ASTD 2011 Interview With The Change Book Authors
We spoke at the International Conference & Expo with Change Book authors Mary Stewart and Tricia Emerson. The two talked about culture, getting executives aligned with change initiatives, and why it’s all about the research. Q: Let’s first scratch the surface: Visually, The Change Book is a very unique business book. How do you feel this look and feel help to drive home your ideas and strategies? Mary: One of the big principles that we explore in the book is taking the learner’s point of view. One way to think about that is that we’re talking to people like ourselves, but we are also talking to people with a variety of learning styles. And we asked ourselves, what would we want to read if we were reading a business book about change. There are different kinds of people with different perspectives, different cultures and styles of learning. How do we incorporate both of those things: What do we want from a reader’s perspective? So we thought about that and we came up with a couple of different things: First of all, we are busy. So we don’t have a lot of time. If I start to read a book that’s very linear in fashion and it’s 300 pages long, I might not feel as though I’ve gotten what I should get until I’ve read the 300th page. So that might be an investment of time for me. So we wanted a book that delivered content in small packages – each chapter is something you can literally open up, read (each chapter is probably 3 pages long), and then you can close the book, and you’ve gotten something from it. Another thing is, we know a lot about some things and not others. What we thought about with our book is that maybe we want people to go directly to the topic they want to learn about. We want people to go directly to the table of contents and say, ‘For the questions I have, I want to look at this chapter or that chapter, and maybe that’s all I need for now.’ And they can skip the ones that they feel they have a handle on already. Tricia and I are both visual learners and so we didn’t want to rely too heavily on words. We wanted to layer the content. All people learn on different levels. Maybe some people are persuaded more by stories and metaphors. Some people (like us) are persuaded by visuals—if I can imagine the four quadrants of a model in my head, then I can remember it, and I can teach it. But if I have to read everything in a narrative form, sometimes it doesn’t stick as well. So we tried to layer these things: words plus visuals, plus stories, plus metaphors, plus tools you can use. So maybe one of those ways appeals to you, and that’s what resonates with you. We also need the ability to transfer knowledge to others so that we have something we can take away, and a lot of words on a page doesn’t really facilitate that. And finally, the last thing that we need at the end of a long day is something that’s grim and dry. So we try to make it kind of fun. If I’m reading a book about work, after work, I don’t want to feel like it’s more work! I want to feel engaged and have something that cheers me up. We wrote a book that we liked! Tricia: I think that if something is fun, the ideas will resonate. We wanted to be not only playful, but deep, and based in research. The challenge was that people already know a lot about this topic, so we said, let’s challenge them by capturing those ideas in a way that is playful and fun, but meaty. It would be easy to dismiss the book as a ‘puff’ piece because it is so visually pleasing. But because it is grounded in evidence, that was the fun part: Making the hard work seem fun. That’s what expertise is: Doing something really complicated and making it look easy. Q: You insert a bit of Jungian theory in the book in terms of “archetypes.” What inspired you to connect these ideas in writing about culture change? Tricia: As world-class ‘nerds,’ we’re always looking for research and seeing what comes out of the universities. There was work being done by a woman named Carol Pearson out of the University of Maryland. She latched onto her ideas as she was doing work with CAPT (formed by Isabel Myers who was administering her surveys from there). What I thought was compelling was that she was working with PR firms taking the research around stories and around Jungian archetypes and associating it with brand. The reason why archetypes are so important for change is that stories define who we are as people. I can define myself as a caregiver, or jester, or a hero, and you’re going to know exactly what I mean. So it goes primarily to who I am as a person. Carol was saying that organizations have similar story lines. If I tell you that I work for Google, you’re going to make some assumptions about me. If I say that I work at Apple, you’ll say I’m a creative anarchist, and wear black t-shirts to work [laughs]. There are assumptions based on that brand. That’s compelling because it attracts people whose personal stories resonate with the brand story. That’s how culture comes about. So whenever you start to implement a new change, you have to be aware of the aggregate of all those individual stories and how that plays out from an organizational standpoint. People often come to me and say ‘I want to change our culture.’ And I’ll say first of all, ‘Why?’ And secondly, I get them to understand that they are changing the course of a river. So there has been ‘water hitting those rocks’ for many years, and the truth is that that organization was created by a lot of people gravitating toward the story that it projects. So If I am going to go there and change the culture, I’d better know what that story is, and if I’m going to work within that culture, I need to understand the overriding culture and the substories. And if I want to implement change, I’d better bring some dynamite, and I’d better build some dams. It’s better to work with the course of the river than to try to reroute it! So I think it was a perfectly logical extension on the Jungiuan work into the culture arena. I think we in the profession need to be thinking very hard about that. Q: Harnessing the right kind of people power is a huge part of change undertakings, so how can change leaders combat the dreaded competing silos in shaping their initiatives? Mary: There’s a finding in sociology that people can be motivated by a superordinate goal. That means a goal that affects everyone, that is compelling and that is more important than the goal of one’s own group. One thing we talk about is not shying away from the pain of the current state of an organization. In thinking about moving from state A to state B, organizations don’t like to use negative messages that say, ‘things are going to be bad if we don’t change,’ and they say instead, ‘things will be a little better if we do change.’ We recommend that they do say those difficult things because that creates the difference between that terrible future we don’t want and the great future that we’re all moving toward. So that can create a really compelling sense of urgency in their organization so that they stop competing with each other and instead compete with ‘the world’ as a group. Tricia: It’s base-level. You see what people call “the common enemy” that’s an expression of the superordinate goal. Essentially, what we’re talking about is executive sponsorship. Leaders have to be aligned. Often, the first thing we do in embarking on a large change is to put the executives in the same room together and have them come up with the four words that define what this change is about. This is basd in political science and political commnication. We get them on message. Because if they are not in agreement, it’s not going to happen. It has to happen at the very beginning; at the very top. Often, what companies do in a change initiative is create communications (slides or memos) for their executives. But when you meet that executive in the hallway, they’re not on message. And it doesn’t come from the heart. People look to the senior executives during changes, and if they’re not talking about it, people are going to assume this is a flavor of the month, and they’re not going to pay attention. So the upfront conversation has to be about why the status quo is no longer acceptable. Systems theory tells us that we don’t change until the current system no longer works for us. We have to be clear that the current system is broken. People don’t want to say that, but we’ve got to get executives on point with that. Second, we need to say ‘this is what the vision looks like’—the ‘shining city on the hill.’ It has to be graphic. Then we show them the first steps. This is why we equip them with those four words. Also, groups self-correct. There are unspoken rules that are created when people come together. This is the concept of emergent norms. This is also true of cultures—unspoken rules. People eventually come to understand what’s correct and what’s not. And they behave accordingly. When you pull the executives together and have them come up with these messages, the norms come out. This is all grounded in research. It’s time for us to start employing these principles in trying to have an impact on our organizations. We tend to start with the learning solution, which is great because that’s how you sustain change. But it’s really about behavioral change first, and how you get the system to work to your benefit. Q: In a sentence, what is one pearl of wisdom you’d like your readers to go forth with after reading The Change Book? Tricia: HPI and change management is a field of discipline that requires study. People need to read more research! Mary: Change is hard, but don’t be afraid of the negatve stuff because you can make it work to your advantage.