When an Organizational Change becomes a “Movement”

In his widely acclaimed book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg discusses the three-step process which historians and sociologists say enable small, social “habits” to become larger “movements”. Using the courageous stance by Rosa Parks in a crowded city bus and the ensuing, epochal rise of the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama as his reference point, Duhigg cites the three steps as

1) The birth of a movement driven by the social habits of friendship and the strong ties among close acquaintances,

2) The growth of a movement caused by the habits of a community and the relationships that hold neighborhoods and clans together,

3) The endurance of a movement caused by leaders giving participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.*image001
While the impact of an organizational transformation, to be sure, carries far less weight than the legacy of the civil rights movement, the analogy serves to explore or reinforce related approaches that can be taken in business initiatives to drive stronger buy-in and adoption and more profitable economic results.

If we think of an organizational “movement” as a successful transition to a future state, we can examine the merit of each of the three steps cited above.

  1. The successful birth of a business transformation depends upon the passion of the sponsoring leader, the alignment within the core project team, the commitment of a network of change champions, and the degree to which organizational risks have been assessed at the front end of the initiative. These relationships and insights are what Duhigg describes as the “strong ties” that existed within Rosa Parks’ most immediate inner circle of friends and neighbors in the days and weeks following her arrest on the bus that evening in December 1955. That local energy enabled Montgomery and Rosa Parks to become a catalyst for a civil right crusade. Similarly, change leaders must create energy and momentum in the earliest stages of a new initiative to build a critical mass of focused support.
  1. How many new initiatives start strong and then sputter without the necessary scale to expand the flame? Successfully growing a movement requires what Duhigg refers to as “the power of weak ties”. In the case of the Montgomery bus boycott, such ties were reflected in the society-wide action driven more by a sense of obligation to the local community and to social peer pressure than, initially, to the cause itself. Parks’ closest friends began a level of outreach to neighborhoods and communities previously less inclined to act or march. As the number of touch points with more civic groups and local friends grew and the collective decision to boycott the local buses ensued, a movement had begun to grow.* Indeed, the buy-in that business leaders seek from less influential stakeholders often creates the verve we so badly need to drive a business initiative or program forward. The intent of leadership alignment and change agent networks is to extend out to segments of the workforce less connected to the project itself, but capable of bringing “the power of weak ties” into the nucleus of the project and further propelling the transformation forward.
  1. The endurance of a change initiative is critical to achieving the prescribed business case and is, arguably, the most challenging step of the process. Once the black community in Montgomery had become mobilized around a one-day bus boycott, a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. began to instill new habits onto the shoulders of the Montgomery community. These habits, or behaviors in business terms, set the stage for an ongoing, yearlong movement. While business leaders also recognize the importance of adoption and long-term cultural change, they too often turn the faucet down on role-based training, stakeholder communications, and leadership support in the later stages of an initiative. Regretfully, these are the activities and tools so critical to the rest of the journey. Whether caused by cost pressure, time constraints or leadership changes, the consequences can be painful. Old habits return, workarounds are created, conflict or confusion around new processes becomes more visible, and turnover of frustrated high performers can rise.

Statistics continue to show that the vast majority of business initiatives do not achieve ultimate success, as defined by the project’s business case for change and the behavioral and economic metrics defined around the program. While we as a nation continue to pursue the ultimate aspirations of the civil rights movement, its initial success can be viewed as a case study for business leaders driving a strategic agenda forward. The cumulative power of passionate sponsorship, engaged constituents and distributed capability can set the stage for long-term program success.

Lake Shore Associates is a woman-owned management consulting firm focused on driving change within organizations.

* The Power Of Habit, Charles Duhigg, published in 2014










Resistance to change is not a ground rule … It is an investigation.

Business journals are filled with studies that stress the importance of change management to the success of a large business initiative. We read of the “valley of despair”, the “marathon effect” and the “situational” nature of change as characteristics of an organization in transition requiring focus and care. The point is driven home that a large-scale change effort must include the involvement of leaders, a broad suite of communications to multiple stakeholders, and a detailed analysis of how one’s job will change over time.

Despite this clarity of purpose related to organizational change, I contend that the most challenging component of a large business initiative to scope is the change management work stream. While so many of the activities associated with change management are predictable, these standard tasks comprise at most 70% of the overall work effort. The balance of the work is the tougher and, perhaps, more important part of the change leader’s role. This additional 30% is the detective work that determines where and why resistance occurs in small or large pockets of the business. Resistance is like a chameleon – it takes many different forms, some more discreet than others. It can be as bold as a leader who vocally challenges the legitimacy of an initiative in an executive meeting, as subtle as that same leader “choosing” not to incorporate initiative updates into the agenda, or as challenging as fighting your way through an “opt out” culture where if people don’t want to change…they don’t…and there’s no accountability. If we can successfully uncover the more implicit types of resistance, then we can clarify misconceptions, offer proof or a business case when we face objections from skeptics, and bring perspective and empathy to those situations where the concerns are real and valid.

In one client situation involving the adoption of a sophisticated forecasting tool, my team recognized the unexpected need for heightened support and training of an anxious forecasting team on data analytics and statistical models in order to utilize the tool’s functionality. In another situation involving a change to the sales process at a uniform rental company, we learned that resistant sales personnel needed some interim assistance from a newly created sales analyst role in order to more easily manage the transition to a highly automated future state. Neither of these scenarios were anticipated at the time the initial work plan was developed.

What are some of the ways change leaders can effectively and respectfully investigate resistance in the business? How can we break down those barriers that might mask the issues that really matter? Some ideas are proposed below:

  • Face to face leadership communication:In addition to the status calls and project communications already in place, the change leader must find time to speak to individual leaders who hold positional and cultural power. Ask about the project and their view of the progress, the organization’s buy-in to the effort, and what they feel their role should be.
  • Change agents or champions: Change agents are typically highly respected peer members of a functional team that will be impacted by a pending change. These individuals can become a valuable two-way communication channel between the project team and the impacted users. They are often best able to discern where legitimate, unspoken pockets of resistance occur and distinguish those from dysfunctional, unhealthy reactions in the business.
  • Empathy-based Inquiry: The Change leader has a responsibility to ask the questions which the impacted workforce will not think to ask, due primarily to the empathetic lens through which he/she views the project. For example, if a sales process get re-engineered to accommodate a new CRM tool, the change leader must ask how the sales team can be expected to hit certain goals (e.g. meetings per day), given heightened documentation requirements.
  • Intuition and Pattern Recognition: A change leader, whether internal to the business or external to the company, must instinctively be on the lookout for recognizable patterns from prior projects or other industries. These indicators enable the leader to suggest and test potential sources of resistance that are not yet explicit. If a finance manager in an automotive company reacts to a new budgeting process in a specific way, it is not unlikely that someone in that same role at a pharmaceutical company won’t have similar concerns. These possibilities must be mentally captured and documented for the team’s collective consideration.

While the change leader is not typically wearing a trench coat and a hat characteristic of modern day detectives, high performing change management teams are actively investigating the less obvious sources of resistance to business initiatives. They do this by listening and learning, asking and empathizing, connecting and engaging, so that proposed changes in the business can be openly discussed with the right people and with the right concerns at hand.

(this article was reposted from the website of Blossom Growth Partners (www.blossomgrowth.com))

Effective Listening: How Experience and Technology (ET) can make us listen like aliens in the workplace.

The first communications course I took as a new sales hire for a forest products company introduced the skill of effective listening. I remember learning that good communicators listen for facts, feelings and emphasis. The facts represent the content, the data, the information. The feelings capture the way the message is transmitted … the tone and volume of the voice and the facial expression. Finally, emphasis defines where the passion lies, as depicted by energy, posture, eye contact and inflection. I learned that effective salespeople and, several years later, effective consultants, must actively listen for all three.

Effective listening is arguably the most difficult communication skill, as compared to presenting or questioning or negotiating. Two of the barriers that impede our use of this skill are the experience we have gained and the technologies we use in our professional journeys. Rather than tools that advance our listening competence, they have become obstacles. Our growth and fulfillment in the workplace depends upon our recognition of these challenges and our commitment to addressing them.

How can years of experience impede your ability to listen? Certainly, over each of our “storied” careers, we have built up biases around how we interpret the world and how we respond to varied points of view, word choices, expressions and presentation styles. These biases are limited and only marginally impactful in the early years of our career. Biases become more substantial and less flexible, however, as we mature and continue to use them to rationalize the judgments we make. Similarly, and somewhat related, are the “verbal patterns” of thinking that build up in our mind and, regrettably, become the organizing framework (and sometimes the receptacle) for much of what we hear every day. How often do we mentally finish and ultimately judge someone’s comments regarding a recommendation or a point of view because it begins to sound exactly like what so many others believe? As professionals and as continuous learners, we must resist any attempt to profile incoming ideas. Certainly, our experience can advance the conversation and build on new insights. But we must listen with the assumption that any idea, from top to bottom, reflects fresh thinking and unique perspective so that we can incorporate our experience in the most optimal way and collaboratively create new insight. By exercising patience, putting aside our biases and listening carefully with no assumed verbal pattern in mind, we can relish the merit of new ideas and the feelings behind them.

And what about technology? How in the world can digital technology and hand-held devices impede our listening skills? Well, for starters, let’s go back to our opening comment about listening for facts, feelings and emphasis. While smartphones and tablets, Twitter and Facebook, and dozens of business applications (e.g. travel sites, uber) have dramatically revolutionized our business day experience in so many positive ways, technology has had a catastrophic effect on the listening process of business leaders, many of whom once prided themselves on being engaged listeners. Contemporary listeners often do not “hear” the specific content in the message, because they are actively and often discreetly multi-tasking. Their ears are trying to catch the message, while their eyes are tracking texts or apps on their phone. Many listeners have no clue how a communicator feels about the message being conveyed, because there was probably limited eye contact, and the listener had only enough bandwidth to capture the words, not the feelings, much less the emotions, behind the message. So often the story behind the communication is abandoned, and the verbage sits on its own island, void of the empathy and context upon which it depends.

As if poor listening “costs” related to existing biases and our on-line mentality aren’t high enough, imagine the additional switching costs incurred when we attempt to go back and forth between these elements. Have you ever tried listening to a complicated business situation, then looked down at a long-awaited text or email, and then attempted to reconnect to the story with the SAME level of empathy and insight? These transitions carry an economic burden and, of course, bear a personal cost on the team members who look to our leadership.

While this article sheds light on societal norms widely known, it hopefully presents a candid view of two very real, yet very manageable, barriers in our professional communication. I

own a huge yellow lab whose name is Bubba, and when I ask Bubba if he wants to go to the park, I am met with a reaction that demonstrates the truest form of effective listening. His head jerks up, and he stares at me with complete engagement, eyes bulging out of their sockets and staring at me like lasers. I have his complete attention. Bubba has a great deal of experience with this oft-repeated question, but his reaction is always enthusiastic and reflects no internal bias … and he never finishes my sentence. There is no multi-tasking or technology, because Bubba turns off his smartphone when I speak to him. Now while we may all be a little too busy to always “listen like a lab”, are we giving those who speak to us our complete attention? I do think we have room in our day to listen respectfully and wholeheartedly to what our colleagues are saying to us. No one will perfect this skill, but pursuing excellence will help us each learn and grow. Over time, we can begin to listen less like an alien, and more like a human.

Igniting Your Company’s Culture: From Vacuum to Boardroom

Really important work is completed at companies big and small to make explicit what is already in the hearts and minds of their people – the cultural values of the enterprise. Yet for so many companies, these principles live as a framed document created at one moment in time and never generating the kind of business impact considered so promising at their inception.

How do we take a corporate culture from a “vacuum” within which many might think it now lives and into a “boardroom” where the underlying values can come alive and thrive? This is a legitimate question on several fronts. First, the integrity of a culture and its associated values are only as strong as one’s ability to apply the culture on the job and in the market. Second, there is a precious time investment associated with the articulation of a culture/values/desired behaviors, whether tacitly or analytically defined. A lack of discipline and leadership to execute these behaviors within the business would seem to be unacceptable. Finally, there is a negative impact on the human reaction to a culture that is sedentary and dated. Such an impact can harm recruiting efforts, competitive differentiation in the market, and organizational morale.

So what types of cultural bridges or tactics can bring our culture and human capital values to life and serve a productive role for the business?

Years ago I worked with a financial services company that had a small, but growing, multi-family lending division. Despite the positive momentum of its strong brand, low transaction fees, and a strong sales team, this bank faced strong headwinds related to its success in creating a positive “customer experience”. Specifically, formal customer feedback called out the insufficient way in which the sales team Communicated with borrowers during the lending process, the Accuracy of the information borrowers received (e.g. interest rates), the Reliability of the data and documentation deadlines posted, and the overall Ease of doing business (e.g. efficiency, steps in the process). We called this unfortunate acronym C-A-R-E. We then leveraged the bank’s core values to articulate a new sales culture built around an improved CARE sales process with a commitment to dramatically elevating the customer experience. The charismatic President of this division was at the forefront of this initiative, advocating the importance of becoming a CARE sales manager.

This is just one example of a competitive lever, in the form of a performance gap, which served as a landing ground for the bank’s existing corporate values. Certainly, any particular lever will draw out some values more than others. But if these values are the right ones for this culture, what better template for a solution can you find than the collectively defined and communicated tenets of the business. Below are three ways to bring your own values strategically alive.

  • Mobilize the culture and corporate values around priorities or opportunities within the business. A SWOT Analysis provides one natural framework here. Perhaps there is a weakness or threat that must be strategically addressed, such as the lending organization’s service issues discussed above. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple after his long hiatus, the company’s culture of “innovation” that had been so vibrant during the production of the Macintosh but somewhat lost after his departure, became immediately activated upon his return to drive the development of the iMac and decades of future products. Alternatively, there might be a Strength or Opportunity for growth. Certainly, when Timberland expanded from a boot company to an outdoor apparel company, its values adapted to a broader vision that included wool socks, flannel shirts and winter sports. New acquisitions might also present revenue channels long considered prohibitive. In such a case, the values can be applied to these newly defined opportunities or, as is often the case, the new or interim leadership team actually rolls out a fresh set of values for NewCo.
  • Design learning initiatives that train the talent of the company on ways to apply the culture to changes in the business. Recognizing the speed of change, well-designed training programs help reconcile leadership’s understanding of key initiatives and ensure alignment with the culture. Many companies invest heavily in new hire orientation programs that include a detailed discussion of the values of the company. When such a program is successfully delivered, all team members (e.g. call center manager, accounts payable clerk, sales director, logistics supervisor), with equal clarity, can discuss what a value like “collaboration” or “risk-taking” means to the way they do their job.
  • Incorporate the corporate values into core processes of the business as a way to “live” the culture, walk the talk and, of course, generate superior business performance. If “safety” or “candor” or “fun” is indeed an element of the collective culture, then why not incorporate the performance of the value into the ratings of leaders who must be the champions of an emerging culture. If “self-discipline” is a stated value, shouldn’t we ensure that self-discipline is hard-wired into the way we forecast and schedule customer orders, the way we pay vendors and the way we provide career opportunities for our people?

No one gets too excited seeing a laminated set of corporate values on the wall, with the possible exception of those who spent a ton of time and drank a lot of coffee building them out. The leadership opportunity here rests on mobilizing our people to apply these values and use the collective culture as a business tool to drive economic value.