6 Change Ready Guidelines for Brave New Work
They’re not rules, mind you. Rules can become constraints that limit our ability to adapt. “Always” and “never” are words we should try to avoid. Instead we must develop guidelines that prove useful in certain situations without being overly rigid or restrictive.
Change Ready #1 Through Them, Not to Them
Organizational change is high stakes. It brings out the control freak in each of us, particularly leaders who are accountable for results. That’s why the vast majority of culture change efforts are driven from the top. While everyone sees the opportunity for change, only leaders (often the very top leaders only) have the power to do anything about it.
Instead encourage participation and ownership from the earliest days of any transformation effort. Long before anything is decided, we invite everyone who will be affected to join in. This entails some risk. Every member within the boundary we select has a seat at the table and the ability to know what is going on from day one.
Change Ready #2 Start Small
Inside large organizations, moving the needle requires big moves—big programs, big campaigns, and big acquisitions. As a result, many leaders dismiss small moves as inconsequential. Projects and programs often end up with overly ambitious goals and time lines. Big wins delivered in the short term.
Instead, start small. Involve fewer people. Change one part of a process rather than the whole thing, or change it for one group but not another. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to scale something that has been validated and improved by the people who have to use it every day. When your team is taking smaller bites, there’s a feeling of momentum, and the electricity of that is palpable. Other teams see it. They feel it. And they want it for themselves.
Change Ready #3 Learn by Doing
In corporate culture, the default question is “Is there any risk present here?” This is a defense mechanism designed to protect the status quo. Because there’s always something we can point to as a reason not to try. But this is incompatible with complexity. We can’t know without trying. This is akin to thinking you can improve your swing by reading Golf Digest. You might get some good ideas, but that doesn’t mean you’ve mastered them.
Instead encourage teams to experience and experiment with new ways of working rather than discussing and debating them. If the time frame for the experiment is reasonable, you can just try it without any fanfare and then reflect on how it helped (or didn’t). This is good for two reasons. First, the amount of data you have after you try something is infinitely more than the amount you have beforehand. And second, most changes to a way of working are, in fact, safe to try. The worst-case scenario is we all look at one another and agree: let’s not do that again. Even that lesson has value.
Change Ready #4 Sense and Respond
The typical mental model for leadership includes the notion that we must manifest success through sheer force of will. We commit to an objective and then we barrel ahead, oblivious to detractors or resisters who might stand in our way. As a result we often engage with the world around us through the lens of what we want. We try to shape it to match our wishes.
Instead we can choose to practice sensing. Sensing means noticing—with our heads and our hearts—what’s really going on. We can sense what’s happening in the room, what’s happening in a relationship, even what’s happening in our own bodies. Avoiding a colleague because you subconsciously feel judged by them is not progress. Noticing that you feel that way, naming it, and working on it (ideally with them) is sensing and responding.
Change Ready #5 Start by Stopping
Human beings are naturally acquisitive. We’re far less gifted at getting rid of things. Just open a kitchen drawer, hall closet, or garage and you’ll see what I mean. We add more and more to our collections, never stopping to see what we can do without. Organizations are no exception. For every problem, we believe the solution is more. Additional employees. Another meeting. A new policy
Instead, ask yourself, “What can we remove, take away, or stop doing?” Once you identify something that isn’t serving you, propose to eliminate it for a period of time. Let the culture fill in the blanks. Rather than a new vacation policy, just eliminate the one you have. Tell people you trust them to take vacations responsibly. Rather than a new meeting, get rid of one that isn’t serving you.
Change Ready #6 Join the Resistance
People can and do change. They just do so when it makes sense to them. People don’t resist all change; they resist incoherent change poorly managed.
Try to look at resistance as information. People are telling you something when they resist change. Your job is to find out what. Resistance is an invitation to talk, listen, and learn. That doesn’t mean convincing or cajoling skeptics. Let them come to the work if and when they’re ready. But while you wait and hold space for them, use their insights to ensure that the change you’re driving is ever more coherent and inclusive.
Brave New Purpose
While operating system (OS) change is anything but linear other dimensions are often dependent on a clear and compelling purpose. For example, distributing authority without clarity on what we’re trying to accomplish can lead to empowered people launching projects aimlessly. This results in emergence at best and chaos at worst. Don’t start that way. Ensure that any group in transformation—whether it be a team, a unit, a function, or the whole organization—has a strong sense of their collective purpose.
Brave New Strategy
One of the processes that stands in the way of reinventing our way of working is the annual planning process. In traditional organizations, this document lays out where we will play and how we will win, and contains implications for structure, budgets, projects . . . everything. The problem is that we put so much effort into creating it that we treat it as gospel. It becomes true north for our activity rather than what we’re seeing and learning in the real world. This prevents teams from evolving their OS.
Instead, demote your annual operating plan. Make it an annual operating prediction. Let teams take ownership of their local expression of strategy and operations. This will leave space for emergence and harness the full potential of your membership.
Brave New Transparency
Increased transparency is critical in the early stages of transforming your OS, because it’s a prerequisite for making sound decisions. One of the most common mistakes is teams taking a swing at empowerment before ensuring transparency. What happens?
People make decisions without the benefit of crucial information (about intent, strategy, customers, prior learning, etc.), those decisions are subpar, and leadership goes, “See! People can’t be trusted to make decisions.” Avoid this by focusing on sharing early and often. Make it safe. Make it habitual. When shared consciousness is high, everything else gets easier.
Brave New Mastery
A certain level of maturity and competence is required to participate effectively in an Evolutionary Organization. Members who lack self-awareness or self-confidence may struggle with self-management. If you’re not able to be vulnerable, radical candor can be too threatening. It’s a shock to the system even for those of us who think we’ve mastered our egos. If you’re not clear on your own talents and purpose, self-direction can seem overwhelming. One practice leads to another, and we build mastery through repetition. Start where you are, not where you want to be.