Why your service culture sucks.

I’d like to talk a minute about customer service. Ok, maybe somewhere between talk and rant if I’m being totally honest. In so doing, I invite the shedding of conventional dialog around all aspects of service – teaching it, providing it, expecting it, selling it as a tenet of the organization. This won’t be a list of “four things every service culture needs,” or, “how to motivate your service staff.” It’s a deeper conversation about the core identity of service and the role of leadership in facilitating impact. It will also be an incomplete view, because this is a blog and not a book. The goal is to challenge and inspire your thinking, and let you run with it. If you’re ready to go there, come on along for the ride.

The value proposition of great service isn’t really a secret. 5 minutes worth of light research will produce more data about the bottom line impact of customer service than you can handle. Top companies have built their reputations on their service experience. The C-suite has expanded to include Chief Customer Officers, Customer Success Officers, probably half a dozen other iterations of customer-focused leadership. All of this is great news and a natural product of the service economy that we now live in.

As a passionate advocate for service culture, I see and appreciate the value of this shift as a tremendous step forward. At the same time, I still find myself getting tense and annoyed with 80% of the “customer experience” articles, quotes and rants I see in my newsfeed. Even in the most modern, progressive companies they point it in the right direction yet still miss a fundamental truth.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for customer-centric leadership. It’s the not focus on the customer that’s a poor fit. It’s the way we define that focus when trying to solve for customer needs that leads to an all too common fault. The problem, or failure of perspective, is that when we talk about customer service we speak of it as an external condition. To “help the customer succeed,” is to meet service goals, reduce churn, increase per-customer revenue, “add value,” and so on. That’s great, and of course we can and should look at numbers like the correlation of deal size to churn rate, the cost of customer acquisition versus retention, or the likelihood of a customer to increase MRR over the lifespan of the relationship based on perceived value as metrics of success in customer service. But in dealing with revenue goals and performance targets it is all too easy to overlook the essential core of your business – the most crucial and valuable element of your success: your customer service team.

Call me crazy, but I believe that most company-sponsored customer service training initiatives start at the wrong end by viewing “satisfying the customer,” as the primary task, as facilitated by . How to minimize potential for conflict in the delivery of “our brand of service.” “Smile when you dial,” and “5 ways to control the call.” How to live through your workday. It’s all outside-in. It’s all about training the individuals to “feel empowered” while they do the work of the company. While those are all important skills and tactics – you need them if you intend to succeed – they aren’t endemic to a service mindset. To the majority of your service staff, they’re just devices and buzzwords.

The majority of my career has been focused on customer service. I’ve worked in customer service roles, in customer service industries, and consulted on customer service initiatives. Somewhere along the way I became passionate about the value and nature of service as a calling rather than simply a “job,” and I began to notice the delta between what I have experienced to be true and the way in which companies focus (or fail to focus) on their customer service centers. So much so, in fact, that the first inspiration that ultimately led me down the path to consulting actually came after being on the receiving end of a lackluster customer service training that left me feeling frustrated and knowing I could do better than the overpaid, inauthentic suit standing at the front of the room.

I hold the belief, informed by my experience, that true, durable service starts with inspiring and empowering the people who deliver it. Inviting them to open up and think in unconventional terms, and demonstrating that they are really safe and free to do so. Seeding the idea that the individual can derive satisfaction from the delivery of proper service. That people can and should have dreams and goals that are just a little beyond what they can currently achieve. Teaching that always having something to reach for means that as long as you strive for a greater goal and work with it in mind, you’re always moving forward. That is what I care about. Inspiration, creating an atmosphere that promotes the concept that this is your work, and that it matters.

Everybody believes in something, or they want to. We all have an inkling that we want to do some kind of good in either our own lives or the lives of others. A purpose. Even the most downtrodden and forlorn among us, when asked the right questions and given a genuine opportunity to be heard, can identify something within us that we believe in, that matters.

That’s why the film industry has been making money since the Great Depression. It’s why video games are huge and people read fantasy novels and play role-playing games and watch sports. We want heroes in whom we can place ourselves. We want a form upon which we can project all our yearning for greater purpose, the speeches we give to the invisible adversary when we’re alone in our cars or sitting in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, the great conquering general of our fantastic dreams. We see “The Transporter” whip across the screen in his Audi at 120 mph and leap out to dispatch an entire cast of unsavory characters and it isn’t just passive observation. In our minds it is us behind that wheel. We are the ones defusing the bomb, saving the day, getting the girl or the guy… We are the heroes of our own imagination.

This is where our journey starts. This is where the drive to serve – the impulse to perform beyond the scope of “bare-minimum” and to make a greater contribution – and the desire to care for the task rather than perform solely it by rote because it is what is expected and ingrained, is either won or lost. This moment of heroic aspiration requires inspiration and nourishment if it is to grow and flourish into a robust service practice.

Why is it that soldiers perform heroically in the face of chaos and disaster? Why do policemen and firemen persevere through all manner of hardship and obstacles? It’s because they believe. They believe in what they are doing, or rather they believe in something personal to them that makes what they are doing important or necessary.

I hear it said time and time again. “You can’t make someone care. You can’t teach them that.” I disagree. I will concede that it is difficult, not easily done by traditional means of training and not a formulaic process of the familiar. But I would also submit that the deepest obligation of leadership is to create conditions in which the passions and self-empowerment of your people can flourish.

If we are honest and willing to explore the idea, each of us can look into our own lives and identify something we wish to believe in. There is a secret hero within each of us waiting to be unleashed. Each individual has to dig in and do the work, and will need to stay inspired along the way. But if you can open a person’s mind to this kind of thinking, there is no limit to the level of service and dedication you can realize as a result.

Yes, skills are essential. They will need to be trained and measured. But are you putting warm bodies in chairs or are you building a true service culture? Do you just want to throw the phrase around because it makes you sound good, or do you want to be a holistically world class service organization? Do you want incremental compliance and improvement, or do you want breakthrough performance that leaves the competition in the dust?

So let’s say you’re on board with all my high-minded notions of inspirational service culture. What then? How do you make it a reality?

I promised you this wasn’t going to be another list of generic top 5 boxes to check to get the same results as everyone else who reads the article and subscribes to the blog. But if you just have to have something to satisfy your list-reading needs, I went ahead and published a companion piece for just such an occasion. Go ahead and check it out.

Otherwise, I invite you to comment below with your own thoughts and reflections on the subject. Do you agree with anything I’ve said, or do you think I’ve completely lost my marbles? Can you find value in taking this perspective, or do you wish you had the last 10 minutes of your life back? Either way, I’d love to hear from you.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it.

A few months ago I was studying some material related to guiding an organization through the process of defining their identity. As I was digging through my research, it dawned on me that while I am clear on what and why I do the work that I do, I had never stepped back and formally undertaken a similar process myself. As a one-man operation, I had done some exploration when I first started my business to come up with a purpose statement that related to my ideals, but I hadn’t taken it as far as to hammer out a consistent, cohesive identity that articulated my values and vision beyond that.

“I believe that there is a vast sea of untapped human potential in every organization just waiting to be released, and that 90% of all companies are missing the mark by not making that a central aspect of their culture and practices. I believe passionately in the power of the individual spirit to bring about widespread transformation, and the role of teams in moving vision forward into reality.”

That was my manifesto up to this point. When I examined this further in light of what I was now coming to understand, I realized that what I had was a core ideology, but that this was only one piece of the blueprint I truly needed in order to succeed. The ideology would inspire me and remind me why I was putting in the work, but it didn’t give me a real map or guidepost that I could use to build a lasting strategy. Given that I’m a firm believer in practicing what I preach, I decided to follow a process and get serious about putting the soul of my business on paper.

I’m sure there are a million ways to go about defining  identifying core values. I’ve seen a number of them in use over the years, some more effective than others. One method that I particularly like and have used with great results in both individual coaching and organizational work is a card sorting exercise.

The card sort starts with a list of values on cards or sheets of paper. Those cards then get sorted into piles according to where they fit in your sense of personal or organizational values – Always, usually, sometimes, seldom or never. This could be done similarly with just a list of values on a single sheet of paper, but the physical act of sorting them tends to add a deeper level of connection and thought to the process. However you choose to go about it, the first round of sorting is easy, but it gets challenging as you go. The goal is to end up with only 3-5 cards in the “always” pile, which forces some deep choices and reflection when it comes down to selecting those final values. This is where I really had to listen to my gut and explore the different reactions I had to various concepts in order to boil it down to my most fundamental beliefs.

I say “identifying” rather than defining, because core values are intrinsic. They’re not chosen based on how they’ll sound on a brochure or whether they rhyme with “great.” These are the defining truths within us that would be authentic no matter what – even if they became a competitive disadvantage. The goal of the process is to tap into the values that are deeply held by the group or individual, those that carry the most emotional gravity, the ones that breathe life into you and the people involved in your endeavor. These are central to your “why,” which, as we know, is the heartbeat of success.

At the end of my own card sort, I was left with four core values. When I looked at them, I could see that they were central to my sense of self. The reality in which I would feel completely fulfilled and at my best would have to include all four components. They resonate so deeply for me that even as I recall them now I get a chill up my spine. That’s how I know that I tapped into the true heart of my mission – these aren’t just a few superficial nouns slapped on a page, they are reflective of who I am and what I aspire to be.

Having teased out these guiding principles, the next step was to turn them into definitions that would clarify their meaning on a personal and professional level. How would I recognize them if they showed up in my work? Why did they matter and what were they moving me toward? If I could see myself and my work from the outside, what would these principles look like in action? With the help of a dictionary, some inspirational reading and a rainy afternoon, I was able to expand the values into guiding statements.

At this point things were starting to come into sharper focus. I could begin to see the frame of the vehicle I was building up around my work, and it felt powerful. Now I had to use that foundation to create a vision which would inspire a lasting emotional connection and give me something to strive for, and a mission that would make clear what my business was setting out to accomplish.

The terms mission, purpose, vision, and values are often used interchangeably. I’m not interested in claiming absolute authority on the subject, but it is important to develop a core identity structure that serves and supports the growth of your business. It is also crucial to understand what purpose each piece of that identity serves. In my work, I define it like this:

  • Values are what get me out of bed in the morning. They’re the beacons in the darkness, what I am about in my heart of hearts.
  • Ideology is what I believe in that makes my work necessary.
  • Mission is the the market state that I hope to create or transform.
  • Vision is the greater good that I hope to achieve – the perfect world that would be realized if I am able to fulfill my mission to its utmost.

Notice one very important detail that is not present in this list. Goals. This is a crucial point to hold on to. Goals are not defined in your vision and values. Values, vision and mission are embedded in goals. That is to say, the vision and values are a constant – these are the things that never change about the purpose of your work. They’re not checklist items to be achieved, but rather the foundation of everything that you will accomplish over time. Done well, the values process will create a powerful nucleus around which you can structure your long-, mid- and short-term goals when it comes time to map out your strategy. But again, creating that strategy is a different piece of work altogether.

After values, the next step is crafting a vision and mission statement. Typically these are two distinct items – the vision inspires the interior life of the company, and the mission makes the connection to the outside world you hope to engage in the process. In many cases, it’s easier for companies to grasp the concept of the mission. This has a more direct relationship to the work – what are you trying to do in your market? What sort of problem are you trying to solve?

The best mission statements are those that are short and to the point, but still inspirational and speak to the big picture. Some companies veer off that course for various reasons, and the results are telling. For example, consider Apple’s early mission statement under Steve Jobs: “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” This statement makes clear what the company does, articulates a noble, lofty goal, and is pretty inspirational in the process. Under that mission, Apple pioneered the field of personal computing and became ubiquitous through their design and innovation. Now compare it to their current mission statement: “Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.” Hm. Nothing sexy or inspirational there. It sounds more like the intro to a class paper than a message that can speak to the hearts and minds of designers and engineers in pursuit of “advancing humankind.” The change in messaging obviously hasn’t sunk their business, but one might wonder what kind of impact it has had on the soul of the company and their ability to engage talent while holding on to market share.

Whatever the approach you choose, the crucial point to consider is this: Your values exist. Whether or not you’ve taken the time to engage with them and develop their connection to your business reality, they’re there and they make an impact. Taking the time to harness and embed them into the lived-in reality of your work gives you the strongest opportunity to connect with your employees in a meaningful way, engage in an emotional connection with your market, and define the value of your work well into the future.

Oh, and in case you’re curious, here are the results of my own personal mission/vision/values process:

Adventure – To choose that which challenges and expands my perspective
Purpose – To be fueled by a sense of meaning and fulfillment
Compassion – To act with consideration for the experiences and needs of others
Mastery – To be known and sought out for having the highest skill and expertise

I believe that there is a vast sea of untapped human potential in every organization just waiting to be released, and that 90% of all companies are missing the mark by not making that a central aspect of their culture and practices. I believe passionately in the power of the individual spirit to bring about widespread transformation, and the role of teams in moving vision forward into reality.

To transform lives by connecting people with purpose, values and integrity.

To enable companies to attract, develop and retain the most talented people in their industries by building organizational cultures and leadership that inspire innovation, purpose, and mastery.

The cure for creativity and innovation.

What is leadership? I mean, really, what does it mean to you?

I was recently speaking with an executive at a creative agency who was frustrated with his team. No one was bringing any ideas to the table, at least none that he felt were worth seriously entertaining, no matter how many times he invited, enticed, or even demanded that they do so. He felt that no one understood his vision and they weren’t contributing to creative growth of the firm. He would make suggestions or reference certain sources to provide creative inspiration, with little to nothing to show for it. In the end, he usually ended up providing the final idea himself after shooting down anything submitted by his team.

Having worked together in the past, I had an idea about the potential cause of his dilemma but I wanted to unpack it a bit further to see if he would come to his own realization.

Q. How much autonomy does the team have to produce their own work?
A. They have total autonomy. I want everyone to contribute.
Q. And are they talented and capable enough to do the job?
A. Oh yeah, they’re brilliant. I’ve seen their other work and it’s really fantastic.
Q. Ok, great. And how well do they understand your vision?
A. Of course they understand it, I’ve told them a million times. I want to be the biggest, most successful and brilliant creative agency in the world!
Q. So you’ve told them where you’re trying to go. Do they understand what it looks like to get there?
A. Yeah, I mean I told them what I wanted, so…
Q. You told them. And when they came back to you, did the work meet your expectations?
A. No. It wasn’t even close. I end up rejecting their ideas and doing most of the work myself because they just don’t get it.
Q. Sooo…
A. …


It may or may not be obvious here, but what happened here was that my friend was inwardly deeply and painfully clear on his vision. So much so that it never occurred to him that others might not be on the same page. In fact, he was so convinced that his ideas were obvious that he couldn’t see where his external communication hadn’t been clear in the first place. And he certainly wasn’t making the connection between his taking the reins on every project and the team not bringing fresh ideas to the table.

Setting a vision is a vital step in building a resonant culture. Leaders should absolutely have a clear, compelling, brilliant picture of where they would love for their business to go. The only way to orient toward a goal is to have at least a representative image of what it would look like to get there. But far too often, we see people thinking that dictating an outcome with vague expectations is the same thing as communicating a powerful vision.

Leadership requires investment – we have to invest the time to gain an understanding of our audience in order to deliver our message in a way they will be able to receive. We have to share in the power of communication. If I tell you “I want something magnificent,” that’s aspirational but also pretty vague. If I give you some examples, “Here are some things I think are magnificent,” that’s a little better but still leaves room for misinterpretation. If I get clear on what I really want to convey, “What I find magnificent about these three examples are quality A, quality B and quality C,” then I’ve given you some details to emulate or design around. More focused, and likely will produce better results. But even still, I’m substituting tactical and technical considerations for actual values-based leadership.

The often overlooked element of communication is action. What I say will not inform you nearly as much as what I do, or don’t do, to support my words. This is where impact is either achieved or lost. The leader who says “bring me great ideas!” but consistently responds with “your ideas are no good!” will never be able to elicit brilliant work from his teams no matter how emphatically he insists on greatness. He creates a power vacuum by failing to bridge the gap between his vision and the lived-in experience of his team, and then further assures failure by conditioning the team to believe that their work doesn’t meet these ill-defined standards. The team becomes disempowered, and so relinquishes all capacity for innovation and creative ownership.

I have seen this play out countless times in many businesses. The leader assumes ultimate control and authority, and may even be the most skillful or talented individual in the organization to execute on the vision. So they are high achievers with equally high standards, which they brandish like a weapon. They then fall victim to a common dilemma – confusing the idea of leadership for that of power. They hope to create productivity by exerting force and dominance, but generally do more harm than good. Teams become demoralized, reactive, and generally disengaged. Creative energy is diminished and the people become dependent on the power of the leader, rather than the empowerment of their leadership.

Leaders have to be attuned to their own strengths and weaknesses, and the extent to which they tend to over- or under-utilize their core traits, before they can hope to influence, inspire, and move others. Truly great leaders are not those who solely dictate outcomes or activities. The best leaders do relatively little of this. The most resonant leaders will define and communicate the vision, and then help create or illuminate the path for their people to achieve it. They build value in the relationship between the mission and the individual, and create alignment between personal purpose and business success.

There will always be times where power is required. But if your goals are creativity and innovation, the question is: will you be in a position to know the difference, and make the difference, when leadership requires a loose grip and a nuanced approach, or will you be left standing there with smoke rolling out of your ears wondering why nobody understands the vision you failed to inspire by beating them into submission?

Culture isn’t an idea. It’s a practice.

Culture, culture, culture. It’s everywhere, and it’s all everyone wants to talk about. But what is it, and why is it so important?

Once upon a time, management theory was all about one-way communication and that was that. Leaders would “insert their meaning into words,” pass those words along, and the recipients would simply extract the intended message at the other end and act accordingly. No muss, no fuss. The idea was that, as a worker, you simply showed up and did what you were told in order to support the goals of the company. This kind of thinking came about largely related to manufacturing jobs, and in fact some theories view the organization itself as a metaphorical machine. Roles were seen as specialized, standardized and replaceable. You do your part, do it to an established standard, and if you burn out or fail to meet the standard we just pull you out and plug someone else in to replace you.

If you try to superimpose this kind of thinking onto the complex environment of today’s business realities, things come apart quickly. Yes, directive-based leadership is still necessary, and success still requires consistent and predictable output. But that alone just isn’t enough to succeed in the market, or to retain the talent you need to remain competitive. People aren’t staying in jobs for 30 years to maintain the status quo until they retire anymore. In fact, in the past year the current generation of workers changed jobs at 3x the rate of previous generations.

That level of millennial job turnover comes at an annual cost of $30.5 Billion.

So what do we do? Is your company’s future at the mercy of these fickle brats*? Do you just have to accept and live with the idea that today’s employees are disloyal and entitled and all you can do is complain about it while you watch them walk out the door?

Not by a long shot.

The solution starts with values. Every company has them, but a surprising number leave them to chance rather than investing in the process of deliberately defining them. This oversight comes at a cost, both in market share and talent retention. In fact, in contrast to other workforce demographics, modern workers are more inclined to place their personal values ahead of those of the company when making business decisions. Interestingly enough, despite that fact I still find in my coaching work that most people haven’t put a lot of time or effort into defining their personal values either.

So that leaves us with companies of undefined values hiring individuals with unclear needs in the blind hope that some magical act of divine alignment will pull it all together in just the right way to breed success.

Great plan, everyone. Excellent work.

“An organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.” – Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.

What may have once been a fascinating novelty, the culture-driven organization has clearly transcended “Willy Wonka” territory to become ubiquitous, in many ways the minimum standard in the eyes of new entrants to the workforce. Ping pong tables, Nerf guns, and free snacks aren’t dazzling and special, they’re expected if not a bit of a worn cliche. And they’re certainly not a substitute for real values-based cultural strategy.

In order to create a successful culture, companies need to first invest time and effort in uncovering, refining and defining their values. It’s not a checklist item to be casually knocked out in the middle of an hour-long marketing meeting. It’s a deep, introspective process that, when properly conducted, will reveal the fundamental truth of your business and provide a compelling north-star by which to align your strategy.

But it’s not enough to stop there. Our words and concepts don’t do us any good until we activate them. We have to take the information we find in the values process and thoughtfully build it into the way we function.

There are a variety of ways to operationalize values and culture. One of the most successful yet relatively under-hyped is a method used by Intel, Google, Twitter and numerous other successful tech enterprises – the process of using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) to align vision, goals and outcomes.

OKRs work like the mission, vision, values process in miniature. If vision is the what, mission is the how and values are the why, then Objectives become the what and Key Results the how of your annual and quarterly operations strategy. The why remains constant – organizational values should be such that they are true and meaningful at every level and over time. If I am in the transportation industry because I believe passionately in connecting people, then my quarterly goal of building bridges over every river in the county connects to those same values.

OKRs ask you to set aspirational goals, and then implement and measure the activities required to approach the target. If you have taken the time to get clear on your organizational values, the OKR process becomes a familiar extension of that work and allows you to dynamically drive your vision forward in a clear, transparent way that engages your teams and centralizes your culture.

By engaging in this level of connected cultural strategy, organizations can inspire vision in their employees and create alignment between personal and corporate values. When the two are aligned, there is resonance and amplification of purpose which will foster innovation and success. When they are out of alignment, well, it’s only a matter of time before your company becomes job #3 on last year’s resume.


* I don’t believe that millennials deserve all the negative backlash that people throw at them. I don’t like talking about it as a “them” either. The change in personal values and workplace needs is not limited to an age demographic so much as it has been brought about by the unprecedented rate of social change as the result of digital technology. It doesn’t require “these kids” to “act right,” it requires an evolution of understanding and ideas about workplace values to integrate with the current reality.

Feel free to reach out if you’d like to discuss these ideas further or collaborate on a cultural strategy to enhance the success of your organization. I love this stuff, and I’m always happy to share ideas and make new connections!

A discussion series on mindset and methodology for strategic organizational culture; Pt.1 – What’s your problem?

The problem with problems is that we often don’t start working on them until it’s too late.

This is especially true of organizational culture. By the time an issue becomes big enough to demand attention and real effort, the symptoms have usually been coursing unchecked through the system and wreaking havoc for quite a while. It’s not that we’re negligent and irresponsible (I mean, we might be, but diligent, attentive people have problems too.) It generally has more to do with our capacity for strategic thinking and the efforts we invest in that process. We may be good at solving problems, we’re just not so great at preventing them.

Some problems are obvious and the solutions easy to recognize. Others may be more subtle, hidden within subsystems that generate indirect symptoms. In operations we can easily see when a conveyor belt isn’t moving, a door is jammed or a process is breaking down and causing waste or inefficiency. With culture, we have to rely on a deeper level of insight and awareness in order to get to the true cause. What may initially seem like marketplace or management issues such as losing a contract or declining productivity more likely have their roots in unexamined culture.

This isn’t exactly breaking news; it seems like culture is the hot topic everywhere you turn these days. So much so that 82% of respondents to Deloitte’s 2016 Human Capital Trends report consider culture to be a potential competitive advantage. But when it comes to culture, most organizations stumble along in the status quo until something happens rather than seek improvement before its collapse. The reason? Sadly, the answer often comes down to the fact that we just don’t know what to do about it.

In the same survey, fewer than 28% of surveyed executives and HR leaders believe that they truly understand their own culture, and 19% believe that they have the right culture in place.

Take a minute to think about that. 82% believe culture is a key to success. Only 28% understand their culture and only 19% think they’re getting it right.

So we agree that culture is important, and we don’t think we’ve mastered it. But if we don’t understand it, how can we hope to change it?

Social psychologist and organizational theorist Kurt Lewin observed that “to break open the shell of complacency and self-righteousness it is sometimes necessary to bring about deliberately an emotional stir up.” Similarly, noted psychologist Carl Jung commented in his work with the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous that “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements” were critical in propelling alcoholics to experience an internal transformation capable of sustaining them through the stages of change required to achieve permanent sobriety.

The practical wisdom of such claims shows itself in our organizations daily. In most cases, cultural change occurs only when driven by outside forces – a merger or acquisition, the exit or entrance of a notable leader or influential player, a corporate downsizing; something happens, and we react. Sometimes that something is mild, like a new person on a team with a fresh set of ideas that cause us to rethink the way we do things, and sometimes it’s more drastic like a loss of market share and the grim specter of imminent layoffs that causes us to scramble our resources and react out of self-preservation. Or maybe it’s the rising tide of Millennials in the workforce that we’re struggling to properly engage. Whatever the case, it takes a wake up call to get us moving and by that point we’re forced to address damage control and forward motion simultaneously.

The downside of all this is that if we wait until we’re in crisis to implement change we’re stuck in a reactive mode, and living, working and operating in a state of reaction sucks. It costs us momentum, morale, and often money. But what if we could bring about a level of self-awareness sufficient to prompt action in the absence of a crisis? What if we could, as Lewin suggests, bring about a stir up intentionally and with strategic forethought in order to avoid tragedy later on?

Before we dive into such depths of organizational psychology, let’s step back and look at a simpler example to illustrate how change occurs from a practical standpoint using a fairly universal metaphor: fire

If we haven’t encountered fire before, we may reach out and touch the flame out of curiosity. We get burned, it hurts, we pull our hand away. Cause, effect, reaction. But maybe we didn’t really get burned all that badly. Perhaps we’re so fascinated by the warmth and flickering light that after a while we try again. We reach out into the heat a second time only to be met with the same result. We maybe get singed a bit more harshly this time around and we give up our heroic notions of conquering the mysteries of the flame once and for all.

It all really comes down to a simple proposition: at what point do the negative consequences of dysfunctional behavior outweigh the effort and discomfort required to honestly identify the source of the problem and put a solution in place? Put simply – how bad does it have to get before we get honest and do something about it? The answer to that question typically boils down to a matter of pattern recognition, resource allocation and where we fall on the functional-pain spectrum.

  • Pattern recognition – can we see what’s really happening? Just because it hurt the first time, we weren’t convinced that it would always be that way. The second time around we learned our lesson: fire is always hot, and getting burned is no fun.
  • Resource allocation – what will it cost us to change? Do we have, or can we create, the capacity to stop reaching into the fire? Yes. We don’t need any special tools or additional personnel. In fact, it would take less energy to stop than it would to continue; the benefit seems obvious.
  • Functional vs. Painful – what are we willing to tolerate? Here’s where the decision really gets made. The first burn was just a quick, mild hit. It was a shock and there was discomfort, but it wasn’t catastrophic. It may have even felt like a challenge, increased our need to master the fire and claim victory over it. We could tolerate the pain (and the memory of the pain) and continue to investigate. The second burn told us that we couldn’t beat the heat. It may have felt a bit stronger on our already flame-kissed skin, and we were hurt and sick enough of these results to change our actions and avoid future pain.

Now we had a second memory that compounded our initial discomfort, the needed resources to change our behavior, and a couple of data points as evidence that the fire will burn us every time. From this we establish an enduring perception based on our experience and we opt to change our behavior.

If change were easy or comfortable, there wouldn’t be so many books, workshops, consultants, and resources dedicated to it. We’d simply change whenever we needed or wanted to and that would be that. But while it is rarely such a simple proposition, the solution needn’t be overly complex. The fire example presents an overly-simplified reduction of a change process, but it contains the key elements we need to begin an effective transformation effort. The first phase always requires objective observation and reflection. If we dive headfirst into action, we miss the entire point of strategic thinking. If we think without acting, we’re equally ineffective. Significant effort is required to initiate and sustain change, but if we’re prepared to spend a little time developing a strategy then the process can be our guide on the path from where we find ourselves to where we envision that we must go.

In the coming weeks we will continue this discussion to dive deeper into models and strategies for cultural transformation, but for now let’s simply familiarize ourselves with the concepts and begin to generate awareness for the work ahead. What are the patterns that you think you might find as you begin to analyze your organization? Where do you think you’ll meet with resistance, and where will the idea of cultural change be the most strongly supported? Take just a minute to write down your initial thoughts, while not getting too caught up in the details or expectations.

Questions for reflection:

* Pattern Recognition: What is my current practice for identifying problems as they develop? Do I generally acknowledge when an issue is developing or do I tend to avoid the early signs?

* Resource Allocation: What would I have to invest (time, effort, $) to address this situation differently? Can I afford to do so? Can I afford not to?

* Functional vs Painful: How do I define “pain” as relating to the culture of my organization? How might I measure this in order to understand what is tolerable and what is not?

Feel free to comment below with questions, thoughts or experiences that come to mind along the way!