Having spent most of my career helping organizations transform, I’ve come across a somewhat amusing truth: Everyone is interested in transformation until it becomes painful for them. This is likely the reason we have books, teams, and entire companies dedicated to “change management,” and also the likely culprit for half-truths like “people naturally fear change.”
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Transformation by its very nature disrupts the status quo, and most organizations have leaders and employees who are explicitly tasked with maintaining the status quo, making transformation something that they’re actively tasked with avoiding. As technology leaders, we’re often tasked with sparking organizational transformations that might be as simple as transitioning people to using a new technology, to significantly more complex objectives like wholesale digital transformations of an organization. On either extreme, and across the spectrum in between, perhaps the single most important indicator of success is your ability to deal with entrenched interests. Here are three techniques that will help.
1. Appeal to rational self-interests
Most people resist change not because they are curmudgeons, nefarious, or organizational rabble-rousers, but rather because they don’t see change advancing their self-interests. Rather than attempting to bludgeon them into submission, a difficult task even for chief executives, try identifying how the change you’re selling might appeal to their individual interests. Perhaps your transformative effort allows them to gain political advantage or show leadership among their peers, or perhaps adopting your transformation early allows them to shape its future direction rather than being carried along later. While it might seem like high-minded talk about organizational metrics or the external market will have more sway than seemingly petty areas like organizational clout, for most leaders the more individualized and closer to home you can make your appeal, the more likely your chances of individual buy-in.
2. Change the rules of the game
As mentioned, most resistance to transformative change occurs because individuals are actively tasked with maintaining the status quo. This comes in the form of how individuals and teams are evaluated and compensated. Most people will attempt to perform in the manner that they believe will maximize their job satisfaction and compensation, tenets that are obvious to anyone who has spent time with HR. No matter how much a person might believe in transformation, if it’s not in their financial interests or it will negatively affect their career, they’ll resolutely ignore or resist what you’re offering.
If an appeal to their rational self-interests fails, an effective but slightly more difficult option is to change the rules of the game. A change in how a team is evaluated or compensated is an excellent way to affect behavior and a tool that’s regularly used to drive adoption of change. This technique can have unintended consequences, however, and will likely require broad organizational support and implementation assistance from HR. However, if you need to change a significant number of hearts and minds quickly, modifying the rules of the game is a highly effective way to do it.
3. Go around the entrenched interests
The most conceptually easy, yet organizationally difficult technique is to go around the entrenched interests. This can be accomplished a number of ways, ranging from launching your transformational campaign in secret and waiting to reveal it once it has enough organizational support to override any entrenched interests, to getting an executive ally that “blows up” any resistance in the organization based on his or her superior rank. Nearly all of these techniques require strong organizational support, especially in an organization that prides itself on consensus-driven decision-making.
As this technique can be the most dramatic and requires the strongest level of support from the top of the organization, it’s best reserved for truly transformational efforts when the entrenched interests are at the top of the organization. While there’s less political risk going around entrenched interests lower in the organization, you do risk creating the impression that a change is being forced upon the organization, and thus something of which to be suspicious. In most cases, consider this technique one of last resort, or reserved for efforts that are so transformational, they require entirely different rules of the road lest they’re quashed in their infancy.
While this may seem unusual or even Machiavellian, most organizations deploy this technique in some capacity. Witness the creation of “innovation teams” that might even have completely separate facilities, far from corporate headquarters, in an effort to avoid the entrenched interests of the organization.
Transformation can be difficult, but remember that it’s not due to any flaws of human nature beyond the fact that most organizational roles exist primarily to maintain their entrenched interests. Disrupt those interests, and your efforts become exponentially easier.