Several years ago I was consulting with a major international bank on the deployment of a global IT system. Coincidentally, the bank was also actively engaged in a company-wide cultural change program. Although I wasn’t involved directly in that effort I heard about it almost daily from my clients, who were senior directors in the bank’s IT group.
Unfortunately, what I heard wasn’t particularly positive; in fact, most of the comments were negative and highly emotional. My clients believed the new “vision and values” didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and more importantly saw them as being imposed unilaterally on the whole organization by the chairman’s office.
In fact, almost everyone I knew inside the bank referred to the change program as “Bob’s Vision” or “Bob’s values.” In short, no one other than Bob, the chairman and CEO of the bank, felt any ownership of the new vision or its accompanying values. The real tragedy was that Bob’s vision made logical sense from a rational business perspective, and the bank was in dire need of a major shakeup and redirection. Bob could see that but had been unable to persuade even his direct reports to support his initiative.
I don’t believe for a minute that it’s easy to introduce a dramatic change in any organization’s vision, and changing cultural values is an incredibly difficult task. However, the one thing I do know about leading cultural change is that it requires widespread and active participation, and lots of conversation along the way; if the employees at large don’t see a need for change, they are highly unlikely to support it.
For that reason alone I am a big believer in the value of widespread participation in almost any large-scale organizational change program. Yes, differing views of what’s needed can slow down the process and even derail it completely. But I’ve always felt that when people are actively involved in designing a change program they are far more likely to be supportive, and to accept it even when they disagree with its direction. And they may even have insights about what’s needed (which are usually quite different from what the leadership thinks and knows about the issues).
Senior management in another firm – a manufacturing company – hired an industrial engineering firm to improve productivity in the factory operations. The engineers conducted a thorough study of the assembly line and made a series of recommendations for rearranging the production equipment to simplify and rationalize the factory floor layout.
After senior management endorsed the recommended changes the engineering firm came into the factory over a weekend and implemented the new design. On Monday morning when the workers returned to the factory they almost immediately walked out on a wildcat strike.
What happened? In their quest for productivity the engineers had not only rearranged the equipment, but they had also cleaned up the factory floor and threw out all the handmade jigs and special tools the workers had made on their own to help themselves be more efficient. Without those tools – which the industrial engineers had not even realized existed – the workers believed they would be unable to meet their job standards (which determined their pay).
The workers weren’t consulted; their intimate knowledge of the production process was not recognized, and the result of that top-down redesign was an almost complete disaster.
When a major change (like an organizational restructuring or a new product marketing campaign) is driven from the top, as it often must be, there is almost always room for staff to participate in defining tactical details. And ignoring the staff’s knowledge, and the emotions that are inevitably involved in any large-scale change, almost guarantees trouble.
However, encouraging widespread participation also typically slows down the implementation; it simply takes more time to get everyone involved. How do you get everyone in on the action and still get action?
One of the most intriguing responses to that question that I’ve come across involves using social media technology to create massive extended conversations. Over the last decade several large multinational organizations have reached out to thousands of employees (and non-employees too) to engage them in solving problems, identifying new product opportunities, and even creating new business ventures.
It’s an exciting use of technology, and in several instances has resulted in millions of dollars of new revenue. In brief, these “organizational jams” solicit ideas from thousands of employees, generate multiple discussion threads, and enable the jamming leaders to tap into the innate talent and knowledge that those employees bring to work every day – but that hardly ever gets a hearing.
Next week I’ll describe several specific examples of how these jams work, and what kinds of results they produce. It’s one of the most exciting and promising uses of social media and global electronic communications out there (even more useful than Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter!)
Contact me for a free consultation about how you can orchestrate creative corporate conversations that get the right people in on the action – and still produce action.