The reality of change in big, legacy organizations is that it needs a radical reinvention of how things work and what can be implemented over time. New ways of thinking are required to generate engagement with change and confidence with innovation. Leadership needs to do things differently to better involve and engage their people to move faster forward.
I was quite impressed with an excellent article by Paolo Cervini and Gabriele Rosani that appeared in Dialog Review called Radical Reinvention and which focused on the difficulties of implementing some of the practices now required in this new world of remote working and rapid change. They proposed a conceptually simple model and framed it elegantly like this:
“The underlying logic is the following. Simplification gives more freedom and empowerment to employees; within these new boundaries and guidelines employees can make quality decisions at their local level. For this to happen, managers must foster the conditions to help their collaborators perform, acting as coaches, providing the right data and tools, and establishing mutual trust. Once mutual trust increases, it becomes easier to further simplify rules.”
“In our consulting experience, we have seen several legacy companies attempt similar journeys from traditional to agile – with mixed results. The inconvenient truth is that companies with strong legacy models cannot simply adopt the way that Google, Netflix or Spotify have organized themselves in the absence of a legacy model.”
Legacy organizations are generally resistant to change because their managers are embedded into old systems and processes and new adaptable ideas are needed to drive it forward more better faster. Innovation and employee engagement do not happen on their own unless the environment allows for it. So, my focus will be on sharing some ideas to change the language, simplify the understanding of how things really work and to improve the conditions under which people are collaborating within work teams and across organizational boundaries.
Change is a constant in the workplace: there is always something…
(And sometimes there are always too many somethings, causing burnout.)
Sometimes change appears to be happening too fast and sometimes it seems much too slow, given business needs. Sometimes we are looking to make changes and sometimes we simply must make change to keep moving forward. But not everyone, all the time, is looking for ideas about doing things differently, directly affecting innovation and engagement.
I created this scenario of how I think organizational reality intrudes on good ideas for change and improvement in every workgroup and organization. The purpose in sharing this model is to try to get managers to consider approaching things differently, possibly even using this “Square Wheels® Model” in their general communications with their people:
Nothing is broken in the image above, so why change? The team, working as things are now, will probably meet their goals and expectations on their journey forward. The discomfort with the way things are is not sufficient to motivate the team to try something different or even to stop pushing and pulling. If nothing changes, things are probably okay — and didn’t they just change from triangular wheels to these new Square Wheels®?
Below, the simple idea is that the wagon wheel has broken, the team needs to get moving again, but a wheel needs to be replaced. With Round Wheels literally “at hand” and already in the wagon, the team puts on a new Square Wheel simply because that is what we have always done and the way things have always worked. We roll on Square Wheels!
My experience in working with workgroups makes a reality of change often look like this:
The related image below shows that some improvement is possible, caused by the need to solve a problem and implement a change. Has learning occurred? Yes, at least among some of the team. And will this learning then apply to the other wheels on the wagon? Maybe. Does the team leader yet have a clue as to possibilities and how well is he observing and listening?
Note also that nobody sees the horse, and perhaps, not even you. Consider that…
In the cartoons, overall, we see three people and some observers note the reluctance of the wagon puller to let go of the rope. Some viewers might comment that the guy at the far left is just lazy and not helping out. But you might also note that the wagon is up on the points of the Square Wheels, thereby making it easier to install a new wheel but much harder to balance, which may be the job of helping by those two people. (Remember, it is just a cartoon and there is no reality!)
One guy is lifting — we all know of those people who really put out the effort to help teams succeed.
Lastly. Many people simply miss the HORSE. The horse represents a completely different way to address the reality of moving the wagon. It is surprising how many people miss that aspect of the situation as they focus on the broken wheel. Heck, even the characters in the cartoon seem to have missed that!
What I have been doing for 30+ years is involving and engaging people to see things differently and teaching this VERY simple yet actionable model for understanding change, identifying leverage points and action plans and facilitating the process in such a way that the participants can identify things that they can do differently as well as engage others. The process is one of active involvement, fun, discussions around the possibilities represented in the images and the application of that same thinking to their organizational realities.
The key is to focus on employee engagement and ownership. If people are actively involved, they are more likely to be engaged and feel some sense of commitment to getting things done. If things are done TO them, one can expect the natural resistance to change and new ideas.
I use a simple tool, my Square Wheels illustrations and metaphor to set things up. We play with metaphor and these images because people will project their thoughts and ideas on to the image. Their thoughts, especially in a group process, are generally very congruent with their views about how things really work in THEIR organization or workgroup.
Thoughts: The wagon rolls on a set of wooden Square Wheels carrying a cargo of round rubber tires. The process continues this way because of a few different factors, such as the Square Wheels actually working (just like they always have), and the lack of viewpoint and perspective (“Don’t just DO something, Stand There!). They are really busy getting the job done.
The reality is that stopping the process and implementing improvement takes time and is not always successful. Plus, the round wheels of today will invariably become the Square Wheels of tomorrow.
The intent of this facilitation is to involve people in “stepping back from the wagon” and seeing some of the obvious things – the round wheels already exist and should be implemented to make long-term progress and not simply to meet the goals for today. Done as a teambuilding process, it sets the stage for generating real ideas for workplace improvement and the cognitive dissonance needed to motivate change.
Sometimes, I introduce the concept of Mud, the glop that gets in the way of moving forward. This can include organizational restraints (perceived and real), politics, culture or simply the difficulty in changing. I then show the wagon and the people up to their “axles” in this mess and how hard it is to make progress. For me, “mud” is a great metaphor and I use it with the theme, “Get out of the ditch and up on the road” to introduce the issue of choice and choices. We choose what we do.
(“Mud” can also be grinding paste, cement, and other things that make progress more difficult. Note also the silos (clarity of missions and goals) and the Spectator Sheep, who could offer peer support if they would. Are they comfortable with the way things are? Hard to tell…)
If the above is your situation, find a way to deal with it. (“If it is to be, it is up to me!”)
“The best “Mud Managers” choose to do things differently.
What is it they do?”
This is a great question to ask, since it generates alternative behaviors and alternative thinking in their discussions, often anchored on best practices of the exemplary performers in the room at that time. (Peer coaching!)
At some point in my design of organizational development workshops, we often move toward my simple and actionable model of change, involving the current level of discomfort with the way things are now, the attractiveness of the vision of the future, the individual or groups’ previous history with change and the peer support for improvement.
All four things are actionable and under control of the manager. Change can involve teamwork or simply group process techniques for identifying issues and opportunities. But once something (a process, generally) is anchored as a Square Wheel, it almost always generates an implementable round one — this nicely taps into the cognitive dissonance model of Festinger.
Change does not have to be done TO people and is best done WITH them, having them involved in the different aspects of environmental and social support. This is why the illustrations and the related discussions work, it is to get people actively involved to decrease the resistance to change and to generate some commitment to do something differently.
If you want to read more about this, you’ll find my article that includes these ideas, “Teaching the Caterpillar to Fly” at:
Plus, if you’d like to make any comment or discuss any of this, it would be most welcome. I am seeking a few good organizations to collaborate with to further develop these materials. I let them slide for quite a while focusing on our team building games and am just now revisiting these tools using our new colorful images that we are now developing.
For the FUN of It!
Scott Simmerman Ph.D. CPF, CPT is still managing partner of PMC and collaborating with the team at PMC LLC, but also sort of retired and now loving living in Cuenca, Ecuador…
Scott has presented his concepts in 47 countries and collaborates with consultants and trainers worldwide.
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