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The Chief Executives I interviewed whose strategy required significant change in culture, started with a compelling imperative for change. They made sure their people understood the rational and emotional reasons for the change. This article explains how a compelling imperative for change works, is developed and used.

This article is one of a series about how Chief Executives go about creating cultural and behavioural change in their organisations.  I searched out Chief Executives who were successful in changing performance through cultural and behavioural change.  Throughout the twenty or so interviews, clear patterns emerged.  You can read about their overall approach in “The Culture Change Zone”.  In this article I focus on step two, how they create and use a compelling imperative for change.  Particularly the thinking behind the emotional component and creating the realisation for change.

Change is written on the wall
A compelling imperative for change needs both rational and emotional components.

What is a compelling imperative for change?

The compelling imperative for change is the explanation for change that contains both a rational and an emotional component.

The emotional component of a compelling imperative for change

The compelling imperative is designed to create an emotional reaction as well as a rational one.  Be careful that you are not simply creating a burning platform (a rather insensitive and unhelpful metaphor for change).  The burning platform is an instigator of fear and flight.  That is not what you want.  What you are trying to achieve is a series of more positive emotions.  A sequence such as:

  1. What really! You are kidding right? (awareness and possible disbelief)
  2. So show me (curiosity)
  3. Gosh, that is really true! (Realisation)
  4. Surely that means…. (implication and consequence)
  5. We have a way forward (opportunity)
  6. Acceptance and openness (willingness to experiment and try.  Even creativity)
  7. Being serious about change (enthusiasm, commitment and even advocacy)

This is a much more subtle but realistic and desirable set of emotional responses to change.  What is important is that there are at least three stages to this process.  Each stage has to be planned and managed.

A simpler version is to look at these emotional journeys in three stages:

  1. Awareness & Realisation: Understanding that things need to change, rationally and emotionally.  Including a recognition of the consequences. (1,2 & 3 above)
  2. Possibility: That people are willing to see that there are new possibilities. That they can try them. (4 & 5 above)
  3. Openness and opportunity: Having tried them for themselves, and seen that they work, eventually commitment. (6 & 7 above)

Two varieties of the awareness and realisation stage

There are two distinct varieties of compelling imperative for change, depending on the nature of the problem:

Broken today, symbolised by a broken bridge.  It represents that the organisation is already broken and a new solution is required.  However, not all the  people in the organisation might realise that the bridge is broken.  So the emotional and rational case must clearly set out what is broken so that they can see, feel and touch it for themselves.  They have to realise the implications of the state the organisation is in, today.

We can’t continue like this, symbolised by standing on a railway track on which a train is approaching.  This is used when the organisation thinks it is fine and cosy in its world.  However, change is coming and it will need to adapt to survive.   Not everyone will realise they are standing in the way of the approaching train.  The role of the compelling imperative for change is understand both, the state the organisation is in today and create awareness that things need to change in response to the impending arrival of the train.

Of course an organisation can be on a continuum between these two examples.  The bridge may be broken, but it is not one to be crossed yet?  The train may already have passed, but people do not realise change is now required.  An example of the latter is when the environment and context of the organisation has change and is clearly going to change.  So a response is required.

The rationale element of the awareness and realisation stage

What stood out for me from the interviews, was how the rationale element often involved helping people understand the finances of the organisation, and most importantly, their role in those finances.

There seems a reluctance in some organisations to avoid talking to the people they employ about the financial situation, in a meaningful way.  By meaningful, I don’t refer to “Look at our profits/surplus this year”.  I mean, let us examine the costs in detail and what is causing them?  Let us look at how income is changing and what it means.  Let us look at these finances in a way that are meaningful to you in a way that you might be able to influence.  One interviewee characterised this as:  “I am treated as an employee in an organisation. I want to be treated as a person in a business.“.  In other words, people are not simply treated as a thoughtless cog in a system, but feel a part of the whole system, able to understand how the business works and then be able to influence it.

Subsequent parts of the emotional and rational journey.

The stages of creating possibility, giving people permission to change and encouraging openness and opportunity, are covered in other parts of “The Culture Change zone