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Knowing You Have to Change Isn’t Enough

August 30, 20233 min read

Knowing You Have to Change Isn’t Enough

In my last post I talked about how leaders need to change if they want their organisations to change. I think most leaders on the wrong side of change know something has to be different, but what, exactly? And how?

It is not enough to know we need to change; we must also know what to change to, and how.

I can give a start on what, but how is much harder. It’s very much an individual journey. I’m not sure there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. We’ll start with what, and see how things go.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Your organisation is almost certainly built on command and control principles introduced in the 1800s. I’m not knocking those principles, they served industry well for more than 100 years. But times change, and needs change. Unfortunately, ingrained habits and organisational memory is very difficult to change.

Let’s go back to the 1800s for a minute. Management at this time, wanted to know what everybody was doing. They wanted to know why. And they wanted to know who to blame when things didn’t happen correctly (see train-wreck management for a primer on why). Company structures, with functional silos, and super-specific job descriptions, are the result of management wanting to know who to blame — who to fire — when things go wrong.

You know those people in your organisation who won’t step outside their job description? Who won’t help an adjacent area, or lift a finger to do more than they have to? That’s intentional. According to those that created job descriptions, that behaviour is exactly what they intended — nobody steps out of their realm of specialisation. Job descriptions were specifically created as a tool to ensure nobody was doing something they shouldn’t be.

Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

Is that you? Is it what you want to be? Is it what you want your teams to be? Does it help you when your developers won’t write tests, your sales people aren’t interested in learning about product, or your product people don’t care about debt or code quality?

If you want them to change, first you have to let go of the notion that highly siloed, functional job descriptions are useful. You have to let go of the subconscious notion that if things go wrong, at least you’ll know who to blame.

High-performing organisations don’t blame people when things go wrong. They know the system puts significant restraints on what people can do, and if something went wrong, it’s probably down to how the system works. There’s no point in blaming individuals.

High-performing organisations trust their staff to make the right decision, given the right information. As a leader, your job is no longer about knowing the right decision, but building an environment where people who know their roles better than you ever will are comfortable making decisions.

Do you know what erodes people’s willingness to take risks, and therefore make independent decisions? Blame. When someone gets in trouble for a decision made in good faith, it reduces their (and everybody else’s) desire to make decisions. Instead of a workforce of experts collaborating and crafting amazing things, you get a hidebound organisation where all decisions are kicked up to you, and everything moves at a crawl.

Ultimately, your ability to bring about successful change depends on your desire to acknowledge your own beliefs, face them, and change them. Once you’ve changed your thinking, the rest will be much easier.

In summary, here are a few things you can do to start introducing change, both in yourself, and in your teams:

  1. Let go of the notion that blame has any part to play in your organisation

  2. Reduce the number and specificity of job titles

  3. When a mistake happens, investigate how the system allowed or encouraged it to happen. Even better, let your people do it, and ask them what they find.

There’s a lot more to do, but there’s a good chance you’ll find these challenges difficult enough, even as a starting point. They’ll require more change from you than I think you expect.

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