I have witnessed or been a part of multiple process improvement efforts – whether they are small in nature and affect only a few people, or large, transformational endeavors designed to reshape the culture of an organization, if not its entire business model. Some of them succeed, some of them fail, all of them go through a period of a quick, immediate up-tick in performance that looks and feels like success. A while later, however, there is a let-down.
Some organizations commit to the new direction, usually only when there is a large investment into something tangible – like a major software implementation, office redesign or relocation, or acquisition or merger. When the intended change is not tangible, however, and the desire is simply to make things go better or to reduce cost, the immediate surge feels good but then tends to end sliding backwards until old, ingrained habits settle in.
The pattern is well documented and observable, of course. The dynamic is very similar to the classic marketing problem of “Crossing the Chasm” that takes an idea from the early adopters to the mainstream. Sure, there are always people who want ot have something new just for the sake of having something new (watch the lines form around the corner at the next iPhone release), however, most people will wait a while before making a decision to try it out, and even longer before committing to the idea entirely.
There are plenty of discussion on how to bridge the gap, too. Most will focus on the role of leadership in driving the organization and, more importantly, the people within the organization to adopt the new reality, whatever it may be. This is done with coaching, hand holding, engagement, and so on, each of which is intended to match people’s habits with the expected behavior.
I suspect, however, that the problem when it comes to facilitating adoption isn’t so much one of driving people to the intended outcome, but in allowing people to change the outcome. Consider the marketing analogy – if a product fails outright, would it have succeeded if the consumers themselves could have changed it into what they desired, rather than what the producer wanted to produce? This is, in many ways, the essence of the Lean Startup movement – introduce something minimal and iterate as quickly as possible with measurable data as input.
Perhaps, when it comes to change initiatives, a similar approach should be adopted? Rather than rolling out major process and culture-changing implementations all at once and driving people to the expected behavior, change can be conducted as a sort of crowd-sourced endeavor? Leadership at the top is usually concerned with industry trends and overall company performance, and (unfortunately) doesn’t necessarily interact day-to-day with the the rank and file. This places them in a poor position to determine what’s best for the rank and file (not to mention what’s best for customers), how they’ll react to change and, therefore, how they will react.
Nonetheless, Leadership does have the authority to decide when change is necessary. Rather than deciding the course, speed and direction unilaterally, however, I have to wonder if the better approach is to initiate the change and then step out of the way. Let the crowd determine when course corrections are needed in order to align Leadership’s perceived need for change with people’s need to feel empowered and lasting, sustainable changes just might occur.