Choose Change!

Common mistakes when wanting to change organizational culture are: thinking that publishing a code of conduct is enough; explaining and coercing; only doing a communication campaign with posters, etc.; and giving employees a (communication) training or a team-building session.

Invest in Change

Any change, let alone cultural change, needs time to sink in and daily attention until it becomes the new habit. Change also requires role models (or change ambassadors) and organizational facilitation. Before a change really is rooted in the organization, it needs critical mass. Change requires investment. In short, organizational change requires:

  • A sufficiently long time-frame (a year or two, rather than weeks)
  • Daily attention on a conscious level
  • The right change ambassadors
  • Top-down facilitation
  • Bottom-up commitment
  • Critical mass

Selecting Change Ambassadors

In this post I focus on one point: selecting the right change ambassadors using Rogers’ innovation theory. Rogers categorizes coworkers into five groups, according to how they deal with accepting new ideas:

  1. The innovators are always in for a new idea and are quick to adopt; often also quick to drop an idea in favor of a new, more attractive looking idea.
  2. The early adopters first take a critical look at the proposal before deciding whether it’s a good idea or not.
  3. The early majority eventually want to hook up with the new idea, but want some proof that it works before committing.
  4. The late majority only buys in into the new idea when they have no option or when the new idea has proven itself beyond doubt.
  5. The laggards resist any form of change for as long as possible—they’d rather do things “like we used to.”

Innovators are typically poor ambassadors.

If you think you should target the innovators to be your change ambassadors, think again. As innovators are so quick to adopt a new idea (and to drop it as well), they are seldom taken seriously by their coworkers (“There she is again with her latest fad . . . wonder how long it will last this time.”). If the change is good, the early innovator will come along anyway. It’s really the early adopters who are the most important influencers: others value their opinion, because these coworkers are committed, engaged, and critical. If an early adopter adopts an idea, it’s been thought through.

Who to Target

Even though early adopters are typically a mere 13% of your workforce, they bring the early majority (the next 34%) into motion. Once the early adopters and early majority are in on the change, you have critical mass—and the late majority has little option other than to adopt the new way of thinking too. To reiterate: the innovators will be on board as well.

So what about the laggards?

Some laggards simply don’t accept the new way of working and leave the organization. Some also try to sabotage the new idea for as long as possible (e.g., by stubbornly continuing in the old way). The question is if you really want this kind of coworker in your organization—this isn’t a group you should invest heavily in, unless those in question are part of your key personnel.

More importantly: how do you recognize the early adopters?

The laggards have a kind of resistance that is persistent and hard to change, often rooted in anxiety and the concomitant need for control. Early adopters also show a lot of resistance, yet of an entirely different nature. Their resistance comes from concern—they want things to go well and need to reassure themselves that the new way will provide sufficient benefits that weigh up against the costs (the energy required to implement the change and its possible challenges—or downright disadvantages).

On All Levels

The other trap is to believe early adopters may be found on a specific hierarchical level of the organization. You should hope to have fewer of the late majority (let alone laggards) higher up the organizational ladder, yet even that may be the question. You find your change ambassadors on ALL levels of your organization, and it is best involving them all as early in the change process as possible. In every team, at every level, look for those whose opinion is valued by their team members. Look for those who will always first question a proposal and test the kind of resistance by asking what their concerns are. The laggards will come with all kinds of defensive arguments, the early adopters will come with genuine concerns (often relating to the impact on the end-user of their products or services).

How do you get an early adopter to adopt?

Simply by taking their concerns seriously. Ask them what the advantages and disadvantages are of both the current and the proposed way of doing things. Ask what ideas they have to allay the disadvantages of the new way, and how advantages of the old way may somehow be incorporated. In short: involve them, listen to them, and use their input to improve the idea before it’s even left the drawing board. This is why dialog (especially with this group) is so fundamental to leading change and creating an excellent organization.

Note: This post originally ran on the Lead Change Group site on the 8th of July, 2019.

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