Every organisation has them. Call them what you want. Whether they are ‘Elephants in the room’ or “Sacred Cows’ they are the reasons you need to change but they are often missed in planning for change.
Sacred Cows are inbuilt ways of working, no go zones, ‘this is the way we’ve always done its’ and often people who cant be argued with that exist in any organisation. They are the regular stumbling blocks that prevent progress or slow things down when you are trying to move your organisation forward.
Sometimes a Sacred Cow becomes an Elephant because nobody want to talk about it. We talk in code, we talk around it, and everyone knows its a problem but nobody wants to face it or deal with it.
So why are they missed in change?
What often happens is that the change programme is built in the ‘hope’ that it will deal with the cow/elephant. The trouble with hope is that it has no drive behind it, no action, no certainty, no goal. Its just optimism and optimism may not hit the target.
Sometimes the change programme doesn’t actually talk about the issues and make it clear that this must change.
This happens a lot when the issue is a person. Someone who has been here forever, has had incredible success in the past, someone wise or venerated. But that someone is now the stumbling block because what made them successful in the past wont make you successful today. So the change programme ‘hopes’ that the person will ‘get the message’, ‘get on programme’ or chose to leave of their own accord. But its amazing how often that doesn’t happen.
If the issue isn’t a one-man Elephant then the change often targets it covertly by putting in place something that speaks the opposite such as new values. New company values are often a version of ‘hope’ (and check out the work of Pouzes & Kosner about the value of company values). They are put in place in the hope that it will change people and often its some very specific people that its hoped will change. Except they don’t, because they didn’t know its them you are talking about.
Thats the problem with Sacred Cows and Elephants in the room. Nobody talks about them, and nobody wants to be the first to target them. So we do it covertly or ‘hopefully or ‘optimistically’.
If you were firing an arrow whats the chance of hitting something you aim at in hope or optimism? Very little?
The only way to deal with anything in change is to be very open about it, make it clear that its the behaviour/issue/system/habit/practice etc that needs to change, why its a problem, what it needs to change to and then put overt action in place to make the change happen. If it happens to be a person then you need to do exactly the same but face to face with them, in private.
A Sacred Cow will remain Sacred until you make it otherwise. An Elephant will wander round untamed until it is outed, spoken about and it becomes acceptable to deal with it and then….Well ready, aim and pull!
My youngest is back in New Zealand after a world tour (which I will leave to her blog) and has been catching up with school friends before heading to university. In catching up with their news she found that her old school is about to make electronic tablets/iPads mandatory for students. The ensuing debate on whether this is fair or not got us into the topics of evolution, technology, personal expectations, priorities and choices and inevitably dinosaurs.
Let me explain how this relates to change and leading change.
Today buying an iPad or other tablet may be seen as an expensive student tool. When I was a kid I remember calculators being mandated. In those days they were expensive too. Many people objected to the cost. Anyone object now? Remember when mobile phones were too expensive to give to your kids? See a kid without one now?
As years role on things change and along with them our expectations of what is normal. Once something has become normal nobody questions it. But at some point that thing is unusual. Somewhere between the two is a time when the change horizon for normal meets the reality field of unusual and we have a short period of conflict between the two. Right now at her old school parents, pupils and teachers are in the middle of the battle between the two perspectives which will go on until more and more schools see that the technological advantages should be adopted and it gradually becomes unusual to not have an tablet policy than to have one.
When it comes to the introduction of new ideas into the workplace you face the same challenge. People look at the new idea and compare it to normal. Nobody else is doing it and it’s unusual. Nobody has ever heard of it and it’s highly unusual. And the response to that change is likely to be in proportion to how unusual it is in the minds of that community.
Safe change means putting in place something that everyone else is doing. This probably accounts for fads in the Business, IT and HR communities. Everyone else is outsourcing, so we should outsource. Everyone else is buying xxx software then we should buy it. Everyone is using that Leadership model or that survey then we should do it. Safe change minimizes risk because people accept it as normal (their last business had it, their friends employers had it, or they’ve seen it in the papers for the last few years).
But safe change is just survival. You can be sure that the last school to adopt tablets will be five years behind other schools in terms of results. Safe change isn’t change, it’s just keeping up. And just keeping up is just holding back extinction for a few more years. Like a dinosaur running ahead of a tsunami, caused by the meteor close behind.
Being at the front of the change horizon means its harder to get employees to accept the unusual. It’s riskier because you are at the front of the change horizon and that means the battle between normal and unusual is taking place in your organisation. For many that is too big a risk, it’s too much effort and they would rather sit further back in the pack so its easy.
Those at the front, or aspiring to be at the front need to change the conversation so that it’s no longer a conflict between normal and unusual; because conflicts have casualties. To change the conversation I believe that you stop talking to your people about accepting change and instead teach them that unusual is normal. That evolution is what we do. It’s what humans have always done and that embracing changing technology is normal and has been from the invention of the wheel, to sails, to steam, the petrol engine, rocket power, moon landings, smartphones, and tablets.
Those whose mindset can embrace evolution will evolve and history has shown us that the evolvers reach the top of the pyramid at some point. While those that don’t evolve, arguing for ‘stability’, shouting that we need to keep things as they’ve always been, that these ‘new things aren’t necessary’ and that ‘a pencil was fine in my day’ will gradually go the way of the things that that they stubbornly hold on to.
Most interestingly whole cultures follow this pattern too. From the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution and beyond changes happened because groups of people embraced the possibilities together. The more that embraced the change the more it became normal, became cultural. So the lessons of evolution and history can apply to any culture and that includes yours; your organisations
As a leader culture is your domain. Are you engaging your people in unusual being normal or are you holding tight to your current reality where it’s safer?
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