It’s structure, not culture, that kills change

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Feb 24th, 2015

Are you attempting a large-scale transformation, taking your organisation on a journey to a leaner, fitter future so you can deliver delightful quality customer experiences responsively, seizing market opportunities or tackling problems even before they appear?

If so, then you’ve probably drunk the cool-aid that it’s all about culture, that you have to change the culture to make the change stick, that “culture eats strategy for breakfast“, that tinkering in the engine to give it turbo powers is useless if the driver doesn’t want to drive faster.

All true, of course; but it’s bigger than that, it’s worse than that, and it’s uglier than that. You can do everything in your powers to win hearts and minds, for people to come willingly on the journey, for people to want to drive the change themselves because they have seen the top of the mountain, they know how good it could be and they want it for themselves. However, if you don’t change your structures, if you don’t change how your organisation makes decisions, funds its choices, and oversees them to ensure success, if you don’t cut away toothless hierarchical layers to create focused teams with delegated authority, you are essentially give your car a turbo engine, getting the driver all hyped up about going faster, and then hooking up a 40-foot container trailer full of lead weight.

In short, if culture eats strategy for breakfast, then structure eats culture for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

As sticky, awkward, and uncomfortable as it is for organisations to change how they feel and behave to become an effective organisation in the 21st century; it is far harder to change the very structure of your organisation, deliberately engineer the progressive redundancy of two-thirds of your work-force, literally pivot to put the customer at the centre of everything you do; like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, to shed years of dead weight and emerge as a lean organisation that can compete directly with the new startups coming at you from left-field and chipping away at your market until you’re left only with those customers who cannot or dare not switch, and you know they will steadily die off until you have nothing left.

It’s hard, and yet, it’s harder not to change because you will eventually wither to a shadow of your former glory and, after a long winter of organisational incontinence, quietly pass away unnoticed.

So, if you are still making a profit, and by trimming margins here or there, can increase profits or at least arrest the decline as you lose market share, where is the incentive to start that journey? Where is the burning platform, or as Kotter put it, the urgency to change?

In your heart of hearts, you know; you know that you have a wicked problem; and, knowing that, you owe it to future holders of your office to deal with it, now. You cannot in all conscience continue to kick the can down the street and let someone else handle it later, after you have moved on. So, how do you tackle this, where do you start, what should your first steps be?

There is no answer, no potted answer anyway; no ten-step plan from Harvard Business Review or Boston Consulting Group that is guaranteed to get you there. There is only strength, stamina, and a willingness to stumble and graze your knee on the way.

If you want your organisation to get leaner and fitter, then you need to start with yourselves. You need to embrace what it means mentally and physically to think different, to act different, to be different. Think big, start small, and act fast.

Work out where you think you want to be. Don’t get hung up on how difficult it’s going to be. Accept now that you don’t know everything you need in order to get there. Admit that you will need to reach out for help to others around you. Be open, be mindful, be curious.

Establish that frightening big hairy audacious goal, then look at what could be a first step toward it. Don’t take a timid step, a faltering eyes-shut half-shuffle forwards; because you will get rebuffed, you will get set back, you will get shoulder-charged by those who don’t want to change. Set yourself a target that is a huge leap forwards, so that when you get knocked back, and you will, you are still further ahead than when you started. Be bold, be big, be beautiful.

Make each step an experiment that is safe to fail, and turn it around quickly, so if it fails it fails fast and you learn fast so you can pivot, change tack, adapt your path, and take another step forwards. Create enough of these to make it harder for the corporate anti-bodies to kill them off. Do enough of these so that you can find what works and amplify it, shine a strong light on it.

When you find something in the strategic sweet spot that delights customers, fits your capabilities, and nobody else can do — then maximise on it fast, monopolise on it as much as you can.

Then keep doing this. Build on this. Prove what can be done with fewer people, fewer hurdles, and less money. Make a case for taking out the organisational scalpel, and trim away what you don’t need.

That stage won’t be nice, it won’t feel good, especially if you are moving toward being customer-centric and people-centric, it will be hard to make whole areas of your organisation redundant. But know this, if you avoid the hard decisions now, it will be even more painful later. The longer you leave it, the tougher it will get. Not everyone will admire you for this, some will even hate you for it; but if you are not causing a reaction you are not making enough change fast enough.

I asked earlier where was the burning platform. Don’t look in the obvious places, under your feet or in front of you. The burning platform could be anywhere, it could be hidden from view right now, or (worse) it could already be behind you. You could have faced it last year and chosen not to respond, so that already your organisation is being eaten away; maybe your organisation is carrying so much weight that you cannot see the affects of it yet. You might see the problem but think that it’s only smouldering or smoking at the moment; but like tackling bush fires, as soon as you take your eye off it, it will flare up and consume another outbuilding.

Whether you can see them or not, know that burning platforms are there, all around us — we know this, yet seem scared to admit it, even to ourselves. Sometimes the burning platform can be ourselves; when we have become so comfortable that we have stopped learning, stopped adapting, stopped improving, then we have become the tool of our own downfall.

Wake up, smell the charcoal, look for where the smoke is coming, and do something about it — one bold, mindful, fast step at a time.

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