How to Build Sustainable Change

Every minute over 500 websites are created, 100,000 tweets are sent and over 600,000 ‘things’ are shared on facebook according to this infograph from Mashable.  It’s 9:50pm and if I wanted a chocolate bar, armour all wipes for my car, an oil change, some new Star Wars toys and a bag of apples, I can leave and go get it.  I can buy a trip to Paris right now.  I can order any book I want, look up a fact or article I want to read and pretty much get any product, service or information whenever I want.

Over the last 5 or 6 years the flow of information has increased dramatically given consumers instant gratification to satisfy whatever whim is top of mind.

Change doesn’t work that way.

Change takes time.  How much time?  I don’t know.  A few days?  Weeks?  Months?  Some people in organizations grab onto a change right away and run with it, others struggle (and are sometimes reprimanded for it) and others give up and go somewhere else.   When change takes too long, people get frustrated.  Is it the change agents fault?  After all, they’re responsible for the change.  No, it must be the stupid employees who just don’t get it.  Isn’t that right?  No, it must be management, after all, those Dilbert cartoons are pretty accurate.

I had a bit of an ‘aha!’ moment from PSL and AYE which sort of turned into an ‘oh shit’ moment at the same time.  At PSL we learned about open-ended vs closed-ended simulation design and through the other workshops and simulations I learned quite clearly that you cannot control change.  It doesn’t matter how hard you plan, how much you try or how much you hope, you cannot control change if you expect the change to be sustainable.  The ‘oh shit’ part was because of the pressure to change NOW and knowing that you can influence parts of a change but you cannot force change with process.  It’s not going to work and frankly, it’s just going to piss people off and they’re going to stop listening entirely.

That’s unsettling for leaders, especially management and executives.  They want timetables, ROI, justification of cost, safety and more.  It’s difficult to embrace uncertainty when that uncertainty is costing you a shitload of money in training, coaching and “productivity loss” while people learn new processes.

After a hard day today and that ‘aha’ from PSL, I was feeling a bit down and then my other ‘aha’ moment hit, from Don Gray’s session at AYE last year.  We talked about flowing with the current of power in an organization instead of swimming against it.    Dancing with the system is about finding levers you can use to build sustainable change.

Building sustainable change needs to happen within groups outside of IT which has been part of my focus where I’m currently working.   There is overlap between what our transformation team is doing and work that is being done in HR, Learning and Performance and Change Management.  So far I’ve been able to get their help with (and helped them by):

  • delivering Agile/Lean training
  • rolling out Agile management practices into their organizational wide manager and leadership programs
  • addition of our character sheets with official performance management models
  • visualizing their programs and work
  • sharing books and information

Most importantly I’m clear that there is overlap and I want to leverage what they do to help our transformation efforts.  I openly share what we’re working on and ask for their help when I need it.  It’s actually harder on us if we take managers away for training and coaching when HR is doing similar work.  That’s going to confuse managers and alienate us from the people (HR, CM and L&P) that are designed to support the organization already.    I’m grateful about how accepting they have been, it’s quite a unique experience.  Usually in this situation I’ve been met with the territory battle and I’m pleased this hasn’t happened so far.

As a change agent, my mandate is ‘to make the change stick’.  That can run counter to the mandate of a project because it needs to get released, ‘change’ can’t get in the way of work getting done.  This is another system problem with how department performance is measured.    People also have their individual performance goals that can be at odds with other people or departments.  I’d much rather see a project succeed and let my ‘mandate’ suffer.  After all, that’s why I’m doing this in the first place, what’s the worst thing that could happen?  You are more likely to influence positive, systemic change by getting support from, and influencing, existing HR, L&P and CM departments designed to support the organization in the first place.

So back to the ‘aha’ moments.  You can’t control change but you can read the organization and use the existing structures and currents to help you get where you need to go.  Stop focusing so much on IT and start working on building sustainable transformation from within.  All you need is time.  A lot of time.