In a world where constant change is the new normal, and where disruption can come from the most unexpected places, the most valuable, profitable and resilient companies have managed to cross the chasm of change to new agile operating structures where empowered, autonomous, connected teams share knowledge and work collaboratively.
Most of the companies I’ve worked with over the last 17 years, however, have a way to go to reach this distant nirvana. While the CXO may understand the need to nurture more collaborative cultures and enable knowledge transfer, most employees remain blissfully unaware of what colleagues in other brands, departments, regions or silos are doing and, more importantly, what they have learned through experimentation.
I worked with a global pharmaceutical company recently. One brand manager in Europe told me they had not, and could not, explore social media. A brand manager in Australia told me she had been successfully experimenting with social media for two years. One in the UK told me she had developed a totally new content production cycle. A colleague at a different brand (in the same building) told me they had invested significant time in doing the same. None knew about the others’ experience or success.
This lack of cross-brand/cross-silo communication resulted in a never-ending reinvention of the wheel. Did they need expensive technical infrastructure to enable knowledge transfer? No. When, incredulous, I asked why they didn’t just pick up the phone and talk to each other, they replied it was: “just not the way we do things.” The real culprit for this organisational madness is culture.
Culture Is Key
As Mark Earls explains in his fabulous book Herd, our natural response is to follow the social lead and to resist the unfamiliar. Employees that display the flexible, collaborative behaviours needed to move towards new agile cultures are unfortunately those most likely to be regarded as disruptors. Disruptors tend not to be liked. When faced with unfamiliar behaviours, organisations react like organisms reacting to a foreign body. Threatened, the “norms” gang up, and the people most likely to lead successful transformation either adapt to the current culture or, more often, are unceremoniously forced out.
Changes to process and governance are of course necessary to reach the other side of the chasm, but designing a new operating model is the easy bit. The hard bit is getting people to adopt it.
This involves significant changes in traditional mindsets, attitudes and behaviours. As people are hard-wired to resist change, embedding new behaviours is notoriously difficult. The more deeply embedded the behaviour, the more difficult it is to shift.
The key to success lies in the potent landscapes of behavioural economics and social physics. When faced with the force of human disposition, people-centric behaviour change communications are the only way through this complex challenge; change communications designed to harness new knowledge of universal predispositions and cognitive biases.
Six Keys To Behaviour Change
People are most collaborative, innovative and receptive to change when they are in the “reward” (safe) state. Social neuroscience has shown that there are six key pillars to supporting this state: empathy, respect, certainty, autonomy, connectedness and fairness. Let’s look at how successful organisational communications frameworks can harness this knowledge to support and embed painless and lasting change.
The Middle Manager Dilemma
Does this scenario feel familiar? The CEO has gathered her senior management to announce yet another in an endless stream of technology-enabled change initiatives. They, protecting their positions and painfully aware of hierarchical necessity, nod their heads vigorously in agreement.
As soon as they leave the meeting, however, their response may be less positive. What they say is often not how they feel, but their feelings govern the way they act. With no insight, input or investment into the decision-making process, they may say the CEO has made the wrong decision, she doesn’t understand the reality of working at the coal face, it will never work, they would have made a different decision.
Their lack of buy-in colours how their teams hear about the change; they can sense their leaders’ resistance. The teams have no direct line to the decision makers, they only receive the information, or “story”, from their leader. People are herd creatures; resistance and reluctance are contagious, and they spread rapidly across an already shell-shocked organisation.
Our Own Ideas Are The Best Ideas
Let’s replay this scenario with a different set of parameters. The CEO, supported by the resident storyteller (the CMO), nurtures a culture of respect and transparency by engaging employees in an organisation-wide conversation, collecting, curating, and sharing opinions and ideas before decisions are made.
Timely, transparent communications enable all to see what options have been considered, which have been discounted and why, and how the final decision has been made.
In Silence Lie Fear And Resistance
Certainty is a powerful driver for change. Zappos, for example, makes all of its live data open to all levels of the organisation. Nothing is hidden. Everyone knows what is happening. There are no boardroom secrets and no surprises. Challenges can be seen and dealt with by everyone as they happen.
A successful change comms strategy helps all levels of the organisation understand the benefits of the change: for the organisation, their team, and themselves as individuals.
Employees are most productive when they are trusted to be autonomous. We have all felt the desperate disempowerment and stress caused by overzealous managers peering over our shoulder and commenting on every action, or even worse yo-yoing between disinterest and micromanagement.
More evolved companies are learning to dissolve middle management barriers by adopting flexible, gamified systems where employees at all levels are incentivised to continuously reward colleagues for displaying enterprise behaviours. Open platforms crowdsource opinion and mitigate the negative impact of those damaging one-to-one character clashes or unrepresentative management meetings. The data collected allows them to become “quantified organisations” and drive further positive change… more on that next month.
Participatory, open communications frameworks can dissolve organisational walls and support the journey towards the networked enterprise, while mitigating the damaging and expensive resistance and blockages that disempowered middle management can cause. But they need to be supported by smart strategies to help people feel safe to adopt them.