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Three transformation questions they didn’t teach me in business school

There’s a dirty little secret in the land of transformation.

While all of us in the trade talk a good game about mindset change, behavioral design and psychological safety, reality is that many change programs aren’t really about transformation. They’re about compliance.

A small group of people decides on a new direction or initiative, and in their heart, they just want the rest of the organization to do as they’re told and ideally think like them. But as in modern day management, these statements are politically incorrect, we come up with the managerial newspeak to make everyone feel good.

To be fair, there are corporate situations where compliance IS the smartest course of action.

If you’re on a clock or facing a crisis, it’s often the only way to go. As long as you remember that any change you force will only go so far. People will nod, but only because this is good for personal survival, Christmas bonuses and social acceptance. They may even genuinely try to be supportive, as this makes them feel smart or part of the new social order. But longer term, they will revert to the beliefs and behaviors that have helped them earlier in their career and life. It’s not malicious, it’s just human. KPIs and pretty posters can only push water uphill for so long.

But for lasting transformation, we need to aim higher

We need to create an environment where the people we address WANT the strategy and change that is proposed. Not because we tell them to, but because they think it’s a good idea. Because the new reality is something that makes them feel better about themselves, their situation and those they care about.

This requires some new transformation practices

Below, I’ll phrase three of them as questions I ask myself, each accompanied by a suggested action.

QUESTION 1: Do I know the heart of my people? Do I know my own?

Every successful transformational leader in history tapped into something their people cared about. Alexander the Great, Nelson Mandela, even the unsavory Adolf Hitler, brought a message that resonated with those that were asked to follow them.

This makes it even more remarkable that so many transformation programs are created in isolation from those that need to make them happen. Senior executives or transformation teams lock themselves away to theorize about a potential future, which they expect other employees to execute. How the latter will feel about this hardly ever comes up in conversation. Unless the topic is ‘overcoming the resistance to change’.

Instead of following Simon Sinek’s advice of starting with WHY, I therefore prefer the recommendation of Jen Rice and Start with WHO. Even before I work on a purpose, strategy, or transformation logic, I want to understand how the people in the business feel about the work they do? What do they hope? Fear? Dream of? What do they need beyond a paycheck? What do they consider right and wrong?

And how their worldview contrasts with my own? Because let’s be blunt, I’m a white, educated, privileged, middle-aged cis-male. So what do I know of the world?

Suggested action: People will only support transformations that align with their own values and emotional needs. So take these into account before you go on that corporate off-site. It will make whatever you propose fall on much more fertile ground.

QUESTION 2: Where are the people that already live the future?

Transformations never follow a linear curve. Just like anything in nature, they start as a small anomaly somewhere in a system. If nurtured, this anomaly gradually grows until it becomes the dominant way of working.

This means that at the start of a transformation program, there is no sense in trying to get everyone on the bus. So instead, I try to identify people in the organization that are already living the new direction. Or that are at least ready to adopt it with little convincing. Not because I tell them to, but because it feels natural to them.

This is the group to start with and nurture. To provide with resources to do more of what they already want to do and publicly praise for their efforts and the risks they take. This will automatically attract those who are a bit more hesitant to declare themselves. Supporting this new group will again grow the momentum until you have a transformative movement which eventually starts pulling itself.

Suggested action: Rather than ‘force change’, start the transformation with the people who are already open to change, or live it. It makes your life easier and turns the transformation into a positive and organic experience rather than something to be endured. If you nurture the change, you’ll see it grow at an exponential rate (warning: most exponential curves are flat at the start, so be patient!).

QUESTION 3: How can I make them feel my message?

I like words. And I flatter myself by saying that I’m great at PowerPoint. But a ton of science shows that for the brains of those that listen, they’re just hot air. Meaningless sounds that can only be interpreted within a frame of perception that already exists.

If I want to have a chance at transformation, I need to offer my target audience experiences that let them discover for themselves the new perspective/strategy/reality I propose.

My friends at Punchdrunk Enrichment do this brilliantly (see the video above). To get children excited about reading books and studying history, they take them on an adventures into hidden libraries and magical villages. In the process transforming the teaching styles of quite a few teachers as well.

So even when corporate thinking forces me into 20 minute high impact PowerPoint presentations or 2 hour workshops, I always remind myself of their limited impact. And where possible, I lobby for the time and resources to introduce experiential elements.

Suggested action: While you may not get rid of PowerPoint, think about how you can let your people experience the benefits of what you want to achieve in terms they care about. Make them feel the transformation in ways their brain understands and drives action.

I realise that these three questions may required you to step (far) out of your comfort zone. In my own case, I had to reframe quite a bit of the training I had learned in strategy class. But if you’re asking it of your audience, is it unfair to ask it of yourself?

Want to know more?

Alain Thys, the author of this post, gives keynotes and workshops on this topic.

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