Threat, Hope or Law?

Changing successful organisations can be tough.

In our experience, there are only three reasons why organisations initiate change:

  1. A threat means they may no longer be able to operate in the way they are now. Maybe a competitor is stealing their market share or an alternative product or service is better than theirs.
  2. An opportunity may exist that they can exploit. Maybe they have access to new technology or a new market and this offers growth opportunities.
  3. There is a legal obligation or regulatory need for the change which the organisation has no choice other than to comply with.

Usually organisational change is a result of one or more of these factors bearing down on the organisation at the same time.

Human nature

Human nature tells us it is much easier to initiate change when we are facing obvious threat and when our organisation is in need of change. In an organisation where things are deteriorating and staying the same carries a risk of bankruptcy it’s fairly easy to convince people that they need to do something different. But changing successful organisations can be very different. When things have been going well it is quite normal for people to ask “why do we need to change?” However all successful organisations need to evolve no matter how good their business is – you can’t stand by and rest on your laurels.

A common problem when it comes to changing successful organisations is a reluctance to share external realities that indicate that things may need to change. In a recent study carried out by Leadership IQ, over 30,000 employees were asked to rate the statement “This organisation openly shares the challenges facing it”. The results were quite stark and can be seen below:

Human nature tells us it is much easier to initiate change when we are facing obvious threat and when our organisation is in need of change. But changing successful organisations can be very different.

Clearly the majority of leaders are not doing a great job in explaining to people the challenges their organisations face and two thirds of leaders are missing out on the opportunity to build a sense of urgency to change.

Why is it that we are sometimes so reluctant to share external realties with our organisations? Is it that we feel the need to insulate our employees from some of the harsh realities of the external world? Or is it that some of us just don’t realise how important they are when it comes to changing our organisations? Some leaders may be under the impression that sharing an external challenge may come across as negative or pessimistic. We believe that sharing external challenges is not negative but is actually a positive step to implement change. The prevalence of too much “happy talk” in some organisations can lead to resistance to sharing tough information.

Another important factor is that unless we know why we have to change, we’re much less likely to commit to it. All too often employees are hit with the latest communication about the next big initiative but have not been given the opportunity to build up an understanding of how the world is evolving and how this can lead to the need for change. This can significantly undermine leaders credibility when employees think the leaders are plucking changes out of the air on a whim.

Tools for changing successful organisations

So how do you go about changing successful organisations by sharing external challenges? You can do it in lots of ways – town hall meetings, newsletters, staff meetings but what’s most important is that you share what’s coming down the road and get people used to the fact that change might be needed.

A tool we’ve been using extensively with clients recently is “BigPicture Learning Maps”. BigPicture Learning Maps are based around the philosophy of the old Chinese proverb that states “Tell me I forget, show me I remember, involve me I understand”. Bespoke to the organisation, BigPicture Learning Maps use images, icons, metaphors, and business data to tell your organisation’s “story” and challenges in a visual way. Supported by effective dialogue and activities, BigPicture Learning Maps are a structured communication device for conveying large amounts of information in a highly effective and efficient way. This can include challenges, vision, strategy and individual roles.

Once BigPicture Learning Maps are developed, they can be rolled-out across the organisation without the need for expert external facilitators. In our opinion, the level of consistency of delivery and understanding is unparalleled for conveying complex messages to large audiences. In the UK, BigPicture Learning Maps are developed by BigPicture Learning (http://bigpicture-learning.com).

Get everyone talking about it

The final key point is it doesn’t always need to be the leaders who are sharing these messages. The point we should be striving for is that our employees are constantly scanning the external environment and sharing the challenges they perceive with each other. All too often, even in good organisations, we are preoccupied with internal matters such as office politics and rumours. To be truly successful we need to shift the focus to the external world, and towards our customers and stakeholders who ultimately pay our bills.