board room

by 

Andrew Osterday

#read
10 minutes

The Assumption Problem: Why The Most Successful Businesses Often Fail At Change

Drawing has always been a love of mine, for as long as I can remember. My parents saved boxes of my drawings over the years, from fingerpaints to fine art. I even had the opportunity to draw my senior thesis in high school.

I consider by far my best work to be the doodle. Buried in old notebooks and scribbled on countless pieces of scrap paper long ago cast into landfills are endless streams of shapes, abstract designs, landscapes, and characters — cerebral outputs that oftentimes capture an emotional feeling associated with a conversation, visual bookmarks to help me navigate my notes, and fun hand-drawn messages left behind on whiteboards and paper scraps on conference room tables for co-workers.

Yet, rarely did my doodles ever end up in my work for clients. “That wouldn’t be professional,” I assumed. “Executives wouldn’t be used to that, it’s too childish.” I assumed clients wanted hefty decks dripping with value, with everything spelled out, polished, branded, shiny, and expensive-looking. An old mentor of mine called it the “plop effect” — the distinct sound of a 100-page, 11×17 deck, bound deck hitting an executive’s desk.

That assumption could not have been more wrong.

Turns out, executives want it as simple as anyone else. What they really want is to be told a story, a story so simple and easy to understand they can tell it to others, too. As simple as a children’s book.

There is not a project that goes by today where I don’t see seemingly small, but damaging, assumptions being made about change and how it happens. These assumptions are often rooted in success and experience — what we learned that worked in the past. But experience can work against us here, especially in times of disruption when the old tools and principles do not apply anymore.

Why Seeing Change As a Negative Is Bad For Business

I was fortunate enough to recently cross paths with the renowned Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva. Called ‘The Reinvention Guru’ (In Ventures magazine) and ‘The Queen of Reinvention’ (TEDx Navasink), Dr. Nadya is a business owner, educator, speaker and author of “The Chief Reinvention Officer Handbook: How to Thrive in Chaos”…and in my opinion is absolutely brilliant.

In a recent interview on the Innovation Show, Dr. Nadya spoke about how many of the most successful businesses of the last 100 years are trained to see disruption, change, and instability as a negative. In times of chaos, the business often takes the simplest steps they can do to stop the bleeding, stabilize the disruption, and return to “normal”. Which of course never happens.

These learned, but outdated, assumptions stem from the long life cycles businesses enjoy in stable times:

  • Stability is good and disruption or change is bad
  • We need to think short term to put out the immediate fire
  • Change is a project you do once

Dr. Nadya packages these assumptions up in what she calls the “Titanic Syndrome”. At the root of this syndrome is lack of preparation, lack of foresight, and the arrogance and overconfidence in past success.

During the conversation Dr. Nadya references a quote from the father of consulting, Peter Drucker, that sums it up perfectly: “Turbulence isn’t dangerous. It’s the attachment to the old tools and ideas made for better times.”

Common Assumptions I See In Change Programs

  • We know our people. Respectfully, you don’t. Alibaba, the Chinese multinational technology company, has over 11,000 data points about every one of their 600 million customers. How many data points do you have on your employees?
  • People have survey fatigue. No, they just don’t want to spend more time taking surveys that go into a black hole. Most company surveys are self-serving and the results often relegated to executive-level meetings, not shared with participants. Create a feedback loop so people feel heard and share the actions coming out of the survey so people see, hear, and feel the impact of their involvement.
  • That things just happen. Have you ever been in a meeting and heard phrases like “and then they’ll go here” or “and then we’ll get the stories” or “and then we’ll deliver it”? These simple, fleeting phrases are often ignored by the room, but they set off alarm bells in my head because in just a few words a million dollar project can exist. Assuming that your audience will think or behave a certain way — that they’ll just “get it” and that they’ll just “go there and do it” — is an amateur move made by people who underestimate the time and effort to change even seemingly simple daily habits, like signing into a new system. This is why so many internal programs fail despite best efforts.
  • We can do it faster. A favorite program manager of mine from Brazil has a great comeback when faced with ridiculous timelines clients throw at her: Nine women cannot have a baby in one month. Meaning, there are limits to how much you can compress a timeline — how many corners you can cut — before things break. Internal communication programs are usually lackluster because the company doesn’t understand what it takes to produce a quality solution and the program simply runs out of time. Culture change happens on a culture timeline.
  • Our people care about the company. Only as long as the company cares about them. Time after time I see companies trying to push sales pitches to front-line employees about how this change will help the company achieve a mission, save costs, be competitive or “own the future,” etc. Instead, try thinking about how the change will help the employee — how it will help them grow their career, make a bigger impact, and improve or strengthen their relationships — all of which contribute to employee satisfaction and their ability to take on change. Stop confusing what investors care about with what employees care about. At the end of the day, high employee engagement is the key to sustainable company success.

A Mindset That Welcomes Change

In these disruptive and confusing times that many companies find themselves muddling through, the most sought after skill isn’t what you know today. It’s the ability to change. To adapt, be flexible, learn new things, and leave old ways behind, no matter how familiar.

It’s easy to understand why change can be painful — “I’ve spent my entire career mastering this technique, this tool, this place and it’s politics, and now it’s all being taken away from me.” But if your skill is adaptivity, change only brings opportunity. It’s THE skill of the day, and companies could all do better to instill this mindset in their employees. Learning must be valued as much as the knowledge you brought in with you.

Dr. Nadya would push it even further — we need to instill a “mindset of reinvention” into children and students even before they enter the workforce. Imagine change as a subject in school, where crisis, emergency, and disruption can all be practiced, like math or English. Where we teach students the questions to ask, not the answers of yesterday.