Being a Change Agent

Where organizational change begins.

Traditional organizational development is based on the theory that organizations are systems. Therefore, to change an organization, you analyze what’s going wrong in the system and recommend appropriate changes to restore the system to health and balance. Edgar Schein and Peter Senge love this approach.

I’ve always thought that the theory was bogus. In one sense, organizations are systems—or at least you can choose to look it them that way. Sometimes that’s helpful, like when you’re process mapping or trying to figure out why your compensation system is accidentally rewarding the wrong things. As a temporary problem-solving tool, looking at an organization as a system is useful when applied to processes.

In traditional systems-thinking OD, the role of change agent is fix-it person. That approach may change the system but it never changes the people. I’ve never had an experience with a fix-it person that I found personally transformational, whether it’s with the car repair tech or a plumber. They change the oil or they fix the leaky pipes, and while that removes a source of anxiety for me, it doesn’t change me in the least. So why would we think that a fix-it person approach could transform an organization?

The problem with the systems approach is that organizations are full of those inconveniences we call human beings, and you can’t really change a culture by simply perfecting its systems, practices, processes and procedures. You have to change the human beings—or, more accurately, you have to get the human beings in the organization to want to change themselves.

Alternative OD takes a completely different view that I have found to be far more effective because it allows the change agent to appeal to the higher level needs in people rather than the lower level needs associated with organizational processes. Most people go into an organization with the need to be effective, to demonstrate competence, to feel like their work matters. Focusing on organizational process and bureaucracy may be superficially helpful but it doesn’t come close to satisfying the needs of most, so the change agent winds up fixing things and wondering why the people are still the same. The reason is that by looking at an organization through a systems lens, you essentially devalue the people: they’re just system components.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel my destiny is to be a component.

Alternative OD starts from a completely different perspective: it believes that all organizational change starts with the self, not the system:

We can never forget that in trying to change an organization, we are acting from the self. We therefore need to be willing to engage the self in self-exploration because it is fundamental to acquiring the self-reflexive insight that is a prerequisite to the development of a more viable organization.

Organizations are human creations. We lose sight of that by focusing on structures, on job descriptions, on process, on rules. You can change all of those aspects of an organization and nothing really changes at the core. That is why transformational change begins with self: it is the only authentic source for change.

It is therefore important that we not only understand the social order but the person, and we cannot understand the person without self-understanding. Only through these understandings can we hope to make changes to organizations and improve collective effectiveness. We need to call into question our understanding of organizations and provide a reflexive critique of meaning of the relationship between the person and the social reality from which our experience of organizations emerges.

Even if you’re a traditional systems-thinking OD practitioner, this approach elevates your role to something far more important than handyman or handy-woman. If you’re authentic, you’re honest; if you’re honest with self and others, you have no hidden agenda; and you can begin to engage people in meaningful dialogue that just might get them to talk about the thing they’re trying to protect—the thing that serves as their primary reason for resisting change.

It also helps you avoid the ethical trap that ensnares most change agents: working on something you know isn’t really going to change things but might make things a little better and allow you to pay your bills. If you truly work on self-awareness and authenticity, you’ll be much more likely to make an honest assessment of the desire of the people in the organization to engage in a real change effort, and rather than waste your time, energy and spirit with people who don’t want to change, you’ll have the confidence to move on to something more fulfilling and meaningful.

Quote source: Notes for upcoming book on organizational development.

How to Breathe Life into Employee Engagement Surveys, Part 2


Once your organization has gathered the feedback from the employee engagement survey, it’s time to focus on the critical components that ultimately determine the success or failure of the process: analyzing the survey results and following up with action plans. Together skillful analysis and targeted actions is what breathes life into the survey process.

Analyzing Engagement Survey Data

Simply stated, the goal of analyzing the survey data is to use the information to discover trends, truths and insights that are revealed through the employee feedback. In other words, the numbers will tell a story and it is the role of those involved in analyzing the results to find the story behind the numbers. A skilled interpreter will use their intuition and curiosity as well as sharp analytical skills to uncover the truth in the data and hidden opportunities. Here are a few tips that will help get you started.

1.         Whether you’re looking at total organizational results or the results of a specific group or department, you want to look at the data on three levels: the overall results, the broad categories (benefits, satisfaction with supervisor) and each individual question.

2.         If you have multiple department-level reports, it is helpful to compare and contrast them.

3.         Don’t rush the analysis. Allow yourself time to ruminate on the information.  Go back to the original goals of the survey and see how you fared. Look at the data from the perspective of your personal experience of the organization for results that don’t fit that perspective. If something doesn’t make sense look for the pattern that brings it into focus even if it means looking through a different lens.

The challenges of analysis can be demonstrated through an experience I had while working as the HR leader for a global, geographically-dispersed business team. During our first year we had great results—or so we thought at first. The engagement scores had improved from the previous year and were generally higher than the overall organization, and in most cases higher than the external benchmarks. The reports also indicated that most of the functional areas and the business leaders had above-average overall engagement scores. However, when I looked at the results from a geographical perspective, there were wide swings in satisfaction. I then conducted an analysis of my business team based on physical location rather than reporting structure. Boy, did the picture change! Once I turned the data around it became clear that employees felt less and less satisfied in the quality and quantity of communication they received and the resources available to them the further they worked from the corporate office. People in the US who were located in smaller or home offices away from corporate had lower engagement responses. The folks in Europe and APAC also had lower scores that followed the same declining trend when their physical location moved further from a “central office.” The light bulb went on: if we were going to create an effective global business we had to improve our communication and processes for employees who worked outside of the corporate office. This insight turned out to be low hanging fruit and we were able to implement meaningful action to address the issues in less than one year. We just had to uncover the need.

Action-Planning and Follow-up

Ultimately, the success and employee trust in the engagement survey process will be evaluated by the actions taken by top leadership. Note that I did not say by the “action plans, “ because the plans are useless if they are not translated into sustainable, meaningful actions. The golden rule for action planning is: “You must have an unwavering commitment from the top leadership down to meet your commitments.” Some experts are using the term impact planning instead of action planning, a change we wholeheartedly embrace.  We believe this slight change of reference puts the focus on the fact that the actions must translate into meaningful results.

The importance of the follow-up cannot be stated strongly enough, as shown in a Gallup study on employee engagement surveys. In the study they measured responses to the statement, “Action Plans from my last survey have had a positive impact on my workplace.” Companies who had a score in the top quartile reported an overall increase in engagement of 10% over the previous year. Conversely, companies who scored in the lowest quartile had a 3% decrease in overall engagement and no doubt experienced negative knock-on effects.

In addition to the “golden rule” here are a few tips on how to turn action planning into impact planning.

1.         Keep it simple, focused and committed. Identify the top 3-5 items to which the organization will commit and execute on them, flawlessly. Don’t commit to making a long list of changes. Evaluate what the organization can do and is willing to do.

2.         Get clarification on any feedback you don’t understand. For example, if the organization scored poorly in the area of communication, ensure that you understand exactly where people perceive the communication gaps and focus your action on closing those gaps.

3.         Designate an owner for each action item. Ensure the person has sufficient authority and resources to handle the task to ensure full accountability.  It may also be beneficial to create an employee team to work on the task. Consider adding performance and participation on the team to the goals for all team members.

4.         Once you have communicated the action plans, be sure to track the progress made and provide timely and periodic updates to the larger organization. Celebrate milestones whenever possible.

5.         Ensure that the actions you take link to business priorities and are stated as measurable goals. Remember: the goal of an engagement survey is not just to get better score next time! The actions you take should have clear objective, metrics to measure success and tie to the organization’s business in a meaningful way.


Beliefs, Truths and The Bottom Line: OD Realities


After working in the field of organizational development for several years, I have had to learn many hard truths about organizational change in business.

The first hard truth I’ve had to accept about business is that the good guys don’t always win. I know of several massively dysfunctional organizations that make tons of money and are recognized as the darlings of Wall Street. In these organizations, vision and values have no connection to reality, and people remain primarily because they get a piece of the action in the form of “sticky” compensation plans or relatively rich benefits. While these organizations may advertise themselves as places where people matter, or as collaborative environments where people can make a difference, the truth is that their employee relations strategy is to pay off the people they need, and replace the rest whenever it’s convenient or practical to do so.

Truth #1: Cynical, sad, but true: organizational success, defined only in bottom line terms, has nothing to do with whether or not people are happy, fulfilled or have the opportunity to find meaning in their work. If people believe that profit is all that matters, whether you’re talking about business or personal profit, there is little you can do to change the belief if they can “prove” that it’s true and their needs for money and status are satisfied.

Another hard truth I’ve had to learn is that what people believe is more important than “the truth,” and that even distorted beliefs can have enormous staying power. All of the dysfunctional organizations mentioned above have a core of “true believers” in leadership positions who, as long as they perceive themselves as favored children and continue to get a piece of the action, will defend the organization and hold the vision and values as gospel, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Much like the Communists of old, they constantly and publicly proclaim their loyalty and commitment to the organization’s direction and dogma, and root out non-believers who fail to get with the program. Generally they avoid the “show trials” used by the Communists and instead use stealth and secrecy to maneuver non-believers out of the organization. They do this because deep down inside, they know that the foundation on which they’ve built their beliefs is a very fragile thing, so they feel threatened by anyone who questions that foundation.

Truth #2: Organizational success depends more on the strength of the belief system, no matter how distorted that belief system may be. “If we believe it, it must be true” is a very powerful force. As long as an organization possesses a few leaders with the ability to effectively respond to opportunities and threats in the marketplace with crystalline clarity, its chances of bottom line success remain high if those leaders can convince the people that do the work that the direction has a payoff. The process of convincing people of that does not require in any way that leaders tell the truth. “If they believe it, that’s good enough.” Distortion “works” if enough people believe in the distorted information.

The third truth is the most important, because it opens the door to positive change. Sometimes leadership’s sales pitches don’t work and people don’t get with the program. The frustrated response of leadership is to “clean house.” These efforts are rarely successful because the belief system has a life of its own. If you talk to people who have served in the Navy, you’ll find that many are absolutely convinced that there’s such a thing as a “bad ship.” This is a ship that is so cursed and unlucky that even if you replaced all the officers and crew with new ones, the curse would remain in place and it would continue to be a bad ship. They’re actually right! The myth of the bad ship spreads like wildfire through the ranks, so anyone transferred to the ship goes in believing that they’re in for an unlucky experience. It’s a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same is true for organizations with a bad reputation in the employment market: if “everyone knows” that an organization is a mess, they’ll either avoid the place entirely or, desperate for a job, join the organization with teeth clenched, prepared for the worst.

Truth #3: Belief systems can become myths and myths have a life of their own. Ignore myths at your peril! The key to successful and healthy organizational change is to identify the myths, expose them as myths and reeducate people to deal with the world as is rather than what they would like it to be.

That last truth is connected to another truth: organizations move away from a bottom line mentality only when its members, especially those in leadership, feel enough pain to motivate them to change their beliefs and habits. When everyone’s making money and feeling flush, it’s easy to ignore the distortions, waste, inauthenticity and absurdity that characterize a dysfunctional organization. Only when an organization experiences failure will its members become willing to face the truth and begin to create an organization that is something more than an entity that exploits and is exploited by its members.

The final truth involves something every organizational development practitioner has to accept: not everyone shares your values! While you may believe in the importance of creating a humane workplace where people collaborate to create a truly meaningful and productive work experience, that belief may not be shared by people grounded in the hard world of profit and loss. This is why an OD practitioner has to assess each consulting opportunity with cold objectivity, and determine whether they’re hiring you to help create positive change or engaging in a window-dressing exercise.

Still, even if you think the odds are a long shot, go for it if there are few slivers of tangible evidence that positive change may be possible. There are few experiences in life as satisfying as helping people face the truth, learn how to deal with it and choose their own directions.

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The Integration of HR, OD and Training

business team

I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to be a first-hand witness to events that clearly demonstrated how not to do things.

While finishing up my graduate work, I was making a living in the Corporate OD group at a company that was once a major player in the technology field. Although I was somewhere near the bottom of the hierarchy as the trainer of first-line supervisory development programs, I did get to interact with some of the gurus at the top, a few of whom later went to work for Tom Peters and other big names in the field. The point of interaction involved the implementation of a company-wide quality program, a major change initiative (to say the least).

As the change process moved forward, it became clear that a major obstacle stood in the way: The HR Department. They refused to change the performance review system to incorporate the tenets of the new quality program. They rejected the suggestion to review the compensation program to ensure it was aligned with the messages we wanted to embed in the culture. The HR Department even refused to send their people to the mandatory quality training classes, choosing not to participate in the program at all. Nearly every other department in the company had specific plans to incorporate the principles of the new quality program into their internal processes, but the HR Department stubbornly declined to participate.

Why? The truth is was that the HR VP and the OD VP couldn’t stand each other. They spent as much time taking potshots at each other and engaging in political gamesmanship as they did on the work they were hired to do. Combine that with a hands-off CEO who found conflict terribly unpleasant, and you have a sure-fire recipe for organizational dysfunction.

The quality program was implemented with great fanfare, but never really took hold. Without HR’s support, key systems were never changed to support the initiative, creating a whole lot of noise in a communication channel that needed complete clarity. People felt the company was sending out mixed messages, and many started to believe that the company really wasn’t serious about quality. People became cynical and began referring to the quality program as “flavor-of-the-month.”

This experience led me to the firm belief in the value of the complete integration of all human-side functions: HR, OD and Training. All of these functions share the same goal: helping to create a great place to work. All of these functions need to communicate the same philosophy, the same values and the same messages about what the organization is trying to achieve and why. Even more importantly, these functions need to resolve any obvious or underlying conflicts to avoid sending out mixed messages, and the easiest way to do that is to unite the functions under a leader who is fully committed to building common ground and helping people to learn from the different perspectives on the team.

In my three stints as top HR leader, this was always one of my goals, and I ran into the same obstacles every time. Training and OD people often resist being associated with HR because HR has the reputation as The Department of You Can’t Do That! OD people in particular tend not to want to get their hands dirty with such pedestrian issues as compensation and benefits, and some of the more snooty OD people view HR people as “less than” in terms of education and intellect. For their part, HR professionals receive very little real education in change management, organizational development and learning theory, and the education they do receive in these fields is fairly superficial.

So, the first thing you need to do is . . . educate them all! Show the HR people that their initiatives would be much more successful if they approached them as change-and-learning initiatives instead of program roll-outs. Show the OD people that many core messages and values emanate from HR, from the wording of policies to the priorities of the sales compensation program, and those messages must be considered as a factor in any careful analysis of the culture. Show the training people that both HR and OD need their expertise in both direct message delivery and in developing teaching skills that make learning an exciting experience. In other words, you have to convince them that they have much to learn from each other and that collaboration will lead to better outcomes for all.

Once you educate them on the philosophy, the next step is to put them together on a project so they can learn from each other and use those learnings to improve the outcome. Benefits is a great place to demonstrate this because it covers all the bases (and if you don’t think that revamping your health plan in today’s environment constitutes a major change-and-learning initiative, you’re crazy). Benefit design choices are loaded with messages about how the company views its relationship with its employees (OD); the complexity of choices and the shift to consumer-driven health care requires education (training); and the plan must remain competitive with a very dynamic market (HR). Cut OD out of the loop and you could wind up with a benefits plan message that contradicts the messages of your culture change initiative, weakening the effectiveness of both initiatives and creating unnecessary cynicism. Leave out the educational component of benefits and you create a legion of frustrated and confused people who will likely conclude that the company is not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, thus damaging the trust that is needed to support most HR and OD activities.

You’ll find an equally powerful opportunity in HR policies. Seriously!

At one company, we implemented a massive leadership development program based on a message of personal responsibility. Since you can’t expect people to build personal responsibility unless you allow them to make choices and experience the consequences, we encouraged leaders to manage people by giving them choices rather than imposing solutions. Somewhere in the middle of the initial program roll-out, one of the HR people, who was in the midst of expanding her skill set to include OD and Training, pointed out that our policies were sending a contradictory message. They were telling leaders and employees what they had to do instead of giving them choices.

I was a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of that, but I got over it pretty quickly.

Following her lead and bringing in other members of the team, we went through the 150-page policy manual and stripped out every sentence that denied people choices except where the law required us to deny choices. The policy manual shrunk from 150 to 14 pages (!) and the slimmed-down version passed the requisite attorney review. When we published our modest little volume, it sent a clear message that we were serious about personal responsibility, and both managers and employees responded very favorably. The combination of empowering leaders and employees to resolve their own problems reduced our employee relations workload considerably, and we went four years without a single lawsuit or discrimination charge.

The power of these three functions working together is considerable. Focusing these groups towards the common goal of workplace improvement increases the likelihood that improvement will actually take place. While it’s possible to build collaboration between different departments, my experience tells me you get more through organizational integration. With everyone on the same team, you have a better chance to increase cross-specialty learning, unite people behind a shared vision and create stronger initiatives characterized by clear, consistent messages.

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The Truth Is Out There. Good Luck Finding It.

One of Dr. Deming’s core prescriptions was, “Decisions must be based on truth.” After reading Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, I now appreciate how difficult it is to achieve what sounds pretty simple.

Nate Silver has gained fame for his remarkably accurate election forecasts, but what’s important to those of us in the field of organizational development is how he does it.

The foundation of Silver’s approach to forecasting is a disciplined search for the truth. This is simple in theory, but as he points out, most of our forecasts are biased by human failings of one kind or another. Silver demonstrates very clearly how our forecasts fall short in a wide variety of areas, from predicting the stock market to playing poker—all of which are subject to almost childlike human biases and instincts. His analyses of failed predictions in these fields clearly demonstrate how herd behavior, GroupThink and other phenomena that OD practitioners run into on a daily basis create detours on the path to truth.

In fact, Silver argues that our forecasting is getting worse in many areas. You may wonder how this is possible now that we have virtually unlimited access to information.

Guess what? According to Silver, that’s the whole problem:

The instinctual shortcut that we take when we have “too much information” is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.

We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it. The last forty years of human history imply that it can still take a long time to translate information into useful knowledge, and that if we are not careful, we may take a step back in the meantime.

This selective use of data (which violates both Deming’s prescription and DeBono’s rules concerning The White Hat) was on full display during the recent presidential campaign. What concerned me was not so much the b. s. generated by politicians on both sides but the reaction of friends and colleagues to the onslaught of nonsense. They aped the politicians, using disconnected facts to justify their positions. They took sides. As Silver points out, this is a human tendency dating back to the appearance of the printing press:

The amount of information was increasing much more rapidly than our understanding of what to do with it, or our ability to differentiate the useful information from the mistruths.  Paradoxically, the result of having so much more shared knowledge was increasing isolation along national and religious lines.

This is why we should not adopt an attitude of superiority towards our hopeless political leaders. We are all susceptible to selective processing of information and we all fall into the habit of doing it despite our awareness of the negative consequences. Everyone who has worked in a dysfunctional organization knows that a lot of the reason those organizations are dysfunctional lies in the inability to tell, accept and deal with the truth. In these organizations, the CEO is always right, poor performance is due to forces outside of the organization’s control, and no one takes responsibility for anything, using selective facts to blame the whole problem on someone else. Truth-picking is an accepted survival mechanism in the dysfunctional organization.

The failure to look the truth square in the eye is the foundation of what we call “organizational politics,” and as we witnessed in this year’s campaign, politics can make for a very unpleasant experience. This is why it is incumbent on the OD practitioner to realize that he or she is subject to the same biases as every other human being and that searching for and helping others discover the truth about an organizational situation requires both self-awareness and a great deal of self-discipline.

The truth is out there. It’s not going to be easy to find it, but making an iron-clad commitment to do so is the first step.


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