Despite massive investments of time and money, innovation remains a frustrating pursuit in many companies. Innovation and transformation initiatives frequently fail, and intrapreneurs have a hard time sustaining their efforts. Driving change in large organizations often feels like the loneliest job in the world: working 80h weeks, facing the uphill battle every day with very little support from the rest of the organization. We talk about how important it is to embrace change, but so many of us are enslaved to the idea of (false) security and afraid of uncertainty that any change inevitably brings, that we end up feeling powerless and disconnected from our true sense of purpose, with staggering numbers reporting high levels of anxiety, burnout, and even depression.
If we look at any of the studies done by McKinsey or other Big 4s, over 70% of transformation efforts fail. We have all worked in organizations where each year brings another series of multiple, competing efforts, without alignment, coordination, or regard to employees’ well-being. A lot of these efforts are focused on what we like to call digital transformation, with the investment going toward building new systems and platforms, automating and outsourcing work, with little to no work being done on understanding and advancing collective vision and purpose, or protecting people and the environment and with most of the executive teams still being incentivized only to deliver shareholder value. These short term strategies of optimization and cost-cutting are the reason we rarely see truly transformative innovation efforts happening around us, and even fewer focused on solving problems we are now facing as a society: increased levels of poverty, inequality, mental health issues, a decline of our education systems, climate change urgency, etc.
But as they say, no one ever gets fired for hiring McKinsey, and billions of $ are still spent each year on transformation programs worldwide. Having been involved with efforts like these for the past 20 years — as an employee and a consultant, what strikes me as astounding is that no one talks about preparing these organizations for the change first. If we were to look into nature, we would know planting a new crop requires deep cultivation of the soil before any new seeds can be sown. So why is it that when we decide to implement a new process or engage in yet another transformation effort in our organizations, we don’t think about cultivating and preparing the “soil”: getting our culture and people ready for what is to come? How is it possible that we don’t start by questioning values, beliefs, ways of working that we need to change or let go of and which prevent us from connecting, and working towards common goals, shared purpose and collective well-being?
It’s time we rethink our approach to system change and take into consideration that our organizations are complex organisms of individuals with different backgrounds, skills, experiences, needs, and habits. The chances of changing these complex systems and creating anything new that is greater than the sum of its parts is much higher if we first look at the foundations on which these organizations have been built.
“We create ourselves by what we choose to notice. Once this work of self-authorship has begun, we inhabit the world we’ve created. We self-seal. We don’t notice anything except those things that confirm what we already think about who we already are… When we succeed in moving outside our normal processes of self-reference and can look upon ourselves with self-awareness, then we have a chance at changing. We break the seal. We notice something new.” Margaret Wheatley
By going through the often uncomfortable process of “breaking the seal” and deconstructing what is, we create a space for new thinking to emerge, where we can approach problems in a new way instead of trying to solve them using the same kind of thinking that created them in the first place. Only once our foundation is sound, our soil ready can we create something new.
So what does the process of deconstruction look like?
- It starts with our inner narrative: our stories, feelings, values and beliefs, things that we know to be true. We need to be ready to challenge ourselves and look at what is holding us back from embracing new experiences. As Mark Twain said, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened”. We all have stories, traumas, unhealed emotions that we are holding on to, afraid of letting go. How many of us stay in jobs, relationships which are unhealthy for us, because we are afraid to leave? Day after day I meet people who refer to their work environment as “toxic” and “dysfunctional” and yet very few of us find the courage to make the necessary changes. We have become hostages to our inner narrative. (George Kohlrieser, “Hostage at the table”) and it’s not until we let go of our habits and behaviors that we can open up to learning something new.
- If letting go of what is holding us back individually isn’t hard enough, we also need to look at our collective stories as teams, organizations, communities — things that we collectively know to be true, that are so ingrained in our culture that we take them at a face value. All those processes, systems and rules are something we have designed, and as such can be changed. It’s time we question the norm, let go of the past and start to create from a place of emerging future. As Muhammad Yunus, Nobel prize laureate points out “If we keep driving on the old roads, we will end up with the old destination. The old road will always lead you to the old destination. If you want to go to a new destination, you need to build new roads. It’s a very simple truth but we don’t follow it. We want to go to a new destination on an old road. But that’s not possible.”
- Most importantly, we all need to take accountability for our complacency and start working on creating the world we want to see. The change will not happen unless we all step up. This means embracing our vulnerability, making uncomfortable and scary decisions, having brave and open conversations, building partnerships and communities where we can co-create new solutions that positively impact our organizations, communities, and society at large.
It takes courageous leadership to let go of what no longer serves us — individually and collectively. To hold space so we can grieve for what was lost, and celebrate the experiences that have led us to this point. To connect on a human level and support each other’s healing. To look at the problems we are facing with newfound curiosity and wonder. To create the space not burdened by the past, but full of possibility and freedom, in which creativity and innovation can flourish. Let us begin…
Published By @empiregenius