Where We Are Today
Computers are stunningly complex and intricate devices. Decades ago, a computer filled an entire building. It was a baroque instrument, replete with dials, portholes, and cranks. Today, computers are minuscule yet possess mind-boggling processing capabilities. Our iDevices and Androids are infinitely more complex than last century’s science fiction writers could begin to come up with. Yet every one of us is born with something even more complicated and intricate. Something scientists can devote their lives to studying and still only understand a fraction of their capabilities. I speak, of course, of human brains.
It should logically follow that organizations, which are systems of many human brains operating in parallel, would be multiplicatively more complex. The digital circuitry grafted into our hands and at our desks simply compound the already dizzying dynamics of the modern consumer software company, enterprise, or startup. Homo application-us is an order of magnitude more fiendishly clever than its ancestor homo appliance-ium.
From Brains to Businesses
We know that human organizations are complex; they are prone to many kinds of dysfunction, innocent and malevolent; and they tend toward the chaotic. We should also observe that when these organizations undertake directed, focused change, as they often do, modeling their state and drawing meaningful conclusions becomes perilously more difficult. In other words, change is hard and messy, and if anyone tells you they have all the answers, they are making it up. Organizational change and management-by-objectives are an art, not a science, no matter how granular one’s OKRs or up-to-date their Gantt charts.
Anyone who has been through a reorganization or a major pivot understands the complexity of these initiatives. Some may think that this path is avoidable, overprescribed, or too fraught to consider. Yet, change is inevitable. Stagnation and legacy mindsets may not, in all cases, sink a company, but certainly won’t help one adapt when the unavoidable does come. Eventually, companies are faced with difficult decisions. In responding to these exigencies, complexity is created. We innovate to stay ahead, move the dial, and respond to our customer’s and the market’s feedback. Digital transformation aims to simplify the path to change, accelerate it, and embrace the needed improvements to progress our core value. Yet, it often introduces more processes and at a faster clip than many are accustomed to.
The following are just a few simple techniques to smooth your approach in managing and directing organizational change. These techniques are not limited to managers and offer some small human nature life hacks to expand influence or partly explain why sometimes we don’t get through folks’ natural resistance to change or new ideas.
People are complex, companies more so, and changing companies exponentially more so. Such a ship cannot be steered with brute force or with a single, powerful thrust. One must ease in, slowly, confidently, but with some caution and subtlety. It is essential to remember that companies are not computers. They move on a different scale and change at different rates than their parts, whether software, hardware, sales calls, or strategic positions.
However, despite the overwhelming odds against success in changing the modern corporation, we have many advantages, powerful levers to steer the ship in small, meaningful ways. Management and leadership are skills that can be practiced and learned, and there are a few simple features of the human brain that lend themselves to interface with others. That’s why companies work and get things done: corporations are not people, but people build, operate, and maintain the corporation. We should remember what we know about how people work and consider them when operating our artifacts and systems.
Planting a Seed
The agricultural system is one people learned to build and operate long before computers or corporations. It has been said that since the Neolithic Revolution, “we are all Mesopotamians.” Any farmer will tell you that a successful farm operates on the simple principles of discipline, sustainability, hard work, and time management. No farmer would last many seasons without recognizing that small, incremental units of effort eventually yield their crop. Trees need many seasons in some instances to bear fruit, while other projects can expect a yield in the next season. Every farmer understands they need to plant a seed now to see the benefits later on. They can’t expect results overnight, and they need to tend to their plantings to ensure germination and eventual yield.
There’s a feature of human nature that comes into play here. It’s an adaptation that is core to human thought. The first time we see something, we may not understand it fully, yet when we repeat a 2nd or 3rd time, we learn more and build on our initial impressions and understanding. This is the principle behind most rote or reinforcement learning techniques. The same principle applies to managing organizational change. When trying to install a set of values, principles, or practices into a team, there’s a valuable tactic we can borrow. Plant a seed and gracefully, gingerly, water it, tend to it and watch it bloom, grow, and flower.
Planting a seed means it’s ok to drop knowledge politely, even if it isn’t all absorbed right away. Planting a seed is about that moment, much later on, when your client, mentee, or colleague has that epiphany, that moment of, “Oh, now I understand what that thing, which I saw or heard much earlier, meant.” Your recipient has received the seed, and it has begun to bloom in their understanding. It has become familiar and even perhaps friendly. Learning is the process of continuous feedback and recontextualization into a greater whole. The whole needs inputs to come incrementally to reintegrate with the system. You have to plant a seed, or you can’t see a yield. You need patience, persistence, and the right size and shape of a process to make it into a fertile one.
Tell ‘Em What You’re Going to Tell ‘Em, Tell ‘Em, Then Tell ‘Em What You Told ‘Em
A simple methodology to plant a seed, which comes from the advice given to trial lawyers and essayists, is to foreshadow and to call back. If there’s something you want to tell, teach, change, or engage with, you can simply let your team know that you have something you want to impart to them. From there, you can see if they are ready to obtain said nugget of wisdom, or if you should tell them later. You can tease this multiple times to start preparing your team for it mentally, continuing to check the temperature. You can selectively preview or leak this information over time until it isn’t surprising or secret at all. Then you can provide the lesson or the lecture in some degree of oral or written formality, with examples, check for understanding, engage with challenges or questions, and continue to follow up and repeat to reinforce this point when it is appropriate and in context. This can be layered or repeated as necessary, though remember to ensure it is not a broken record (see next section: take the hint).
Other times, depending on your role or relationship, you may want to be less explicit about this. Sometimes the best engagement and reinforcement happens in an informal setting and amongst peers. It is important to be patient, give time, and provide trust and continuous positive feedback throughout the process. If your feedback or lesson is significant in scope, in criticality, or sensitive based on time or history, it is important to consider the delicate nature of the situation. Sometimes in these cases, one might prefer to slide in rather than signaling explicitly. These seeds can be buried to soften the blow and make a bitter pill swallowed more easily, with some sweetness. But remember not to sugarcoat away the actual message you’re trying to convey.
Act Last, Read the Room, and Taste the Soup
When planting a seed, one must determine whether the action has created resistance or discomfort and determine whether, when, and how to address it. Engineering Manager Michael Lopp has several thoughts on this subject. He advises us to “read the room” and judge the reaction before offering additional thoughts. Sometimes debate is healthy; other times, it should go offline or to the proverbial “parking lot.” Take a hint: remember to be self-aware, judge how you are perceived, and solicit or request feedback as needed to clarify one’s self-consciousness.
“Acting last” means that, for leaders and consultants, our words and actions have greater weight, and we must make sure to give others a chance to speak and be heard before weighing in. “Tasting the soup” means that we should respect and trust our teams, provide them with space and empower them to be creative, yet ask the questions to gauge whether they are proceeding along a path toward the vision and objectives.
A Final Note
Despite all of the advances throughout our industry, the marriage of technology and business is still in its infancy. The one thing we can count on is that it will continue to change and evolve. I hope that with a few of these techniques, surviving and thriving in the sometimes chaotic world of business can be a little more manageable and maybe even impactful.
Special Thanks to Trace Wax, Ross Hale, Janet Ludevig, Eric Fader, and Eileen Blancas.