Burning, bumping and what does good look like?

We're having an ongoing conversation about how we can 'transform' the organisation. We're pretty much agreed that things have to change. But there is some disagreement on whether there is the 'burning platform' or whether we even need one of these in order to 'transform'.

I think a 'burning platform' is a competitor for Lucy Kellaway's guffipedia (in fact, I just suggested it) and go along with Chip Heath's view that: 'That is one of the silliest pieces of business jargon. The idea of the burning platform is that people only change when they're scared. But fear, as an emotion, creates tunnel vision'.

Failing being able to see the burning platform our other tack is to keep asking each other 'what problem are we trying to solve here?' This is almost as pointless as searching for the burning platform, especially when things aren't 'wrong', but are in, my brother's phrase, 'bumping along'.

If there are no burning platforms, and we can't adequately answer 'what problem are we trying to solve?' Are we fine as we are?

Well, no. As I said, we are in agreement that things need to change. But the scale ranges from 'smoothing out the bumps' to 'let's be extremely radical'. No-one thinks 'let's do nothing'. In order to get to some agreement on what needs to change and/or transform we ask the question, 'What does good look like?'

This isn't a very helpful question as there isn't a whole lot of consensus on what it would look like even at the level of just trying to smooth out the bumps and if we want transformation it is even less worth asking as, 'the overall goal of transformation is not just to execute a defined change -— but to reinvent the organization and discover a new or revised business model based on a vision for the future. It's much more unpredictable, iterative, and experimental. It entails much higher risk.' (Ron Ashkenas). Using this definition it is impossible to answer 'What does good look like?' because it emerges through the process of transforming.

So what might work to help us decide how far down the continuum we want to travel? Over the last several weeks as I've worked with this, four important principles have emerged:

Engage in the history of the organisation. This is often over-looked by reformists who come in as 'new blood' intent on changing stuff. In a conversation last week someone referred to Chesterton's fence effectively saying that 'reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood'. (It's from G K Chesterton's 1929 book 'The Thing' and delightfully explained by him. Reforming zeal can turn off otherwise kindly people if they feel their history is being ignored.

Listen generously to different views and perspectives. This is hard (I am practicing) but worth doing . Here's one person's description of it. 'To listen generously is to give of oneself to another, to let go of assumptions conceived outside of this particular evolving relationship. It means to be aware of different worldviews and meet another in a safe-enough space where true listening occurs. Generous listening allows us to move away from the positivist tendency towards criticism and into a space where we allow other's questions to help guide our own journeys.' Generous listening allows space for people to build relationships and learn from different perspectives.

Check you are speaking the same language – or have a common understanding of the words you are using. We've found that there are words that we think we understand when someone else uses them but we don't. Technical jargon is fairly off-putting if you're not in that technical discipline but even more commonly used words – 'service', 'customer', 'product' etc. mean different things to different people.

If you are the consultant in a transformation process – learn to be a good adviser, that is:

  • Know how and where to go and find reliable knowledge,
  • Be skilled at assessing the expertise of others at its true worth,
  • Be able to spot the strong and weak points in any situation at short notice
  • Be credible in advising how to handle a complex situation

(Adapted from Sir Edward Bridges, Head of the Civil Service, 'Portrait of a Profession: 1950' )

How do you get a 'transformation' discussion going if there is no 'burning platform', things are 'bumping along nicely' and you can't know what good looks like? Let me know.