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Make These 3 Cultural Shifts To Reignite Change In Your Organization

2023 September 10
by Greg Satell

On a cold November day in 2013, frustrated by recent events in Ukraine, a journalist named Mustafa Nayyem posted to Facebook, “Okay guys, let’s get serious. Who’s ready to go to the Maidan today at midnight? ‘Likes’ will not be counted. Only comments under this post with the words ‘I’m ready.’ Once there are more than a thousand, we will organize it.”

Nothing needed to be explained. Everyone knew exactly what he meant. Nine years earlier, hundreds of thousands of people flooded Independence Square in Kyiv, locally known as “the Maidan,” to protest a falsified election in a movement called the Orange Revolution. Mustafa was now calling on his fellow citizens to do the same.

It was a moment that changed history. Yet it’s not that moment we should focus on, but what came before. It was what happened in those ensuing nine years—the development of unseen networks, the learning and the cultural change—that made the moment possible. The truth is that for genuine change to take place, significant cultural shifts need to come first.

1. From Preaching To Listening

The Orange Revolution got its name because orange was the campaign color of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. “It was not about social mobilization, it was not about political mobilization, it was mostly about the political class in Kyiv,” Mustafa would later tell me. And while it achieved its goal of putting the preferred candidate in office, it would ultimately fail to survive victory, which is what led to the call for people to revolt again nine years later.

Many organizational transformations follow a similar pattern. Convinced change has to come from the top, they start with a big kickoff campaign detailing what change will look like. In a show of force, leaders take center stage and declare their support. The goal is to create a sense of urgency and inevitability around change.

It almost always fails and it usually fails for the same reason: people resist it. The simple reality is that human beings form attachments to people, ideas and other things. When they feel those attachments are threatened, they will lash out in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive. If you are going to bring change about, that’s what you need to overcome.

There are a number of ways to overcome that kind of resistance, but in the early stages, when the idea is nascent, the simplest and most effective way is to focus on listening rather than trying to overpower with a show of force. Don’t push your idea on people or try to persuade them. Go out and find people who are enthusiastic and want it to succeed.

“You have to go where the energy is,” John Gadsby, who built a movement for process improvement inside Procter & Gamble that has grown to encompass 60,000 employees, told me. “We’ll choose energy and excitement and enthusiasm over the right position, or the person at the right leadership level, or the person whose job it is supposed to be to do that.”

2. From “Us And Them” to “We Together”

Humans are naturally tribal. In fact, decades of research has found that we will tend to form groups based on identity—even if that identity is something we are arbitrarily assigned, like a “red team” and a “blue team”—and will show loyalty to group members and hostility towards outsiders. These results have also been documented in children and even in infants.

We often trip over subtle matters of identity without realizing it. That was certainly true of the Orange Revolution, which had a regional undercurrent few appreciated at the time. Viktor Yanukovych, the thuggish politician who would trigger both the Orange Revolution and the protests that came nine years later, was associated with the Donbass region. The residents there saw an attack on him as an attack on them.

Organizational change agents commonly fall into a similar trap. In a misguided effort to gain credibility, they set themselves and their ideas apart from others. They position themselves with a credential they’ve earned or as being proponents of some school of thought, such as design thinking or agile development. Unwittingly they set up separate ”us and them” identities.

So before you can ignite change, you first need to forge a shared identity based on shared values. That’s exactly the approach Lou Gerstner took in his historic turnaround of IBM. Despite being the first CEO to come from outside the company, he made sure to explain his changes in terms of the firm’s traditional values rather than something different. His efforts led to a legendary success.

3. From Imposed Beliefs To A Co-Created Future

The Orange Revolution was a political movement with political aims. That is, in large part, why despite the initial victory it would ultimately fail in the end. The truth is that you can never base transformation on any particular person, policy or technology. It also has to be rooted in shared values. That’s the only way that you can overcome resistance, survive victory and build a common future.

When people followed Mustafa Nayem to Independence Square the protests were dubbed Euromaidan, because the proximate cause had to do with an EU Association Agreement but also because they represented a desire to adopt European Values. As things heated up, a group of prominent journalists released a video giving voice to these aspirations.

Here’s part of what they said:

There are many things that unite Rivne and Luhansk, Kyiv and Odessa. [cities in the west, east, north and south, respectively]

We want to live in an honest and fair country, where individual rights are respected, where you can freely express your views and not be afraid of the police, where courts are just and can’t be bought, where there is real competition in business and opportunity to work in an honest way.

Today, it’s common for Ukrainians to refer to the events of 2014 as the Revolution of Dignity, because as events progressed it became less about the country’s relationship with its western neighbors and more about how they saw themselves. No longer would they accept being simple pawns in the games of corrupt leaders, but would decide their own future.

For change to succeed, everybody needs to see themselves as heroes in the story. In some cases, that means that people will have to decide to seek a different journey in another place. In other cases, they will need to be shown the way out. But the possibility for them to thrive in a shared future needs to be there.

Becoming Mundane And Ordinary

Today, few would question the dignity of the Ukrainian people. In fact, they have become such an inspiration to the world that it’s hard to remember that the country used to be a very cynical place. When I first arrived there in 2002, I was struck by the apathy. There was so little hope that anything could ever change that few saw any sense in even trying.

My friend, the global activist Srdja Popović, once told me that the goal of a revolution should be to become mainstream, to be mundane and ordinary. If you are successful it should be difficult to explain what was won because the previous order seems so unbelievable. That’s certainly true of Ukraine today, but also true of successful organizational transformations.

Today, Apple is so associated with Steve Jobs and the Macintosh that it seems incredible that he was fired from the company, in large part due to tensions that resulted from its development. Lou Gerstner’s turnaround of IBM was so complete it seems crazy that most people assumed the company would be broken up and sold for parts. Artificial intelligence has become so embedded in our lives, it’s hard to remember that not long ago it seemed like science fiction.

One of the things that makes change so challenging is that when we hear about the successes—failures are rarely documented—the story is told in a way that makes everything seem inevitable. We have to remember that things start out much differently. There were failures along the way that needed to be learned from and overcome.

The successful path to transformation starts with culture, how people see themselves and those around them. That doesn’t just happen. Leaders must work intentionally to create shared values. The truth is that change that is imposed never sticks, because it asks those who must affect change to betray themselves. You must first change minds before you can change actions.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Photo by Ono Kosuki

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