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Living Through Transformation

To those of you who are living through transformations, and especially those who are leading them, here are some thoughts directly to you. Real transformation means that we change the rules of how we engage, how we make decisions, and how we do business. Transformation means seeing the world through a different set of lenses and using a different set of responses than we have used before. It is a culture change. Anyone who has spent immersion time in another culture knows the feeling of uncertainty associated with not really understanding all of the unspoken rules and customs that others are exhibiting naturally.

I can remember the feelings of outright desperation just in trying to do the most basic tasks of life, like get food, or return safely to my room. I also remember the feeling of stepping back into my own culture, and how I suddenly felt like I entered warp speed of being able to get things done, as I deeply understood how my culture worked. It was like a huge sigh of relief. Times like that make it easy to see the transformation at play. However, leading a organizational transformation is the opposite side of that scenario. It requires that you change the rules of culture in place, within the same environment where they were learned and perfected, and across all of the people. That is a very different story.

The leader of transformation is now the odd one out, even though they are very successful and powerful in their position. It can be lonely and frustration at times. Creating a new culture is an experiment in which you only have an idea of what your desired state is like. Because of this, there is a lot of uncertainty in how people actually behave. You see, culture is a shared social construct. It is a complicated set of interactions that exist in the subconscious mind of each of us. In fact, it is often so deeply buried that people don't even know they are using it. Because of that, the only way that we can understand culture is to literally pull it up and work with it though dialogues. These can be in person (best) or virtual, as long as people actually engage the underlying reasons that drive their behaviors.

So here are some things to remember that may make it easier.

 

* Even the people who lead a transformation only have a partial idea of what the end result will look like. This can be a real issue for some, as many people want certainty and definitive answers.

* In order to make the change fully, you have to disrupt the old patterns of thinking. In learning theory, these are called "deconstructive events". The brain is amazingly efficient, and will continue to deliver the old culture until it is rewired to the new.

* The hardest group to work with in transformation (and often the biggest) are those who really support the notion, believe they are working in alignment, and all the while do not get what the change really means. They often look at it and say "Right! Great! Love it! Been doing it for years! We'll just keep doing what we've been doing!"

* Because of these issues, here are some things you can do to live through this.

* Stay open and curious about how the desired state will look.

* Spend time in conversation with people who are really open to the ideas of the change and are willing to explore and offer different perspectives. These people are often outside of the system you are trying to change.

* Be simple and sparing in defining new behaviors and metrics for you transformation. Think of them as experiments that help to define the new system. They will become more clear as the change emerges.

* Take it one day at a time and trust the process of collective learning. Now, one more specific message. Some people are placed abruptly in the role of leading a transformation before they have had an opportunity to have any of the experience of deeply understanding the cultural intent. These people have to simultaneously learn, plan, and act. What a challenge!

The balance in that role is having enough structure to keep movement towards the desired state and enough openness to keep learning and developing. It is in diligently insisting that the organization learns what the change means and is enabled to live it out. It is very easy for organizations to pass off the work of change to one person. Unfortunately, that is a recipe for failure. A person leading transformation is responsible to the organization for keeping the conversation and the process of change going. These leaders stand for the process, and ensure that the organization delivers.

Transformation takes consistent intents and focused energy. To those leading, it can seem isolating and at times futile. The last suggestion I have for you today is to remember to notice the small things that happen, and ensure that they feel like the big victories that they really are. Stay focused on the goal, stay optimistic, and you will get there. If you'd like more ideas, feel free to give me a call.

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