I was recently reminded of my favourite exit interview story. Middle manager, all fake bonhomie (think strangely-bearded Ted in Walter Mitty), asks departing employee, “so what could we have done that would have made you stay?”

To which the answer was, “Anything…”

At the risk of sounding harsh, most Change Programmes I see suffer from the same problem. There is no shortage of Programme; just a complete absence of anything that will deliver sustainable Change. And that is because we seem to have missed some very important truths about organisations and behaviour. Here are just a few:

  1. The view from the top is great, but very limited. In other words, how the dynamics of collaboration, decision-making and implementation work in the C-suite will be vastly different from how they work in the mid-levels of the organisation, which in turn will be very different from how things work on the front line. It follows that attempts at “change by executive say-so” will mostly fail to connect with reality.

  2. People who are overwhelmed can’t do “customer-centric”. It is fine to say that external focus is a key determinant of a high-performing team; but people who feel stressed and unable to cope on a daily basis, lack the mental and emotional space within which to develop that prioritisation of the external. Visions of a better, more customer focussed world fail to inspire employees who are already drowning.

  3. Collaboration requires a safe environment. Some degree of working together with others, in order to achieve shared goals is natural to most people, but only in the absence of possible threat from those others. If leaders signal that they can’t be trusted to act honestly and consistently, or if they foster an environment of perpetual uncertainty and peer competition, it is naive in the extreme to expect employees to embrace a collaborative mindset.

  4. Everything you think you know about Employee Engagement is wrong. Or at least, that is so if you think your EE Surveys tell you anything useful. The most an EES can tell you is where some of the pain of the organisation is being perceived; and as any doctor can tell you, that may be misdirecting your attention, hugely. Employees engage for reasons you just haven’t considered: mission, purpose, sphere of activity, tasks that engender ‘flow’. It’s personal, and you can’t manipulate it from above; although with the right help, they can take responsibility for managing their own engagement.

  5. Change happens, one employee at a time. Really. I am not dismissing the big picture structural stuff, but if your concern is specific outcomes, and especially customer experience, then it matters that every employee understands what behavioural change they, personally, have to embrace, and understand what they, personally, have to work with in making that change. Anything else is like throwing a huge bowl of spaghetti at the wall: some bits will stick for a while, but it mostly ends up on the floor.

  6. If Change is just one more KPI on my list, then I’m all over it. That is to say, I will just manage the optics, like I do for everything else - which is all anyone can do, if they have more than two KPIs. ‘Key’ is apparently a much misunderstood word. However, I did once work with a team who were measured annually on 483 KPIs, so there is always someone worse off than yourself.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Notice that I haven’t just said “change is impossible”; nor have I suggested that it need take forever to achieve. Quite the opposite. My observation is that when you give everyone - senior leaders, middle managers, front-line employees - the opportunity to understand themselves and why they experience the world in the way they do, you empower them to have the real conversations which make sustainable change possible: individually, as teams and, ultimately, as whole functions and business units.

That’s not a throw-away observation. For the past 17 years, we have worked with all manner of teams and organisations, giving the individuals that make them up, deep insights into how they perceive the world, why they react to people and situations in the way they do, and where their own sense of engagement springs from.

What is most fascinating to me is that even back at the beginning of this journey, when we had very little idea of what we were doing and were busy learning the practical and technical ropes of our core tool (the Birkman Method), so had little mind-space for thinking about the bigger picture; even back then, we saw exactly what I have described above, happening.

Individuals, and teams of individuals, equipped with some critical self-understanding, were able to immediately take responsibility for their own actions, change and development, and recast their perceptions of their situation in such a way as to deliver what actually mattered with respect to their organisational mission. (I was still just trying to make sure I was explaining their scores correctly.)

So apologies if any of my assertions offend, but until this ‘top-down thing’ changes, Change will keep failing to deliver. Once truly empower your people to know themselves and to understand how they fit into the mission and purpose of your business, and Change changes, beyond recognition.

My observation is that when you give everyone - senior leaders, middle managers, front-line employees - the opportunity to understand themselves and why they experience the world in the way they do, you empower them to have the real conversations which make sustainable change possible

In that context of changed perceptions and self-understanding, the job of leaders is infinitely more achievable. It is far more about leading - that is, keeping everyone aware of, and aligned with, the mission and of challenges to the mission, and protecting the empowerment of individuals and teams to deliver on that mission and overcome those challenges.

Or you could try throwing that bowl of spaghetti, even harder.

Originally posted on LinkedIn - Published December 30, 2016