No Sacred Cows

To navigate change companies need fear-free cultures of diverse people and mindsets led by leaders who continuously learn, incentivize and train for change and worship no sacred cows.~ Rishad Tobaccowala

Sooner or later, each of us will encounter — or already has encountered — a situation where we are hitting our heads against Tobaccowala’s ‘sacred cows’ at work. We may wonder why some established policy seems to slow the capacity of the company to adapt to changes in the external market or chafe at some internal process designed — it seems — to hinder opportunities to learn how to better satisfy customer’s needs, meet goals, or unsnarl roadblocks to progress.

This corporate inertia can be an enormous drain of psychological energy and ultimately, a hit on the potential bottom line.

The first hurdle in trying to make changes in an organization is the inertia inherent in complex social systems. One of the ways that this inertia manifests itself is the assertion “that’s just the way it is”, as described by Nobl:

Far from admitting it’s a problem, they’ll argue that the organization should function this way, and that individuals should acquiesce—and if some people just can’t “hack it,” well, it’s their fault, not the culture’s.This is known as system justification, a theory which was first described by social psychologists J.T. Jost and Mahzarin Banaji 30 years ago, and has since expanded to refer to a situation in which individuals defend an existing system, even if it goes against their interests.

You might think that someone disadvantaged by a cultural norm would not defend it. But system justification means that individuals internalize that the failure is in them, not flaws in the culture.

People will enlarge their sense of the benefits of the status quo — stability, a paycheck, the positive relationships they have at work — and so even when they are aware of shortcomings in “the way things are” they will view people who try to change the system as troublemakers, complainers, or irrational. And accepting the status quo is a coping mechanism, an attempt to avoid stress and anxiety, and the social ostracism that can come from speaking out.

Some people do manage to overcome cultural inertia and make real organizational change happen. And the best examples are when change comes from within.

Space Renegades

In the mid-80s, a group of young engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center was able to create an award-winning mission control system in record time even against the inert procedures of a hidebound bureaucracy. As reported by a group of researchers, the young engineers were surprised to discover that the mission control system was an Apollo-era mainframe system:

[John] Muratore connected with a small group of newly recruited engineers who felt the same way about the incumbent system. They wanted to future-proof mission control by using an open, distributed, upgradable, and scalable systems architecture built to incorporate not-yet-invented technologies.The group’s concerns initially fell on deaf ears. Mission control was confident in the tried-and-tested incumbent system — after all, it had taken humans to the moon, and flight controllers and software engineers knew its quirks and could respond in any emergency.

They decided to build the system, anyway, despite objections, working in their off hours, on a shoestring budget. They landed a powerful advocate for their Real-Time Data Systems, after a year of tinkering: Eugene Kranz, the NASA flight director.

All technical systems for the Space Shuttle were shifted over to the renegade’s RTDS.

Their approach was dubbed the “Pirate Paradigm”:

  • Don’t wait to be told to do something; figure it out for yourself.
  • Break the rules, not the law.
  • Take risks as a rule, not as the exception.
  • Cut out unnecessary timelines, schedules, processes, reviews, and bureaucracy.
  • Just get started; fix problems as you go along.
  • Build a product, not an organization; outsource as much as possible.

This shows how risk-taking can counter corporate bureaucracy and push aside corporate inertia. The NASA pirates were an example of a more general case, however.

Positive Deviants

A great many change initiatives fail, some estimate as many as 7 out of 10. However, one technique has shown much better results. Instead of trying to convince an organization to follow some new behaviors offered up by an outsider or a team of senior executives, what if you find some people in the organization that have already adopted those behaviors, perhaps completely independently of the initiative? These people are positive deviants. It sounds bad, but it just means they are different from others. Specifically, they have adopted the risky proposition of doing things differently than others.

Tina Rosenberg characterized positive deviancy like this:

Here’s how the positive deviance approach is different:Outsiders don’t bring in ideas to change a community’s culture. Instead, they ask the community to look for its own members who are having success. Those local ideas, by definition, are affordable and locally acceptable — at least to some people in the community. Since they spring from a community’s DNA, the community is less likely to feel threatened by these ideas and more likely to adopt them.The focus is not on a community’s problems, but its strengths.Outsiders don’t design a communication or training strategy to teach the idea. Outsiders can bring people in the community into one room, but local people design a way to spread the new behaviors.Local leaders are not the ones who come up with solutions. That is the job of everyone on the front line dealing with the problem. The leaders’ job is to facilitate the process of finding and spreading these solutions.Outsiders don’t monitor success. They show people in the community how to do that.

Look For The Risk Takers

The thread between these stories is risk-taking: people willing to speak up and take actions in the face of cultural norms and political pressures. Bob Siltanen wrote a paean to them:

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

I will be expanding on this theme in my next meditation, especially the link between risk-taking and creativity, which turns out to be central.

Facebook iconTwitter IconLinkedIn icon