Force of Nature Change

“What are the odds of a snow day in October?”

This was my response to my kids telling me how wonderful it would be if school were to close on Halloween. Not only would they have more time to finish their costumes, but they were imagining the fun of an extended afternoon and evening of trick-or-treating.

While it may not be nice to fool Mother Nature, the converse is apparently not true. Here in the northeast, we got a Halloween snowstorm. Not only did schools close on Halloween, they closed for the next two days as well. So much for the odds.

But Mother Nature’s little treat quickly revealed itself as a trick: due to downed trees and power lines, Halloween was postponed, and ended up being the evening of a school day after all.

Now, the fact is, if someone had proposed moving Halloween in our town, the uproar would have been fast and furious. But when Mother Nature makes a change, it can be best described as, well, a force of nature.

When you are Mother Nature, that approach works extremely well. Unfortunately, attempting to be a force of nature as a way of creating change tends to work somewhat less well. Mother Nature, it turns out, holds the exclusive rights on being a force of nature.

Which brings us to a company known as Mandragora. Mandragora had long been very successful in its markets, and was facing a number of new competitors. They were also finding it extremely difficult to compete against some of the newer, smaller, and more nimble companies they were facing.

Change was necessary! And change was instituted. Like a force of nature, Mandragora’s management team announced sweeping changes to how the company was organized and how it did business. There was the usual grumbling and complaining, which was, of course, ignored. Forces of nature do not listen to grumbling and complaining.

Indeed, the force of nature approach initially appeared to work. Changes did occur in how people worked and how they approached customers. But over the next few months, behavior drifted back to what it was before the change.

A new change was announced. It too had short-term success before people returned to their old ways of working. So it went, with each change initiative lasting for less and less time before returning to the status quo.

Mother Nature never gets tired and never runs out of resources. The same could not be said for the management team at Mandragora. Eventually, having exhausted all other options, they decided to ask for help.

Solving their problem wasn’t terribly difficult, but it did require respecting Mother Nature’s patent on the force of nature approach. Rather than simply announce a new change initiative, the first step was to enable the employees to convince themselves that the status quo wasn’t working and that a lasting change would be a good idea.

Once that was accomplished, the employees were further drawn into the change process by being asked for ideas and suggestions on what should change and how to make the changes work. Where the force of nature approach had yielded unenthusiastic compliance, employees were now taking the lead. As an unexpected benefit, employees also identified several change opportunities that management had missed. The management team incorporated that information into the evolving vision of how Mandragora would look after the changes were complete and fed it back to employees, increasing their enthusiasm and eliminating many of their concerns about the process.

Still, though, when it came time to begin implementing changes, there was a certain amount of reluctance. The solution was to provide opportunities for employees and managers to practice the new ways of working.

Naturally, the initial response to that step was, “It’ll take much too long!”

In fact, it took less than a fifth of the time that had already been spent in failed change attempts and a similar fraction of the cost. Providing practice opportunities meant that employees had time to become comfortable with the new paradigms and see how the changes would improve their lives. Practicing with management reinforced the message that “we’re all in this together.”

Throughout the process, employee concerns were addressed promptly and effectively. Mistakes were handled by identifying and fixing causes as opposed to fixing responsibility. Fixing responsibility, it turns out, does not fix problems. Fixing causes, however, does.

This time around, the changes stuck.

Now, if you happen to be Mother Nature, the force of nature approach can be a natural way of doing things. Mother Nature is also rather unconcerned about outcomes or how much havoc she inflicts along the way. For the rest of us, however, taking things slowly is a much faster way of accomplishing our goals.

Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit www.7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or steve@7stepsahead.com.

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