People Own What They Create

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Our new values and mission make sense. So why don’t our employees embrace them?

Our new strategy and focus is solid. Why don’t they get it?

At some point, some version of this frustration exists at the senior level in almost all companies.

And it’s true, most employees don’t get it; and they don’t get it (or embrace the new strategy, values, etc.) because they didn’t have a hand in its creation.

One of our clients from a wealth management business noticed their clear and logical set of new operating principles were not being embraced by the employees. Although typical management measures could have been used to create compliance (like using the annual performance review process), this senior management team knew the adoption of the new principles would only be effective if they could generate authentic commitment from the employees themselves. But how would they do that?

Seeking compliance is appropriate in some circumstances—like following safety procedures in an oil refinery—but when you need employees to adopt a new way of being and operating, only internalized employee commitment will work.

An effective way to generate commitment in people is to include them in the process. After all, people own what they create. Secretary Tillerson was on to this in the transformation of the Department of State: The redesign of the State Department is an employee-led effort…I have elected to not impose a top-down approach…the people who have to live at State should have a say in how the house is built.

This all makes sense and particularly at the beginning of the journey. A natural way to start the process of any organizational change is to get people involved at the onset. But what can you do if the train has already left the station? What if only a handful of people (representing the larger group) developed the new direction or the new operating principles? How can you construct a conversation company-wide to generate commitment?

Most well-intentioned leaders create key talking points and key messages to deliver during town-halls and other communication mediums. Deliver, because it is just that: a one-way conversation or veiled command.

Alternatively, use a completely different conversation – a two-way conversation – and employees discover the new direction of the company and their part in it.

Instead of Delivering the Script at Your Next Town-Hall, Try These Sets of Questions:
It doesn’t matter if you have a small organization, or a large one, these questions will generate the same outcome: company buy-in and alignment.

We worked with a 500-person team at a large wealth management firm. The goal? The new operating principles adopted by five hundred employees.

Instead of the familiar town-hall meetings designed to sell the new principles to the employees, the senior team did something different.

They worked with fifty people at a time. Groups were randomly selected to generate maximum diversity.

Each sub-group (five people) spent a day together responding to two questions:

Question #1: What is Your Prediction of the Future?

Pose the following question: Based on what you know about how things get done around here, where would this division be in 12 months? (First, instruct people to make a list of predictions on their own, then as a group).

Note that this is not an invention exercise. It’s not about what employees hope for or want to have happen. Highlight past and current circumstances in order to keep the conversation grounded and to ensure their predications are accurate.

If the conversation drifts toward fantasy, ask a get-real question: would you bet your house on that?

This exercise naturally creates alignment. Amazingly, all groups tend to say very similar things. At the very least everyone agrees on the predicted future.

The predicted future doesn’t exist (yet), it is created, and perpetuated by all of us.

For example, you predict that you cannot trust your boss, so you don’t talk openly, even withhold information. Your boss feels you holding something back, maybe considers you’re not trustworthy. Consequently, your boss acts cautiously, sharing parts but not necessarily the whole picture. From colleagues, you hear about the parts your boss hasn’t shared and conclude your boss can’t be trusted. The vicious circle is established, drifting the relationship, (possibly even the department or the organization) toward a predictable future.

At this point, people begin to see that they have more to say about the future than they first thought. They begin to see that they contribute to a future they can predict, but not necessarily the future they want.

Taking Ownership

Returning to our large wealth management company: The groups consider one thing they do (or don’t do) that perpetuates this prediction. For the first time people see how much they contribute to making something they don’t want. Talk about an eye-opener.

Question #2: What Future Do You Want?

Groups then consider the possibility of deliberately creating a future they do want. Encourage people to imagine an authentic possibility, not a pipe-dream.

What would you be proud to say happened?

Instruct groups to imagine the year-end staff party, employees celebrating their successes and a curious guest asking: What are you all so proud of? Or: How did you all do that?
Groups come up with four or five headline statements of the future. They agree on one –aligning with each other by noticing which possible future inspires them all (or, at the very least, which future they can all get behind).

Just like when people in the organization named the predictable future (a future that would come to pass based on the current ways of operating), all the groups come up with a distinctly similar picture of the created or invented future they would be proud to celebrate.

At this stage, each person must declare something they are willing to practice regularly that would be an expression of this invented future – something that would make a difference in their part of the organization.

The Power Of The Icelandic Thunder Clap

If everyone stopped doing one thing that was perpetuating the predicted future and instead adopted a new practice (an expression of the invented future), an organization, depending on its size, could have hundreds of new actions per day. Simple and even small things, (like not automatically responding to group emails with Reply All), but nevertheless things that would make a difference in that person’s slice of the organization. Wow – the combined impact is like the Icelandic Thunder Clap.

Imagine an audience at a sporting event making one clap at the exact same time – a thunderous and powerful sound. The same is true from a hundred or a thousand new actions per day in an organization.

People see that collectively they have the power to transform an organization – they see it’s actually in their hands. A sense of shared responsibility emerges. Alignment is established.

Bringing It Together with Your Town-Hall Talking Points

Returning to our example of the wealth management firm: At this point in the day, the senior team shared the new operating principles they hoped people would adopt. They asked the group to see if they could map their very specific new actions to one or more of the principles.

And guess what they heard from their employees?

“Wow, my new practice lines up with these principles.”

“At least I can get behind one—and I can totally see the value in the others”

Responses that reflect employment alignment are a natural outcome of this entire process. In place of resistance is a group of people owning something they created—even if they didn’t create the principles in the first place.

Epilogue

One year later—this 500-person division has accomplished four of their six headline statements of their invented future and they are on their way to achieving the remaining two.

Now that’s alignment in the workplace.

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