In his book Leading Change, John P. Kotter tells a compelling story about a failed change effort. The organization had done all the early steps right and was seeing benefits from the change. Everything was going well. But then the leaders made a fatal mistake – they forgot to reinforce the new normal. As Kotter described it:
Little effort was made to help the new practices grow deep roots, ones that sank down into the core culture or were strong enough to replace it. Shallow roots require constant watering. As long as change agents were there daily with the garden hose, all was well. Without that attention, the practices dried up, withered, and died. Other greenery that had been cut back, but that had deeper roots, took over.
When we’re leading change, we need to think like gardeners. What kind of food and water does the new normal need to grow strong and healthy? Who is watering the change now, and what happens when they are done? What old greenery has the potential to grow back like a weed?
Kotter suggests some steps leaders can take to help reinforce the new normal and discourage the old patterns from reappearing.
- Talk frequently about the evidence showing that the new practices are linked to desired outcomes.
- Talk frequently about why the old culture existed, why it was needed, and how it is no longer helpful.
- Make sure the people in leadership positions are willing and able to support the new culture.
- Make sure that new hires are not being informally screened according to the old norms and values.
Cultural issues are often hidden and difficult to change. Just as tending a garden takes time and effort, reinforcing change is an ongoing process. What suggestions do you have for tending the change garden?
–Dee Anne Bonebright