Change is a process of transformation. Like a worm turning into a butterfly, it takes a painful process of disintegration while safely tucked away in a cocoon before the beautiful butterfly finally emerges.  Using this metaphor of transformation, many organizations want to be the butterfly, yet few are willing to go through the disintegration process in the cocoon.   A lot of money is spent on certifications, consultants and coaches in an attempt to show the world evidence of being the proverbial butterfly, while neglecting or ignoring the worm inside, hoping they will disappear in time.  But they don’t.  Not without undergoing the transformation.  And that’s exactly the same reasons why teams don’t change.

Without cultural transformation, no technology, process or methodology is going to change you into a butterfly.

Acculturation and different categories of transformation

In psychology, the term acculturation refers to the process of psychological, social and cultural change that happens as a result of being exposed to a culture other than your native one.    In other words, acculturation refers to how you change your values, beliefs and habits as a result of being exposed to a different culture.  Although acculturation refers to immigrants and social cultures, the same principle applies to any form of digital or organizational transformations.  In order for a transformation to succeed, everyone, or at least a critical mass, needs to assimilate, rather than integrate the proposed changes.

Integration according to the theory of acculturation is when there is a participation in the new system, while still maintaining old beliefs and culture.  In practice, it requires a split between who you are at home and who you are at work.  Assimilation, on the other hand, is when you take the new beliefs and values and make it your own.  It is no longer necessary to separate home from work or compromise your beliefs in return for the safety of a salary.  It is rather a total union of beliefs and values to such an extent that it becomes who you are.  You don’t have to pretend or wear a mask at work, you fully embrace the new set of values as your own.

For change to be effective and sustainable there needs to be assimilation, not merely integration.  Integration implies conformance, not change.    So why don’t teams change?   Why do they tend to integrate rather than assimilate?

A story of integration

The concept of integration is best described by a story.  Specifically, the story of my first encounter with the small city of Changchun in northern China.  I remember the awe and confusion as I walked through the beautiful and ancient streets for the first time. I immediately fell in love with this fantastical and magical city.  On the one end, there are majestic buildings the size of an IKEA – but higher – filled with floors of the best retail products one can imagine.  There’s an entire floor filled only with women’s shoes in all shapes, colours and sizes imaginable. Another floor is filled with only soft bedding, similarly with so much variety that it’s hard to take in, let alone choose from the abundance around you.  Everything housed in a sparkling, brand new high rise, modern building.

As you walk outside this shopper’s paradise, the contrast hits as you get onto an old bus that was built in the 70s (if not older) or a taxi that’s not exactly the Black Cabs of London.

A few blocks further in stark contrast to the modernism of the retail giants are the most beautiful parks filled with the older generation practising Tai Chi, calligraphy, and other ancient arts.  Among the ancient western arts are runners and families who walk around with babies who don’t wear any nappies, their cute little bums displayed for everyone to see.  It’s a magical setting straight from a movie set.  This cuteness of the bare bums, however, turns into shock when the same baby needs to relieve himself and the big hole at the bottom of the baby’s jumpsuit suddenly makes sense as a functional necessity.  No-one around me flinches in this Google deprived nation, protected from the influences from the modern western world outside.

Contrasting old and new

It’s hard to reconcile modern and ancient. Yet, it is a part of the Chinese culture, integrating, not assimilating west and east.

I spend days contemplating this contrast between old and new.  It reminds me of my first visit to Dusseldorf in Germany, where a similar old marrying new exists.  Ancient buildings partly destroyed in the war is restored with a contrasting modern look and feel, blending the two in a unique and new style.  Integrated, but not assimilated.

I then think of South Africa, where after apartheid many of the street names, landmarks and statues of prominent political leaders were ripped out and replaced in an attempt to forget the past and what happened here.  On the surface and to the outside world South Africa looked transformed, yet, for anyone looking ever so slightly under the surface a very different picture emerges.  A picture similar to the restored buildings in Germany and the contrasting new and old of China, just on a more invisible level. The undercurrents of integration are felt, not seen.

Why teams don’t assimilate

Teams tend to follow this same pattern.  On the surface everything looks changed, yet, the undercurrents remain unchanged.  There’s a split between what people say and what they actually do.  No matter what new methodology or framework you implement, the organization as a whole change very little, with parts old and parts new housed in the same team.

Culture eats structure for breakfast.

The reason in most cases relates to a lack of trust. People don’t buy into the change because they know a few months down the line there will be another, newer buzzword to replace it.  I remember undergoing as much as 5 major changes, including a Scrum implementation, in 6 months at a large corporate.  After the third change no-one really bought into it and did just enough to make the managers happy.  The managers, similarly, did just enough to make their bosses happy, knowing that next month there will be something else.  This is an extreme case though.

Actions over words

A more common reason, also relating to trust, is that the leader proposes the change and tells everyone how important it is while continuing his or her daily habits unchanged.  What she says and what she does are not in alignment.  Naturally, people choose actions over words.  Actions speak much louder than words and the words used changed, but the habits remain unchanged.  The new methodology or framework is implemented much like a very thin veneer layer on top of an old and cheap wooden table.

The underlying root cause of both these occurrences I believe is a fear of conflict, one of the five dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.  Either the manager simply doesn’t have the energy to engage in discussion with the team (once again) to try and convince them to do as asked.  It’s easier just to instruct them to do as told without question or else. Or the leader herself is afraid of what might happen when people voice their concerns.  Both are dysfunctional but understandable. It takes immense amounts of energy to convince people to change their minds.  People tend to rather be uncomfortable than change.  More importantly, though, it takes a lot of courage and vulnerability for a leader to stand in front of a group and receive criticism on how she is imperfect.

The impact of integration without assimilation

When change is handled as a veneer layer rather than a longer, harder process of assimilation, the impact might only show once the structures below it finally crumble.   When you wait for the structures to crumble it might be the Titanic finally hitting the ice-berg as I wrote about in “Sinking Ship. Listen out for this one word.”

The early warning signs are people coming late or looking for excuses to be out of the office.  People will tend to be defensive, elaborately explaining why something isn’t done.  They will avoid confrontation at all cost and start looking around for opportunities outside the team or organization.  Customers will start complaining more, or worse, cancel their subscriptions without reason.  It will take much longer than planned to deliver what you promised, each iteration getting slightly longer.  Errors will start cropping up more and more until you spend more time correcting errors than developing new products.  Staff turnover will slowly increase with more and more people leaving until one day finally the manager can’t ignore the issues anymore and has to face the proverbial music.

So how do you assimilate change, practically?

5 Ways to assimilate, not integrate

Water and oil don’t mix.  Unless you add an emulsifier.  Here are five ways to add an emulsifier to your organization.

1. Observe closely

Probably the worst thing a doctor can do is prescribe a treatment without first diagnosing the problem.  In fact, most change initiatives fail as a result of not first spending more time to really understand the problem.  The first tool to ensure assimilation rather than integration is to stop and observe.  What’s really going on?  What are people actually thinking and doing?

I’ve seen many failed Scrum and agile transformations.  In fact, I’ve never – other than the founders of Scrum itself – read a success story of using vanilla Scrum.  Yet, people keep implementing Scrum believing they too will reach the successes promised.  They ignore all the horror stories and excuse the Scrum-but and other rather disillusioning stories, believing that somehow they will be different.  Yet, they’re not.

Scrum, like any other methodology out there, is a recipe that worked for someone else.  Copying it is effectively a process of integration.  Assimilation means that you make it your own, as Spotify did.  Only once they created a unique version of Scrum (which doesn’t resemble scrum at all) did they succeed. When you react without understanding the problem, you’re probably solving the wrong problem.  Listen carefully to what people are saying. Listen even more carefully to what they are not saying.

Invest time in diagnosing the problem before applying a solution.

2. Decide slow, implement fast

The first principle of the Toyota Manufacturing System is to base management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short term financial goals.  Another principle is to make decisions slowly by consensus.  Rash decisions might feel faster, but the effects of it might make it much slower in the long run.  It’s the difference between planning and experimenting.  Do you implement change simply to see whether it works?  Or do you implement change because you’ve carefully evaluated the impact and included all the stakeholders to get a more complete picture?

This doesn’t mean everyone should agree.  It means that you have listened and taken each person’s concerns into consideration before deciding.  Also, you’ve looked at alternatives and did a little bit of research to find out what other people’s experiences were before implementing.  It also means that there’s a benefit for everyone involved.

3. Invest in building trust

You can tell people what to do, but you can’t tell people to trust you.  Trust is earned. It is the result of consistently proving you have everyone’s best intentions at heart.  People will trust you when you are willing, to be honest, and vulnerable.  People will trust you when you express your emotions rather than hide it.  They will trust you when you play open cards with no buts and no small print.

There are no shortcuts to trust. Building trust is a long and hard process that never ends.  When, however, you have invested long enough in building trust, people will follow you and support you.  They will be open to new ideas and listen when you speak which in turn increases the probability of assimilation exponentially compared to integration.

When people don’t trust you integration is inevitable and as soon as you don’t invest in enforcing the desired change, it will evaporate into thin air.

Become the role model people choose to follow.

4. Provide choice

Always provide a choice.  Never, ever, ever force people to do something they don’t fully believe in.  Rather spend time to find out why they are against the change than force them against their will.  Most people will tend to come to the same choice than what you propose by themselves, provided they’re given time to process and have the opportunity to give input.  Most people will also assimilate change happily when they believe that the change is in both their and your best interest.

When people are against an idea usually there’s a valid reason behind it that you might not be aware of.  Rather than force your idea impatiently, ask for alternatives and feedback.

Propose an idea rather casting it in stone and invite feedback. Start with a fully engaged, fully voluntary team and implement the proposed change only within that team.  If it works, people will want to follow suit and scaling will be much less painful.

5. Change the vocabulary

Words create worlds as I’ve written about more extensively in “How to inspire action with Appreciative Inquiry”.  The importance of vocabulary is often overlooked in a change initiative.  It is, however, the fundamental building block of culture in the workplace.  What you wear, what you eat and what you speak are the tangible artefacts of a culture, yet, people discard vocabulary as unimportant.

Sometimes, the only difference between success and failure is changing “we” to “I”.  At other times, introducing a “Please” or expressing “Thank you” more frequently has the power of moving a mountain behind it.  Most of all, a humbling (and authentic) “I am sorry” from a leader is probably the most inspiring and appreciated word in an organization.

On a more operational level, I’ve seen translating acronyms into more meaningful words alone change how things are done.  So many people in a corporate environment don’t have an understanding of what’s expected from them and are too scared to be seen as incompetent if they ask when acronyms are used.  Using plain language that everyone can understand and interpret is the difference between easy implementation and painful confusion.

Use words mindfully and take time to translate difficult terms between different perspectives, such as technology and business.

Change sustainably

Assimilating change requires changing fundamental belief structures.  No form of change will stick if the underlying belief system doesn’t support it.  To change sustainably, the culture needs to change as a whole.  It’s not a journey to be embarked on without adequate thought and preparation, much like you don’t climb a mountain without the right gear and preparation.

Assimilate change by observing closely, deciding slowly and providing choice. Change the conversations to change the culture and most importantly, start with a strong foundation of trust.  You can’t afford to integrate anymore.  It’s time to assimilate.

Photo courtesy Unsplash.

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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.