In Homer’s Odyssey, one of the many dangers our hero faces is the Sirens. According to a warning from the goddess Circe, these winged monster women are part bird and part human. These beasts hypnotize sailors, causing them to crash their boats into rocks and land. Heeding the warnings of Circe, Odysseus instructs his sailors to plug their ears with beeswax, given to him by Circe, to prevent their hearing the Siren song. However, Odysseus straps himself to the mast of the ship so he can listen to the song of the Sirens without steering the ship toward danger. With Circe’s aid, the crew sails safely through the straits and narrowly avoids an untimely death.
The myth is a great illustration of the phenomenon of physical self-binding, where we create a literal physical barrier and/or geographical distance between ourselves and whatever is drawing us in. Physical self-binding recognises that willpower is not enough and is a prevalent term in the field of addiction. As we all know, but rarely recognise, willpower is a limited resource. Just like a muscle will power tires throughout the day. On the lower end of the physical self-binding spectrum think of hiding the cookies in the top drawer and on the upper end of the spectrum think of medications to treat alcohol addiction.
On the innovation show this week, we host Dr Anna Lembke, who writes brilliantly on the lure of addiction in a society of instant access. In her book, “Dopamine Nation”, Anna tells about one of her patients who was so addicted to food that the only way she made progress was through the physical self-binding strategy of anatomical changes to her body. Such physical self-binding and weight-loss surgeries include gastric banding, sleeve gastrectomy, and gastric bypass.
Now, what does this have to do with organisational change initiatives, Odysseus, Sirens and gastric banding? Maybe I have heard the song of the Siren myself, but I think it provides a great metaphor for what happens in change initiatives. Let me explain.
Just as the Sirens beguile sailors towards their death, short-term goals induce leaders towards disruption.
Boards, leaders, middle-management and sales teams are rewarded for short-term achievement. Even though leaders know longer-term goals are essential for organisational longevity and even with great intentions of long-term strategy, leaders are conditioned by short-term goals. This competition between short-term and long-term goals is a key source of organisational failure.
To succeed organisations need to recalibrate recognition, reward and organisational habits. This is extremely difficult. Over 70% of organisational transformation efforts fail for the same reason that most New Year’s Resolutions fail, we cannot change business models until we change mental models: we can’t change what we do until we change how we think. Many people who have worked for years in legacy, successful companies, have developed stubborn organisational habits, that are very difficult to rewire and just like Anna’s patient they need more drastic interventions.
Sometimes, as Jack Welch remarked it is easier to replace them than to change their institutional habits, as he put it, “the best way to ensure successful change management is to start by changing the management.” I see this as organisational physical self-binding, this is akin to installing a gastric band on the organisation, to restrain long-term employees from falling back into their old habits. Even when long-term employees have the willpower, their old habits die hard. It is a tough dilemma for leaders, the tradeoff between retraining or replacing. Either way, there is a lot of pain, but both are possible.
We discuss these points further in a 4-part episode on the Innovation Show with the author of Hidden Truths, David Fubini. He tells us “The clear priority for a CEO embarking on major shifts is to have the right people in place to make a big change successful. Indeed, the exact nature of a planned change is less important than knowing you have the people to execute the change.” This is why newly-minted leaders often instal their own team. They bring in a group of people that they trust, they have been in the trenches with, but as per the topic of the post, they know these people have the right habits for the job.
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