That large, squishy mass of matter in your head was originally designed to solve problems related to living in an outdoor environment and to do so in nearly constant motion. That’s what John Medina says in his ultra-compelling book Brain Rules. That’s a far stretch from the mind-numbing, conference-calling, PowerPoint-watching requirements we levy upon it in the contemporary business world.
The behavioral science community at large is mostly unified in the belief that the human brain can change over time. It can, through a series of methodical practices, explorations, and guidance, be redesigned in function and belief. This is how we all learn to read, keep quiet in the library, speak up for injustice, and stay between the lines on the freeway. It gives us a body of wisdom and reason. It’s why we don’t step into traffic; we’ve adjusted our brains to symbiotically operate within the loose confines of our independently explorable world. We learn all these things through replication and repetition over a lifetime of watching and listening to others. Pretty cool that it’s that simple, right?
In my professional role at XPLANE, I advise at an intimate level with executives who are most often tasked with the nearly impossible job of transforming an organization. This evasive, strong-willed darling of a task can come dressed in many dresses; it can be a wholesale departmental process change, a global strategy activation, or a change management program. Cultural change is ultimately in the bones of all of them. How do we change the behavior of the organization to reflect our desired state? At its root, culture is a programmed series of values and behaviors that an organization accepts as its normal and preferred behavior; we essentially replicate and repeat what we witness our leadership and influencers doing.
This is exactly how a developing child’s brain learns. It’s how we all learned and every member of our human species will learn. We see an action and we repeat it. We are rewarded in some way, and then we narrow, refine, and repeat our behavior. We progressively assemble those behaviors into a known set of norms and continue the exploration. We are allowed a wider and wider playground as we grow with our parents’ watchful (yet enabling and encouraging) guidance and repeated demonstration. If our parents had only given us guidance and turned us loose without protection, we might have toddled into traffic. Had they only provided guidance and been too restrictive—limiting our playground size--we may have never been exposed to the things and people that helped us learn and grow. By witnessing a constant barrage of increasingly sophisticated behaviors paired with an expanding area to play, risk, and operate, children assemble intrinsically phenomenal sets of norms and behaviors, eventually enabling most all of us to live as independent adults, running our own lives, and possibly making a few more.
The crazy part of this behavior cycle is that it never ends. Those same children are now parents. They’re your associate VPs of Communications, directors of Sales, and coordinators of Marketing. They’re your CFO. They are you. We never stop learning by modeling behavior and exploring our space. Your entire organization is run by children.
With all of that said and seemingly obvious (especially to those of us who have raised a toddling traffic walker at some point), it never fails to amaze me how many transformation efforts are based around executive and outsider-led process and strategy, enforced through marketing-created communications. We are spending millions of dollars per year designing programs for transformation and change that never work simply because we’re only doing half the job. We can’t just guide; we have to guide and exhibit.
In a prior post based around Bart Simpson, a child himself, I spoke of empathy. Understanding his pattern of thinking and communicating to him in his words and belief norms made the difference between winning him over and pushing him away. While empathy is a critical element, organizational culture change requires leaders to EXHIBIT and REPLICATE the behavior the organization seeks to institute as well as understand the empathy of those they wish to affect. Leaders must exemplify the ideal culture norms, and they must REPEAT them over and over again.
We cannot communicate our way to change. No consultancy report or 800-slide PowerPoint deck is going to change your organization. Leaders, if you want lasting, successful, sustainable change, roll up your sleeves and play on the jungle gym. Show them what leadership looks like; show them how communication should work; and show them they have the room to collaborate, decide, and grow. Show them and guide them by exhibiting. Lead with an example that allows others to replicate your behavior; then repeat it with reward.
Just as a father has to back away from his daughter on the playground to assess her own risk or a mother must resist the urge to rush to her son when he falls, employees need space. We want to fail; it’s the only way learning becomes wisdom. We have to know where the edge is, when hot is too hot, and when sharp will actually cut our fingers. If we don’t feel like we can explore—like we have a safe place to try and fail—we get upset; we feel we don’t have an organizational voice, like we can’t be leaders. We feel boxed in and controlled, so we often rebel. We gossip. We become inefficient. We waste valuable hours and dollars. As a combined group, we can cause entire change programs to fail. (And we do it at an alarming rate.) Ultimately, people need to feel empowered, in control, and able to influence change. If you can institute that level of operational flexibility, you can breed evangelism into those you lead. They’ll seek change because their culture rewards them for their actions, and they have ownership of their own leadership.
Dave Gray, my friend, XPLANE founder, and colleague says, “Depending on whom you ask, 60–70 percent of change initiatives fail to meet their stated objectives, and the primary source of that failure, according to a Deloitte study, is resistance to change.” Sound familiar? And that’s a measure of failure. What about the ones that didn’t fail but barely worked?
To institute real, successful change, we must additionally take into account the brain’s propensity for repetition and replication, our natural tendency to explore, and the implications that witnessing culture exhibited play on reprogramming behavior. Organizational leadership must not only properly design their desired culture, but they must learn to exhibit that behavior over and over again, and then provide a safe, evolving area for controlled exploration for all those watching.
Cultural change, strategic activations, and transformation programs fail because we, as leaders, forget everything our young, explorative, amazing brain taught us to do. We forget or disregard all the rules we learned while parenting our own children. We decided on a business culture of telling and not doing.
If you want to create successful, culture-driven change, then you must be willing to walk the talk, roll up your sleeves, and start showing us what a culture of leadership should look like.