This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.
I live in a small town west of Boston. Halloween is a big deal here. It doesn’t matter which night of the week Halloween falls, that’s the night the kids are out trick or treating. Naturally, the kids prefer it when Halloween falls on a Friday or Saturday night so that they don’t have to worry about going to school the next day, but the idea of celebrating Halloween on the nearest Friday or Saturday night is anathema. Witches have more flight capability than the idea of moving Halloween. It just doesn’t happen.
My son, though, came up with a different approach: he asked me what would happen if there was a snow day on Halloween. Would that mean a full day of trick or treating?
“What are the odds of a snow day in October?” was my response.
I’ve always heard that it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature. The converse is apparently not true. In 2011, we got a Halloween snowstorm. Not only did schools close on Halloween, they closed for the next two days as well. So much for the odds.
But Mother Nature’s little treat quickly revealed itself as a trick: due to downed trees and power lines, Halloween was postponed, and ended up being the evening of a school day after all. Halloween moved and no one objected: when Mother Nature makes a change, it can be best described as, well, a force of nature.
A year later, we had Hurricane Sandy. Some towns kept Halloween on schedule, some moved it. The force of the story is very strong: Halloween is supposed to be on October 31st. Even though there was still storm damage, the cultural habits produced different results in neighboring town. The kids, of course, made out like bandits: they got to go trick-or-treating twice!
This is the problem most organizations face when it comes to implementing effective and lasting organizational change. So long as enough force is applied, the change will happen. As soon as the force is removed, people revert to their old behaviors. They might not even wait for the force to stop. Sometimes a crisis can force permanent change, as happened at IBM when Lou Gerstner took over. A crisis can also force the sort of permanent change that happened at DEC: they were acquired by Compaq. Waiting for a crisis to force a change to occur is a very risky way to approach organizational change.
In chapter one, we discussed the process of unfreezing a culture in order to make change possible. What we are going to look at now is how change affects the narrative of the organization and how to frame the changes in the context of the existing narrative. Not only does change reactivate all the issues we’ve already discussed, it introduces a whole new set of cocnerns that need to be addressed if you want people to become active agents of change instead of opponents of it. While these new questions can manifest in a variety of ways, the seven canonical versions are:
Let’s look at each of these questions individually.
What will this do to the organization?
In other words, “I have an image of the organization, based on the vision and the stories and my experiences here. What is going to happen to that organization? Will I still be proud to work for the new organization?”
Fundamentally, people base their perceptions of the organization on their experiences. The organization is as they have found it to be. The longer they’ve been there, the more deeply immersed they are in the culture of the organization. It’s become something solid, something predictable. Now that is all changing! Like living in California during the Loma Prieta earthquake, it’s very disconcerting to have the solid ground under your feet suddenly not feel quite so solid. For several weeks after the quake, whenever the cat jumped on the bed, I would awaken bolt upright. Don’t make change in your organization feel like that!
In constructing the story for why change needs to occur, we have to connect the existing values of the organization to the new values. It’s a sequel, not a completely new story. People need to be able to see that at the end the values of the organization and the underlying culture they are part of will still be there. They may be different, but they’ll be there. By connecting the dots, by telling the story of how the current values and vision are transforming into the new values and vision, people can feel comfortable with the change, rather than worried or anxious. Anxious people resist; comfortable people join in the process. Resistance is a sign that you’re going too fast.
If there are organizational values or processes that are going to disappear, again, connect that to the story. You’ll recall that in chapter one, we discussed the process for getting employees to convince themselves that change in necessary. In inviting people to talk about why the current situation isn’t working, include those things that are changing: “How is this process getting in the way?” “What are two or three better ways of getting this done?” Your goal is to have people telling you why the values or processes need to change or disappear, rather than you fighting to convince them.
In conducting serious organizational change, sometimes a few sacred cows need to become hamburger. The less sacred they are when that happens, the easier it is for everyone to swallow.