There is a myth that organizational change, which is to say, cultural change, will be successful only if it is done top-down, led by the CEO, and has broad, if not total, buy-in. This is wrong.
The most successful organizational changes occur from the middle-out, by a motivated and enlightened leader of some smaller organization residing in the bowels of the larger. The micro becomes an example for the macro. You just need your boss to have your back should a dissenter escalate their dissent. The most important champions for your change effort are you and your leadership team. You don’t need total, or even broad-based buy-in, you just need to achieve “critical mass,” which can be as little as 5%, if it is “the right” 5%.
Since this tends to run contrary to conventional wisdom, let me explain why this is true.
Think escape velocity. Escape velocity is the minimum speed needed for an object to break free from the gravitational attraction of a massive body. How much energy will it take to escape the gravitational pull of “the old culture”? (NOTE: I am not talking about an organization that is fighting for its life—the physics in this kind of situation is much simpler. Rather, I am talking about an organization that is doing just fine, or merely OK, but aspires to do better or to take a different track.)
To achieve enduring success, your change effort will need to achieve escape velocity to break free from the gravitational pull of the existing culture. And escape velocity is a function of mass—the larger the body, the greater its gravitational pull, thus the greater the velocity needed to escape that gravitational pull.
The escape velocity needed for the cultural change effort of a whole company to escape the gravitational pull of its old culture is much greater than that needed for a smaller organization within that same company to escape the gravitational pull of its old culture.
In all honesty, to change the culture of a whole company requires a strength of leadership that most leadership teams, simply do not possess. They do not have “the fuel”, as measured by the investment in political capital and cultural energy that will be required. And they cannot maintain the “burn rate”, as measured by the sustained focus and attention span for the length of time that will be required.
Whereas, a motivated and enlightened leader of a smaller organization stands a much better chance.
It’s not unlike an Apollo moon shot. Bear with me.
The mean-axis distance from Earth to its moon is 238,856 miles. Not including Earth orbits prior to lunar transit, and excluding lunar orbits, the roundtrip distance between Earth and moon is ~477,712 miles. The duration of the Apollo 11 mission, from lift-off to splash-down, was 195:18:35.
The Apollo Saturn V carried 927,529 gallons of fuel in three separate stages:
- The first stage (S-IC) carried 521,400 gallons burning 193,111 GPM (56% of the rocket’s total) in a 0:02:42 burn lifting the ship to an altitude of 42 miles.
- The second stage (S-II) carried 340,000 gallons burning 57,143 GPM (37% of total) in a 0:05:57 burn lifting the ship to an orbit 118.8 miles above the Earth, and a velocity of 17,432 mph.
- The third stage (S-IVB) carried 66,129 gallons, which were used to accelerate the remaining 7,588 mph needed to achieve escape velocity, to insert the ship into lunar transit, and to travel to the moon, in lunar orbit, and return to Earth.
In other words, just to achieve escape velocity, it was necessary for the Saturn V to burn 93% of its fuel, in the first 0.095% of the mission’s duration, to travel .25% of the mission’s distance. Once achieving escape velocity, the Saturn V required only 7% of its fuel to travel the remaining 99.975% of the mission’s distance, and 99.905% of the mission’s remaining duration.
You should expect that your cultural change effort will require the same proportional investment in, and burn rate of, political capital and cultural energy.
It’s a function of escape velocity, which is a function of mass; here’s the analogy:
This is why I say that most successful organizational changes occur from the middle-out, by a motivated and enlightened leader of some smaller organization residing in the bowels of the larger. The micro becomes an example for the macro.
This is also why I do not subscribe to the idea of Enterprise Agility. Don’t get me wrong, I am totally on-board with cultivating organizational agility—I teach a class in it, Organizational Agility: Making the Future a Way of Life. I am just opposed to a grand, centrally organized and controlled/coordinated effort organizing all of the teams, building all of the plans and budgets, conducting all of the meetings, writing all of the communications, creating and administering all of the measurement, reporting and reward systems, and developing all of the other organizational infrastructure needed to conduct an Enterprise Agility effort.
Better that organizational agility be allowed to self-organize and grow organically, ignited by the successful department-level efforts of a motivated, enlightened, first or middle level manager, whose success inspires other motivated, enlightened, first or middle-level managers of other departments, whose success inspires others, and so on, thereby creating a growing army of battle-hardened change agents prowling the halls.
We’re agilityIRL. We help build leaders in organizational agility, and leaders of cultural change at all organizational levels—we help make the future a way of life.