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  • Writer's pictureChris Smith

Change with a big "C"

Change is hard’ were the first three words etched into the very first ChangeSmith website back in 2015. To paraphrase, Change is in fact our first name. The likes of Everett Rogers and Simon Sinek can plot people across the spectrum of the diffusion of innovation, but this doesn’t change the fact, even for the innovators and early adopters, that as creatures of habit, change gives people pause.

We have several clients who represent several stakeholders, and change seems to knock people off balance on the regular. At ChangeSmith, we have learned to begin change initiatives by defining the term - what will ‘change’ mean for us. You could be forgiving for wondering why that is even necessary, but it is… in fact, it is fundamental. It is curious to consider that we are sometimes contracted to do “change work” and arrive to find clients who aren’t sure precisely what we will do! This only serves to make change initiatives harder.

Stakeholders in today’s organizations seem to feel like they are being compelled to navigate change almost constantly. And that if navigating change really is a constant, they’re asking why they must always be preparing for and managing it. As change practitioners we know that organizations do have significant changes they must negotiate, and we also know that change muscles are among the least flexed, or at least effectively flexed, in muscular mechanics of running companies. If they seem to suggest there is a disconnect - they would be right.

I’d like to share a story about one of our clients - let’s protect the innocent and call them Org ABC. ABC cares a lot about their people and they are exceedingly generous not only with those people but also with initiatives relevant to people in their local communities. And yet, leadership discovered that too many of their people were having a ‘blah’ sort of experience. They were coming in, doing their jobs, and going home. Performance was also blah. People just seemed to be doing the minimum… mailing it in.

ABC hired ChangeSmith to help them create a more remarkable experience for people. We assessed cultural norms and engagement practices, interviewed a cross-section of people from across the organization, and offered a list of recommended changes. We consulted on the design and implementation of several of those changes. We engineered a regular employee newsletter to help people become more informed of corporate activities at the executive levels. We convened a group to ensure representation across stakeholder communities, and we documented values and norms. We even had those captured in eloquent designs by a local artist, hung them in prominent places throughout the office, and gifted a special keepsake to each employee. We ran workshops for middle managers to build skills to better engage people and more effectively and consistently carry messages to and from executives. And we also convened experts from across the organization to leverage their insights to improve processes and procedures, many of which had been rigid and in place for a long time, and were creating frustration for several of those who relied upon them. These were the right steps to have righted the ship - to have improved the people experience, but it didn’t work for one simple reason: Leadership always seemed willing to approve changes, but what they fundamentally seemed to resist was Change.

There is a significant difference between Change with a Big “C” and change with a little “c”, and not enough leaders recognize, manage, and communicate that difference. Organizations are changing stuff all the time. We change org charts, we change technology, we change processes, we change locations and facilities. We also change office furniture and coffee filters, and the shop from which we order Friday’s pizza. These are not Changes - these are changes. They will never fundamentally change the way an organization can think or behave. Speaking to these changes as if they were Changes is wasteful and potentially irresponsible. Leaders who don’t appreciate and don’t manage the difference between Change with a Big “C” and change with a little “c” run a high risk of creating change fatigue for both themselves and their people without ever actually exposing themselves to the real benefits of intentional, sustainable Change.

Change with a Big “C” is about sustained adoption of new mindsets and behaviors. Those mindsets and behaviors must be woven effectively through the culture, and they must be blessed and modeled by leadership for them to grow sustainably. If this alignment is not in place, your change initiative is preparing to fail.

Many organizations pursue business transformation initiatives that feature both Change and change. This makes sense in modern complex organizations. This is why it is so critical for leaders to cohesively communicate what the Change is and why it makes sense for people to adopt. This is what Simon Sinek is talking about when he guides his audience to Start with Why. Expert Organization Change Management practitioners are frankly wasted on change with a little “c”, and putting your people through the process in such a way might even make your organization less capable of navigating Change in the future.

In our story, Org ABC struggled to make real and sustainable Change because their mindsets and behaviors at the end of the initiative were no different then they were at the beginning - specifically, the needs of the executives and of the business were consistently a priority over the experience of the people. Faced with a multitude of opportunities to embrace Change, Org ABC’s leaders chose a path of least resistance, choosing also to maintain their own comfort and turn a deaf ear to the needs of their people. Org ABC is doing just fine, which is good if “just fine” is what gets you out of bed in the morning. Org ABC could have dominated their competition.

All ChangeSmith change initiatives start in the same way… with a simple question: How should we expect people to BEHAVE differently as a result of our collaboration together? Notice we do not ask what system needs to be implemented, what org structure might work best, or which processes are candidates for reengineering. Those will certainly contribute to the way that people will behave, but they aren’t the changes that drive our work. I cannot recall if we had the courage to ask this question of Org ABC, but it was a shortcoming of our initiative not to have collected their answer to that question, and framed our efforts around it.

Here are three red flags that we faced, that made our work harder, and contributed to people needs not being sustainably met. These represent lessons learned from our not having understood the extent to which our client leadership was prepared for change, but not for Change:

  • When leadership wants to delegate Change to next-level and junior leaders, its a red flag

  • When leadership resists defining the Change or the purpose for the Change, its a red flag

  • When leadership seems to consistently prioritize “the business” [aka Smart, aka Operations] over “the people” [aka Healthy, aka Aspirations], its a red flag

Organizations that feature these red flags are probably going to struggle more with Change even if they claim to be good at change.

To my Change tribe - these organizations need our help. If you are an aspirational, healthy leader seeking to enable a remarkable experience for your people, consider your approach to Change and try to eliminate the red flags we identified. I encourage you to challenge norms, to be authentic and intentional, and to be healthy. Your Change initiative still may not be successful, but you will build trust and you'll grow change capacity - two attributes that will invariably get you closer to successful Change. Give it a try. Your people may just Change, and they may even thank you for it.

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