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New principles for change 🍳
How to create long-lasting large-scale cultural change
As a father of two daughters, I’ve learned that the desire for autonomy is strong from a young age. It is built in our human nature. I can’t “get” my kids to do anything that they don’t choose to do, at least not without forcing my authority upon them (which causes other troubles). I’ve also learned that my kids usually want to be helpful, do the right thing, and are willing to collaborate.
So, over the years, I have learned to involve them when changes are necessary. First, I’ll share my perspective and then invite them to share what they think. Then we make agreements, and I support them in trying new things.
This parenting philosophy is similar to what I believe creates the conditions for long-lasting, large-scale cultural change. As one of our clients said wisely:
“When you want people to adopt change, you want their commitment, not compliance.”
Now that they’re starting to experience the benefits, some are asking: “How do we get the rest of the organization to change their ways of working? How do we change our culture to become a more adaptive organization, where people take ownership and make decisions faster?” Great, let’s explore!
As a leader, when you want to create change, you want to go fast, stay ‘in control,’ and ‘make sure’ it will work. These are all logical desires, but we must be careful not to go against human nature and the complexity of large human systems. Below, I’ll share a few principles for change that I’ve practiced over the years to create a positive impact at scale:
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From Imposing to Inviting 🤝
Desire: Going fast by telling people what needs to happen.
Why is it problematic: If you want to create a culture of empowerment and engagement, you shouldn’t do the opposite in your change approach. Telling people how they must change how they work and think without giving them a choice won’t create the necessary enthusiasm and adoption.
Instead: If you want engaged people, you need to engage them. Invite people into a conversation about new ways of working, principles, and behaviors. Show how those could help solve some of their biggest challenges and help them achieve their personal goals. Let them decide if they want to participate - at least for now.
From Top-down ⬇️ to Co-created 🍳
Desire: Staying in control of the change and wanting to go fast.
Why is it problematic: Pushing change down from the top is tempting since it is possible and familiar. However, from the top, there is only a very limited view of what is happening deeper down. Therefore, the chances of pushing an unhelpful change from the top are high.
Instead: When designing the change, involve as many relevant people as possible in co-creating the change; this will create buy-in, integrate day-to-day realities, and improve the chances of achieving the desired outcomes.
From Blueprint Driven 🏙️ to Driven by Local Tensions ⚡️
Desire: “Making sure” it will work by implementing a well-thought-out model or ‘proven framework’ that logically should be able to drive the desired outcome.
Why is it problematic: A “proven” framework may have been successful in another context, but your organizational context and culture are unique. Also, by implementing a large blueprint, you lose the possibility of testing and learning, which is vital for successful change. “Successfully” implementing the blueprint will become the goal rather than the outcomes you need.
Instead: Connect a change to an acute tension or problem that a team or department is wrestling with, then use that momentum to design a change that promotes new principles and ways of working. You can use frameworks as inspiration and input for your changes, though.
From a Detailed project plan 🗺️ to Rhythm to steer and adapt 🚴♂️
Desire: “Making sure” it will happen correctly and wanting to know when it will be done.
Why is it problematic: It is impossible to predict how groups of people will react to change and what outcome will be achieved by when. Making and then rigorously following a detailed plan creates the risk of delivering outputs (“x teams have completed the training”), not the outcomes you desire.
Instead: Be clear about where you want to go, then create a rhythm of moments when you’ll make sense of progress, learning what works and what doesn’t, and then changing course.
From Big Moves 💣 to Small Moves 🧪
Desire: Getting to the outcome as fast as possible.
Why is it problematic: We believe the best way to get a big impact is by starting with a big change. But big shocks to the system often fail spectacularly. Changing people’s behavior takes time and can’t be forced.
Instead: Make small changes first to build momentum and learn, then build on those lessons learned to unlock bigger moves over time. For example, by proving the change is positive in one small area of the organization, the adoption rate across the organization will go faster and be more lasting.
From Resistance leading to ‘push’ 😤 to Resistance leads to curiosity👂
Desire: We believe we have the truth, so when others don’t ‘get it,’ we want to change their minds by explaining what we know.
Why is it problematic: When you’re talking, you’re not listening. Pushing harder will only create more resistance, and you’ll lose the opportunity to understand what is missing in your approach.
Instead: Treat resistance as information. Be curious. Something must be holding them back from stepping into the change. Ask questions to understand what needs to happen to make it safe or attractive to go along.
Here are a few excellent resources related to this topic that I recently came across:
Minimum Viable Transformation and Non-Violent Change - How many people does it take to change a culture? Surprisingly, it seems that 3.5% is enough.
Why appointing a “Head of…” stops systemic change - It is tempting to appoint a “Head of Agility,” “Head of Innovation,” “Head of Sustainability,” etc., but it might make things worse.
Change the Mindset of Employees by focusing on their context, not their mindset.
Lessons from re-organising a lot with a list of 11 things that work.
Shaping an Agile Culture is a video that explores the 10 beliefs, values, and habits of an agile culture and a perspective on how to shape and influence a culture.
Changing your organization through experimentation is a piece I published a while ago about how the disciplined practice of running experiments will help you build momentum.
🚨 Roundtables for future-oriented leaders
Are you leading a team, or are you responsible for transforming your organization? Then, I’d like to invite you to our leadership roundtables. Register here to get invited to our upcoming session titled “Ownership Unblocked - How to invite people to take more ownership.”