“The world of chemical reactions is like a stage… The actors on it are the elements.”Clemens Winkler (German chemist 1838 – 1904)
To be a corporate catalyst inciting change within an organisation or an industry is an exciting role. However, it is also a stressful, frustrating and oftentimes lonely one. A catalyst is a change maker, but change is one of the hardest things for people. The status quo by its very nature does not give up without a fight.
When an organisation hires a change maker, the leaders who do that must realise that is only the first step on a long road ahead. Many organisations mistakenly believe they can hire a head of innovation, corporate innovator or intrapreneur and these people will transform the business. For a true chemical reaction to occur, there is so much more involved. Yes the change maker can catalyse change, but the organisation must also be primed for change. For this Thursday Thought, the chemical reaction involved in lighting a match provides a (ahem) striking metaphor.
Safety match heads contain sulphur and oxidising agents, with powdered glass, colorants, fillers, and a binder made of glue and starch. The striking surface consists of powdered glass or sand, red phosphorus, binder, and filler. Early matches were cumbersome and inherently dangerous. The major innovation in the development of safety matches was the use of red phosphorus, not on the head of the match but instead on a specially designed striking surface.
Let’s extract some analogies here for corporate change.
The Striking Surface
A specially prepared surface provided the breakthrough that enabled mass-scale production of safety matches. Previous inventors focussed on the match alone.
In corporate transformation efforts (of which 75% fail) leaders often expect the change maker to succeed when left to their own devices. This is impossible. The change maker may have some small wins, but they will often be disconnected and random. Real change can only happen when leadership prepares the surface for change by dedicating consistent energy towards change initiatives. Leaders must prepare the surface by creating the right conditions for the spark to take place. Therefore, a different sense of match is required, the match between the catalysts and the organisation.
The Chemical Reaction
While catalysts ignite a chemical reaction, they do not feature in the final product. In a similar vein, change makers orchestrate change, but have to hand over so much of the credit to those in positions of power or status, who will take credit for the successes and deflect the blame for failed experiments back onto the change maker.
This can be very difficult for a change maker, so often they have set the stage for success, but must take leave of it before the curtain call.
It is great for the organisation, but for the change maker they can feel like the tail end of a pantomime horse.
This role of catalyst can also mean that leaders do not recognise the work of a change maker, because others take credit for that work. Months of influencing, providing evidence, persuading and cajoling is hard to quantify. When a change maker gets quizzed on tangible outputs, they can often be found wanting. This is why leaders must be involved and provide air cover for the catalysts.
The Pain of the Coalface
Catalysts are at the coal face and this means they consistently encounter resistance, rejection and ostracisation. The workplace can often resemble the school yard, with bullies, power struggles and leaving others out. Many catalysts don’t have any tenure, status or power in the form of people and finances. They must trade good will and credit for success if an initiative works out. It is a difficult and dangerous for your career, often it doesn’t work out. Most of the time, the catalyst don’t fail the organisation, the organisation fails them.
“The world of chemical reactions is like a stage,” German chemist Clemens Winkler said, “The actors on it are the elements.” When it comes to corporate change, it takes more than one actor, it takes an entire troupe.
THANKS FOR READING
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