What’s the one lever that can transform your business?

The Power Of Habit

The Power Of Habit (Photo credit: Earthworm)

I recently read (and read again) a book by Charles Duhigg that got me thinking about the power of a single idea that can transform an entire business. The book is called The Power of Habit.

Here is a summary of one story in the book that made clear to me, the opportunity to lead powerful change.

On a blustery October day in 1987, a herd of prominent Wall Street investors and stock analysts gathered in the ballroom of a posh Manhattan hotel. They were there to meet the new CEO of the Aluminum Company of America–Alcoa. It was a company that for nearly a century had made foil wraps for Hershey kisses,  the metal in Coca-Cola cans and the bolts that hold satellites together. Many in the audience had invested millions in this company. But in the past year, investors had started grumbling. Alcoa’s management had made misstep after misstep trying to expand their markets and customer while competitors stole them away.

There was relief when the board announced a new CEO, but that relief, at least today, was about to be turned on its head. Appointed to the post of CEO was a former government bureaucrat named Paul O’Neill. A few minutes before noon, O’Neill took the stage. He was 51 years old, trim, and dressed in grey pinstripes and a red power tie. His hair was white and his posture military straight. He looked dignified, solid, confident. Like a chief executive. Then he opened his mouth…

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Engagement, passion – the big WHY.

Only one in five employees are fully engaged. (Deloitte’s Center for the Edge: The Shift Index).

I personally view this video as a warning; the perils of over-rotating on a left-brained, rational approach to life, which removes context, meaning, and the big WHY of what we do.  Passion and vision are largely missing in the world of work, and when they do exist in doses that are sufficient to stir our emotions, we often fail to realize their potential. We don’t connect the WHY with the HOW and the WHAT.

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift…and the rational mind is a faithful servant. – Albert Einstein.

We need both, not only to survive, but to thrive.


The Colors of Change – Tools for Change Management

Leading change requires change agents to exercise influence. Understanding individual motivations and assumptions matters. People come in different colors. Understanding each color and the motivations and assumptions that drive each one can help you get into the shoes of others, and consequently, help you understand how to best help them embrace change. There are five colors. There is no bad color or good color. Each color brings a different perspective, thinking style, and work style to the table.

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Sources of Complacency

Leading change without a Sense of Urgency… is it possible? John p. Kotter lists 9 sources of complacency. They are:

  1. The absence of a major and visible crisis.
  2. Too many visible resources.
  3. Low overall performance standards.
  4. Organizational structures that focus employees on narrow functional goals.
  5. Internal measurement systems that focus on the wrong performance indexes.
  6. A lack of sufficient performance feedback from external sources.
  7. A kill-the-messenger-of-bad-news, low candor, low confrontation culture.
  8. Human nature, with its capacity for denial, especially if people are already busy or stressed.
  9. Too much happy talk from senior management.

So now what? Kotter recommends BOLD action. He suggests:

  1. Link 50% of top executives’ pay to significant quality improvements.
  2. Find ways to get all the external customer complaints in front of everyone every week.
  3. Sell the jet and corporate headquarters and move into a building that looks more like a battle command center.
  4. Set an objective to become #1 or #2 or we are forced to liquidate and shut our doors in 2 years.
  5. Set your business targets so high they cannot be met doing business as usual.
  6. Stop measuring sub-unit performance and narrow functional goals.
  7. Use consultants to help force the honest conversations that need to happen.
  8. Use company newsletters/communication to provide not only good news, but business reality.
  9. Bombard people with information on these future opportunities for capitalizing on these opportunities, and on the organization’s inability to do so.

Over-managed and under-led cultures fail to do this according to Kotter.

The Trajectory of Change

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to share some thoughts on leading change at AgileTourRTP. The presentation is now available on SlideShare here. You can view it right here also.

Change is an emotional journey, for the change agent, as well as the colleagues you lead through change. Understanding the emotional arcs or trajectories that you will personally experience, as well as the emotions of others provides you with tools to lead change more effectively. The presentation has three parts:

  • Context – the business in which I work and the challenges of Wireless Telecom.
  • Experiences with Change – what I have personally witnessed as a change agent in our business, going from traditional to Agile.
  • The change models that can help you understand what to expect in terms of both emotions, action and performance.

There is also a caution here. Emotional responses can be unexpected. Being open and aware and not relying on cookie-cutter change formulas gives you a better chance of success. Given that two-thirds of all change initiatives fail to deliver on their promise, it is wise to carefully observe how emotion is playing out in your context, on an individual as well as organizational level.

Change only occurs when individuals see the value of it, can visualize a better future, and can see a personal cost/benefit trade-off that makes the journey worthwhile. Resistance to change is human nature. Change violates the equilibrium and status quo. Individuals and organizations are invested both financially and emotionally in the status quo. It provides a sense of identity and belonging. Influencing people to “leave home” and venture into the unknown requires care, a support system, and compassion. The journey is difficult and loaded with unseen obstacles.

The key to successful change lies in creating conditions where emotions are tied to focus, thus creating engagement. Ask yourself:

  • How do I personally feel about change?
  • Can my colleagues articulate the vision in their own language, in their own personal context?
  • Is the value of change clear and does it feel within reach?
  • Am I using more than rational explanations to describe the future? Am I tapping into how the new world will feel?
  • Have I created a support system that my colleagues can leverage to air their concerns and issues in an open and safe environment?
  • Am I championing those who take the leap?
  • Am I helping those who fail to try again, with compassion?
  • Am I providing “air cover” for those that venture out into the unknown?
  • Am I filtering the noise and turbulence so people can focus?

Change is hard. Think about the rational argument of more exercise and better eating habits to lose weight. We know it’s the best way to shed unwanted pounds. But without focus, emotional engagement, and a support system, change can fail.

Do You Really Want to Motivate Your Employees?

Well then, watch this! It turns Command & Control on its head and makes you think deeply about real motivations. If you are treating your employees as “resources”, interchangeable parts in a big machine, you’re destined to motivate only the most unskilled labour. This is an eye-opener! Motivating employees “the right way” leads to innovation, deep learning, engagement, and a cultural change in your business.

Great Books on Culture, Agile, LEAN and Organizational Transformation

Over the past years I have collected some excellent books on Organizational Change, Culture, LEAN and Agile. Here is some of my reading list. It’s by no means exhaustive, but a good start. I’ll be adding more books soon.  Click on each list item for more information.

Deep learning and application of knowledge is the only way to truly transform yourself and your organization.


Organizational Change and Business Culture: