Sunday, January 20, 2008

Strategic Planning Analogy #148: Here’s Mud in Your Eye

Back when I was in 7th grade, I was taking an art class. One day, the art teacher was trying to teach us how to make a clay pot on a spinning wheel. In order to keep my clay moist and pliable while spinning, I had doused it in quite a bit of water. Unfortunately, my attempt to make a pot was a failure, so I collapsed the clay into a lump—a lump filled with water.

The art teacher could see I was having difficulties spinning a pot, so he took over my chair and was going to demonstrate what to do at the wheel himself. I tried to warn him that the clay wasn’t fully prepared to be re-spun, but he was too intent on teaching to hear me.

He got that clay spinning really fast and then stuck his thumbs into the clay to start pulling up the sides. At that point, his thumbs tapped into the water reservoir inside the lump of clay. Dirty, clay-colored water sprayed everywhere—but mostly onto the white shirt and face of the teacher.

Let’s just say that the teacher wasn’t particularly pleased with me from that point on.

In order to form a lump of clay into a beautiful pot, the clay needs to be moist and pliable. If it is hard and dry, you cannot do anything with it. The same is true with companies. If a company is pliable, then you can change it into something beautiful. If it is hard and stiff, then change efforts will be futile.

Quite often, strategy is about change. It is the act of trying to take the current business condition and reform it into something more desirable. However, no matter how wonderfully one designs the future state in the minds of the executives, if the company is hard and resistant to change, the strategy will not successfully come to pass.

To make a successful clay pot, you need three things: moist clay, an idea of what type of pot you want to make, and a skilled artist at the wheel. To successfully achieve a strategy, you need something similar—a pliable business culture, an idea of what the strategic outcome should look like, and skilled employees.

Sometimes, we can focus on the strategic design and talent pool, yet forget about properly preparing the organizational culture for change. The clay on my wheel in 7th grade was not properly prepared, and it left mud on the face of the teacher. Be mindful of the condition of your organizational “clay” or you may end up with mud on your face as well.

The principle here is that change requires a pliable culture which embraces change. Usually, such a condition does not occur naturally. Those in power are typically benefiting from the status quo condition. Change can put that current power structure at risk, so change tends to be resisted.

Even if some in the organization will benefit from change, an increase in their power usually comes at the expense of someone else’s power base. Those losing power will resist giving it to others. On top of that, most organizational cultures create multiple layers of approval, any one of which can reject the change with a simple “no.”

This structural inertia makes change difficult. Therefore, to create change, one must proactively plan a strategy for it. Usually, this requires a modification to the corporate culture. This cultural change typically needs to precede the actions that are a part of strategic change.

I was working with a company one time where the leader wanted to institute significant change. When I assessed the situation, I realized that this organization was like hardened clay—not ready for change. I told the leader that it was too early to try to move the company forward. They were not ready for it yet. The culture needed to be changed first.

If you try to push a change agenda too early in a hard clay environment, the ideas will be totally rejected and your leadership position weakened. You may not get a second chance to introduce the change.

However, if you first spend some time softening the clay, then it will become more receptive to the new agenda. You may not get everything you want at first, but with some early victories, you can continue down the path to change.

There have been many books written on the subject of developing a culture receptive to change, so I will not try to cover the entire topic here. Listed below are just a few key pointers.

1) Create Dissatisfaction With the Status Quo
It is difficult to create a desire to change if people are satisfied with the way things are today. Therefore, it is important to make the status quo appear less desirable. Although there are several ways to make the current situation appear less desirable, they typically have something to do with pointing out that the environment has changed, making the status quo less relevant. By blaming a changing marketplace rather than internal activities, it keeps the discussion from being perceived as a personal attack on people within the organization. People are more willing to participate if they feel like victims of change, rather than causes of failure.

2) Eliminate the Bad Apples
Some people will never be willing to change. If they are spoiling the culture for everyone else, they may need to be let go.

3) Get Buy-in From Pivotal Players
Some people in your organization are more influential than others. The key influencers need to buy into the change before you can get others to follow. Therefore, spend extra time with these individuals.

4) Create Easy, Early Wins
The best way to get people to endorse change is to have them see positive results from change. Therefore, do not start with long, difficult projects. Instead, find quick, easy tasks which give rapid, positive results. This reinforces the benefits of change and makes people more willing to continue the task, even when the going gets tough.

Often times, strategic activity fails because the organization resists the change required to meet the strategic goals. Therefore, if you desire success, one must tackle the barriers to change. One of the first tasks is to assess how hard the clay is in your organization. If your culture is not soft and pliable—ready to enact change—then a culture change may need to be incorporated into the early stages of the strategic process.

There’s a story about a rural community that was going through a severe drought. Unless it rained soon, the farmers’ crops would be lost. Therefore, the local community decided to meet at the church to pray for rain.

When it was time for the prayer meeting, the pastor went up in front of the crowd and said, “I’m sorry, but there will be no prayer tonight. Please go home.”

The crowd was confused and upset. They demanded to know why the pastor cancelled the prayer meeting called to ask for the desperately needed rain.

The pastor replied, “None of you brought umbrellas. Obviously, you do not have faith that the prayers would work. Until you have faith, we will not pray.”

Similarly, if there is no faith in your organization in the benefits of change, there is little point in implementing a change strategy.

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