Monday, March 31, 2008

The Challenge of Transforming Organizations

In genetics, transformation means the modification of a cell by the uptake and incorporation of exogenous DNA, an act that changes the form or character or substance of something. Of course, unless it produces heritable change, it's not even considered true transformation.

This is a metaphor that I think fits well with organizational transformation, an initiative that so many seek but so few accomplished successfully. This is not your normal "let's change the way we do things here," this is transformation as fundamental change -- to the core of what we are, how we do things and where we will be in the future:

"a permanent rekindling of individual creativity and responsibility, a lasting transformation of an organization's internal and external relationships, an honest-to-God change in human behavior on the job. It is not incremental change. Its realizable goal is a discontinuous shift in organizational capability -- a resocialization so thorough that employees feel they are working for a different organization …"
(Changing the Way We Change, Harvard Business Review).

Slightly over two years ago, in a speech at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Secretary Rice outlined her vision for changes in U.S. diplomacy that she referred to as "transformational diplomacy" to meet this 21st Century world (January 18, 2006 Speech). The new diplomacy elevates democracy-promotion activities inside countries. In a testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary Rice states that the objective of transformational diplomacy is: "to work with our many partners around the world to build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that will respond to the needs of their people and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system."

Six months after she delivered that speech, the State Department came out with the 2006 Report to Employees Advancing Transformational Diplomacy. Not once during this time have I heard a personal public address to the employees and their family members focusing on this initiative or what it means to them. Sure there were cables, but what is it they say about the spoken words? "Words matter," as has been so repeated during this campaign season. And that is true anywhere, whether at work or in politics, but most especially, in times of great chaos and challenges.

Transformational initiatives have a tendency of arriving from the "top-down," on a late Friday afternoon. Surgeons have to prep patients before the surgery, why should transformation efforts be any different? And yet, such is the case, especially in hierarchical organizations. And here lies the inherent problem – the top-down approach tends to lay down the burden of change on a few people. As such, the number of people at every level who makes the commitment and offer creative contributions, and those who invest their passions on such an enterprise, is quite small.

And yet, for such an initiative to work, we need the involvement of the widest number of people possible who can - not only make this work, but also have the power to make this change effort stick. The problem is, as Bob Waterman writes in The Renewal Factor, "We are so busy grandstanding with crisp decisions that we don't take time to involve those who have to make the decisions work.

Specific to the State Department, the Congressional Research Service last year reported:

"There have also been important criticisms of specific aspects of the transformational diplomacy plan and how it is being carried out. Observers believe that many of the criticisms could have been avoided if there had been greater transparency as well as inclusion of diplomats, Congress, and other stakeholders in the planning stages."

As John Kotter writes in The Heart of Change, "People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings." The Foreign Service has some of the best and the brightest men and women this country has to offer. Most if not all, have their ears on the ground and recognizes the realities that require a revitalized diplomacy as a primary tool of foreign policy.

So, the challenge to the State leadership is this - how seriously does it want transformational diplomacy to work and take roots beyond the next 10 months, and beyond the front pages of the news rags. If serious enough, then it has to do a better job at understanding what people are feeling, and its needs to address the employees' anxieties and distrust as one of the primary components of this necessary journey.

And oh yes, I think it would also be helpful if it starts delivering messages directly to the employees instead of the news media first.


C.C. said...

Excellent, excellent post! This subject of organizational transformation reminds me of two experiences I had (once at a school and once at a church) where every group, department and individual were invited to participate in "visioning" meetings. Positive change happened (perhaps not as groundbreaking as the organizers had hoped, but change nonetheless), in my opinion, because the "worker bees" were respected enough to be invited to the table when all the talking was taking place.

Digger said...

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