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It is the “how” of change that determines whether change will stick or not

I don’t usually write a blog that steals all its inspiration from someone else’s writings, but this is too good to miss.

The original article, ‘Engaging with 21st century change: how to make it work’, was by a colleague and business partner Marcella Bremer, founder of OCAI Online, based in Holland. Marcella is a consultant, trainer and writer in the field of organisational culture who has always been fascinated by the human mind and human behaviour. She is an experienced and enthusiastic proponent of of the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument OCAI developed by US professors Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn in 2005 and has adapted it for use as a online diagnostic tool.

I became the UK Partner for OCAI Online because I share Marcella’s fascination for the myriad ways that organisations manage to get their change programs wrong – and her approach for putting them right.

The problem is a familiar one to any consultant with a liking for theory. One can list all the reasons why more than 70% of change projects fail, but that doesn’t seem to help. Look at how many change management books there are out there – including my own!

In practice, the devil is always in the detail. Every situation has its own complexities and requires a customised approach.

The WHAT may be easy – it is the HOW of change that determines whether change will stick or not

It’s easy to describe the WHAT of change. “Leadership is crucial.” “Change must recognize current culture or will be sabotaged.” “Opinion leaders must buy into the change and become change agents.” “We need a burning platform: why change is necessary now.” “People need a vision to see where they are going”. It is all true.

But that’s not enough. The WHAT of change may be straightforward, but the real challenge is in the HOW of change: solving the puzzle of how to put it into practice in this particular system, within this specific group, in this unique setting.

One can find many examples of assignments where change didn’t stick, despite having properly structured change plans (the WHAT) in place:

  • A leadership team that backed away when it came down to consistent action because the changes became too personal and too tiresome for them
  • An executive team who wouldn’t stop role playing – never being sincere, because they had been working in a toxic team for too long
  • A few self-appointed ‘leaders’ within teams who sabotaged crucial steps to boost their own egos
  • A group of employees who were simply exhausted and couldn’t bear another change on top of all the things that were going on.

It is the HOW of change that determines whether change will stick or not.

The HOW is a journey

And it’s not just a matter of solving the puzzle and then leaning back – it requires action: DOing what will make a difference, to achieve change in this organisation. Walking the talk… and not giving up before it is done. There appear to be three crucial stages in creating successful organisational change:

  1. Spend time tailoring the HOW to change
  2. Do it (not just talk about it)
  3. Persistence (keep doing it!).

Spending time on the HOW is the part many organisations like to outsource or skip altogether. They like hearing the theory, seeing the outcomes of their surveys, agreeing on generalist concepts, values, directions… but the real work is to trace those particular details that will make a difference in a given situation. For example:

  • How precisely will the behaviour of the leader affect the rest of the organisation? Is there a gap between what he/she says and what he/she is seen to be doing? What does that communicate to the rest of the team? How is that showing up in their responses?
  • How can you influence the current underlying culture and shift it towards the desired situation? What exactly is the current culture? Does it hinder debate, block co-operation and prevent us finding solutions for problems that arise?
  • Who are the opinion leaders in this organisation? How can we engage them? How do we avoid making the others feel excluded?
  • How do we create Daryl Connor’s ‘burning platform’ (‘Managing at the Speed of Change’ 1993)? What does that mean in this particular case? Would putting too much emphasis on the urgency of the need for change raise stress levels even further in this dysfunctional organisation? 
  • Who creates the vision that will appeal to everyone? Shouldn’t we include everyone in visionary dialogue and co-create our future together? Or is that miles away from current culture…? Would we be wasting our time running workshops throughout the organisation, because no-one will open their mouths in front of management? Would that just be another change ritual, devoid of true meaning and content?

It may not be easy to uncover and identify the underlying cultural threads, but this work must be done. Even if a CEO has a clear idea on the HOW that will make a difference, he/she still can’t order the others to make the change. They need to see it, too, and commit to the change – or they won’t really do it.

‘Circles of 10’

Marcella has developed a solution to this need to focus on the detail of culture. It’s an inclusive approach which is capable of creating real and sustainable change, and I can only endorse this approach from my own experience. She calls it: ‘Circles of 10’.

In summary:

  • Include and engage as many employees as possible in small teams (‘Circles of 10’).
  • Within these small change circles, get people to work on the WHAT and HOW of change
  • Help them to take ownership of their own role in making it happen (instead of just obeying top-down orders)
  • Ensure they receive the peer support they need to really make the changes and stick with them, even when it’s easier to go back to old habits.

‘Circles of 10’ works by including and engaging people from across the organisation in groups which are small enough to foster real dialogue, but large enough to be able to make a real difference. Ten people in the group know more than one and working in groups means being able to take the time to solve obstacles or reflect on objections and create true commitment, because no-one can hide in a small team. If you don’t really agree, your co-workers will notice. There’s no hiding in the back of a large hall and listening to the ‘sage on the stage’ – the group IS the sage and the stage, and everyone is involved. A good facilitator will ensure that everyone is participating, talking TO each other, not talking ABOUT them behind their backs.

Together, the team has a good chance of solving the ‘how-to’ puzzle and overcoming the obstacles. One person’s objections will trigger innovative solutions. Beliefs will be changed and commitment will grow. If done right, it can work like magic!

Once co-workers have agreed to the WHAT and HOW of change, they will support each other to commit, take ownership and really DO it.  People tend to copy, coach and correct each other and they will support their colleagues if they trust one other, so the ‘Circle of 10’ can help them change “the way we do things around here”. Changing together is easier than moving alone toward new behaviours and beliefs.

And if the group is able to (and allowed to) sustain its momentum, it might really DO what it agreed on – and, even more important, keep doing it. The mutual support provided by the Circle of 10 will help to ensure that people PERSIST, even when it’s tempting to go back to old routines. Any tendency to fall back will trigger discussion on why it is so hard and the group will come up with new ways to overcome the problem.

Culture is “the way we do things around here” including all of the tacit assumptions and automated group interaction patterns and is a big reason why organisational change programs disappoint or fail. By working with and on culture, you address the way people do things around here; make people more aware and help them change tacit beliefs and actual behaviours. A successful change circle has the core competency of change built within it, enveloping all its members.

Tools and further reading

The Organisational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI), based on the Competing Values Framework by Cameron & Quinn, is a useful tool to help people be more aware of the underlying values, assumptions, criteria, beliefs and behaviours in their organisation. It provides a useful basis for people to start working on culture and change, first in OCAI Workshops (discussing the outcome of the OCAI outcomes), then in ‘Circles of 10’ as the teams evolve and start taking ownership for developing their own teams.

By rating six key aspects of organisational culture that were found to determine success, the OCAI tool assesses the current and preferred organisational culture. The outcome is based on the Competing Values Framework and consists of four culture types: Clan Culture, Adhocracy Culture, Market Culture, and/or Hierarchy Culture.

You can try the OCAI assessment online FREE : OCAI One, or assess your organisation’s culture online: OCAI Pro. If you want to know more about Marcella Bremer’s approach, read her book: “Organizational Culture Change: Unleash your Organization’s Potential in Circles of 10”.

The Change Readiness Assessment (CRA) is the result of 3 years research and development by Peter Duschinsky into identifying and quantifying the risks and barriers to change and their impact on the ROI of a change project. Based on a set of Change Equation principles and methods published in 2009 and now available as an e-book: The Change Equation, the CRA can be used to focus senior management attention on the gap between the project’s complexity and the organisation’s capability for change. These findings can provide the basis to improve the outcomes of a change project, or more usefully, build Change Readiness into the organisation’s project planning process, to deliver consistently improved project outcomes.

The CRA process usually takes no more than 5-10 days, depending on the size of the project. An organisation-wide CRA audit is a more substantial programme, but this will build a Capability for Change into the organisation’s standard practice and core values, providing it with the resilience it needs to cope with the ever-increasing pace and complexity of change that it faces into the future. For more information, read about the CRA at

February 4, 2013 - Posted by | business change management, change capability, workshops

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