Several years ago, I worked in a legacy organization and my manager asked to create a digital strategy, something I had done many times before (I don’t believe in digital strategies, I believe in strategies enabled by digital). Most departments in this organization did not communicate or collaborate. I felt I should zoom right out to show the overall concept before zooming in to the detail. I created a simple diagram of vertical pillars to represent the silos in the organisation. One of the pillars was the digital department, a silo in itself. As I progressed through my slides, the digital vertical gradually diffused across the other vertical pillars. When I presented this to my manager, she was vexed and asked, “What would happen to the digital department?”. “The whole organisation needs to become digitally literate, we should upskill everyone.”, was my firm belief. She didn’t like that, it meant a loss of power, status and control. While I left a few months afterwards, several people from the digital department held the door open for me. It was a difficult, but extremely valuable experience, that gave me a deep understanding of the challenge of organizational transformation.
I share this story for several reasons. The main point of this Thursday Thought is that many people in a similar position to me, believe(d) that, “It is better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission.” We also subscribe to what Picasso said, “The first act of creation is one of destruction.” However, I understand now that this approach is useful in certain situations, but when it comes to legacy organization transformation efforts, it will fail. Unless you are going to gut the organization like a Black Dinner or Red Wedding, you will not change mindsets in a positive sense and you will turn most of the organisation against you, even if they know you mean well. If you consider yourself a pioneer, you will definitely take some arrows.
(What Goes Around by DestinyBlue)
The following approach can help tilt the (already poor) odds of success in your favour (75% of transformation efforts fail). Our guest on this week’s Innovation Show, Bruce Tulgantells us, “You have to go vertically before you go sideways (or diagonally)“. While Bruce’s work centres on organizational and personal excellence, this nugget of wisdom is valuable for organizational transformation work.
Those working in change and innovation are often very resilient, this tough skin helps us survive the many battles we fight, but resilience will not win the war. When you are in a position such as Head of “Innovation/Change/Transformation/New Incubator/Fighter Brand” you are not in charge, but somebody is. Decisions are being made at a higher level. Your work often means operating without authority and leaning heavily on influence. You work things out at multiple levels— working sideways and diagonally. You do not see hierarchy and status as a blocker, you try to win others over with kindness and offer them the credit for your hard-fought victories. Your thinking is that you will use these “acts of kindness” as leverage in the future. However, you will always reach a point where you need buy-in.
While working as an innovation consultant in New York, I was developing a relationship with a client. This client thought he had the authority to book my services for his team. After weeks of emails, meetings, phone calls we eventually had the opportunity to meet his boss. When I presented to his boss, she looked at him in disbelief. She said to my contact, “This is way beyond your pay grade, we are working on this as part of a group strategy.” She apologised to me for wasting my time, but I could only feel great sympathy for the Head of Innovation who had acted with the authority that he thought he had.
When he left that company a few months later, he apologised to me and said he was gobsmacked and embarrassed. That moment helped him realise his role was to merely rearrange the deckchairs on the sinking Titanic, to put lipstick on a pig. He asked me if I was angry, “No, I truly empathise”, I replied, “I fell victim to a similar fate.” He proceeded to complain about “them” (the status quo) and looked to me for approval, but I answered, that it is an “us” problem as well as “them”. Here is what we might have done differently.
Stage One: Align Yourself (with the Company)
In the interview for the role in the first place, decipher how “real” the role is. What kind of innovation/transformation does the organization want? Incremental? Transformational? How familiar is the existing workforce with innovating? And do you have board support? Will you have a budget for training, experiments, implementation? Will you have access to decision-makers? Will you be a decision-maker? How much authority do you have? Will you be able to implement new structures? What if you succeed?
(Before you even go for the interview and ascertain the company values, you need to know yourself, your values, what you stand for. Coaching is key.)
Stage Two: Align Vertically
You’ve got to know who your boss is and align yourself with the people making decisions: you’ve got to start vertically. Then you have to check in regularly. Keep an updated activity log, this work is painfully slow, so meetings can take weeks to organize and will often be cancelled last minute. Remember the status quo by its very nature does not want you to succeed. In addition, you will have lots of feigned misunderstanding, as Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” In many cases, people will claim they don’t get it, the more threatened they are, the less they will “understand you” and the more they will begin to derail you. Be prepared, it is easy for a group of people to paint a picture of you and tarnish your reputation. We should expect sabotage, there is a term in politics called opposition research—where others will attempt to smear and discredit opponents. You will experience sabotage in some form, you always do whether you know it or not. This is why regular contact upwards is essential.
Stage 3: Align Horizontally and then Multi-Directionally
Once you are aligned vertically, then you can move diagonally. In change roles, you are often solicited to input on various projects across the organization, once aligned upwards, you can decide which other projects are worth your investment. This can be difficult for change-makers because by their very nature want to help and create some reciprocal goodwill. Pause, reflect and remember that this willingness to contribute can be used against you. The snakes in the grass will look for evidence that you are “off scope” or “not adhering to your job spec” or swimming out of your lane.
Once you keep aligned with those who provide “air cover” then you can collaborate and contribute horizontally and diagonally inside and outside the organization. This sounds like a corporate straitjacket, but it is a necessary evil. You need to remain connected vertically in order to succeed in every other direction.
Oh, there is one last twist…
What happens when you find out your boss does not want you to succeed?
Do you know that scene in movies where the good guy defeats all the bad guys and gets to the end of the movie only to discover that the real bad guy was their boss?
Think “L.A. Confidential” or “Robocop”.
If you could not detect this in the interview process, then you have no choice but to leave. As long as they are in power you are a corporate Sisyphus. As Mark Twain said, “Don’t try and teach a pig to sing. It’s a waste of your time, and it annoys the pig.” Likewise, don’t try to teach a pig to innovate, especially when they want to remain a pig. Let them apply their own lipstick.
THANKS FOR READING