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Bringing About Change for the Long Term: What Is Really Important

Avoiding the buzzword trap for successful innovation management
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Digital, Agile, Mindful, Whatever: Stop the Buzzword Bulimia!

I just heard that not all that long ago ... Do you also get that feeling when you attend events focusing on the subject of digitalization? Yet – after spending the last two years digitalizing like crazy, we have apparently now crowned the buzzword “agile” as a worthy successor. And once again, we continue to run into the same people who have found a new label to promise us all the Holy Grail for all our current challenges. Ultimately, this has a self-reinforcing effect that is more than risky. Because of this constant repetition, at some point these messages of salvation begin to sound like gospel truth. “Garbage” suddenly turns into “mainstream.” My high point came at an event a few months ago when a priest stepped onto the stage and announced that he had now organized his church to be “completely agile.”

At the same time, we see a dangerous generalization in the form of the mindless acceptance of terms without consideration of the company’s specific circumstances. Abstract principles are drawn from individual examples of success and applied to one’s own company; models of startups or from other cultures are turned into templates and forced onto one’s own company. Recently, I had an experience of this type when a major division of a company, slavishly imitating the Spotify organizational model that has become famous, divided its departments and units into chapters and squads, only to be astonished after a few months to see that nothing had changed – agility, I’m sorry to say, simply does come about from the “laying on of hands.”

The situation is similar when it comes to mindfulness: forming a meditation group that meets once a week and convincing yourself that the corporate culture will take a leap forward is as naive as it is harmful. In the end, there is certainly a very meaningful concept behind this subject as well, but it must be seen as a change in attitude, and an individual approach that is a good fit with the specific corporate context must be chosen.

Contextualization and the courage to make a change

That is precisely what is lacking so often: the contextualization of cultural as well as organizational-structural approaches. This is ultimately critical for success and can only be achieved from the heart of the company. Consultants can play no more than a coaching and accompanying role here – only the company itself is able to determine the approaches that fit its specific position. The mistake is often made right at this point. Driven by benchmarks (which, in the final analysis, are not transferable), consultants dictate the rhythm and are the owners of the approaches and concepts – a huge mistake when trying to persuade people to accept them. Ultimately, it is a question of cultural changes and not of efficiency programs, and they can be accomplished only be activating internal forces and not by imposing pseudo best practices. When all is said and done, this means having the courage to change and to assume responsibility for the effects of the change – too many of today’s corporate leaders shy away from this responsibility and abdicate in favor of outside personnel.

What is really important

Before diving into the “agile-digitalization-New Work-ambidexterity adventure,” anyone with responsibility for a company should ask some simple questions. What do I really want to achieve? What is really and truly my challenge? What do I hope to realize through the new approach? And very important: To what extent is this a good fit with my company? When you get down to bare bones, it is not a matter of checking off the following points on your list:

  • Agile structures implemented: Check!
  • Employees and executives trained in scrum: Check!
  • Innovation lab established in Berlin: Check!
  • Visit to Silicon Valley: Check!
  • 3 meetings a week with startups: Check!

It is far more important to answer the following questions:

  • How can I achieve maximum alignment of all activities in the direction of my customers?
  • How do I focus on people and their needs?
  • How can I utilize my limited resources to obtain maximum value and effect?
  • How, on the one hand, can I succeed in getting products to market faster and iteratively and, on the other hand, to develop them with an eye on need instead of constantly developing them without regard for the needs of my customers?

All of these are classic issues that successful companies have been answering competently for generations – without scrum, design thinking, or the implementation of a chapter and tribe organization.

Don’t misunderstand me here – all these methods are completely useful and unbelievably powerful reinforcers and supporters (... after all, we consultants have been making use of them for years). But no more and no less than that. If a leadership team does not succeed in convincing executives and employees of the fundamental need for greater customer orientation and faster time to market, such methods are no more than placebo actions that let us feel “good and modern” for a few hours, but nevertheless do not lead to any sustained changes in the corporate culture.

So this is the question: How do I bring about long-term change? How do I ensure that I don’t mindlessly pursue every new fashion like lemmings on the way to the sea?

Below are some personal observations and experiences – as always, without any claim to completeness.

​​​​​​​1. Keep calm

First of all: not every hot topic proves to be meaningful when all has been said and done. Asking critical questions and holding it up to the mirror of your own experience definitely makes good sense. Frequently, especially in established companies, people determine: We had that 10 years ago – we just had a different name for it. That is why you should start by consulting the collective memory of the organization before you call for benchmarks that, as a rule, are already obsolete before you even start implementing them (cf. also “Regarding the Meaninglessness of Benchmarks in the Digital Age”).

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​2. Find your own way

I mentioned it earlier – do not give in to the temptation to accept the terminology of the most recent Harvard Business Review article or consultant newsletter without giving it serious thought. While such a procedure is certainly simple and does not require you to think very much, the context is often completely different and cannot be transferred to your own organization one-to-one. The typical American buzzwords in particular are more likely to put people off and lead to the shaking of heads, especially in midsize companies and enterprises focused on realization and pragmatism. In addition, there is the not invented here syndrome: if something has not been (co-)developed by the company’s own team, it will not readily find acceptance and become firmly anchored; indeed, the organization’s immune system will reject it. I experienced a very positive example in a large corporate group a few years ago – the financial strategy was completely developed within the group’s own organization and without any external support; it is still firmly in place and effective today.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​3. The grass roots myth

Yes, even I was a great (and naive) believer in grass-roots initiatives only a few years ago. There is something heroic in the story of an employee in the branch XYZ in Buxtehude who, completely unknown up to that point, triggered a company-wide movement that turned the entire enterprise around and put it back on the road to success. This may work out in small organizations and, in isolated cases, even in large ones, but in my experience, it frequently does not have the required speed and the necessary degree of effectiveness. So in my opinion, the involvement of top management is essential for change processes. An attitude of, “That makes complete sense for you employees, but not for me as an executive officer ... just do it,” is not acceptable. Essentially, all the examples of success that have been integrated into the development of our Company ReBuilding approach were driven decisively by the founders or top management who, acting out of conviction, held firm to their chosen path even in the face of resistance.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​4. Company-wide vision – implementation in small steps with the “alliance of the willing”

Another trap in which I have often fallen into as well is totally overwhelming the organization during implementation. Initiators are quick to believe: “I have understood this – everyone else will as well.” Far from it. If we are honest, every one of us feels the same: if we are not allowed to participate in the development of change processes or new structures, we regard them with a certain skepticism at first and, within power structures, with the sense that they have been created to benefit the initiators. So a major principle must be a clear focus on open communication and explanation as well as on small and digestible steps during implementation. Beginning with a pilot project in a limited number of units that have a positive inclination to start with is a sensible way to gain experience and allow any necessary adjustments to be made.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​5. Resistance as a positive signal

We always tend to treat any resistance that arises as a signal: “We are apparently doing something wrong here and should adapt our approach.” Close observation, however, indicates that organizational and structural changes in particular are a welcome opportunity for the infamous company trolls to unleash their frustration with the organization as a whole. We had a colleague, for instance, who consistently torpedoed any upcoming changes on the social intranet and then, when half the staff was in a state of uproar, returned to the topic that was genuinely close to his heart: he had not been able to deal emotionally with the change from BlackBerry to iPhone. By that time, the damage to the general mood had been done. Moreover, the opposition parties are as a rule much more vocal than the advocates. After more than 20 years of experience in transformation projects, I regard this to be the rule: resistance is a positive signal. It means that you are working on a change that will really make a difference.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​6. Be open about setbacks and misjudgments

No one is infallible, even though managers especially would like to think they are. There is a strong temptation to put a positive spin on misjudgments or to blame them on exogenous factors. Especially in Germany, the emphasis is frequently more on finding out who is to blame than on undertaking a constructive search for a solution. One good yardstick for measuring the strength of this questionable way of thinking is the frequency with which the term “escalation” is used in everyday business. If it is regularly heard every day, there is something seriously wrong in the culture. I really like the Asian sentiment: “Solve the problem, not the question of blame.” Be open about setbacks and misjudgments and admit when you don’t have an answer to a question about a change process; you will be amazed at the positive response you receive and what a relief you feel at not having to pretend you are divinely omniscient.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​7. Consequences

Oh, no, here he comes with the topic of consequence management – that is really old hat. That’s right. But I am still going to bring it up. Why? Because my observations show that it is a weakness in many organizations. Common values are carved in stone, various formats are used to communicate them to employees and managers, and they are hung on every wall. But that is where it stops. Neither are positive examples displayed prominently nor is negative conduct really punished. Change initiatives are converted into generators of cynicism along the lines of, “Cooperation in the sense of partnership is at the focal point, but the leaders practice exactly the opposite.” Have the courage to make positive and negative examples visible and to ensure there are consequences for both. This is the only way to acquire credibility.

That should be enough for the beginning. I hope you have picked up some ideas for dealing with the next buzzword to come along. I know I am repeating myself. But as I see it, the decisive point is this: Find your own, individual path, and do not simply copy the next-best terms and approaches. In the end, the companies that find the organization and structure that are optimal for their context will be successful. Your employees in particular carry the knowledge required to achieve this in themselves. Take advantage of this strength, and do not be afraid to seek inspiration from the outside or to request coaching during the conceptualization or implementation. At the end of the day, however, you must accept responsibility for the change and the resulting consequences. Do not try to externalize that because you have all the skills on board that you need to define your own, successful path. Seize the opportunity; your employees will appreciate it.

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