high degree of skepticism and will only adopt after they’ve seen it be successfully adopted elsewhere. They tend to have a smaller amount of resources than average and make up the next roughly 34% of adoption. In SCOC work, this is a group that’ll need to be convinced that the innovation won’t have a negative impact on them, as opposed to a net positive effect.
- Laggards - The final group, making up the last roughly 16% of adoption, laggards typically will only adopt a new innovation when they have no other choice but to do so. They’re typically highly skeptical of change and have the lowest amount of resources to expend on change. In SCOC work, this cohort will only likely change at the end of a transition period and after new norms have been rooted in the culture or organization. Members of this cohort are also most likely to be detractors in a change process (negative change agents). While these individuals are typically characterized as having a low amount of resources to expend, don’t confuse this for not having high status in a culture or organization; laggards can be executives that are opposed to change and, while they may have lots of resources, have little to none to spend on change because of their opposition.
From Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. Strategy is the alignment of goals (overall values and desires) into actions and objectives (specific operational targets). A good strategy has one, or only a few, key objectives that will lead to favorable outcomes and create cascading benefits. It defines critical challenges and tie those challenges to actions. It is constrained and has a good chance of success. Bad strategy is a list of things to do, or a restatement of the desired state of affairs or the challenge ahead. It contains fluff, doesn’t face the challenge head-on, is a statement of desire rather than plans for overcoming obstacles, and either fails to address critical issues or is impractical. Ultimately, a good strategy is a coherent set of actions backed by an argument (the Strategic Kernel). Strategy is also distinct from vision, mission, or values statements:
- Vision statement - An aspirational view of the future
Provide access to the world’s information in one click
- Mission statement - The purpose of your work
Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
- Values statement - Core cultural beliefs
Don’t be evil
Strategy is often formed within the bounds of these goals, but strategy’s purpose is overcoming a challenge; these items may set what challenges are to be faced and how you may prefer to think about them, but they themselves won’t help you solve problems. Strategy does.
- Vision statement - An aspirational view of the future
- Strategic Kernel
From Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. While there are many things that may make up a strategy, all strategy shares at least three things in common: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent actions.
- Diagnosis - Explains the challenge, simplifying and identifying critical things the strategy is meant to overcome. A diagnosis should define a domain of action and should favor leverage over outcomes (problems, not solutions). It doesn’t need to explain everything, but the problems being tackled need to be addressable and they need to be addressable in a given timespan.
- Guiding policy - The overall approach chosen to overcome the problems identified in the diagnosis. I often refer to these as the strategy’s “guard rails” as they’re meant to channel actions in a certain direction without defining what should be done. Guiding policies should not be goals or visions of end states. Great guiding policies should draw upon sources of advantage, or create advantage by anticipating the actions and reactions of others.
- Coherent actions - The coordinated steps designed to carry out the guiding policy. It doesn’t need to include all actions, but needs to include enough to bring high-level concepts down to earth. The actions should coordinate and build upon each other. They’re made coherent by being consistent, with coordinated deployment of resources, imposed by policy and design. Incoherent actions are in conflict with the guiding policy or in pursuit of unrelated challenges. Agile Epics, or IBM Design Thinking Hills, are good first sets of actions to be drawn up here.
From Organizational Culture and Leadership. Culture is:
The accumulated shared learning of a group as it solves its problems of external adaptation [(the environment they exist in)] and internal integration [(the human problems that arise in collective life)]
More succinctly, culture is how groups have learned to solve problems and organize in response to internal and external pressures; it is a learned phenomenon. Culture is pervasive, dealing with all aspects of how a group functions and how it is taught to new members. For a group to have a culture, it needs a level of stability. As such, not all groups have cultures, only ones that need to learn to do things together and have more or less constant membership will. Culture is made up of three items: artifacts, espoused beliefs and values, and basic underlying assumptions.
- Artifacts - Physical manifestations of culture (language, processes, etc…). You cannot understand a culture by its artifacts alone, you need to talk to an individual to understand the importance of them (for instance, pyramids as temples versus graves).
- Espoused beliefs and values - What the culture says is important to it. An individual’s beliefs become group values only after they’ve been tested and and have been proven to be able to consistently solve a problem. Some beliefs cannot be effectively tested so are socially validated instead; because of this, it’s harder to see the direct connection to the group’s success. For these, how comfortable and anxiety-free members are when they abide by those beliefs is the only measure of success (religion, for instance). It’s important to distinguish between the those beliefs that are aspirational versus actually being practiced (an organization may strive for teamwork but reward based on individual success, for instance)
- Basic underlying assumptions - When a solution to a problem repeatedly works, a group gradually comes to believe that’s how nature works. That belief is an underlying assumption. These are the implicit assumptions that actually guide behavior and tell members how to perceive, think about, and feel about things. Underlying assumptions are very difficult to change, as change to them temporarily destabilizes how members of the culture think about the world, leading to anxiety and members trying to rationalize away the change instead of embracing it.
Cultures aren’t islands; they nest. Macro cultures are very stable top-level cultures; they’ve been around a long time and are the cultures in which other cultures live. For instance, the US has a culture, in that the California tech sector has a culture, in that, there’s Google’s culture, and in that, ChromeOS’s culture. Subcultures are a sub-division of a macro culture, so a team on ChromeOS may have its own subculture, much like ChromeOS is a subculture of Google. Generally speaking, subcultures inherit the macro culture they reside in, tweaking as needed for the problems they wind up solving.
In organizations, subcultures tend to form when a subunit’s needs necessitate it having its own leader. There are five main subunit structures that typically create their own subcultures: occupational units (engineering, finance, PM), geographic units, product/market/technology units, and operating divisions. Organizational hierarchies also wind up having their own subcultures, which can generally be broken down into operators, engineering and design, and executives:
- Operators - The individuals who produce or sell the org’s products. They view themselves as the ones who “run the place”. Operators evolve organically per organization, and therefore are highly sensitive to the degree to which all functions are independent. They often route around rules and hierarchy that “get in the way” in unpredictable conditions, and will often teach new operators the “on-the-ground reality” to get a job done (see: blameless errors).
- Engineering and Design - The individuals who design new products, structures, and processes to make the organizations more effective. They bring with them their occupational subculture, with engineers especially looking to remove as much possibility of human error as possible in the systems they design. A software engineer may be both part of this group and the operators group at the same time.
- Executives - Primarily the CEO and their executive team, but extends to middle management as well. Mainly concerned with the survival and financial health of the organization. Generally need to manage at a distance so think in terms of control systems and routines and become increasingly impersonal. Middle management tend to have similar needs, but without the power or autonomy to make sweeping change unilaterally, so live in an ambiguous authority environment.
Many problems attributed to bureaucracy, environment factors, or personality conflicts among managers are actually lack of alignment between these subcultures as the individuals of these subcultures often wind up working across purposes with each other.
- External adaptation and internal integration
External adaptation and internal integration are the cornerstones of how culture is formed. They are the problems that groups find solutions to that become the underlying assumptions of a culture, which beliefs and values and, eventually, artifacts come from.
External adaptation stems from a group’s mission. It’s their shared understanding of their primary tasks and manifest (consequences that people see, observe, or expect and is explicitly stated and understood) and latent (consequences neither recognized or intended; identified by observers because they don’t expect those tasks to be performed) functions. Groups develop goals derived from this mission, build a consensus on how to obtain those goals (things like rewards structure and authority systems), how to measure how well the group is fulfilling those goals, and how to correct if goals are not being met. Being aligned on core mission and identity isn’t enough to ensure success or common goals, though; strategy is a key part of external adaptation, and is needed to ensure subcultures are aligned to fulfill the mission.
Internal integration stems from a group’s need to comfortably work together. It encompasses language and related conceptual categories, identity and boundary criteria for how lateral (one task to another), vertical (one rank to another), and inclusion (outsider to insider) work is defined, authority as distribution of power and status and how manage face (self-image of who we are and our self-esteem), trust and openness of relationships, and especially the building and maintenance of psychological safety, rewards and punishments for when expectations are or are not met, and how to explain the unexplainable, given that culture is based on decisions of the past and therefore can’t account for everything coming.
Culture is multifaceted, fulfilling the function of providing stability, meaning, and predictability in the present, but is the result of functionally effective decisions in the group’s past
- Embedding and transmitting culture
Because every culture is nested in another culture, leaders need to consider how new beliefs and values will fit into the larger culture they sit in, or they won’t be adopted. There are primary ways that culture can be embedded and transmitted to new members, and secondary ways, which can be used to reinforce the primary means.
Culture is primarily transmitted by what leaders pay attention to, measure, and control regularly. It’s how they react to critical incidents and crises, allocate resources, rewards, and status, and how they recruit, select, promote, and excommunicate members. It’s also done through deliberate role modeling and coaching.
Those methods can be supported by secondary embedding mechanisms, like organizational design, structure, systems, procedures, rites, and rituals, along with formal statements of an organization’s philosophy, creeds, or even by creating charters. They can also take on less direct means, like the design of physical and digital spaces and by the stories that are told about important events or people. These mechanisms only work if they are consistent with the primary mechanisms, otherwise they’ll be ignored or create an internal source of conflict.
- Relationship levels
From Organizational and Cultural Leadership. A group’s relationship levels, or power distance, represent the psychological distance between members; it’s how they to relate to each other to make the group feel safe, comfortable, and productive, and is a key aspect of face. While the specific rules for a given culture change to reflect its current state, there are four levels that a relationship can fall into:
- -1, Exploitation - Usually only experienced by prisoners, POWs, slaves, or occasionally members of a different culture who are considered underdeveloped. This level is defined by a lack of trust and openness, and while one can choose to build relationships with members of this group, there is no expectation that anyone is owed anything.
- 1, Acknowledgement and civility - These relationships are transactional; people on the street, service members, professional helpers, etc…. Interactions are governed by defined roles and are usually task-based. The parties may not know each other personally, but they treat each other respectfully. There’s trust to a certain degree to not harm each other, and there are polite levels of openness and conversation. In corporate settings, think of cross-functional team members who you ask for help on a task but do not work closely with. These are professional, formal transactions.
- 2, Recognition as a unique person - These are casual friends, members of working teams, clients and subordinates who have personal, but not intimate, relationships. These relations have a deeper level of trust; they make and honor commitments and promises to each other, agree not to harm or undermine each other, and agree not to lie or withhold information to each other relevant to their tasks. In corporate settings, think of “work friends”. These are friendly, personable transactions.
- 3, Strong emotions - These are close friends, loved ones, and those you’re intimate with. You’re generally more open with these individuals, and it’s assumed that you’ll actively support one another when possible or needed, going beyond level 2 relationships. In corporate settings, think of “real” friends, partners, or spouses. These are intimate relationships
- Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development
Referenced from Organizational and Cultural Leadership (Wiki). Tuckman proposes that there are four stages all groups go through as they mature: forming, storming, norming, and performing. The stages describe how team members interact with each other, and are a reflection of the culture and leadership of the team.
- Forming - Finding one’s identity and role. Here, the team agrees on goals and begins to tackle tasks. Team members tend to behave quite independently here, and team members are usually on their best behavior. Discussions center on defining the scope of tasks, how to approach tasks, and the like.
- Storming - Resolving who has authority and influence. At the start of this stage, there is usually a positive and polite atmosphere. Time and competition pressures will reveal some members become more active and others shut down, revealing a status system where some are seen as contributing more than others. Disagreements and personality clashes may be aired, but must be resolved before a team can move out of this stage, so some teams never leave, or some may re-enter when new challenges arise. This is the stage where psychological safety, dependability, and structure and clarity (see Google re:Work) are cemented.
- Norming - Team resolves at what relationship level they want to operate at by making explicit that which was implicit. They may choose to stay task-focused (level 1) or get to know each other and become friendly (level 2). People least conflicted about the issue of closeness will see or name issues as they happen. The leader must point out that everyone is different with different needs, and the strength of the group is in its variety instead of its homogeneousness. The illusion of “we all like each other” is replaced with “we can all understand, accept, and appreciate each other”. There is a danger here that members become so focused on keeping the peace that they become reluctant to share controversial ideas.
- Performing - Team can focus on task accomplishment and use its resources to work effectively. They are motivated and knowledgeable, with autonomous decision making and acceptance of dissent, as long as it is channeled through means acceptable to the team.
Many teams get stuck in forming as members try to vie for influence and power, or in storming believing they’re all great and they like each other. In both cases, members are thinking primarily about themselves and their role in the group and therefore aren’t able to give full attention to the group’s tasks. Teams may also revert to previous stages under changing circumstances; for instance, a change in leadership may cause a team to revert to storming.
Ok, now for my super theory of super everything. With those terms in your head and (maybe) the readings complete, let’s bring in the 8 steps for leading change from Leading Change. In my personal journey here, from all the readings I mentioned above, I read The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error first, then Leading Change, so this framework for understanding how change happens has been in the back of my mind since the beginning. But, it wasn’t until I read the other books did the pieces really start to make sense, kind of like Neo finally seeing the world as code at the end of The Matrix. Here, interspersed with Kotter’s 8 steps is how I see how all the pieces fit together.
At its core, the 8 steps of organizational change are about how to introduce a paradigm shift in an organization. A paradigm shift will only work if there’s a problem with the current paradigm, and you can convince others that it’s a problem, too (next section). Change not deeply rooted in a real, tangible problem, is at best going to be superficial, at worst is going to create new problems without solving any.
At this stage you’re starting to identify a diagnosis; a core problem that the change initiative will be designed to overcome. It is usually driven by either a culture issue (the current way of working isn’t working for today’s problems) or a crisis (declining sales, layoffs, etc…). Be wary of organizational change for the sake of change or vanity; this is likely going to cause anxiety and create culture issues that will linger.
When you create a sense of urgency, you’re naming the problem that your change initiative is going to solve, and declaring yourself responsible for inspiring others to change.
Once you’ve identified your core problem, you need to bring in others to help steer the change process. The guiding coalition should be made up of members from all three levels of the organizational hierarchy: operators, engineers and designers, and executives. This will ensure that there’s across the board representation for how the organization currently operates, including the on-the-ground deviations, and will ensure decisions aren’t being made just for the benefit of one of the levels. It’s important that, amongst the executive representatives, there’s at least one leader who is bought-in that can have direct top-down control of the change initiative, if need be. It’s much harder to get change to stick without some form of leadership approval initially.
The guiding coalition should not be too large; this is a group that needs to be able to reach consensus and act around, assess success of, and sell the change initiative. This group is likely to need Level 2 relationships to be successful.
It’s now the guiding coalition’s job to build a strategy for how to accomplish the change initiative. The diagnosis should be settled by this point, it’s now about determining the guiding principles and coherent actions to take. For larger change initiatives, you’ll likely need a multi-staged strategy covering different timespans.
To build this out, as-is scenarios and empathy maps (Design Thinking) are good tools to get a deeper understanding of how the problem affects different people in the organization. Ideation, prioritization grids, and to-be scenarios can then be used to help come to a consensus on what the best goal end-state is and what actions need to be taken to get there.
Keep in mind the rest of steps when building a strategy; you’re going to need to get innovators and early adopters on board to get the change initiative to feel sticky across the organization, you’re going to need to see success within a relatively short period of time, show that that success can be sustained, and figure out how to change aspects of the organization’s culture to accommodate the new way of working.
You’ll also need to seriously examine the existing culture. When forming a strategic vision for a new future, you must examine how it’s going to change the current culture, and therefore identity, of the organization. Because culture is an interconnected set of assumptions, not isolated elements of how groups work, your change initiative will be changing the group’s culture even if that’s not your primary intention.
While Kotter has steps 4, 5, and 6 as separate items, I consider them the three steps of kickstarting your change initiative. Instead of being separate steps per se , steps 4 and 5 are how to enable 6, with you going back to them as you generate wins and sustain acceleration (step 7) as you build towards self-sustaining adoption.
This is the start of the diffusion of innovations curve. Identify innovator and early adopter individuals or teams and work closely with them to get them to adopt the new way of working. You will not win everyone over to start with, so you should focus your efforts on those who are highly motivated to see the change actually stick. For change to be successful, these groups need to become evangelists for the rest of the organization, letting your message scale. They’re also invaluable for the guiding coalition to gather feedback from to help shape the change initiative over time.
There are two main areas where barriers are likely to crop up: resource constraints and culture clashes.
Resource constraints are likely the most straightforward to deal with; it’s the project management iron triangle of scope, budget, and time. If you want to get more done with fewer people, you need more time. Short time and fixed scope? Enlarge the budget. Fixed budget and fixed time? Reduce the scope. These are the forces at play to ensure a project remains successful. At this stage you’re preparing to show some wins in your change initiative, so you want to do whatever you can to have an impact quickly.
The second, much harder area, is culture clashes. These usually fall into one of two categories: clashes with the macro culture, and negative change agents.
Clashes with the macro culture are difficult to route around; a change initiative is ultimately a shift in culture. Because all cultures live within a macro culture and need to adopt that culture’s norms, shifting too radically away from it may make it hard or impossible to work. If you can’t find creative ways of bridging the gap between the two cultures, you’ll likely need to add something to your strategy’s guiding principles to prevent straying too far, and rethink your coherent actions to reflect that change. This may also mean starting over.
On the other hand, what you could be running into is the friction being generated as the new culture and old culture clash, creating anxiety and causing your organization’s current culture to fight back. That fighting back usually manifests itself in the form of “negative change agents”. It may be subtle, like a leader verbally agreeing to work one way and continuing to work another, or it may be obvious, like someone loudly pushing back against a new tool. Don’t discount all negative change agents, there’s a reason they don’t come along. Think of it through blameless eyes and try and see if you can tweak your strategy to cover their issues. They may also be a laggard; don’t try and win them over to start with, bring them along as the process draws to a close.
The goal of focusing on innovators and early adopters and removing their barriers to adoption is to show that the new way of working can work, and can work quickly. You’re goal should be to show that the new way of working works within the first 3-6 months of the start of a change initiative. These can can be small wins, but they’re needed to build momentum and bring the next stage of adoption on. Share the success and learnings that you’ve had along the way widely. Hold blameless retrospectives, solicit feedback, and show how that feedback has led to improvements in the plan. Make the wins not just your coalition’s wins, but the wins of everyone who’s adopted the change initiative.
This is a good point to start to introduce new primary and secondary culture embedding mechanisms. Reward teams who adopt the new way of working with something small but meaningful; give them time during current rites and rituals to share their success, invite them to share feedback directly with the guiding coalition or leadership, provide them with a unique project codename and ensure it gets used when talking about it. The goal here is to provide incentives in the current cultural zeitgeist that bridges the gap to the new one you want to create.
You sustain acceleration by showing that the short-term wins weren’t flukes; the new way of working consistently solves the diagnosis and can do so for a variety of adopters. This builds a reputation that the external adaptation or internal integration problems the change initiative is meant to address are working, and that the culture’s basic underlying assumptions can evolve while still retaining a sense of safety for the group. At this stage, you should start to see some members having fully embraced the new way of working and are adopting the new assumptions outright, turning them into espoused beliefs and values. Keep the wins coming, keep the feedback loop coming, and keep sharing the success.
This step is a long one; it begins at the point where you’re onboarding the early majority and you’re starting to see self-sustaining adoption, and will probably peak around the start of late majority adoption.
Finally, you need to solidify the change in the organization’s culture. Laggards aren’t going to adopt the new way of working until it’s embedded in the culture. If enough negative change agents still exist at this point, and they’re visible enough to cause others to doubt their commitment to the new process, the initiative may wind up failing. Yes, even at this stage, a change initiative can fail.
To embed the change in the culture, you’ll need to rely on primary cultural embedding mechanisms. Coach and mentor organization members on the new way of working, allocate (or take away) rewards (compensation, perks, etc…), status, and resources based on adherence to the new ways of working. Ensure leaders are cognizant in how they pay attention to the new way of working versus the old way of working. Recruit new leaders for adherence to the new way of working, and excommunicate those who refuse to change. Secondary cultural embedding mechanisms may need changing too, like systems, procedures, or tools, common activities like recurring meetings or events, changing formal statements like vision statements and charters, or even changing the physical spaces people work in.
In the first few years of a change initiative, it’s especially important that leaders are extra vigilant about ensuring primary embedding mechanisms stick; cultures are inherently biased towards past success and can fall back at any time until the change is fully embedded and a new culture has taken root. That’s not to say that everything needs to be kept still during this time, strategy can evolve within the bounds set by the initial direction, or you may find that the change uncovers deeper needs that then need to be addressed, and a larger change initiative is warranted. Culture and strategy are intertwined, living entities; make sure you continue nurturing both.
A huge thanks to everyone who’s helped shape my thinking around this topic, but especially Bill Higgins for his friendship and mentorship, and Damon Deaner for taking a chance on the IBM front-end development community and me in particular with Hackademy, the first change initiative I had a heavy hand in running.