There is a famous joke: A Buddhist monk approaches a hotdog vendor and says: “Make me one with everything.” The vendor makes the hot dog and hands it to the monk, who pays with a $20 bill. The vendor puts the bill in the cash box and closes it. "Excuse me, but where’s my change?" asks the Buddhist monk. The vendor replies, "Change? Change comes from within."
Having been through many unsuccessful change and “transformation” initiatives, I can fully attest to the hotdog vendor’s wisdom. I’ve become convinced that one of the biggest reasons why change efforts fail in organizations is because the leaders — however unconsciously or unintentionally — tend to impose change on the people.
Curt Coffman in his book “Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch” speaks to this dilemma beautifully:
“Whatever the popular theme this week, we are always trying to get our employees to _______(fill in the blank). You can read that as “innovate” or “take responsibility” or “make decisions like it’s their business” or any number of other euphemisms for taking ownership. The problem is not in the blank, the problem is in the stem of the statement: “Trying to get them to...”
Despite the pervasive belief, people don’t resist change. They resist being changed.
People love free choice. They have unique passions and callings. They want to be able to shape their lives — to choose their destiny and their path. Try taking it away from them, no matter how good the intentions are, and they’ll mount all forms of resistance.
But many leaders get it these days. And as it often happens, the pendulum swings to the other extreme. The leader might reason, if I cannot push change on people, I can inspire them to change. I will lead by example — and trust that they’ll change.
Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t work very well either. While inspiration and leading by example can be helpful strategies, they are simply not enough when faced with the highly complex challenge of shifting organization-wide cultural patterns of thinking and behavior.
This presents organizational leadership with quite a dilemma. On the one hand, pushing change generates resistance — and often fails. On the other hand, inspiring change by example and trusting that people will change doesn’t create enough momentum — and often fails. What to do?
Transcending the leadership dilemma: Commitment-based change
At 10X Shift, we practice a third way that transcends the change leadership dilemma. We call it commitment-based change. It rests on the premise that lasting change can happen when people make bold commitments, and then receive ongoing structured support from their peers, allies and leaders — in the form of feedback and accountability loops, new challenges, coaching, appreciation, etc.
A critical aspect of leading a commitment-based change initiative is designing those special “support structures” that guide and support people in making, evolving and delivering on their commitments. You can think of these support structures as a special kind of scaffolding that guides and supports people (and the organization as a whole) as they navigate their individual and collective change journeys.
Let’s get more specific. Here is how a commitment-based change initiative might unfold in an organization:
- The leadership team creates a highly generative context for the change initiative — a ‘story’ that inspires and energizes the organization’s members, something that is truly worthy of stretching for. In most cases, the story is about making a much larger contribution to the organization’s stakeholders — its customers, partners, employees, community, etc.
- Throughout the change initiative, the leadership team issues a series of more specific generative challenges to the organization (within the context of the overall change effort.) For example, “How do we cut product delivery time to our customers by 30%?”
- Individuals and teams in the organization are encouraged to make bold commitments. (We use 10X Commitments as a commitment structure.) The principles are quite simple:
- All commitments are voluntary (including none for some, at this time); each commitment —
- Must engage your passion and calling
- Must tap into and encourage the development of your deepest talents and strengths
- Must stretch you beyond what you’re capable of today — or even think is possible
- Must make a significant contribution to the overall change effort and the organization’s stakeholders
- To support the 10X Commitment process, co-creative coaching trios are formed where the participants coach, support and hold each other accountable as they make, evolve and begin to deliver on their commitments. These co-creative coaching trios could meet weekly. Each person gets to play three roles in succession: coach, coachee and facilitator
- Over time, the participants begin to “clump and cluster” naturally around similar 10X Commitments, thus forming specific change initiatives. These larger teams may meet occasionally (e.g. once a month) to strategize, reflect on their progress, share their learnings, make new commitments, form new trios, etc.
It is worth emphasizing that it is not expected that everyone in the organization would choose to “jump in” and make a 10X Commitment from the start. The participation is entirely voluntary. It is natural for a smaller subset of volunteers — the organization’s innovators and early adopters who especially resonate with the change initiative — to lead the way. Over time, as these pioneering changemakers begin to demonstrate early wins and engage more and more people throughout the organization, the informal “changemaker network” grows naturally and organically, inviting more and more players into the game — until the momentum reaches the tipping point and becomes irreversible.
The above scenario is only partial and doesn’t describe all aspects of a typical change initiative. Still, it demonstrates what we call a generative approach to organization change — a strategy designed to spark aliveness, engagement and passion, and quickly become self-managing, self-propagating and self-evolving in an organization. While cultivating such a strategy can be delicate and require much caring and patience in the beginning, it can deliver multiple and even multiplying benefits over time — with a rapidly diminishing cost and risk.
Of equal importance, such approach steadily grows the organization’s capacity for distributed leadership and ongoing learning and change — a critical asset in today’s VUCA world.