Earlier today, I came across this tweet by RAND Corporation.
— RAND Corporation (@RANDCorporation) February 20, 2015
It got me thinking about how organizations are, in a lot of ways, a lot like countries.
When we think and talk about change leadership within organizations, we are typically dealing with scaled down versions of political environments; and some of the lessons related to counter-insurgency and political change can and do apply directly.
RAND’s 12 factors that “generate and sustain unstable environments” are actually quite applicable for large organizations thinking about undertaking transformational change (or, to be honest, merely looking to stabilize performance).
Let’s do a little bit of mental ju jitsu, and replace “violent extremists” with “change resisters” and then see how this idea stacks up. Let’s take them in turn and I’ll comment on how the factor translates to corporate change programs…
Factor 1. The level of external support for violent extremist groups…OR, The level of external support for change resister groups.
Doubtless, the level of external justification for individuals to be resistant to a given change agenda is a key indicator of how likely change is to happen. This is the reason that role modeling by executives and peers to a given group undergoing a change is a critical input to the change leadership puzzle. Whenever a person in an organization (for the sake of argument let’s say it’s the finance function of your company) can go and get “mentorship” from outside of his or her group from other influential people who disdain or downplay the change…that person will be much more likely to resist. It’s academic.
Factor 2. The extent to which the government is considered illegitimate or ineffective by the population
Another highly applicable factor is how legitimate leadership, particularly senior leaders and direct change leaders, is believed to be by the rank and file. The “population trust” factor can’t be ruled out when thinking about how to lead change.
Factor 3. The presence of tribal or ethnic indigenous populations with a history of resisting state rule
At first glance, this sounds like an anthropological factor that really is best left to the tribes of Afghanistan; but when you think about it, this might be the most relevant factor. If you have ever tried to penetrate a corporate fiefdom ruled by a real tribal leader, you know this analogy is real. If your organizational culture revolves around cults, fiefdoms, empires, and turf; you will undoubtedly encounter much more change resistance.
Factor 4. The levels of poverty and inequality
Change is hard. It’s a lot harder when the senior executives live like kings and the rank and file live like doormats. People notice. A high level of inequality OR a high level of senior management secrecy about inequality will severely handicap efforts to change or stabilize a company.
Factor 5. The extent to which local government is fragmented, weak, or vulnerable
This one goes to the tribal points outlined on point 3, but is actually the opposite. If your organization has exceptionally weak local or frontline leadership; then people don’t get the word. They are left to their own devices. That’s a recipe for slow change at best.
Factor 6. The existence of ungoverned space
This is an interesting one when it comes to organizational analogies. In an organization undergoing significant change; my mantra is “everybody plays.” Why? Because when some organizational space is left out of the mix, people can either (1) reference it as a reason to resist as a matter of fairness or (2) flock to it.
Factor 7. The presence of multiple violent, nonstate groups competing for power…OR let’s call them competing initiatives or agendas for change
Interestingly enough this one plays out in many organizations every day (not the violence…the competing agendas). If your organization has an entrepreneurial leadership culture, this can be a frustrating downside of it. Individual leaders’ competing agendas get in the way of the macro change and stabilization agenda; and you fail as a result.
Factor 8. The level of government restriction on political or ideological dissent
So, clamps on free thinking can be a bad thing. Interestingly, factor 7 is the yang to this yin. The government is overly restrictive, so people resist change. This is a matter of trust. When Dear Leader tells you what to do or else but you don’t trust Dear Leader; you go looking for a way to sabotage Dear Leader’s agenda.
Factor 9. The level of consistency and/or agreement between a violent extremist group’s goals and the ideology of target populations
This one seems sort of simple: If people agree that resistance is the best answer, and they do so in great numbers, then your change program is sunk.
Factor 10. The extent to which population and extremist groups perceive faltering government commitment to a counterinsurgency campaign
In corporate-speak, this one reads “the extent to which your senior executives fail to follow through on change commitments.” Might seem easy, but it’s a failure mode found every day in every organization. Senior leaders find something more interesting to do than to drive change day to day, week to week, and month to month. People see the lack of attention and become resisters.
Factor 11. The capacity, resources, and expertise of violent extremist groups
This one is a bit tricky to draw as an analogy to corporate change and stabilization programs. Certainly change resisters have to have the capacity to resist; but a lot of times it’s just about clout; and that’s why factor 12 is the kicker…
Factor 12. The pervasiveness of social networks
Absolutely. If the social influencers in your organization aren’t the same people as the change leaders, then you probably have a problem. It’s very important not only to co-opt the hierarchy of an organization, but also the social networks by getting to the thought leaders first.
In many organizations, the people who make change go aren’t the 35 year old MBAs but rather the 55 year old shop foremen. Social networks matter. What RAND is likely getting at is the ability for information and protection to flow below the government radar in unstable countries. I’m saying the same thing matters in unstable companies.
I write this because the language and approaches to counter-insurgency as they have developed over the past 15 years are both directly applicable to leading change in a given organization. Each of these factors, perhaps with the exception of factor 11 which I had to squint at to really see a link, relates directly to your own probability of leading successful change in your organization.
Keep this in mind next time you think change is easy!