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A few insights on change

18 December

Reya is in the business of building healthy and productive communities. This often means we help our clients to facilitate change by focusing on things like building culture and behaviors, and aligning process and systems.

In the past 8 years, I have had the privilege of working with over a dozen companies that lead their respective industries. We’ve been through projects on culture transformation, mergers and acquisitions, employer brand building, employee engagement and communications, and other initiatives that have impacted thousands of employees. One similarity of those projects is it all involves some sort of change. Whether it is culture/behavior change, or ways of communications change, or even structural change, the lessons we’ve learned share this common theme.

In general, people are resistant to change, especially when they are comfortable with the current situation. However, companies that don’t change and adapt lose their competitive edge and struggle to engage their employees.

Most companies realize this and are proactive wit their desire to evolve. So what makes change program so hard? What is the best way to initiate a successful change? I’d like to use this post as an opportunity to reflect on this topic and share a few key insights from my observations over the last 8 years.


Lesson 1: Inspiring vision and shared values

Every company has a vision. The key problem here is whether the vision is both practical and inspiring. First do people understand what the vision means. Second do people feel inspired and excited by it and want to be part of it.

I have an example from a client. The company is in international express business. Instead of focusing on shipping and delivering, the leadership team came up with a vision of “connecting China to the rest of the world”. The shift here is to articulate not only what the company does, but why they do what they do,. With this shift, the vision reaches a deeper level, has broader meanings, and it is easier for employees to understand and feel inspired by. Perhaps most importantly of all, It also sets this company apart from competitors.

Starting with this vision, it was a lot easier to initiate change..

In addition to vision, having shared values is another critical element for a change project. One of the reasons that people feel uncomfortable about change is the uncertainty and unknown. Shared values enables people to behave in a certain way that is clear to everyone. People can draw from a shared understanding in the face of unknown situations. No matter the external environment or how big the change is, shared values provide a foundation for people to work and interact and realize the change together.


Lesson 2: Complex, not Complicated

Similar to Chinese medicine, we view change as a complex . The definition of complex to me is that all the parts of the system have organic connections to each other with each part having influence over the all other parts. Agents are not isolated or independent, but instead are linked and intra-dependent. So going back to the Chinese medicine, human body is a complex system and sometimes the reason of having a headache isn’t necessary that you have an issue with your head, but there is something wrong with your immune system.

This is different than complicated, which can be though of as a system that resembles a machine with many parts or steps that interact in predictable, mechanical way. Each part has a defined role that leads to clear outcomes. While complicated fits with how organizations used to be during say the industrial revolution, it doesn’t mesh with the modern organization. In today’s world companies are complex.

To help make sense of an organization’s complexity, we use our a framework LOOM (refer to the Elephant and Ride post) to guide the change process. When change is introduced to employees, it shouldn’t be a complicated message that includes hundreds of steps. Instead, a framework like LOOM helps  understand the interconnectedness of the change and distill what needs to happen to a clear set of actions.

A few insights on change

The best case that I’ve ever seen was a leader who used 3 building blocks to explain the change his company was facing. Each block represented an essential component of the change: understanding customers, building a healthy and engaging culture, and improving system & process effectiveness. Throughout the whole change process, no matter where he went, he talked about the complex and dynamic relationship between these 3 building blocks. He never explained the change through a complicated set of steps. All he needed were his three blocks.

Three years later, almost every employee remembers this culture change initiative by those 3 building blocks and still align themselves to those principles.


Lesson 3: Telling stories at all levels

Stories are powerful and vivid. We learned our first lessons through different stories. Stories are also emotional. They involve people and events in them. Using them to capture good practices during a change initiative is a great way to connect with employees. Story allow employees to visualize and articulate what’s going on around them in terms of good behaviors. Frontline employees can tell stories about how to serve customers and satisfy their needs; managers can use stories to encourage good teamwork and collaboration; leaders tell stories on their inspirations and the company’s successes. Storytelling is also a great way to capture positive emotions and to learn from mistakes.

A few insights on change

Some of our clients take storytelling so seriously that they make it a competency for promotion and a measure in their performance management systems. Everyone can tell stories if they are provided with the right context. Once employees get started, the power and momentum it creates is surprising.


Lesson 4: Measure and celebrate the success

Last but not least, the importance of being measurable and celebrating success together cannot be ignored. First, let’s talk about “measuring the immeasurable”. We look at organizations as having two sides: the visible, which includes things like strategy and processes and procedures, and the hidden, which includes culture and informal networks. Much of what we do at Reya is to help organizations understand this hidden side.

To do this, we use a set of tools called “Lantyrn” that shed light on what previously was hard for companies to see. When this can be measured and communicated, the outcomes can have a big impact on people’s minds and hearts. Measurable results can help employees to first see what needs to change and then see the outcomes of their efforts. (Traditionally, changes in something like culture is gut feeling that is hard to measure or describe). How rewarding it is to see thousands of employees adopt a shared vision and achieve an envisioned future that everyone contributed in achieving.

A few insights on change

Meanwhile, don’t let opportunities to celebrate accomplishment go to waste (no matter how small!). Celebrations don’t need to be grand award ceremonies, or big parties. It could simply be a thank you card, or a team gathering over coffee where employees can tell their personal stories related to the company improvements.

My favorite definition of culture is that it’s the “residue of success”. When good behaviors and actions are celebrated and encouraged, they become the culture of the organization – something far deeper than what you might find written in or on posters.

As I mentioned at the beginning, one of the reasons that people or companies don’t like to change is that it is unpredictable, you can’t manage it and people get uncomfortable with it. However, if you try to think of it from another perspective that any change is an opportunity to explore new possibilities, to unite people around a powerful vision, to achieve something greater together, and to celebrate success with measurable results, we can embrace the change and enjoy it.

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