If you want sustainable, human-centric change, you need to allow for people to “pull” the change into their world by choice.
How Change Spreads
When suggesting organisational change of some sort, the reception tends to be mixed (even if it seems positive on the surface). Some people and teams will be ignited by idea. They have been longing for this and can’t wait to get started. Some will be neutral, others turned off. The principle of pulled change informs us to start with the people that are ready to go, because they are most likely to get going by introducing something new into the team. In other words, to pull change into their world1.
One way of looking at this is through the lens of the innovation adoption cycle. This curve depicts how new technology or ideas spread through a population. We can use it for thinking about how new ideas and ways of working spread through an organisation.
To allow for change to be pulled in, we avoid spending time trying to convince late majority and laggards. These groups are very conservative and would need to be forced, which we don’t want to do. Basically, they will only consider trying something new when every one else is doing it. Instead, we can use the change power of innovators and early adopters to create references. These references will be needed to win over the early majority. When half of the company has changed, the rest will happen by momentum.
This is not to say we shouldn’t talk to “the resistance”. You can gain incredible amounts of information from just listening to people who don’t want to participate. And sometimes, just from listening well, they change their minds. All I’m saying here is not spend time trying to sell it to the most conservative group first because they won’t buy.
Setting a Bad Example
Another application of this principle is to let a team pull in new practices instead of inflicting change on them. As an illustration, let me tell you a story of a failed change of mine.
Some years back, I was a manager for a development team. We had worked together for a couple of months and things were looking good. We knew each other and I could see signs of them taking responsibility and owning their world, but at the same time they had so much to learn.
They had no scheduled team learning session so I set up a weekly hour for this purpose, assuming they would understand the importance of learning and benefit from my immense knowledge (ha ha). For the first session, three out of eight team members turned up. We did TDD katas and I thought the low participant number was just a coincidence. Next week, again, three people. Now I was getting worried. To the 3rd session, no one came. After 10 minutes, two representatives from the team showed up and told me that the team did not see enough reason to come to these learning sessions.
“What!?” I was hurt. Why go the extra mile as a manager for this kind of response? But I also felt a bit ashamed. I realised I had skipped the ground work and had tried to push a new practice on the team. After some thinking, I also realised this was another sign of the team becoming more self-organized. Just because I valued learning so much I thought they did as well. I still believe they would have had fun and learned tonnes, but that was not good coaching on my part. As Aaron Dignan would put it, we need to do it through them, not to them.
Why let people pull in change? Why not just tell them what to do? After all, they’re getting paid to work. The reasons for this detour are two-fold: Sustainability and respect for people.
To me it seems obvious that shallow or unsustainable change is meaningless. What is the point of ticking the boxes, except ego comfort? What’s the point of compliance when you’re looking for engagement? The results are often disappointing and the change quietly discontinued. If you want sustainable change, you need to let people chose themselves.
This is also a more people positive2 stance, based on the fundamental belief that people are capable and intrinsically motivated to do a good job3. Finally, it comes down to one of the Toyota Way pillars: Respect for People4. Pushing change on people is disrespectful and too bossy for my taste.
Dealing with the System
With this reasoning we could well be faced with a situation where we really see a need for change in the organisation, but we can’t push it onto people. That seems impossible. How would we go about?
Flow where you can. Pull where you must. Never Push. — Kanban mantra
For this, I’d like to take some inspiration from Kanban, a method for continuous improvement based on flow and visualisation. We could view change as a kind of flow. My approach has three parts:
- If change is happening regularly on its own, recognise and encourage this.
- When change is not yet happening, change the conditions for change. Spend time understanding what’s preventing change. Be confident that when the conditions are right, change will be pulled in.
- Never push change on people.
The most interesting and common situation is when change is not happening even though we think it should. We have told them why, we have painted a vision poster together, and given them training, but things just continue as they always have.
For the immature or misguided leader, this is a sign of incompetence. “We have told them what to do and they’re not doing it. Are they stupid?” (Hint: Probably not.) That’s when you start hearing comments about “a need to drive change” and questions from the CEO about who’s leading the resistance. This is when organisations start pushing change onto people. Please avoid that path.
Unless the team takes ownership, sustainable change is not possible.
A much nicer and I think more interesting route is to genuinely ask yourself: What could be the problem? Now you get to use your curiosity. Now you are a detective. In my experience, the main suspects are to be found in the context (or system) around the group or in the group mindset. My primary suspects are organisational structure, leadership behaviour, and team working climate.
There could be structures in place that prevent change from happening. Perhaps there are incentives involved? Perhaps there is a process or policy in place that counteracts our goal? Is there is an issue in the way our goals are defined? Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not uncommon for neighboring groups and departments to have contradictory goals. Or did someone make an unsubstantiated promise and is now trying to save face?
Perhaps it’s a leadership issue? What behaviour is typically rewarded in the organisation? Are people feeling safe enough to mix things up? What if we fail? How have we been treating failure in our organisation? And what questions are the leaders asking publicly? Are they asking when it’s done (bad) or are they asking what we have tried so far (good)?
Or is it in the group dynamics? Perhaps the team harbors an unhelpful belief around work? For example, after years of mismanagement, it’s not unreasonable for a team to feel like victims; just pawns in the game being shuffled around with no agency of their own. It’s not unreasonable, but also not helpful. Sometimes, things have changed but people haven’t noticed yet. Unless the team takes ownership, sustainable change is not possible.
As a leader, when you have discovered what’s preventing change you have change work on your own. Working on the system is change work for leadership. Use the same approach as your team. You know the current condition, you know the outcome you’re after, and you know at least one obstacle. Can you come up with an experiment to change the conditions? How would you recognise success in that case? Keep working on the conditions until change comes easier.
Patience and a curious mindset are your friends when you are guiding people through change.
1Credit to Bjarte Bogsnes, who was the first one I heard articulating organisational change as a “pull-based approach”.
2Expression from the book Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan
3Fundamentally, Theory Y over Theory X
4The Toyota Way, as described by Toyota