Driving change by sifting through old emails
Look for existing agreements instead of creating new ones.
Change is difficult in a calcified organization. Hardened patterns are naturally resistant to outside forces, often through reflex rather than intent. A good idea is acknowledged but will lack execution with the system blamed for the inaction. There is agreement that the result will be good, but getting there is too difficult given the (often self-imposed) constraints. The inertia overwhelms any desire to experiment.
I was reading John Cutler’s post on conditions when change is more likely, and I’ve summarized his thoughts (hopefully accurately) in this diagram.
The main idea here is that there needs to be some structural and decisive action, presumably from leadership, that drives change. He references Donella Meadows’ work on where to intervene in a system to drive that change and reading that post, it seems very thought out but also very complex, much like the system it’s trying to affect. I simply wouldn’t know how to convey that density of information to anyone effectively, and that’s not even considering the amount of cognitive effort needed to consume and parse that kind of material.
Instead, I’ve had some success in a much simpler and possibly amateurish approach. To put it plainly, it is easier to extend someone’s thinking by building on something they have already agreed to, rather than introduce a new perspective. I’m not suggesting new perspectives are not needed (they are), but as a starting point for driving decisive action, it is far easier and tenable to get someone to take the next small step in something they have tacitly committed to, rather than find “leverage points” through systems analysis. The problem with doing system analysis is that people tend to see themselves as exceptions and exceptionally complex, even when they’re not. They select themselves out of a systems analysis archetype.
In most organizations or teams in stasis, there is usually an agreement present which can serve as the leverage point. A team working agreement, some forgotten OKR, an action from a retrospective, a vision statement, some takeaway that we all agreed to but never did. I have found this to be a surprisingly effective way to pull the thread to get something going. Sometimes that something fizzles out, but sometimes it garners support and enthusiasm.
In short, sometimes we over-analyze where the best leverage point for change should be and instead should look for things we have already agreed to do. There’s a strong possibility that we have thought and forgotten about many improvement ideas that are collecting dust in an email nobody read. Pull that email up.
In the absence of an agreement like that, it is helpful to start from first principles to form that agreement. More on that some other time.