TBM 27/52: When Is Change More Likely?
When I’ve noticed actual change happen, it is most often accompanied by:
New collaboration patterns
New power dynamics
Exposure to new insights and sources of information
A deliberate shift in priorities (say no to X)
A meaningful shift in how people spend their time and energy
New team structures
What gets celebrated and what gets punished (explicitly or tacitly)
New drivers. New areas of flexibility
Meaningful change in dependencies and constraints
New and altered habits
“Incentives” (though this gets routinely misunderstood)
Acquiring new skills through practice and repetition
This list is probably not very exciting or interesting. “It makes sense.”
But consider how often people try to improve things in your company without the slightest chance of any of those things happening. There’s no chance of shifting behavior. It is all surface level.
Sure, there are a lot of meetings, a lot of listening, and a lot of talk. Managers and leaders go away and brainstorm about how to make a dent in the problem. Maybe there’s a New Process and a New Plan, and people dutifully go through the new motions.
But let’s be honest, if I asked you “given this information, would you bet $1,000 of your own money on X actually making a difference,” the answer would probably be no. Especially if you are more experienced, and have seen these types of things fall flat over and over.
But say you learned that management had decided to 1) restructure teams to be better aligned with the strategy, 2) cancel popular (but underperforming) projects, 3) time-box time for debt work-down, 4) let go of a “high performer” who was toxic, 5) change the team’s KPIs to be more coherent with the strategy, and 6) increase the budget for overworked teams…would you risk the money? Maybe not, but my guess is that you would give the latter approach better odds.
Why? I think humans intuitively understand that lasting change requires something more structural and decisive. Maybe we have an internal sense of Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System (Donella Meadows).
PLACES TO INTERVENE IN A SYSTEM
(in increasing order of effectiveness)
12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
3. The goals of the system.
2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
1. The power to transcend paradigms.
I’m not suggesting all experiments need to be BIG. I always recommend safe experiments. And I’m definitely not saying you just need to do something (e.g. “just get the right people”).
Rather that in most corporate settings there is a lot of change theater that is highly disruptive, but ultimately doesn’t really have a good shot of meaningfully changing behavior. New words. New process hoops. New proclamations. But without a shift in how people behave (leaders especially), and a shift in the forces shaping/governing the system, you’re just going to slip back into the same mess.