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Why Culture Change Can Blow up in Your Face, and How to Prevent It



Katherine Kirk exposes ‘invisible forces’ which can cause our attempt at changing culture to blow up in our face.


Katherine Kirk is an independent Agile/Lean Coach and an international conference speaker. Her primary area of expertise lies in co-discovery and insight facilitation through exploring and combining eastern and tribal philosophy to find answers to tough issues, specifically involving contextually driven edge-cases and the cultural interaction between hierarchical management and Agile/Lean teams.

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[Note: please be advised that this transcript contains strong language]


Kirk: Why culture change can blow up in your face? How hard is culture to change? I was thinking about this because I think quite deeply about things and differently about things. In my head, I had a little chuckle because I had a thought that came into my head. I suddenly thought imagine Christmas Day, English, the traditions, how long it's been the way it is. Imagine an English family and the way they're going to have the turkey and the Brussels sprouts and whatever else it is that they have. Then imagine that you're a bit of a youngin and you decide, "Oh my God, I've heard of this thing. It's like vegan." I think that because my parents have now got physical problems and my grandfather's got diabetes, "We should be having vegan just for one day."

Then I find because I'm still this cool youngin is I work out, "Oh, Buddhism is really cool. Lots of meditation, compassion, interdependency. We so need that in our family." I begin to campaign because I'd like to have Christmas Day, a meditative Buddhist Christmas Day with vegan food once. there you can see how difficult that job would be and how hard it would be to pick yourself up against the culture, to change perception, and you're just asking a family for one day.

I like to use that as an example because families don't choose each other and we don't either when we work together, so we get the same dynamics happening at work. That's what I wanted to plant first is that's what I think this track is about.

Culture change to me has a usual routine to it, I've been brought in so many times. We have this really nice inspired time where we're inventing amazing things and coming up with excellent words like 'collaboration' and 'innovate'. Then we spend some time convincing everybody. Then we have this rollout time where we're all fierce, aren't we, so fierce. Then everybody else is like, "Maybe, but I'll have a go. I'll see." Then we come to a point where something happens they go, "Hmm, that wasn't in the plan. That reaction wasn't in the plan, not really sure what's happening."

Then, of course, it's never 100%. Let's just try tons of stuff, tons of stuff, we try this, we try this, and after a period of time things start to blow up. That's the pattern I see because that's when I get called in is step five. I'm not kidding you, I never get this bit, I go from shit situation to shit situation. My introduction is I'm a "hell specialist." This is what I have become over time and I take it that I am a student of difficulty, I'm obsessed with it. I want to know how do we turn difficulty into effectiveness. I think of myself as someone who really admires people in emergency services, where an accident has happened and everybody else is running away but they're running in going, "How can I help?"

I've worked really hard by studying eastern philosophical techniques, a variety of them from Hindu to Sikh to Buddhism to whatever to try and work out how I can toughen myself up and be of service, but also how I can help people who are in those circumstances and can't run away and can't get out. That's basically what I have ended up becoming.

Why have I got this job then? Are we all in hell? Well, my favorite thing to do is I like to empower others by revealing so-called "invisible forces." There are invisible forces that are going on that we can't see and then we get these massive surprises, "Oh my God, what was that?" When you can see these forces you don't have any surprises. You go, "Oh yes, there you are. I predicted you." Then my favorite thing to do is to illuminate. I don't create practical ways forward. I cannot possibly know the pain and suffering and the context people are in. I like to illuminate practical ways that people can deal with it so they can come up with the answers, that's what I do. I have a program where you can learn five patterns in eight weeks where it will illuminate to you the scenario and what you might be able to do about it, if you're in hell that is because you have to be pretty desperate to hire me.

Borrow from Buddhist Monks and Nuns

I often borrow from Buddhist monks and nuns because I couldn't work out how come for so long, why was this the case? Everything I tried from Buddhism seemed to have a real effectiveness to it and then recently I came to "Oh my God, these guys they're meditating and they don't want to be disturbed." They're really into stuff that empowers people, so people go away.

Christians are really gentle kind, full of heart and they go, "Come to me and ask. Come to me and ask and we'll talk it out." We'll have priests and all sorts of stuff that can stand there and give you advice day by day but monks, no they're tough. They're like, "Hmm, these people have been pissing me off for so long. I'm going to try and find the pattern in the universe that I can teach them so they can go away and be fixed for as long as possible so I can sit and meditate." That's their aim.

Most of what they do is trying to empower others through meditation, through looking at the world differently. I take those patterns and translate them into tech and business and what I find is people get empowered. The problem is you can't make heaps of money out of it because they fix and then I've got to move on. That's maybe why I'm not creating a movement, because people know that.

The big difficulty that you can see when you look at these patterns is that reality and what you want clash and that's difficult, that's the basis. What happens then? What do we do then when what we want clashes with reality?

I've studied from a monk for a number of years about 12 to 15 years. I've found a way just very simple, see things as they are with these invisible forces. Empower yourself, individuals, teams, calm down, start solving things. Work out a realistic pathway forward. You wouldn't believe how hard it is to use that word 'realistic'. Then this one, follow through.

Hint, hint, realistic expectations. I thought, "How do I introduce this invisible force?" Don't be getting too worked up over it, it's not going to blow your socks off but let's just call it the invisible force. I'm just going to talk about a typical scenario, because I work in hell scenarios, Dan goes, "Give us case studies." Most of the people I work with do not want their dirty laundry to be revealed, so I can't name people and if I do it doesn't mean that they're a really bad place to work.

Case Study

My current client is the economist and cucumber and a few other things that I'm working on. I've worked in large organizations as a permanent coach for long periods of times, small teams up to 300 people, leadership, you name it, I've done it. I thought, "Here's a typical scenario of what I see happening." I'm going to use Agile and Lean as an example, but this doesn't mean that that's the culture we're going to talk about.

Our project manager has this little kickoff, finds out about Agile and Lean, gets agreement from the team and leadership, reviews the new culture that they're going to put in, get very excited and they go, "We're going to do a rollout." The boss goes, "Well, that makes me happy but give me a projection." The project manager goes, and I've seen this often, like one or two months, that's about, intensive so we don't waste money. Then they have this rollout unity and determination, lots of inspired actions, lots of push. Then they go, "We won. We're Agile." The consultants and the specialists and the contractors leave, and the training is over, and it does run a bit longer than we expected but everything does and it all should be worth it.

Then there's a wobble just in the middle there, the project manager reports in and says, "Yes, it's been rough. Everyone's doing Agile and Lean." The boss goes, "Yes, I know that. That's fine but I'm expecting those improvements you promised me." The project manager's going, "Oh, my reputation's on this one. Sure." Goes back out into the culture dealing with resistance, getting depression, dealing with anger.

Then the results started to come through, everyone is not getting along, there's this blame and shame that's going on, there's this comparison. These people are Lean Agile culture people and these people are so not, so, we got factions. Then there's this HR time, I am so bored for going in for HR time, it's not the answer, people. You can't keep replacing human beings and expecting to solve problems in this way but anyway, let's talk about it. "Let's sack everybody that's not Agile and Lean." That's the favorite one. "They're not in our culture, let's just sack them." Let's ignore the fact that they might be the global architect that's been around for 10 years and the whole damn thing's going to crash. "Get rid of him. His heart's not in the right place." Project manager's running around like a mad thing, change agent's running around like a mad thing and we have this thing called burnout. That's when people call me because that's when they're brave enough to hear the truth. Then they're saying, "Oh my God, will do anything."

Burning out from what? That's the question. What are they burning out from? Oh, reassuring, inspiring, mediating, keeping positive, HR meetings, supporting your direct reports more than you ever thought could be physically possible, reminding people “It's an Agile Lean culture, folks. Get along”. Reconvincing that Agile Lean is better, attending training thinking, "Oh, maybe it's us. Let's get some coaching," etc. High churn, burning people out, that's the stuff that burns people out. Keep your eye on that particular slide and you just remember.

Then there's this fallout that the boss gets unhappy, "Agile and Lean doesn't work." Change agents are exhausted, they're panicking. When I turn up, they're like, "Yes, what's contracting like? Thinking about doing it." Then teams and specialists, if they know Agile and Lean they go, "Agile and Lean is not being done properly," and they want to tell everybody about it. They'll keep telling the change agents, they keep telling the people in charge and then there's another camp that hasn't done Agile before that go, "See, Agile and Lean doesn't work." That's what happens, this is the routine.

The culture, what happened to it? All aspirations turn to blame, shame, self-pity, entitlement, resentment, competition. What the hell? What's the invisible force? Because we get the opposite result. All the practices are in place, having the meetings and the retrospectives and we're doing the planning sessions, but the culture isn't. Let's be truthful about that, I have not really often walked into an environment that's doing Agile and gone, "And it has an Agile culture.” It's different.

The Impact of Culture

That's when culture impairs delivery which is a bit like asking your partner to go to IKEA in a bad mood. You're going to get shit when he comes back, you've got to take care of culture because it affects delivery. You've got to take care of people when they're doing things for you like partners that go to IKEA so that when they go there, they go effective, think of you, come back with the stuff you asked for.

Let's have a think about how does this happen because that's where my obsession is, student of difficulty, I'm going to walk in. You only have to do it for this presentation and then it's over so don't worry. Take a step back, have a little cup of tea because we're in England.

What is culture? We can ask this question. We can say, "Can one person have culture? Can they or does it have to be between two people? Can you have conflicting cultures? Does it have to be between multiple groups? Is work versus society culture an interesting place to think? How do those things interact on the floor? Is culture from practices, goals? You know what? Fuck it. It's an endless conversation. I apologize for swearing then, it just came out, I'm Australian so please temper that. There are entire conferences, papers, and consultant specializations in those questions and I just don't have time to answer it and probably not the correct brain capacity to.

I need practice answers, practical solutions because my clients are in hell. I'm going to get back to that stuff that I learned from the monks and the nuns. The hard way, by the way, you can tell because I'm a little bitter when I say monks and nuns. Whatever the difficulty is, it's culminating into a behavior and this behavior is not conducive to delivery. That's what I'm seeing, that's it, very simple. Let's reflect on just the behavior.

Let's say that scenario, happy scenario, everything's working. We're really sold on the change and culture, willing behavior. In the middle, trying behavior. Sorting, succeeding, sword and mastery. At the end, victory, happy behavior or like, "Oh, this is kind of interesting." Then after some time there's a lot of verbal agreement: Resistance, confusion, exhaustion. The behavior's becoming more difficult over time. That's very interesting.

To me, I'm going, "That's the difficulty I'm interested in because that's when I get called in," as I said. I'm going, "Ok, how come this has happened?" Does that mean everybody are arseholes in that company and it just sort of came out at the end? No, everybody I meet is beautiful, wonderful, intelligent, well-meaning people. Psychopaths are only 3% of the population and most of those are in prison so this idea that we're all going psychopathic and narcissistic and Machiavellian on each other can't be that it comes inside, it's got to be something else.

Habitual Reaction

The sting in the tail, that's where I want to focus today. I've got the word 'drum roll' here, that means there's a bit of suspense coming because I'm going to reveal - that's what you use family for, that's my sister, she will pay for that later - the invisible force we fail to see, everybody. Habits, serious, the most unsexy answer you've ever seen. That's me, it's habitual reaction, let me explain because I just saw all your eyes drop, yes? "Oh my God. That's the rest of the presentation?" Yes, and that's what happens when I tell people, "Yes, I'm here to help you and we're going to get out of it and first, let's look at habits." You'd think someone died.

Ever gone on a health kick? In December, unhealthy over Christmas, eating a lot, drinking a lot, not sleeping, partying. You can fit a lot in between Christmas and New Year, can't you? I'm sure we have specialists in that area. Then January turns up and we go, "Oh my God, I am so now going to be good, I'm going to have my dry January, I'm going to vegan it." I can't even say it, "Vegan for the whole of January. I'm going to the gym, I'm doing it." Bloody fantastic, and the enthusiasm is there.

Let's reflect on behavior. What happens? Yes, we'll all agree just like the Agile teams. "This is a great idea." In the middle, we're looking at the middle of the Jan. Coming up we're going, "Sort of succeeding, sort of not. It's pretty hard." At the end of January going, "Yes, victory. We're going to continue on forever." February onwards, lots of verbal agreement. "Yes, I go to the gym. Don't drink, I mean, that much." Resistance, confusion, exhaustion. "Oh my God, there's a pattern here on how people work, how we are constructed."

Does that mean that “being healthy” is a dumb concept? Does that mean that Agile and Lean is a dumb concept? Of course not. It's a very important thing to have the aspiration to be healthy as it is to have a great and healthy culture. What's happening in February onwards is when the real difficulty starts. If you want to get healthy, like permanently healthy, not just have your January guilt experience, trying to alleviate your guilt, that's from February onwards, is how you get healthy.

What's happening there is we've done this amazing good thing but at the end our bad habits have kicked in after the inspired time has worn off. That's what's happened.

The Buddhist monks and nuns train you to focus on habits. Why? Because they don't want to be disturbed when you're meditating. They go, "Try this. Sit down, meditate." Someone comes up, "I did try it, but a few things happened." They're like, "Oh my God. Okay, try this and try that." They did that for 2,500 years. They went, "You know, this is not cool. I'm refining Buddhism so that when that person comes to me ..." They'll come up, "I've got this problem." They go, "Focus on your habits, see you in three months." Improvement happens. That's what they're interested in, that way they can meditate for three months undisturbed, that's an advantage.

Think about cigarette smoking, junk food, TV, all of those things. How many of you have gone, "I watch too much TV, too much TV. I'm going to stop completely for a while."? Then suddenly you find yourself sitting in front of the television going, "How did I end up here? How did I end up here watching the whatever show?" Or junk food, you catch yourself with your hand in a bag of chips with chips all over you and you go, "Oh, ugh." Think that. We forget that this applies at work, believe it or not. I'm serious, that's what we forget.

Bad habits come back again and again and it's our job to be prepared. We don't want to though, we don't want to factor in that in three months it's all going to go to shit again. We don't want to put that in our projections, our expectations, our judgments, and our assumptions.

After the inspired 'roll out' time frame we then, if you think about it, stupidly get surprised. We get surprised, we're like, "People in teams are faltering. My hand is inside the junk food." Coaches and facilitators and leads are in more demand. How much support do you need? Think about it, how much support will you need if you wanted to be fit after your special January experience? You're going to need a lot more support to keep it up February onwards to December. You've seen those shows where the guy's got the little pot belly and then he turns around and he's all chiseled. Go research what sort of support they needed to do that, it'll blow your mind. Leaders have had to do encouragement and support more than ever. What's that going to do when you've got a leader that all they do is scream at people? "I've told you before. We're an Agile culture."

After rollout people just need these things, these things that we complain about that people call me in and go, "Something's wrong, I'm having to do all this stuff." It's like, "No, that's your job. You just didn't factor it in.” If you aren't prepared, that's what blows things up in your face. The boss again is unhappy and the change agents are exhausted and thinking about contracting and the team specialists start to faction out.

Let's go back to the original story and let's add in the invisible force that we can see, let's pretend we can see. Here we go, assume that bad habits are going to return. What would happen to that story? Let's be quick. Our expectations and judgments and our assumptions would change a little bit because we might say that the rollout can be done in 2 months but then there might be 12 months of habitual behavior change, think about that. Are we going to sack people or are we going to hire? It's like, "Hang on, hang on, bad person or bad habit?" That global architect, "Is he a bad person or has he just been in the company for 20 years and he's got the habit of hierarchy?" That's how you retain good people. Should you promote, should you demote? Hang on, just have a wait and see is it habit or is it this person isn't going to be good at their job? With your assumptions, after two months the real effort for your leaders and the real effort for your change agents is going to go up. If you haven't got the capacity or the capability to do anything about it you better hire somebody who can.

Having A Plan and Its Benefits

Typical scenario, the kickoff, you've got the project manager says, "Lean rollout." Everybody's excited. The boss says, "Can I have a projection?" This time you go, "I'm just going to calculate habitual reaction," and I will have some practical steps at the end of this presentation that you can use. You go back to him and you go, "Yes, totally cool. Can do the roll out in two months just as we agreed.” However, there's this thing called - here we go, this'll work - embedding culture. It's going to take us 12 months to embed the culture, you can sell the practices and techniques in two months if that's the hell you want to create. Then you have to say, "But we have to embed culture."

You have your rollout unity and determination, this time you've got these two phases. You've got your prep phase where you've thought about it a bit now and the rollout phase which is your practices and techniques. Training is over and that's victory, then it starts to be the hard work. This is when I really advise you - this is my little handy trick - don't use the word 'culture', use the word 'habits', it changes the mind, I'll show you.

Now the work starts for leaders, change agents. This is where you are mastering habitual reaction. The bad habits kick off, you've got to unwind them, notice them, and you've got to create good habits. How do you do it? Do you scream at everybody? Is it successful when you're potty training a child to scream at the child every time it doesn't use the potty? No, that's bad parenting. You've got to, "It's ok, we'll get there." Even though, "I've got to clean the entire..." Not going to go into detail there, that's enough information. Patiently, diligently. How many change agents are in your company that have patience and diligence as their skill? Think about that one.

Be prepared that after you've got your phase one and your phase two of the rollout that people are going to need it. You can deny that if you like and then you can drown in hell but you can be prepared for it and have some chance of dealing with it.

There's a wobble in the middle. Project manager reports in says, "You're doing Agile like before." This time the boss is saying, "Oh no, I'm expecting those challenges. You said so." Fair enough, we've got our two-month practices and so on in place. I'm not saying every company is like this, remember, I said this is the best case, because I can do that, because I'm on stage.

Then phew, I can show progress, it's just going to take time. That's when you can measure elements of the culture that you've agreed on, that you're trying to work on and every month you can genuinely show that it's shifting so that people can see a graph if that's what's going to get them going. They can see a graph every month, "Oh, we're getting a bit better." Hope.

The benefit of doing this is there's less unnecessary sacking and HR terms. All those meetings you have about sacking people who aren't Agile you can focus on reassuring and helping and growing individuals. This is a benefit to retain people, just a handy hint. Better capacity management and projection for your change agents and leadership, you're going to inject a bit of time into their day to say, "Yes, we expect that your job is going to have all this reassurance and helping people change their habits and get prepared for that." Then understanding of capability, are your change agents really the best type of people to have in the habitual behavior changing time, in the embedding culture time? You can have change agents that are good to just initiate things but are they the kind of people that can help with this long-term stuff? Are leaderships capable? If they're not, there's no need to go fighting them, you just try and find ways like putting in a buffer, having an alternative reporting line, making sure that nobody on Earth ever speaks to them and speaks to someone else instead. These are the things you can do, use boards.

Why Do We Miss Including Habits

Why do we miss or ignore including habits in our projects, assumptions, judgments, and expectations? It's just a hard sell, it's a really hard sell, I bet you when I was talking about my best case half of you were going, "My boss would kill me if I said it's another 12 months." That's a hard sell. It's not that we're lying, it's like we're going, "We'll deal with that after. Just get Agile in." It doesn't feel instant and flashy like your face when I said, "This is the invisible force, habitual reaction." "I thought it was going to be something amazing."

We don't want to see weaknesses, you're so inspired about this new thing that you're going to put in, someone breaks your baby, someone turns around and does a derisk on it. "Oh, oh my God. Oh, all this stuff could go wrong." There's no need to give up, as a community we really don’t have the capability to do this kind of stuff. Never really focused ourselves in, we're all instant and flashy and distracted and like, "Quick, quick" and this is kind of opposite to that.

Why face this if you can't do anything about it then? Well, you can have fair warning of what's going to blow up. You can know. I don't know about you, but I don't like nasty surprises. You can give good explanations when people come up to you and go, "What the hell's going on here?" You go, "Well, like I told you." Embedding the cultures is a difficulty right now. You can have excellent learnings of why it blew up. You can turn back and say, "The change agents we hired and put in place were all flashy, short term goal kickers and what we actually needed were marathon runners." This might change the way you hire in the future. You can use that information to build a wiser path forward even if the only wise path forward is to leave.

That's the benefit of seeing habits if you do nothing at all is that you can have more choices than the individual, you can choose your battles more wisely. Are we really going to make our boss be the person that reassures everyone? No, he's got really bad personality in relation, he's not that capable. Let's not fight that battle and force him to be Agile and Lean, we'll work our way around that. Less shocks and surprises, that'd be helpful, wouldn't it for all that burn out, all that where your nerves are rattled, all that hell you're living in. That's reduced the shocks and surprises. Even if bad things happen you go, "Oh yes, I saw that. I knew it was coming."

Habitual Reaction

I'm going to give you a quick rough example. Please, don't be thinking that this is rigorous in any way. This is just what I take people through as a conversational trigger to see if we can discover where the invisible forces are. You have to do it in a really positive way because they can get depressed - I'm kidding.

My personal trick, get practical really fast. Remember, what I specialize in, though, adapt it to your environment. Think habit, not culture, as soon as someone says that fancy word 'culture' stop and just go, "I'm focusing on habit." Change your mindsets, every time you deal with a difficulty stop and think. Cigarette smoking, junk food, get yourself thinking about that concept. "How would I assist a cigarette smoker? How would I assist a heavy drinker? How would I assist someone who's addicted to junk food when they've gone through their initial phase, 'Oh, I’m changing.' into their bad habits? What would I be like with them?"

Get that mindset pretty quick and then challenge and judgments, assumptions, or expectations with a good soak of what reality might really be like. Thinking in that mindset, changing the word from culture to habit. Remember, this is me just trying to change things in the way we see it quite quickly. Keep that in mind.

Beware of these lofty goals. Executives, love it. Intelligent vision, global awareness, innovative solutions. Then you'll get techs on the floor going," Just give us beanbags, pizza night, snack cupboard, Friday drinks and you'll have the culture of your dreams." Careful, you've got challenge that. I'm going to show you how you challenge that a little bit.

Get realistic by. How to deal with culture difficulty, how to deal with habit difficulty, see it as they are. We're going to look for the invisible force. Empower people so they get into a place of problem-solving, work out the realistic pathway forward and, in this case, because it's people and it's subjective we're only ever going to be able to do guestimates, but guestimates is better than nothing. Follow through, keeping our expectations realistic.

Firstly, brainstorm all the people issues that you're having, brainstorm them. Include everybody on the floor, include everybody in your leadership teams, include everybody like your change agents, whoever you're putting responsibility on to help with the change. I want you to brainstorm them like crazy, that's what I do initially. Then sort those issues into categories of difficulty. In this case, I've borrowed it from a client that I can't mention because they didn't want anybody to know that this was what was wrong.

In their case, they did all those issues and this is what they came up with. It grouped into areas of difficulty, so habitual areas of difficulty that were hierarchy, boundaries, got to do everything, very unclear strategy, micromanagement, and hidden information. Now, what do we have to do to find out what culture we need? Just think the opposite, if there's lots of hierarchy we probably need to help people change their habits into collaboration. If there are lots of boundaries, perhaps we need to change habits to be more inclusive. If there's lots of doing it all, maybe we need to change habits into focus. If there's lots of unclear strategies then perhaps how do we help people change their habits so that they can give purpose. That would be something for leaders habit, a leaders habit is, "Give us some purpose. It looks like we're doing nothing all day." Micromanagement, obviously, empowerment. Hidden information, transparency.

Now, suddenly you can compare what the executives want, what the techs want against actually on the floor the change we need, the habits we need to change to are these: Collaboration, inclusivity, focus, purpose, empowerment, and transparency. In the process of grouping this into areas of difficulty you will have had conversations about why and how come and got a little bit more educated if you'd done this collaboratively about really what's happening on the floor.

Rather than having this - God knows how you're going to break that down into practical solutions on the floor, or having this which would be nice but I'm not sure that it's going to change everybody's behavior, maybe a certain section of the community but there'll be a lot of people left out - it's this, that's what we need to do. That's going to be specific to your company. That's not me coming in going, "Everybody, what you need to do, all of you, all at once today is you've all got to do this, all got to do collaboration, inclusivity, focus, purpose, empowerment, and transparency." When you do that you end up working on something that you're already good at. That's ridiculous, if you're good at it, don't have to work on it, work on the other things that you haven't got strength in.

Do we understand the hidden time and effort of changing habits? The thing you do with that is let's just take one line. If we were trying to change habits of hierarchy to habits of collaboration you say to yourself a simple thing. "How long has the habit been in play?" In this case, the client said five years, it was a trendy cool place in there for five years. It became this hierarchy.

Then you ask yourself, "How entrenched is that habit? How close to people is it?" That's when you start thinking about the people a little more and then you say, "Leaders." In this case, my client said, " Suits and ties." Very high entrenchment of hierarchy. Change agents, medium, got some change agents that are like, "Oh, I want to change the world," and some that have been there for a long time and just want hierarchical change, the typical ordinary change management that you go and study a degree for.

Teams, they have been in the company for a long time so they're actually more aligned habitually to hierarchy surprisingly. Considering that - these are triggers, remember - you can then say, "Let's have an open discussion." What's the likelihood of effort? What's the likelihood of effort that it's going to be to change people's habits from hierarchy to collaboration? I would say high. What's the likelihood of time? That depends on every organization and all the different people but for this particular client, they said roughly one to two years. Mainly looking at our best friends here the leaders when they thought about it.

Changing Habits

Then you can start brainstorming this. Are you capable of changing habits? Do you have the capability, do you have the skills? Do you? Leaders, to be patient and inspiring, change agents, you want them diligent and realistic. Do we have these skills and tools in place? In this case, the client goes, "No, we don't." "Oh, ok." Change agents, some. Teams, they're getting there. Now, we're getting a view of the work that we may have ahead of us.

The realization they had is they have entrenched hierarchy, a few enthusiastic 'flash in the pan' change agents with no patience who argue with the change agents that are hierarchical. We know this can blow up in our face, so we need these things, that's what they needed, that client needed.

In other words, do we have the time and the skills to do this? Remember, that was the stuff we complained about earlier, that's the stuff you still have to do whether you like it or not. Do we have the skills and ability to handle those things successfully? Maybe the difficulty that we have with culture change is that we don't have the skills to do it, to do this or maybe it's just time, don't have the time.

There's an old way of looking at culture change which is transformation: Push it fast, flashy, loud, convince, upbeat. There's this other way where if you change that word from culture to habit you start understanding that there's these other needs: steadiness, persistence, gentleness, pulling against capacity, not pushing, patience, endurance, repetition.

You can now see the invisible force that might blow your culture change up. You're ahead. changing habits. What are the bad habits, where is it most entrenched? Do you and your people have the skills or have the time? After the initial rollout, how long might it take? At the very least have a discussion of how this might affect delivery. At the very least have a discussion, just have that calculation in your head if you have to and go in and have a discussion about how embedding culture could affect difficulty.

Here is how you can find hidden time and effort. Area of difficulty, time, how entrenched is the habit, predict how long to unwind and replace the habits. Remember, this is for triggering conversation, it's not about being exact. Here's how you discover capability and capacity, which is you've got your area of difficulty that you found, you've found your area of focus that you want to change your culture to and then you've broken things into leaders, change agents, individuals to work out if they've got the time and the abilities.

Then you end up with a collaborative guestimate. In the case of this client, it's all confidential but it's X time. They worked out that they've got this amount of time after rollout to embed. They really didn't have much capacity, that was the big surprise; that's a joke, because they were in pain. A medium capability, they need some training and development and change the way they hire to be able to deal with the habitual change of the group. Training, make time, realistic timeline, and some measures.

Really the lesson is to change habit in phases if you have to. Don't be fooled, in practical terms for me culture change is habit change. That's the sting in the tail and with that mindset, you can pretty much get practical very quickly. At the end of the day, because I have to time this back to something eastern philosophical, it's compassion, just compassion. Compassion at work, we're using empathy and equanimity to assess the demand we've got on our leaders, on our people. We are accepting that we're all human and humans get bad habits so change takes time.

There's no need to go on a sackathon, no need. Abandoning long-serving people, tie yourself and HR for ages, walk away from your valiant attempt. If there's some of you here that have tried to change culture, don't lose hope. Don't be depressed from feeling trapped, you've no need to feel the burn out because you shouldn't throw this baby out with the bathwater. Just like the example with the gym, you can get healthy and you can get a healthy culture. Truly, it is achievable, having that aspiration is a good thing but it's all about habit, diligence, patience, leeway, reality, follow through, echo, I'm trying to emphasize that.

The worst case, if you see the workload ahead when you do this you get yourself some options. To avoid a nervous breakdown you can say no to that promotion. Ever got a promotion and gone, "Oh my God, now I know why they put me in this job." You can leave the company, you can transfer to a different division, you can take a year off because now you know what's coming.

Ignorance, in this case, is not bliss when it comes to changing culture. If you don't illuminate this invisible force it's still going to happen to you and you can be ready or you can down and you can be empowered, but you see, you're not helpless, you just need to remember this invisible force. You have a choice and I really hope that helps.

Questions and Answers

Participant 1: Thank you very much. After years of experiencing people who suggested global awareness, beanbags, and snack cabinets and so on I now end up working for an organization that has a sort of autoimmune reaction, I suppose, to change managers and people who come in and do this sort of thing. How can you encourage them that there are actually useful people that can manage habit change in this way?

Kirk: Turn yourself into those change managements people. Take that process and do it yourself, you don't need a change management person to do that for you. This is really straightforward stuff, step them through that process. Most of the time when I do this there aren't special people there apart from me. This what I mean is that it's going to happen to everybody so we all need to start focusing on habitual reaction.

Make it yourself, if you want to talk to me and I'll try and pass on whatever simple steps there are, I can. You literally just walk in and get the skills yourself. There's not that many change agents that are good at their stuff anyway. Hiring them when they say, "Oh, yes, habits. I'm good at that." It's like, "Hang on, are you going to be here in three years?" "No." "Ok."


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Recorded at:

Jul 19, 2019