Change! Why do companies only get incremental results?

Change! Why do companies only get incremental results?

When the @rebelsatwork Corporate Rebels conference happened last year we talked about how to accelerate change without wearing people out. In this month’s post on the Huffington Post Great Workplaces section I tackled the topic again. You can read the full post at Adapting Change to Fit Complexity but to give you an idea of why companies fail to get more the incremental tweaks while creating change fatigue consider the difference in thinking between traditional change methods and methods that are aligned with the complex communities companies truly are.

Traditional Change: Companies where hierarchy structures authority rely on linear thinking. The idea is that companies are really machines, people are resources and nature’s contributions are donations. Using that line of thinking change is planned along the lines of: If we do this we’ll get this. Outcomes are predictable and engineered.

Change in Complexity: Companies are powered by people – living systems: communities of interactions that cut across the hierarchy to get things done using individual networks. Change works with what is emergent. The system responds to signals of meaning, not just any signal. Changing complex communities (systems) is done through subtle yet powerful processes such as narrative, Appreciative Inquiry, or the introduction of new systems that rely on interaction to operate. It is the social system that gets things done. Inspired change.

What is the difference and why is important now? Applying a systems perspective to complex communities means change is faster, friendlier, even fun when you’re working with complex communities of people because you’re working with what matters. Care, meaningful dialogue for instance. As Frijof Capra said in a Systems View of Life, you ‘tickle’ a complex system. Not bludgeon it.

How to select change methods that work in a complex system.

  1. Observe the social network. Follow the path that has heart and meaning for people. Quarterly reports are beyond boring. Metrics that don’t make a difference to the client/customer aren’t heart grabbing. Select processes that engage at a meaningful level.
  2. Provide autonomy over control. Trust is the most important value for effective change. The Moral Molecule by Paul Zak quotes Frances Frei from the Harvard Business School as saying the basic idea behind business is “to be of service.” Simple. Caring. Autonomy frees self-expression and capacity to do the right thing in a given circumstance.
  3. Trade certainty for creativity. Engaging change requires a certain amount of creativity. In fact, creativity is the only known antidote for uncertainty.


You are looking for ways to engage change that pay attention to what has heart and meaning (a universal principle across all cultures). As Nick Zeniuk put it in an early interview I did with him: “Follow the Joy“.

What works for high performance cultures also works for highly effective change.

Any one have great stories on change that worked using creativity?

Care to read on?

Boomer Executives: Will Leading Differently Today Improve the Legacy You Leave Tomorrow?

Boomer Executives: Will Leading Differently Today Improve the Legacy You Leave Tomorrow?

Do you remember the good old days when it was easier to make money?

The world was simpler, less challenging and more predictable? If you are an executive Boomer it is likely you would prefer returning back to the past. Then, systems and processes led to lucrative predictable outcomes. But change is intense and coming from many directions. It all adds up to a more complex world.

Many Millennials and new hires working in Boomer executive lead companies are puzzled. Why are the cogs in the wheel working so hard? What is the point and purpose? Why are change agents creating resistance? Why are companies asking for innovation and creativity but making risk adverse decisions? Why are Boomer executives aiming for retirement leaving the company on idle and exposed to the risk of failure? Is it fear?

Why is the mantra ‘you’ll get used to it’ persistently used to explain doing things that don’t work in today’s economy? Is the idea that everyone become a zombie? Is waiting for Boomers to retire a viable strategy?

People aren’t equipped to deal with the changing world either inside or outside the company boundaries. Awareness of the need to step back and rethink management decisions is slowly creeping above the horizon. Amidst the familiar call for product and process innovation, people are forgotten. Fundamental human needs, at the heart of design thinking, are being overlooked. Yet it is the power of the human spirit that could save the day.

What legacy do you want to leave? How are you leading your company into the future today? Will leading differently improve your legacy?

Voices of protest can be heard mumbling away.

Voice #1: “Change is for the young. I’ve paid my dues. Now I just want to enjoy life.”

Voice #2: “If I can just hang on until my retirement all will be well.”

Voice #3: “I have no idea how I’m going to retire and I have no idea how I’m going to keep working. It is killing me. I am a victim of circumstance.”

Boomer’s were taught that life is a runway. Waiting for you at some magical age on the runway is retirement and financial freedom. The idea is to get there. You have accumulated the material possessions. Next on the list is to have the freedom to do what you want to feel fulfilled. Most leave work to find it.

Check Stop #1: Expectations for retirement don’t match the funds available. Andrew Eschtruth, Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and co-author of “Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What to Do About It” points out chances are you’ll have to work longer. “If everybody worked until age 70, about 80 percent of people would be able to maintain their standard of living in retirement.” Seventy six million baby Boomers are on their way to the destination called “Stay at work much longer.”

Retirement is not an escape hatch for avoiding today’s challenges.

Check Stop #2: Basic human needs drive at least three things: 1) meaning 2) purpose 3) flexibility and autonomy.

When work has no meaning, lacks in purpose, or autonomy, retirement looks like a dream destination. However, the assumption that meaning, purpose and flexibility are waiting for you on retirement is just that. An assumption. Don’t count on it.

If I were watching and waiting for the senior executives who, by all accounts, fail to see the epic change pressuring their companies to adapt, I’d be concerned. Seriously concerned.

Activating the human spirit to do and be better for the world.

What’s the good news? Adversity is an outstanding accelerator for growth and creativity. Releasing untapped potential. Tackle the big challenges that affect us all. Together. Use the leadership talent at every level. And make money.

The Leadership Opportunity for Boomer Executives

What’s life like inside a company led by management clinging tightly to the past?

Dan Pontefract cites Kalixa Pro, a U.K.-based firm’s findings “that 49% of workers were so unhappy with their place of work that they believed their career choice was a mistake. An additional 24% were so disillusioned that they admitted to describing themselves as poor employees.” That is disconcerting. Already the legacy is tarnished.

What if the aim of executive leadership was to make a bigger contribution – to business being better?

What’s certain is that the outside world is changing fast. The economy is transitioning from linear to exponential growth. But decision-makers stick to linear thinking. Foresight and insight is unavailable when crisis or complacency dominates focus. Industrial era thinking clashes with creative thinking. Growth grinds to a halt – growth that benefits everyone including shareholders.

Stepping into the breach between the past and tomorrow takes courage. It is the chance to craft a fulfilling life with meaning and purpose. Growth doesn’t come from protecting existing successes. Truly inspired growth has a much bigger goal in mind.

What bigger goal might inspire you?

And what will your legacy be?

  • He bailed just before the ship went down.
  • Or he inspired us all to lead.

Simple steps toward resilient leadership:

  1. Gain greater comfort with uncertainty. You don’t need 100% certainty. In fact to win at high stakes poker 25% is enough.
  1. Choose growth. Step outside of your comfort zone. Trust that you know how to bounce better than anyone. Start simple. Even by listening to what is not being said you gain insight.
  1. Partner with employees, especially outliers (those not schooled in the industrially saturated MBA thinking). Millennials who see the big picture; new hires who see more objectively come to mind. Gain insight from fresh eyes and diverse perspectives.

From the outside it’s easy to see that the big companies are failing fast. Perhaps it is a necessary fall. And how many interconnected companies will fall with them?

The Boomer generation didn’t create Industrial age beliefs about the world of work but they did adopt them. Boomers also lived through Woodstock, LSD, Timothy Leary and the Vietnam War.

Can Boomer executives draw on those roots to become catalysts for business transformation?

Is it possible that executives from the Boomer generation will remember how good it feels to leave a legacy worth talking about?

I, for one, am hopeful.

What do you say?

Dawna Jones knows business can transform itself to be better for society and for the ecological systems we all rely on. Doing so requires working together creatively. She designs custom learning programs to widen perspective and bring decision-making skills and leadership to higher levels of service. The idea is to turn dormant potential loose by drawing on the best of what it means to be human.

Dawna is also the author of Decision Making for Dummies, on Steve Denning’s (Forbes) list of 8 noteworthy books for 2014.  She blogs for Huffington Post Great Workplaces, and hosts the Evolutionary Provocateur podcast.

Contact me to talk about your challenges with change. 

Navigating Beyond Profit to Achieve Wider Prosperity

Navigating Beyond Profit to Achieve Wider Prosperity

Almost unknowingly, business sits on the cusp of an awakening. No, it’s not a spiritual awakening; although it might feel like that to employees oppressed by management control. Rather, it’s an awakening of dormant creativity not reachable using traditional management methods. Fuelled by a compelling sense of purpose that accelerates profitability, it is a bridge connecting to a future with greater hope. It is a fundamental shift in the purpose of business, its leadership role and value to society.

In Decision Making for Dummies, I shared the story of a colleague who had worked with over a thousand companies. Based on observable patterns, he could accurately predict what the company would do next fifteen minutes after walking through the door. When questioned, the classic response was: ‘We know what we’re doing’ or ‘this is the way things are done around here’. Today executives are aware of the risk of being slow or unable to respond to surprises, including technological, social disruptions. Now is a good time to explore thinking flexibly. Use a wider lens to take in the bigger picture.

Widen the Frame

Chip and Dan Heath noted in Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, decision makers can get trapped into a narrow frame. The hazard of a narrow frame is that foresight and alternatives are blocked from view. The decision making context can change without giving notice. To illustrate, traditional companies restrict their ‘Why’ (sense of purpose) to making money (profit). It is proving to be not compelling enough to fully engage employee creativity – necessary in uncertainty. Yet, for the hard-core capitalist, it’s been enough.
That is changing. For society as a whole, for the communities where companies operate and for the ecological systems underwriting the economy – it is not enough. Nor is a narrow focus on profit enough to tackle the size of economic and social disruption. In fact, focusing 100% on profit increases risk exposure to dealing with the obscure effects of climate change for instance. The tables have turned 180 degrees.

Move to Purpose Driving Profit

Geoff MacDonald, former Global VP of HR for global giant Unilever put it this way.

“It’s a switch from profit being the purpose for a company’s existence, to purpose driving profit.”

The switch expands focus from short-term to achieve better balance with a longer view, beyond global domination. The switch in world-view expands ‘me’ to ‘we’, attracting shareholders who see the merit of being of service to society and the world we all live in.

An inspiring purpose isn’t limited to serving as the economic engine for society. It extends beyond financial security and survival. Employees can co-create solutions in teams and participate in challenges like the one issued by ThinkDif. Awakening the power of the human spirit to make radical jumps in dealing with complex challenges needs a beacon. A beacon needs to be strong enough to serve as a compelling focus to lift above the murky chaotic zones characteristic of culture change. Nothing about the past predicts what lies ahead.

Denial that the future is uncertain is no longer a viable strategy. Moving from denial and complacency to growth will take leadership that is divorced from authority. Sourced from within, this kind of leadership values growth, learning, autonomy, and meaningful interpersonal connections.

Everything is connected. Absolutely everything. Without capacity to see the inter-relationships, it has been easier to adopt a narrow frame just to remain within the comfort zone. The side effect? Controlling complexity represses creative talent.

Explore Alternatives Ways to Organize Work

Julian Wilson and Andrew Holm - Matt Black Systems
Julian Wilson and Andrew Holm – Matt Black Systems

Meet Julian Wilson and Andrew Holm from Matt Black Systems, a manufacturer of digital electronic components for the aerospace industry. After learning from a series of failed attempts at finding a better way of operating, they looked to Nature. Inspired by a leaf, they designed a way of working they call ‘Fractalism’. Each employee became a business, giving them the initiative and responsibility. Provided with the autonomy, skills and knowledge to run their own operation, employees share in the cost and contribute to research and development. Custom software supports operations, individual and strategic decisions. Think of individual cells each contributing to the vitality of the whole organism.
From thirty employees the company shrank down to twelve. Productivity rose over 300%. Profit and personal salaries doubled, a continuing trend. The key? Andrew and Julian realized the clue was embedded in the social system. Data helped unearth the insights in their case. Giving employees the freedom to be financially secure, enabled greater contribution. Walmart take note.

While Matt Black Systems created Fractalism, other companies are exploring alternative governance models. Self-management, Holacracy, Sociocracy 3.0, and LiquidO offer alternatives. Working with alternatives without insight into the internal social values in your company is risky. Data combined with observation, insight, experimentation, reflection and dialogue will result in an approach that fits.
Stop Throwing Away Money
Decision makers have assumed resources are in infinite supply. Landfills now hold more rare earth minerals than in all known global reserves, representing waste valued at $70 billion dollars. Telecom Sprint avoided $1 billion in costs by repurposing cell phones that still had all their functionality but weren’t ‘cool’ anymore. A tilt in perspective means companies can see opportunities currently being overlooked.

Expand Awareness and Skills

Engaging employees and customers in the achievement of business goals demands:
• Making decisions as if you know nothing. No matter how much experience you have, the only way to navigate uncertainty is to keep asking questions – stay curious. Open the mind! Disrupt habits.
• Looking back on your decisions. Identify one core value that consistently affirms the core values and sense of higher purpose in your company. Use it to align your strategic decisions. Novo Nordisk’s is ‘systemic health’.
• Reflecting on the character and underlying beliefs in your company. What drives behaviour? Is the focus still on profit and cutting costs? Or on serving a higher, wider, beneficial purpose?

In the end, the choice is to grow or to attempt to protect exposure to change. Where is your company in the arc of transforming from limited to exponential growth?

The original source for this article was published in the Huffington Post October 30, 2015.

Dawna activates and guides transformation of people and companies to work with uncertainty and change fluently. Contact me to discuss the bottlenecks you’re seeing, and to establish the starting point. 

3 Ways Companies Create Resistance to Change

3 Ways Companies Create Resistance to Change

Unintentionally change agents in the manager or free-agent role can create resistance. By being aware of brain science, the impact of wrong metrics and what drives decisions you can reduce resistance and use more effective change methods that fit complex communities.

Imagine you’re at the top of Whistler Mountain and you’ve never skied before. Someone you know but don’t necessarily respect or trust has told you downhill skiing is good for you and financial performance will improve once you’ve thrown yourself down 2,000+ vertical meters (5,000 feet). You might consider it if your working life would also improve. Suddenly your boss pushes you, or your boss’s boss and you’re flying down a double black diamond (expert double time) run. There’s no fireplace or martini in site. No hot tub or spa. You are literally airborne with no guarantee of survival. How would that work for you?

When companies decide to implement change, managers and all those impacted are told to ‘make it so’ in the words of Jean-Luc Picard for non-Star Trekkies. Managers can make decisions without considering the impact on anyone especially employees. Not all do, but they can. Their position of authority gives them permission. Picard’s directives worked because there was a high level of trust. But trust isn’t a given in most companies especially ones relying on authority based command and control management style.

A lot has been written on the logical part of change, which could easily summed up by ‘Don’t push!’ yet companies continue to do so. They also overlook the obvious (if it weren’t so ignored) reality.

Company performance is powered by people’s creativity and contribution.

Disengage that and you’ve set up resistance. What are companies overlooking that causes resistance and undermines trust?

1: Everything is Connected to Everything Else

When you’re being pushed to make a change, you’ll pass the pushing on. It’s a natural thing to do and it is a direct function of being immersed in an environment that favors pushing over taking initiative. Step back to observe what over arching dynamic is being created. Replacing the push approach with inviting employees to take the initiative. Give them control to design a positive experience.

Caveat: You can’t control what they do or you’ve just made the environment unsafe again but you can set parameters and constraints. See Step 2 and 3.

2: Companies are Really Communities of Connected, Caring People

Most change initiatives are treated like you’re fixing the engine of your car. But you’re not a mechanic. You are making decisions that have an impact on people’s lives. Responsible leadership and decision-making demands engaging those impacted in the design and implementation.

Engaging the organization in people friendly change means handing over the tasks of redesigning the systems used to get things done to those who are tasked with getting things done. Leaders must exist at every level or the capacity of the company will be limited to short term financial reports, which ignore the impact on social and ecological health. Business as usual is no longer an option.

Note: If in #1, permission has been given to take the initiative but nothing has happened you’ll know that the risk of doing so is greater than the perception of genuine care from management and others.

3: Human Beings Still Think Like Cavemen

From a brain science point of view you and I are still cavemen. The brain is quick to pick up on change and then decides if it’s important to survival or not. Friend or foe? Foe dominates over ‘friend’ until trust is established and so the gap widens between managers, change agents and those feeling powerless to influence what happens next. Unless the environment is saturated in high trust, the flight, fright, flee or freeze part of the brain kicks in and survival takes over. Decisions made out of fear are prone to failure because negative emotions impair thinking and slow intuition.

Biologically speaking your body functions in either growth or protection mode. Organizations operate pretty much the same way by definition.

The best antidote is to replace the fear of losing control with greater trust in creative talent. Shifting to a level of higher trust as a leader means being willing to grow – to develop the advanced skills that enable you to let go of control knowing you’re not going to lose it – but will gain some personal freedom, more sleep at night and better relationships.

The dynamic between growth and protection can be obscured by the state of emergency a company operates in so it is wise to engage your new hires as intentional overseers of what is going on because they aren’t immersed in the routine yet and can see more clearly what is working for or against desired change. You can also use an outside observer to provide essential feedback.

Unless you’ve paid attention to creating a workplace where trust, a strong sense of belonging and supportive relationships provide emotional safety, change initiatives will create resistance. The good news is that you can use change to recalibrate the workplace environment to higher levels of trust by how you choose to engage.

Moving Forward

The biggest mistake companies make is to act as if the mechanics measuring performance are more important than the people powering it. Implementing change in a complex adaptive community where for every action there is a reaction, asks for a growth mindset on the part of all and a willingness to rethink the metrics so that they measure what matters to the overall performance of the company and not just one interested party, most often shareholders.

The beauty of investing time to understand what makes change efforts effective is in the speed and scope of the change. Systems matter. And so do people.

Join me for a 30-minute program on Reducing Resistance to Change in Companies – Thursday, January 21st or Saturday, January 23, 2016 (so far).

Register here:

Dawna provides peer-leadership support and advanced skill sets to internal change agents and new hires in the role of change agent (including managers, product or project owners). She also oversees organizational transformation so that the entire dynamic reveals the most effective leverage points to minimize risk of complacency.