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Traction speaks louder than words
Culture change is a complex contagion
“Nothing succeeds like success.” — Sir Arthur Helps
In an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world, organisations need to create future-fit cultures of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness in which sense making, decision making & action taking are ever more tightly coupled, rapidly and repeatedly iterated, deeply embedded and widely distributed throughout the organisation.
How do you get people in an organisation on board with such systemic change, not just accepting the need in theory, but actually adopting updated mindsets, attitudes, and behaviours in practice?
The word is not enough
The dominant legacy thinking about how to go about this is underpinned by the “Eight Step Model” of former Harvard Professor John Kotter, set out in his 1996 book “Leading Change”:
Establishing a sense of urgency
Creating a guiding coalition
Developing a Vision and Strategy
Communicating the change Vision
Empowering employees for broad-based action
Generating short-term wins
Consolidating gains and producing more change
Anchoring new approaches in the culture
I’ve previously described how attempts to “establish a sense of urgency” invariably trigger fears about “How will this affect me?” and “Will I survive?”.
These legitimate human concerns can’t be addressed adequately at the time the grand scheme is announced because no-one really knows how it will unfold in practice.
So, instead of people in the body of the organisation investing their time, effort, and attention in creating the future, most invest it in worrying about their future instead.
I’ve also written previouslyabout how this legacy approach to change perpetuates what is now a dangerously outdated notion of leadership, which Kotter articulated as follows:
“Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen.”
In this anachronistic perspective, leadership is a top-down practice performed by an elite few who define a vision and align and inspire others to make it happen.
The defining/aligning/inspiring is done by this elite — the “leaders”, and done to everyone else — the “followers”.
Shortly after Kotter’s book appeared, my former colleague Dr Peter Senge defined leadership differently — in a way that’s much more relevant for our increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world:
“Leadership is the capacity of a human community to shape its future”.
This future-fit perspective on leadership doesn’t segregate people into those who do it and those who have it done to them.
Instead of creating followers, this approach develops more leaders — or to be more precise, develops the organisation’s future-fit leadership capacity.
Kotter did eventually acknowledge this failing in his book’s 2012 update, noting in the preface: “more agility and change-friendly organisations” and “more leadership from more people, and not just top management” are increasingly vital.
So, if rousing rhetoric about grand visions and scintillating strategies fails to move the needle, what to do instead?
Traction speaks louder than words
When people see actual concrete evidence that positive things are happening in the way we do things round here they’re much more inspired and enthused to invest time, effort and energy in getting involved in co-creating the future culture.
In other words, nothing succeeds like success.
I saw this when I first got involved in helping clients create cultures of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness while working at one of the world’s leading open innovation labs.
It all began 35 years ago when Sven, a longstanding Swedish client of the lab said to me: “Geoff — we like working with your people more than with our own people. You couldn’t come and help our people behave more like your people, could you?”
That invitation launched the career path I’ve been on ever since.
Although I started out with some ideas about what we might do and where we might start, I’d never done consulting work explicitly focused on culture change before.
Sven was fully aware of this, so we agreed to look on my involvement as an experiment we’d keep under constant review, adjusting and iterating as we went along.
Since neither of knew what to realistically expect in terms of likely successes and failures, nor how sustainable any useful outcomes might be, we didn’t make a big song and dance about it.
We proceeded in a low-key way, Sven explaining that I worked at one of the world’s leading innovation labs and that he’d asked me to come along just to chat informally with people in and around a crucial project, to see if there were any potentially useful things we did at the lab that might be of interest to them.
It turned out that there were, and so we explored how they could adopt and adapt them to improve sense making, improve decision making, improve action taking — and improve how sense making, decision making, and action taking were joined up and iterated.
Although I didn't realise it at the time, this low-key approach turned out to be a crucial feature of successful transformational culture change, inherently avoiding the problems outlined above in “eight-step” thinking and action.
It was only several years later, after I’d worked with multiple clients around the world helping them recover from failed eight-step type efforts led by mainstream management consulting firms, that it became clear that one of the biggest mistakes anyone can make when seeking to significantly transform an organisation's culture is to make a big announcement that you’re seeking to significantly transform the organisation's culture.
As described above, rousing speeches to rally the troops invariably result instead in overt and/or covert resistance, inertia, and deeper entrenchment of the legacy culture.
Traction that backfires
Following that project with Sven’s organisation, over the next 30 years I worked with dozens of mostly large organisations throughout Europe, Asia, and the US, helping them with similar culture change efforts.
I was usually hired by a senior executive sponsor responsible for a business unit, functional area, or major project within the larger organisation, who realised that innovation, agility, and adaptiveness would be critical to future success.
My default starting point was to identify and enrol, alongside the sponsoring executive, one or more internal change agents/catalysts/instigators inspired by the prospect of participating in helping the organisation create a future-fit culture.
I would then coach, guide, and support these internal change agents in finding and focusing on the leverage for systemic change.
These initiatives typically achieved worthwhile culture change traction within the sponsoring executive’s purview.
But many years later I came to see how this is ultimately a flawed approach to achieving the systemic, organisation-wide culture change that organisations need if they’re to thrive in future.
I came to see that, ironically, the more successful these local cultural transformations were, the more they triggered powerful defences within the organisational immune system, preventing the change from spreading to other parts of the organisation.
So whilst enthusiastic and insightful senior executive champions could and can create conditions that enable future-fit cultures to emerge in their purview, these changes will ultimately fail so long as many of their peers remain content with maintaining the status quo.
And in large, established organisations, many senior executives are not only content with maintaining the status quo — they’re fully intent and committed to doing so.
And viewed from their perspective, why shouldn’t they be?
They've worked hard to get where they are, they're reaping the personal rewards of their success, and don’t see why they should give them up.
As far as they’re concerned, things are working just fine.
And if things ain’t broke, why fix them?
So, ironically, local success in gaining traction ultimately triggers similar adverse reactions to the words that are not enough described above.
For example, let’s say that Carol, a senior executive has created successful culture change in her area.
Her peers responsible for other parts of the organisation keep hearing about what a great job she’s done.
Is it so surprising if they worry that they might be expected to pull off something similar in their patch, but lack the knowhow and confidence to do so?
And even supposing that they could pull it off, would they actually want to, given the personal rewards they continue to reap by maintaining the status quo?
In summary, cultivating future-fit mindsets, attitudes, and behaviours in one part of an organisation typically triggers organisational immune system responses that stifle, smother, and strangle these “alien” emergent ways of being, seeing, thinking, and doing, ensuring they don’t spread and “infect” the rest of the organisation.
So, senior executives like Carol — the very ones with the chops to help their organisation create the culture it needs to thrive in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world — frequently give up and head off to pursue greener pastures elsewhere, leaving organisations that desperately need their capabilities behind…
Gaining distributed traction
So how do you avoid the joint pitfalls of words that fail to inspire action, and localised change that triggers systemic organisational immunity to change?
In other words, how can you gain systemic traction across multiple parts of an organisation, together, at the same time?
Here’s where important insights from recent research in social psychology can help, in the work of Professor Damon Centola, described in his 2021 book “Change – How to Make Big Things Happen”.
In his work, Centola revisits one of social science’s core themes — the strength of weak ties — and shows how it can be misleading when seeking culture change at scale.
Centola’s research confirms that simple contagions — ideas that resonate with the prevailing mindsets of a receiving individual, community, or network — can travel well over the narrow bridges provided by weak ties.
But the complex contagion of substantive cultural change propagates differently — via the wide bridges that embed social norms in a community or network.
I’ve outlined Centola’s work and it’s relevance to creating conditions for emergence in a previous article.
Put simply, it shows that new cultures do not emerge when people are exposed to new ideas unless multiple people within the individual’s relevant social network resonate with the change.
In Centola’s framing, multiple people create a wide bridge which is necessary if a cultural complex contagion is to propagate.
That’s why the simple contagion of words are not enough. They may sound plausible, even reasonable, but if they don’t stand up to testing against what relevant influential colleagues currently believe and accept, they won’t move the needle.
It’s also why successful culture change in one part of an organisation fails to propagate across relevant internal organisational boundaries — it encounters deeply entrenched legacy beliefs about the way we do things round here, heavily reinforced by multiple influential individuals, in the “receiving” part of the organisation.
This is why people who've adopted and operate from a 2D3D mindset are absolutely crucial to achieving distributed traction of future-fit cultural attitudes and behaviours across internal organisational boundaries.
Only individuals with well-developed 2D3D mindset muscles can maintain and sustain respect for the value inherent in the different perspectives of other people throughout the organisation.
The more 2D3D mindsets are cultivated throughout an organisation, the more traction is gained and the less risk there is of triggering organisational immune system responses that lead to rejection of the complex contagion of future-fit culture.
Put simply, change catalysts who aspire to play an effective role in creating future-fit cultures of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness must embody and exemplify 2D3D mindsets, attitudes, and behaviours.
Traction definitely speaks louder than words, but needs to be distributed by equipping and enabling change agents/catalysts/instigators across the organisation to embody and embed 2D3D mindsets in their spheres of influence.
This enables the propagation of future-fit attitudes and behaviours that stem from 2D3D mindsets, encouraging more people to adopt similar 2D3D mindsets, attitudes and behaviours themselves.
That’s why over the last ten years or so the emphasis in my professional work has progressively shifted away from consulting to senior executives, to increasingly focus on capacity building of committed change catalysts so they can achieve greater traction in their own professional activities.
Questions for reflection
How often have you witnessed attempts to change organisational culture based on variants of the Kotter eight-step change model fail to move the needle?
What fear-based reactions have you seen or experienced following announcements of grand visionary strategies?
Where have you seen early signs of local emergence of future-fit mindsets, attitudes, and behaviours snuffed out by organisational immunity to change?
How much and how effectively are you cultivating future-fit 2D3D mindsets in yourself and others?
Kotter’s Leading Change was seen as the definitive book on transformational change leadership when first published in 1996 (updated edition 2012).
See the previous article “Senior executives must give up their decision rights”.
Ibid Leading Change (2012) p28.
Peter Senge and I served together on the Global Leadership Team of the Society for Organisational Learning from 2009-2015. His definition of leadership as community capacity is in ‘The Dance of Change’ (1999 p16).
Ibid Leading Change (2012) preface page ‘ix’.
“Culture”, which people experience as the way we do things round here, is an emergent property of a human community, which emerges as ways of being, seeing, thinking, and doing become etsablished.
That career path is set out in my LinkedIn profile here. If you’d like to connect, just drop me a request mentioning this post.
Of course they don’t have to give them up. By creating a future-fit culture they enable themselves to achieve even greater success. But it often takes time for them to realise this.
The Strength of Weak Ties is a famous 1973 paper from Mark Granovetter of Johns Hopkins University