As my chiropractor was explaining to me the process she uses to get the spine and upper cervical vertebre back into alignment, I started thinking about the similarities to creating sustainable change in organizational culture. (yes, I’m an OB geek. I can’t help myself.)
In chiropractic medicine, the biggest challenges to the corrective process are overcoming the muscle memory in the body along with the environmental factors and behaviors that reinforce the existing state of the body.
So in the beginning, she does a correction and my body holds it for a little while. In about 48 hours, we do another adjustment. Each time my body would hold a little more of the adjustment. This process is repeated for 3-6 weeks until the body starts holding the adjustment pretty well. We then back off to a weekly adjustment, then bi-monthly, and finally monthly maintenance.
There are also changes that I had to make in my environment. I raised my computer monitors. I stopped carrying my wallet in my back pocket. I try to hold my iPad and books at eye level when reading. All of these not only help ergonomically, but they also reinforce to the body that we are making changes.
One of the most surprising things to me through the whole process was that even though the change was what my body needed and often made me feel better, the inertia of the muscle memory would try to bring me back out of alignment. Each time, though, I held a little more.
It struck me that this is a great metaphor of creating a cultural change in an organization. Leadership decides that there needs to be cultural change. So they have a major adjustment. They call a company meeting and roll out the new values to the troops. There’s a pep rally. There are promises of change and a new day.
However, the inertia of the existing values and culture try to pull the organization back. Old habits die hard. It’s where the organization is comfortable.
To create lasting change, think like a chiropractor. It’s going to take frequent adjustments in the beginning, reinforcement through modeling by the leadership, and environmental changes. It is critical that ALL the organizational processes are examined and tweaked to reinforce the desired change. You must change the current momentum of the organization. To overcome this inertia, EVERYTHING about the leadership and operation should reinforce the desired change.
As you see the organization start to hold the change, keep reinforcing it. Continue to purge the system and culture of any undesired residual. Your temptation will be to think the change is permanent too early when it’s simply the new momentum you’ve built behind the change initiative. Furthermore, you and your leadership team are probably exhausted. This is a very vulnerable point in the organizational change. Back off and the organization will digress, not as far, but not where you want to end up. In fact, it will be even harder to restart the change from this point. However, if you keep pushing, you will permanently shift the inertia in the direction of your desired change.
Once you start seeing that people at the edges of the organization have fully bought into the change and all organizational levels are taking initiative to reinforce the change, then you can back off into maintenance mode. At that point, what was new has become the new normal.