Will That Work Here? Context is Critical
We’ve all been guilty of this one. You hear a great TED talk, you read an inspiring book or you talk with a colleague in another company. You learn about a fantastic culture or process or mindset that excites you. As a leader in your organization you share your enthusiasm with your team and insist that this New Thing is exactly what the company needs. Nods all around, everyone catches the fever and you are tasked with making it happen.
You gather some allies around you to join the cause and you are all convinced that the New Thing will bring the same results to your company that you read about in the Harvard Business Review. So far so good. Right?
As you initiate the change process things don’t go as expected. It’s not just the inevitable resistance anytime a New Thing comes along. It’s that you have cut and pasted the template onto your organization without considering your unique environment. The context matters a great deal and needs to be the first step in the discussion.
How large is your organization? What resources are available; time, money, people? What is your unique mission or service or product? What is the history? Where does your CEO stand? What will get disrupted or reprioritized? Is the staff co-located or dispersed? And so on. However great New Thing is, it must be translated for your context.
And that is the guidance that is usually missing from these great formulas. They never state that step one is to ask: Will this work here?
Twice in the last month I encountered organizations that had discovered the Holy Grail of deeply psychological assessments and personal and intense transformation assistance for senior leaders. Hey, I’m a psychologist by training. I love this shit. But I kept asking the leaders, “How is this being received?” It was all rosy until I kept pressing. “Well, we are getting some push back. The leaders keep canceling their counseling sessions and the coaches claim that the leaders aren’t willing to dig deep.” Then I asked, “Is your culture one where there is much talk about people and development and courage and self awareness? Is talking about human behavior or listening skills or making space for all voices the norm?” In both cases the leaders told me that there is some lip service but very few leadership or culture behaviors to back that up.
Okay, so maybe this initiative is the beginning of a major shift and the leaders are going first. Great. But maybe they jumped into the deep end rather than wading into the pond. Maybe the New Thing is exactly what the company needs but the template doesn’t fit the organization. To get a team of leaders who avoid psychological depth to jump in with both feet out of the gate is completely unrealistic. And it could backfire.
I’ve seen this so many times that I have a standard line. You are trying to build a Cadillac when a VW Beetle will do just fine.
Think of all the New Things as fantastic stimuli rather than strict formulas. To figure out how New Thing could work in your context have some lively conversations with leaders and key people.
- Distill the essence of the New Thing. Describe it in a few sentences. Don’t go into the how. Stick with the what.
- Imagine the value of New Thing in your organization. How will it improve the culture or the productivity or the services or the customer experience? Ground the concept in your context and what is needed at this moment in time.
- Evaluate the methodology. Is it more complex than you need? Does it leave something out that is important to your company? Does it address implementation challenges? What is the simplest way to get the bang for your buck?
- Define New Thing in terms that make sense to your staff. Take it out of the textbook and put it into their reality. Of course they want to experience success similar to Facebook but you are an accounting firm. How can “speed and customization” fit into a regulatory business? If you haven’t grabbed the essence and sorted out how it would look in your context, no one will buy it.
- Size the effort and opportunity properly. Executives have a habit of underestimating the churn each New Thing creates. There are times when a major overhaul is appropriate but often smaller changes can create staff willingness and big wins. Each success builds satisfaction and organizational muscles for continuous changes.
- Create your own hybrid. Just because the TED presenter said you must do all ten of these things to get the payoff doesn’t mean that will work in your company. If you have taken the steps above, had robust discussions and still feel very excited about the essence of New Thing then create your own roadmap. Add, subtract or modify how to get from here to there.
We have all experienced the difficulties of implementing change either as leaders or staff. And we all know that many of these efforts never fully realize the theory of the case. And that leads to staff reluctance to keep engaging in New Things. I believe it is because we are always aiming for the Cadillacs. Processes are over-engineered, initiatives are too grandiose and there has been little thought given to the context. When leaders hear “that will never work here” that is nails on a chalkboard. But maybe there is some overlooked wisdom.
Here’s another way to think about this. I love to cook. I read cookbooks, go to cooking classes, watch cooking shows and try new foods every place I go. My head is filled with great ideas and New Things. I print out the recipe and then go through a check list. The seasonings are amazing. But the family doesn’t like chick peas. And this is too many carbs for our life style. I’d rather use chicken than beef. What if I added more veggies? I can’t use that much sugar. In short, I’m taking the essence of something that sounds so yummy and modifying it for my family’s specific needs and preferences. I will still try New Thing and chances are it won’t be perfect the first time through. The family will chime in with “more this and less that”, I will try it again and it might just make the list of Most Favorite New Thing.
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