Sidestep formal structures for effective change

Many companies like to think they understand all about business processes and change management. They spend fortunes on consultancy, design, structures, processes, training, roll out and management, then wonder why they don't get the results they expected. So they have another go…

Well, maybe things aren't quite that bad, but I bet you can think of plenty of examples of 'change initiatives' that just don't get the buy-in of the grass-roots people who are supposed to implement them. Part of the problem is that they quite often try to appeal to reason. They use PowerPoints with lots of bullet points to try to hook the intellect and forget the emotional dimension. Maybe they think there's no room for emotion in their business.

But why do people go to work generally? Especially so-called 'white collar' workers. It's for the satisfaction of doing a job well and for recognition and this doesn't just mean in the pay packet. Not a good motivator at the best of times.

Part of the problem is that we've become accustomed to treating business as a mechanistic process. And a predictable one at that. Do this, force it through these process pipes, and consistent results will pop out the other end. In truth, many of the most important business processes are chaotic. Think of sales and marketing, for example. Untidy real life gets in the way. Reality has little to do with the org chart and formal processes and much more to do with endless workarounds and informal communications.

Yes, of course some processes or workflows do what they're supposed to. Regulations have to be followed and suchlike. But these are a bit like the unconscious processes of the human body. We can walk down the street while we pump blood, breathe and digest our food. But our attention is on the interesting conversation with the person walking with us.

So it is in business, the interesting stuff and the stuff that is likely to do the business most good in the future is probably the stuff that lies outside the fundamental formal systems of the organisation.

Leandro Herrero has written a most interesting book on how organisations can bring about change by acknowledging that all is not what it seems in the body corporate. He alights on the fact that, alongside the 'organigramme', lives a communication network in which all employees and business partners participate to a greater or lesser degree. Some people are highly connected, others only slightly. These are the strong ties and weak ties beloved of social network analysts. His book is called Viral Change.

It investigates how these social networks can be put to work to bring about transformational change in double quick time – months rather than years – and without any of the complexity of traditional change programmes. Apart from the acknowledgement and exploitation of social networks, the book is heavy on behavioural psychology. In fact, for anyone interested, it contains a 16-page PhD psychology course, which is then summarised in a couple of pages at the end of the chapter.

As someone who's spent several years deep in the social network world and a further thirty plus years as a behavioural psychology advocate, the book resonated rather well with me. But the point that Herrero makes is that behaviour can be observed. It is unequivocal. Bring about behavioural change and the culture will change as a consequence. And you don't need more than five defined behaviour changes to bring about massive transformation. The trick is, of course, in finding and defining those which are most appropriate.

Diving off slightly to one side for a second, why did the iPod catch on the way it did? Apart from it being a neat piece of kit, don't you think the white headphones and leads had something to do with it? People were curious, they enquired, they copied, it became a fashion. But Steve Jobs didn't directed this take up to the nth degree. Apple seeded opinion formers and influencers and let the network do the rest. So why should influence spread any differently in organisations?

Why not seed the movers and shakers – the people who are well connected and, therefore almost certainly respected too – with what needs to be achieved and let them start infecting their closest connections. Then as they and their behaviour change, others will notice and, if they respect or admire the folks who are adopting new ways, they will copy too. Especially if adoption is periodically recognised or reinforced, to use the vernacular. Before you know it, you have an epidemic on your hands and change has permeated. It becomes the norm.

Of course, this is a gross simplification of a 400-page book. But the book does strip away a lot of nonsense associated with traditional expensive and long-winded change management programmes. And, yes, the author is undoubtedly pushing the services of his company, The Chalfont Project. You won't agree with many of the things he suggests, but then you're probably not expected to. If he infects you with the fundamental principles, it's up to you to figure out how to make it work in your world.

The book is a useful catalyst to exploiting the power of social networking and behavioural psychology to accelerate needed change in organisations.

If you're happy to provide your details you can download a free eight page overview of the approach from Herrero's website.

Even if this piece has irritated you, I think it's worth a look. You never know what you might be missing.

12 thoughts on “Sidestep formal structures for effective change

  1. The problem and solution are much more simple.
    The problem is that executives believe they can order what they want to happen, that they can achieve their goals using a top-down command and control approach to managing people. But what they don’t know is that top-down by its nature demotivates and demoralizes employees making them treat their work similarly and making them highly resistant to change.
    The solution is to get rid of top-down and use bottom-up, an approach capable of unleashing the huge potential of employee creativity, innovation, productivity, motivation and commitment. Bottom-up fully satisfies employee needs to be heard and respected. Productivity will soar, the company will beat competitors easily, morale will be sky high and employees will eagerly embrace necessary changes.
    I know this because in managing people for over 30 years I began by using top-down, but eventually shifted to bottom-up and reaped the huge benefits it provided. In the process, I learned that people are actually four times more capable than we give them credit. Learn more by reading my articles.
    Best regards, Ben

  2. Hmm. A book plug. I guess I don’t blame you. I bet you don’t use bottom up on its own. I’m sure you lead, set direction etc. Even if you do it after consulting/listening and give people free rein to achieve agreed objectives.
    I’m sure you’ll tell me if I’m wrong.

  3. Hallelujah!
    David, this is one of the most profound pieces of common sense that I have seen for a long, long time.
    People, organisations and systems are complex interactions of behaviour, inconsistency and variety.
    We can only create effective information systems (and organizations) if we recognise the need for complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity.
    The IT-centric paradigm continues to condition too many people into a reductionist approach to every problem, this leads to unexpected cost and disappointment.
    The post-IT paradigm is imminent and will depend on thinking such as your posting.
    Thanks.

  4. Hey, Colin and Christian, good to hear from you both. Synchronicity indeed, Christian.
    Thanks for the comments about my post and, more importantly, about Leandro Herrero.
    By the way, I’m not sure about a ‘post IT’ world. It has its uses but, like formal organisational structures, it is a parallel world but a potentially supportive one, when people need it.

  5. Ok, but what if the person chosen to formulate this change is not the envy of all in his social network? You almost asking how to create a viral video. It becomes viral after the fact, you can’t set out to create one….

  6. Mike. I agree. If you’re talking about, let’s say, the boss of a company then he or she has huge problems which this isn’t going to solve.
    From that point forward, assuming he has the social network analysis (he can do it informally by ‘asking around’) then he will know who the high connectors are. Once infected, and they’ll only spread it if they are, then let it happen.
    I think if you want more subtle answers, read the book, the paper or contact Leandro Herrero directly.
    (Oh. And if you do, please share what you discover.)

  7. Not a book plug, David. Only an offer of proven knowledge.
    You wrote – “I bet you don’t use bottom up on its own. I’m sure you lead, set direction etc.”
    I have no idea what you mean by bottom up. For me, bottom up constitutes the most powerful leadership because it treats employees with great respect thus “leading” them to treat their work, their customers, each other and their bosses with great respect. Bottom-up treats them as if they are valuable to the organization and they do become valuable to the organization.
    Bottom-up does not mean that the boss is not in charge and fully responsible/accountable for outcomes. It only means that the boss does not misuse authority, but concentrates on helping employees to become self-directed and self-controlled since in that state they unleash their full potential of creativity, innovation, productivity, motivation, and commitment on their work.
    In bottom-up, the boss provides the highest quality support to employees so that they can excel in performing their work. That support includes discipline as well as training, tools, parts, direction, policies, procedures, information, etc. Bottom-up is not some sort of touchy feely approach to managing people.
    One of the boss’ most important responsibilities is to help employees use the highest standards of all common values in performing work, to offer alternatives to what is being done in order to improve or to generate discussions on how to improve. Continuous improvement has to be on everyone’s agenda.
    Top-down focuses on orders, directives, goals, targets, visions and the like. Bottom-up focuses on providing employees what they need to excel and on helping them to be self-directed.
    Hope this helps, Ben

  8. Ben, that is an excellent set of observations. Thank you.
    Reminds me of someone who said the power pyramid is inverted in good organisations. The leaders are servants of the employees or words to that effect.
    Thanks again. Sorry about the ‘book’ comment.

  9. No need to be sorry, David, about skepticism since without it we would all be lost.
    You bring up a good point about the pyramid being inverted and the leader being a servant.
    The truth is precisely that. If we carefully examine the responsibilities of the bosses and then the responsibilities of the employees, we find that bosses don’t produce saleable output, only employees do that. How good an organization is on a particular day is the sum of the outputs of its employees. The only useful function bosses produce is support for employees so that the employees can achieve excellence.
    So the reality is that the pyramid is inverted and the boss is serving employees, albeit very poorly in most cases. Bosses who act otherwise are their own worst enemies, certainly the worst enemies of their organization. We all must understand our role and play that role to the very best of our ability. Not understanding our role commits us to failure or at best mediocrity.
    Starting out as a boss, I even developed a spiel I handed out to employees telling them that they were there to support me in what I was trying to do. Real bunk, but then how would I know better at a very young age?
    The management/leadership gurus are grossly off the mark on this issue, thus making it very difficult on managers. But the approach to understanding used by gurus is flawed from the start since they use what managers/leaders do as their basis for understanding leadership. What they fail to analyze is what followers or what I prefer to call conformists are following or conforming to. Know that and you will know what leadership actually is.
    It took me years of managing people to finally realize that bit of wisdom. I note that Gallup has moved in the direction of examining employees rather than just managers in designing their advice.
    Best regards, Ben

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