Innovation, Organizational Culture

How to Eliminate the Obstacles in the Way of your Change Initiatives

From New Year’s resolutions to strategic plans and dreams for dramatic turnarounds, we are all drawn to the promise of re-making ourselves οr companies and starting over. The speed and unpredictability of the market has now rendered the continuous reinvention of an organization a necessity. So have we become more resilient? More capable of swift adaptations to market and customer needs? The ideas of “change,” “transformation,” “innovation” or “disruption have certainly entered our vocabulary, but let’s get serious! How many true organizational transformations— not just additions and product innovations—have we witnessed? Few if any! Leadership expert John Kotter tries to shed light on the reasons why so many transformation efforts fail by identifying 8 errors that doomed transformation efforts in 100 companies he studied. For example: Not Establishing a Great Enough Sense of Urgency I once witnessed a mugging from the window of a friend’s house on Capitol Hill. Seconds after a woman’s purse had been snatched, tens of concerned neighbors materialized on the previously empty street–calling 911, comforting the victim and offering what help they could. These usually self-absorbed neighbors did not need persuasion to come out of their houses and morph into a community of comfort. The urgency of the situation provided the purpose and motivation needed. The same dynamics of motivation exist in the business world. “Sometimes,” Kotter says “executives underestimate how hard it can be to drive people out of their comfort zones.”  Few leaders understand that it takes a similar experience of authentic urgency to catapult people out of the passive, business-as-usual habits and mindset. Not Creating a Powerful Enough Guiding Coalition Most associations and companies in my experience somehow believe that once they create a perfect plan for change, it will automatically translate into implementation.  Plans, however, do not materialize without people.  Kotter talks about the key role of strategic coalitions to move concepts into action. Mind you, this does not mean assembling large committees of “representatives” of all groups to avoid offending important stakeholders. We are talking about identifying and bringing together potential change agents who will serve as champions and co-developers of the new vision.  Strategic alliances involve drawing together the right people and expanding engagement from the core out. “Major renewal programs,” Kotter says, “often start with just one or two people. In cases of successful transformation efforts, the leadership coalition grows and grows over time.” Lacking a Vision What Kotter means by vision goes beyond the strategic objectives and numbers of typical strategic plans. He is referring to the visualization and articulation of what is possible; an ideal destination that provides shared purpose and motivation, and harnesses disparate pieces to the same direction.  “Without a sensible vision,” Kotter writes, “a transformation effort can easily dissolve into a list of confusing and incompatible projects that can take the organization in the wrong direction or nowhere at all.” Sound familiar? Not Removing Obstacles to the New Vision I call these obstacles self-imposed contributors to failure. It is shocking how many executives will invest in creating new programs and strategies but not mechanisms for their execution, for example:

    • Generating a new plan for developing intimate, partnership relationships with members yet leaving in place membership staff that are antagonistic to members and have no relationship skills
    • Promising a shift from standalone programs to integrated solutions without empowering staff with the authority they need to work across departments to put together comprehensive member solutions and manage portfolios of strategic relationships with members.
    • Announcing a new strategy of customer centricity but maintaining a siloed, bureaucratic structure that focuses staff on narrow functions, products and objectives rather that the customer as a whole person/organization
    • Demanding collaboration but rewarding staff for success in solitary endeavors such as production, efficiency or departmental performance
All these add up to a major gap in association culture and capability that makes substantial change impossible: the lack of long-term investment and development. While it is advisable to aim at a few quick results as demonstrations of a concept, change of culture and systems takes a very long time and is continuous. Member engagement and retention are the most egregious examples of short-term thinking. The Community Roundtable is a membership network of community managers. As in the case of other thriving membership organizations, the primary source of value for TheCR members is not programs and products but the community itself.  Unlike a purely social network, TheCR staff facilitates value-generating connections between members that would have been possible in their daily course of work life. According to TheCR community manager Hilary Boucher, it is these connections that make this organization unique:  “We are constantly helping members collide from different functions and industries. It is this collision that brings some of the best ideas. The most valuable way to engage is by building relationships between members of organizations and between members and the association or service provider.” TheCR’s greatest source of sustainable value and engagement is its ability to identify shared challenges with its members, and partner with them on solutions that benefit both parties. This type of community-based model, the most successful in member engagement that I encountered in my research, takes time and relentless development; capabilities most associations are not willing to cultivate and invest in. I have heard many membership organizations express the sincere desire to shift member relationships from tactical to strategic and engaging. They mostly fail because they expect engagement to stem directly from a new plan, policy, project and activity, rather than from continuing member development. For TheCR, as for successful membership organizations, recruiting a member is just the beginning. It is by developing these members from lower to increasingly higher tiers of engagement and value exchange that the full value of the relationship is realized.  “The truth is,” Boucher explains, “that it takes time to take a person from awareness to membership, from membership to partnership and advocacy. We realize that relationships take time to show ROI. Our strategy is to build a small base of relationships and cultivate and grow them upward.”  Unless the focus shifts from products to members, recruitment to retention, sales to engagement organizations cannot move beyond tactical, transactional membership models. (For more on TheCR and engagement from the outside-in, download for free the paper co-authored by Elizabeth Engel and myself). No significant, effective change can occur with an eye to presenting it to the next board meeting and rushing to “declare victory” so you can return to business as usual. It takes will for and commitment to long term development of people, culture and capabilities.