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change management

The Art Of Transformation

grace hartigan the king is dead liteWhat’s the difference between an art and a craft?

A traditional definition focuses on differences in expectations and outcomes. With a craft, we know precisely what the outcome will be, even before we start. We have a set of instructions and, if followed faithfully, the outcome is guaranteed.

By contrast, an artist doesn’t know what the outcome will be. Creating an artwork involves exploration, doubt, questioning, trial-and-error, and no small amount of anxiety. An artist explores the unknown and aims to give us new insights. A good artwork may not be beautiful in a classic sense, but it is always imaginative. A craftsman, on the other hand, creates the expected and delivers beauty and pleasure through execution more than imagination.

I thought of these distinctions the other day when I toured a major new exhibition, Women of Abstract Expressionism*, at the Denver Art Museum. The exhibition highlights a dozen leaders of the abstract expressionist movement and their work from roughly 1945 to 1960. Here’s how two of the artists describe the creative process:

  • Grace Hartigan: “Eventually, the painting tells you what it wants to be.”
  • Jay DeFeo: “When I start, I don’t know what’s going to happen. When you’re dancing, you don’t stop to think: now I’ll take a step … you allow it to flow.”

It occurs to me that the distinction between art and craft also applies to organizational development. Change management is a craft. Organizational transformation is an art.

We often invoke change management when we begin a concise and well-delineated project. We understand the boundaries and the players. We move through well-defined phases that we can measure objectively. We expect changes to occur between people – perhaps with new reporting structures and alignments. Change management is not easy to master but it seems to me that it is a craft. We often celebrate the end result. We can do that precisely because it is a craft – we know when the process ends.

Organizational transformation is much more like an art. When we seek to transform an organization’s culture, we have only a fuzzy idea of where we’re going. Milestones exist but they’re not well defined. Transformation requires changes within people rather than only between people. We can’t see those changes; nor can we measure them. If we try to measure the unmeasurable, we’ll go off course. Like any other art, transformation involves exploration, doubt, questioning, trial-and-error, and no small amount of anxiety. Paraphrasing Grace Hartigan, “Eventually, the organization tells you what it wants to be.” The secret to success is listening, not measuring.

I sometimes ask my artist friends how they know when a piece they’re working on is finished. None of them has very good answers. Some say they “just know”. Others say that they just get tired of it. Others say that it’s never finished. Whenever they see it again, they’re tempted to make “just a few minor changes.”

It occurs to me that I’ve never been to a party to celebrate an organizational transformation. Perhaps it’s because we just don’t know when the transformation is finished. It’s an art not a craft.

*The Women of Abstract Expressionism exhibit is both superb and unexpected. The paintings are exciting and energetic. The painters are almost anonymous. This is the first major exhibition – anywhere in the world — of the women who energized the abstract expressionist movement. That it happened in my hometown makes me more than just a little bit proud. You can see it – and should see it — until September 25th.

The painting illustrating this article is Grace Hartigan’s The King Is Dead, from 1960.

Filtering Water In The Information Desert

It's a desert out there.

It’s a desert out there.

In organizations, large transformation efforts create information deserts. Traditional sources of information dry up. We search for new sources but they’re few and far between. When we do find them, we can’t be sure if the information is tainted or pure. Should we consume it or not?

The lack of information creates additional stress. We know we’re going on a “journey” but we don’t know where. We don’t even know how we’ll know when we get there. Perhaps we’ll never get there. Perhaps we’ll just continue transforming.

We also know that there will be some winners and losers in the process. Some people will get plum assignments; others will be relegated to minor roles. It’s not always clear who will make these decisions or how they will be made. So we don’t know how to behave to improve our chances of success.

We also fear that we’ll lose something. We know what we have today. While it may not be all we want, just knowing what we have brings some degree of comfort. As the organization morphs, we don’t know what we’ll have tomorrow. We could be worse off. Our loss aversion bias makes the possibility of loss seem more likely – and more painful – than the possibility of gain.

When we’re in a real desert, we want to find water. Indeed, we want to find good water. Drinking bad water could be worse than drinking no water at all. So we carry water filtration systems. When we find water, we can purify it and ensure that it will help us rather than harm us.

Similarly, in an information desert, we want to find good, trustworthy sources of information. Since traditional sources of information have dried up, we need to find new sources. But how can we tell if the new sources are trustworthy? Perhaps they’re tainted with rumor and conjecture. Perhaps consuming the information will do us more harm than good.

It’s not easy to create accurate and effective information for a transforming organization. But there are some good filters that can help employees distinguish good information from bad. The simplest one I’ve found is called the triple filter. Some writers say that Socrates created the filters. Others claim Arab philosophers developed them. Regardless of the source, it’s a good communication technique to keep in mind.

According to legend, when someone offered Socrates information – especially information that might be based on conjecture or rumor, he asked three sets of questions:

  1. Is it true? How do we know? How can we verify it? What’s the source? What’s the evidence?
  2. Is it good? This is especially important if the information is about a person. Does it portray the person in a good light? Is it kind? Does it assume positive intent?
  3. Is it useful? Is the information useful to me, the recipient? Can I use it to accomplish something positive?

The process is analogous to deciding what evidence is admissible in court. If the information didn’t pass all three tests, Socrates simply refused to hear it.

I think of these questions as three steps in a linked process. If the information can’t pass the first test – truth — there’s not much point in asking the other two questions. If the information is verifiably true, then it’s useful to continue the process. If the information passes all three tests, then it’s admissible and should be considered in decision making.

Organizations in transition are under a great deal of stress. Bad information only increases the pressure. The triple filter doesn’t make the desert bloom but it helps employees find oases of trust and certitude in a difficult and demanding environment.

Sending A Memo To Your Future Self

Memo to self...

Memo to self…

We know a lot about the future. We can’t predict it precisely but we can often see the general contours of what’s coming. With a little imagination, we can prepare for it. We just need a structure to hang our imagination on.

As an example, let’s take organizations that are undergoing rapid and/or stressful change. We know a lot about such organizations. We know, for instance, that:

  • Communication suffers – people are distracted and don’t listen well. Bain estimates that only 20% of the information communicated actually gets through. Attention spans get shorter than ever. Tip: don’t give long speeches.
  • Memory becomes less accurate – stress affects memory in odd ways. Even in normal times, different people remember the same event in different ways. It gets worse in stressed out organizations.
  • We hear mixed and contradictory messages – change doesn’t happen smoothly across the organization. Some departments move quickly; others move slowly. When we talk to different people, we’ll hear different messages. It’s hard to tell what’s really going on.
  • We jump to conclusions more urgently — as the Heath brothers point out, we jump to conclusions all the time. Stress makes us even more jumpy. We’re anxious to get a solution and don’t take the time to consider the evidence.
  • Trust withers – it’s hard to trust people when we remember things differently, hear different messages, and jump to different conclusions.

I could go on but you get the picture. We also know that organizational change happens in three phases. At least, that’s what the theorists tell us. Here are four different models of the change process (here, here, here, and here). They use different descriptors but all four describe three distinct phases of change. Note that the middle phase is a trough – that’s where the going gets tough.

The trick to preparing for the future is to start imagining it before we get to the trough. Change managers refer to the trough with words like frustration, depression, resistance, and chaos. It’s not a good time for imagining.

So we start the imagination process in Phase 1. We’re still cool, calm, and collected. We can think more or less clearly – especially if we’ve studied critical thinking. We can think about the future dispassionately and plan how we want to behave.

We sit down in groups and discuss the issues we can anticipate in Phases 2 and 3. We know, for instance, that we’re likely to hear contradictory messages. How do we want to behave when we do? What can we do now to outline “best behaviors” for the stress created by contradictory messages? What can we do to ensure that we actually implement the best behaviors? What else might happen in the trough? How do we want to behave when it happens? We talk, discuss, debate, imagine, and agree.

We then write down what we’ve agreed to. In effect, we’re writing a memo from our current selves to our future selves. From our cool, calm, dispassionate selves to our stressed and anxious future selves. We make clearheaded decisions in Phase 1. When we get to Phase 2, we can refer back to our own wisdom to help govern our actions

I call this process Structured Imagination™. What we know about the future gives us the structure. We use the structure to focus our imaginations. We imagine what will happen and how we’ll behave when it does. This prepares us for the hurly burly of change and also vaccinates us against many of the ill effects of the trough.

Structured Imagination is not a perfect process – the future may still throw us a curve every now and then. However, I’ve used the process with multiple clients and they say that they face the future with greater confidence and clarity. That’s pretty good. If you’d like me to do a Structured Imagination workshop with your organization, just drop me a line.

Innovation: Loosen Up, Tighten Up

Loosen up, dudes!

Loosen up, dudes!

I’ve written a lot about innovation but have yet to properly introduce Rosabeth Moss Kanter, one of our leading thinkers in innovation and change management. A professor at Harvard Business School, Kanter has written a string of books on innovation, incuding some of my favorites: Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End and SuperCorp: How Vanguard Companies Create Innovation, Profit, Growth, and Social Good.

Today, I’d like to draw on concepts from one of Kanter’s articles in Harvard Business Review, “Innovation: The Classic Traps“. Kanter surveys a number of different traps but two, in particular, caught my attention, mainly because I’ve seen them myself.

The first is called controls too tight. All too often, companies use traditional metrics to judge the impact of non-traditional innovations. The problem is that traditional metrics — such as hurdle rates, ROI, or NPV — all require some type of track record to produce results that might be considered reliable.

The problem, of course, is that a truly innovative product has no track record. Kanter writes that companies often fall prey “… to the impulse to strangle innovation with tight controls — the same planning budgeting and reviews applied to existing businesses.”  Kanter writes that the solution is to loosen up and add flexibility to your planning and control processes. This may include innovation funds and judicious exemptions for corporate requirements and timetables. Going a bit farther afield, you might also incorporate new financial metrics like real options analysis.

The second trap might be called connections too loose. The idea is that companies often isolate innovative new products and processes in organizational units that are physically and/or culturally isolated from the mainstream. Kanter points out that GM’s Saturn brand was established as a separate unit to pioneer new ways to design, build, and market midsize cars. While Saturn itself was innovative, the innovations didn’t have much impact on the rest of GM.

The same trap can affect established units as well. Kanter points out that CBS was once the largest broadcaster in the world and also owned the largest record company in the world. But MTV, not CBS, invented the music video. Kanter also writes that “… Gillette had a toothbrush unit (Oral B), an appliance unit (Braun), and a battery unit (Duracell) but lagged in introducing a battery powered toothbrush.”

Again, I think we can go a bit farther afield and identify similar disconnects among departments within a company. Engineering designs a product and then turns it over to manufacturing. That’s often a loose connection. If manufacturing experts participated in the design process (as they do at Apple), you might get products that are not only well designed but also easy to manufacture.

What to do? Kanter writes that “… companies should tighten the human connections between those pursuing innovation efforts and others throughout the rest of the business.” This requires good leadership, good communication skills, and a willingness to “convene discussions to encourage mutual respect rather than tensions and antagonism.” It may also require good architecture as in the example of Steelcase, which built ” a design enter that would force people to bump into one another….” (This is one of the reasons I think Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! is right to require people to work at the office).

So how do you stimulate innovation? While it’s not easy, a good first step is to loosen up you processes while tightening up your people-to-people connections.




Marissa Mayer — You Go, Girl!

marissa-mayer-is-putting-the-kiboshnbspon-workplace-flexibilityMarissa Mayer, the new Mom who is also  the CEO of Yahoo!, recently announced that all Yahoos (that’s what they call employees) have to work at the office, not from home. Since then, the blogosphere has been all aflutter. A majority of the bloggers I’ve read suggest that Mayer is retrograde, dumb, and sexist. I have to disagree. I think it’s a very smart move and about time, too.

The arguments against Mayer’s decision have to do with productivity, convenience, women’s rights, and maybe even clean air. Stephen Dubner (one of the two Steves who created Freakonomics) wrote that an experiment at a Chinese travel agency shows that woking at home can increase your productivity and reduce health problems. Apparently long commutes raise your blood pressure. A recent article from Stanford (based on the same Chinese study) suggests that the productivity of those working at home is 13% greater than those working at the office. An article on (Work At Home Moms) argues that telecommuting shifts the employee’s emphasis away from politics and towards performance. Months ago, Slate wrote that Mayer doesn’t care about sexism. Grindstone calls Mayer’s decision a “morale killer” and a “giant leap backward for womankind.”  The Atlantic Monthly flatly declares that “Marissa Mayer Is Wrong”.

But is she wrong? It depends on what she’s trying to do. Raising productivity is generally a good idea. But if the price of productivity is reduced innovation, then the cost is too high. There’s a strong case to be made that working from home — while it provides many benefits — inhibits innovation. I’ve written about the mashup nature of innovation. Many of the best new ideas are mashups of existing ideas.

The same logic applies to people. Getting people together — and encouraging them to mix and mingle in more-or-less random ways — helps them mash up concepts and create new ideas. It’s why Building 20 — a ramshackle, “temporary” structure on the MIT campus — generated so many innovations. People bumped into each other and shared ideas and, in doing so, created everything from generative grammar to Bose acoustics. It’s why cities produce a disproportionate share of of inventions and patents (click here and here). It’s why reducing the number of bathrooms in a building will increase innovation –you’re more likely to bump into someone. It’s why I advise my clients to allow e-mail to flow freely between buildings but to banish it within a building. If you’re in the same building as the recipient, get together for a face-to-face meeting. You’ll get more out of it — maybe even an innovative new product.

So, what is Mayer trying to accomplish? In her memo to all Yahoos, she speaks of “communication and collaboration” and notes that “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.” She doesn’t use the word “innovation” but that’s exactly what she’s talking about. And, in my humble opinion, Yahoo! could use a healthy dose of innovation. So I think Mayer has got it right: PPPI — proximity and propinquity propel innovation. All I can say is: you go, girl!

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