I've been thinking ... we have a tendency to do that, don't we? Humans. We think .... don't we?
I might even go so far as to suggest it's one of our favourite pass-times. We can't help it. That grey squidgy thing between our ears just keeps on doing it, even when we don't want it to ...
Halfway to the airport; Did I turn off the oven? Did I lock the door / Pick up my passport? Halfway through the night, "did I really say that to my boss / spouse?" We've all experienced that ... haven't we?
So, THINKING... It must be fun, or we wouldn't keep doing it.
If not fun, why? What's it for? And what does it have to do with Stakeholder Engagement? ... is that about the way employees think? Surely it's a behaviours issue, or communication issue ....? hmmmm....
Have you noticed that we find it easier to think about things that are familiar .. or perhaps things we've become accustomed to ... things we're 'comfortable with' .... Things that already feature in our lives one way or another.
I guess that's because we have neural pathways already established in our brain about 'The Thing' we're thinking of, i.e. pathways through our brain, put there by experience; so it's easy to think about the subject. Positively or negatively, it's easy to use the paths and passages that already exist in our squidgy grey stuff.
We don't seem to do quite so well when it comes to thinking of ways to challengethose things we're used to. Why would we want to? If they are nice ... approved of ... accepted by our brain in some way ...then they don't and won't provoke a threat based response in the brain, so why would we challenge them?
Where there is no threat or other motivating factor presented, there is no need, no desire, to stimulate the neural process of challenging or changing our wiring and firing patterns associated to the subject at hand.
And we're lazy ... aren't we? We don't like to put any effort into our thinking ... We just kind of let it happen and trust our thoughts are doing what they are meant to. A bit like auto-pilot on a plane, we turn it on and forget about it, we stop flying the plane consciously.
Once we're operating on auto-pilot, we don't challenge the things we're surrounded by if they appear to pose no immediate threat to us. I suppose that's because having'original thought', challenging existing thinking patterns or exposing ourselves to a new view of the world often requires we expend energy to change wiring and firing patterns in our head, we have to grow new neurons to replace old neurons - wephysically have to 'Change our minds' ...
That takes energy (Glucose energy actually), so it means we have to put more effort in all round ...it makes thinking of things in ways we haven't thought of them before and, challenging what we consider 'Safe', a bit of a hassle really, doesn't it!
Our poor old brain has to increase the rate of change it undertakes ... and to do that we have to find more food to fuel the brain with the energy it needs to make the changes, then we have to exercise to keep the brain clean with sufficient levels of high quality oxygen in our systems ... why bother if we can just sit back and think about things just as we've always thought about them?
... and, what has this got to do with Stakeholder engagement / stakeholder management?
Well, if we have an idea about the way things need to be in our organisation and that is different from the way things currently are in our organisation... that idea only exists in our head ... to have stakeholders 'Engaged' with the new idea, to a point they challenge and change the comfort with which they perceive their current situation, we have to create the conditions in which other brains have the same idea as our brain, don't we?
Our primary objective has to be to stimulate brains to create new wiring and firing patterns.
That kind of thing doesn't happen in all people, all at the same time. Also, when it's not our primary purpose, it doesn't happen quickly, because we often (quite unconsciously) do multiple things which inhibit that transition process.
So, what happens when we challenge something everyone seems to accept?
It would take a bit of effort and a bit of time, so, assuming the initial communication of a new idea didn't provoke an 'Aha!' moment in everyone involved, so it wasn't automatically accepted and adopted, our 'challenge' to the 'current state' / current thinking / comfort, would have to remain consistent over a significant time period ... so we'd have to fully understand the proposed 'New / Future state' (Our idea) and fully believe in it ourselves as a leader of change, before we presented it to others.
A depth of knowledge would ensure nothing we said or did contradicted the presentation of our challenge. We would have to lead by example in concert with the principles surrounding the idea we were promoting to others as 'Good'.
If we were able to challenge an accepted world view in this way, i.e. challenge the pre-conceived ideas, the 'context' (the current auto-pilot brain wiring in others) ... the imprinted belief about what 'good' looks like ... What would happen?
For one thing, once we'd effected such a shift in neural wiring and firing patterns, those effected would behave differently ... 'ACT' differently ...there would be no choice - we humans only 'ACT' in relation to the wiring in our heads - our brain is the origin of everything we do in the world - Everything! You can't get away from that fact. The brain is our very own 'Root-Cause' source of behaviors and actions inevery aspect of our lives.
Now, any 'Change' program requires, a change in 'Action' doesn't it? A change in the actions people take on a day to day basis. A change in behavior ... so it stands to reason, the 'Root Cause' of a successful change programme is a change to belief, a change to the wiring in our heads which provides us our perceptions of 'good'... we go towards things we perceive to be 'good'!
To obtain Stakeholder engagement, we have to alter perceptions. Not process, policy or procedure, or strategy, structure or systems (although they do have an influence on perceptions), to truly get 'Engagement' which will see action taken to change these more tangible aspects of organisational design and performance, the key is to get to a point where 'Thinking' is aligned.
That's not so easy, because as we established above, people are generally lazy when it comes to thinking, so it needs a lot of knowledge about thinking and the mechanics of it to plan an approach which will impact on thinking patterns in an organisation tasked with change.
That depth of 'Change' is only really stimulated by two primary things.
So we have lots of generic and accepted ways of approaching organisational change and development. The standard format is roughly, analyse, identify a gap between here and there, train and introduce tools etc. and close the gap.
It's not rocket science. It's a bit like driving a car. We know where we are, we have some tools, we see where we want to go, we buy a bit of fuel and some oil from a supplier, stick the right liquids in the right holes, train a driver, (stick some liquid into this part of the system as well - non-alcoholic preferably) check the tyre pressures, get some insurance and hey presto! We've created a socio-technical system which all works together and we arrive at a destination legally within a whisker of the plan. Simples!
So why doesn't it work in business. Because it doesn't, does it! If we're honest with ourselves, and if we take any notice of the endless references to statistics which show one global report after another and one academic study of the markets after another, (Across decades)... they all say the same old thing ... Change Fails in upwards of 75% of all cases! Some say 85%. Some 95%. Others say just 2% of all 'Vanilla Systems' deliver against expectations.
On top of that the market is flooded with buzzwords like ownership, engagement, autonomy, empowerment ...
So what the hell is going wrong?
The difference looks like this;
The driver in the car wants to go on the journey, the driver wants to drive the car, because they already believe it's the best solution for them and they want to be at the destination. They want to change where they currently are and go somewhere different. The Stakeholder is engaged!
In this analogy, it's a geographical destination, but you get the point? People don't want to make changes to the business processes they are already comfortable with, especially if they can't see or understand the future state. If they have no experience of the benefits promised by a different type of process and approach, which, in psychological terms, threatens what they are comfortable with, they don't voluntarily challenge the current state. That makes any introduction of a proposed change a threat.
In those conditions (all too common) they don't challenge their thinking, which we have established above is a primary requirement for change, they become actively defensive and protect their current thinking patterns (exactly the opposite of the response we need to achieve 'Stakeholder engagement'). This slows the speed of change programmes down dramatically, adding cost and missing opportunities in the market through a lack of flexibility, adaptability and resilience.
Leaders who can understand this about themselves and their employees understand the crucial difference between failing change programs and successful transformation.
Without doubt, things only happen when the people involved WANT them to happen - the key is creating that 'want', that need in the minds of people... ironically, that isn't (typically) the focus of training and education. Is it?
What does training do? It delivers a pre-prescribed amount of facts and figures, usually tailored to suit a given time-frame, to teach a tool, doesn't it? ... it leaves the receiving brain to it's own devices in terms of 'wanting' to use the facts and figures or the 'tool' being trained ...the 'Want' which makes all the difference doesn't really feature in the lesson plan, does it?
Tools are often thrown at people as a quick fix from on-high without setting context.
That approach to training is a bit naive really, a bit 'Ostrich' with it's head in the sand ... it kind of works on the basis that "I have an idea of what good looks like, so I'll employ someone else to throw data and facts at you on power point slides over two days and tell you how other companies use this information to great effect. I'll then just shut my eyes and hope you develop some emotional attachment to those facts, which I will assume will see you fundamentally re-wire your brain and assimilate my world view to your own within 48 hours, to overcome your imprinted world view and related beliefs and those thinking patterns you have established over a life-time of contradictory experience."
Hardly a responsible approach is it? Not really 'Leadership'. It doesn't really 'Engage Stakeholders' does it?
It turns out, fantastic training which really makes a difference and transfers back to the workplace is not so much about changing the technical, logical, planning and deployment methods utilised in an organisation, it's not about the facts and figures behind tools and techniques, it's about the transition the human brain has to make when going from one level of established comfort to another level of established comfort, often in respect to an entirely new world view presented by others.
It's about taking people on a journey they can engage in, they can test, and challenge and push and poke and map to their own world view so they can see it's not a threat ... its about letting others see there is a benefit for them, so they want to put in the effort to reach a different destination... together!
If you get that transition aspect right in people the change you want in your organisation will follow - naturally. There are multiple methods and approaches which link to the physical changes you can make, particularly in relation to Lean tools and deployment models like Hoshin, which help ensure this kind of transition takes place.
At that level of development, leaders see that actions become aligned with the wiring and firing patterns in a persons head; so, if you want to change principles of operation, practices and processes through the actions and behaviours of others, the place to focus your effort is between the ears.
Without that Want in place in the majority of the workforce (and more importantly - in the Executive team), you can forget your tools, techniques, strategy, structure, systems, policy, process and procedures, especially where they don't already exist and you try to create them in your organisation from a minority mind-set through training. It is that approach which has led to the 75%+ Failure rates reported globally for the last 40 years.
At any given point in time, tools, techniques and models only exist as a concept, presented through words ... they are no more than mental models created by someone else ... There are no established neural pathways in the brains of your people from past experience, so new ideas are not easy to think of without engaging the imagination. As they are unknown, they are neurologically uncomfortable, strange, alien (there is no representation of them in the brain yet) ... and in the simple world of our defence mechanisms, anything that is not 'comfortable', anything that is 'New' (Can't be mapped to an established network) is a threat.
Guess what we do with threats - we oppose them, we rationalise them negatively between us around the coffee machine, we make them 'Bad'! and anything bad we avoid ... we don't 'Engage with'.
If we want our 'Stakeholders' to be 'Engaged' in the idea of making our organisation something different tomorrow than it is today, the leaders of an organisation have to create the emotional and social conditions which provoke that engagement. If we think about the standard approach, and consider how we introduce anything new through training, it doesn't take much to see that we often create the conditions in which people actively become disengaged.
If you want to deal with change in your organisation with this depth and rigor, you can't be an Ostrich and hope you're having a positive impact on the thinking that goes on, you have to make the wise choice and deal with it overtly and practically.
The good news is:
With the latest advances in science, consciously designing a practical approach to dealing with the root cause issues behind sustainable organisational change, culture and stakeholder engagement, as a leadership team, is easier to understand than it has ever been before.
And we enjoy helping people come to understand it.