Choosing change and Leveraging the Surprising Power of Fierce Agreements
“There’s no such thing as organizational change.”
Organizations don’t change – the people IN the organization change, and that happens one individual at a time. And, unless the right people, in the right roles, in the right numbers, at the right time choose to change – together – any meaningful level of “organizational change” is doomed from the start.
Unfortunately, most approaches to change don’t recognize this fundamental truth and attempt to force a change to happen through a variety of badly designed and poorly executed processes. The most deadly approach of all is this: “Get Buy-In.”
Recently, I had the distinct honor and privilege to share a TEDx Talk where I described in detail the benefits and power of making what I call fierce agreements – the never-look-back, I’m-fully-committed kinds of decisions that power real, sustainable change.
In my talk, I made the bold assertion that “Buy-In Sucks – It’s just not nearly powerful enough, and it’s almost always too late…” Maybe buy-in is a distinctly American idea, but it seems to represent the highest level of agreement that “leaders” think is needed to accomplish change. However, buy-in actually implies some level of selling or coercion or threats. It’s not an active choice, it’s a passive level of “going along with an idea,” and in my 35 years of working in the change business, it just doesn’t work very well.
You know the buy-in story by heart, most likely…
“A small number of “really smart” people head off somewhere to do some brainstorming and strategic planning.”
(By the way, they often come to places in Colorado – where I live – and visit Vail, or Aspen, or Breckenridge. Thank you for bringing your tax dollars, but given the fact that ~90% of the Earth’s oxygen is in the first mile / 1610 meters, why would you go to 9,000 feet / 2743 meters to do strategic planning? But they do!)”
“Anyway, at these off-site meetings, they come up with some big ideas and then come back – prepared to create buy-in. So, they plan and implement all kinds of activities – meetings, webinars, conference calls, town-halls, pop-up sessions – and they get all kinds of stuff printed and prepared (t-shirts, coffee cups, posters, banners), and develop roll-out plans.”
“There’s a bunch of fanfare, energy and enthusiasm at the start – all the VPs are on display, sharing their talking points widely, and speaking consistently and fervently about the change – encouraging buy-in from everyone.”
“And… Then… Days and weeks pass – no more town halls, no more coffee cups – and ultimately, no buy-in. The executives huddle together – miffed and confused about the lack of ‘organizational change’ – and ultimately they decide that the buy-in must not be strong enough. They decide to push harder.”
“So, they ‘double down’ on forcing buy-in to happen and stick the change (and its required behaviors, etc.) into our performance management systems, and MAKE us do it. After all, if we don’t comply, we don’t get our raise – that ought to work!”
Who thought that was a good idea?
Here’s a picture of what I just described – think “team buy-in” (the folks attempting to drag the elephant of organizational change up the hill) as being led by the “cheerleader” at the front (the executives who came up with the ideas in the first place). And, just like the elephant digs in its heels, people – when forced to change, when told to buy-in – will resist the change with gusto.
Here’s the secret to real, sustainable change: Change works when people choose it. It’s no more complicated than that. However, real, sustainable change only happens when our hearts are in it – when we feel invited into the change process, and are given the time and encouragement to choose it on our own. These are the most powerful choices; again, the kind of decisions I call fierce agreements.
Being sold, coerced, threatened, shamed or forced to change just doesn’t work. You may get begrudging “go along to get along” behaviors for a while – and people will talk about changing – but when push comes to shove (which happens a lot with change-related stuff), the buy-in based approach to change just crumbles.
Instead, encourage and foster fierce agreements – support individual decisions to do whatever it takes, to choose to operate or think differently, to personally own and invest in the change. You’ll be shocked at your results – then again, maybe not. After all, CHOOSING change makes all the difference!