Zappos and Transformation

Sit down before fact like a little child, and be prepared to give up
every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to
whatever abyss Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.
T.H. Huxley

The recent attention to change at Zappos.com has brought renewed focus to the whole concept of organizational transformation. Some of the voices I hear surprise me: they talk as if they have invented something new (see my recent posts re Zappos).

Efforts to change organizations from the Frederick Taylor model–hierarchical, bureaucratic, anti-human and mechanistic with conformity as the first rule–have gone on for a long time. I led a transformative change process at the Star Tribune newspaper in the early 1990’s, and I learned about self-managed teams from manufacturing industries. I then spent 13 years consulting with leaders who wanted to make such transitions.

Most transformational efforts—fundamental changes in culture, values, and operating procedures–fail.

Why? Some important reasons:

1. Leaders like quick-fixes: fast, easy and painless. They jump from one fad to another without internalizing the lessons of any of them. They often lack commitment. Real transformation takes time, is hard and pain and conflict are necessary.

2. Mechanistic leaders try to lead organic change with a mechanistic mental model. They recreate a more insidious version of what they want to change. Transformation requires an inner transformation within leaders and employees to an organic world view that sees organizations as living systems. They must transform from mechanics in suits to artists who love people.

3. Leaders implement off-the-shelf change programs or copy what may have worked somewhere else. They gain compliance from employees. Transformation requires people to go through their own struggle to learn and internalize new beliefs and assumptions and develop new skills unique to their reality. People gain commitment and support what they help create.

4. The skills of a mechanistic enterprise don’t work in an organic organization. A living system organization requires skills in things like facilitation, personal mastery, conflict management and systems thinking.

5. Mechanistic organizations ignore emotions. Transformation change is emotional. People suffer losses, they fear the unknown, they get upset and leaders have to lead not just physical changes but emotional transitions.

6. Mechanistic organizations change from the top down and don’t support non-conformists or outliers. Living system organizations require leaders and change agents throughout the enterprise.

7. Mechanistic leaders ignore the dark side of their enterprises. The dominant culture will resist and try to expel the vulnerable islands of organic growth. The shadow side must be acknowledged, brought to the light of day and engaged with.

8. Mechanistic leaders often marginalized talented leaders in the ranks. Talented leaders of change must be supported, protected, and empowered to lead changes that upset the status quo.

9. Mechanistic managers and supervisors yell and threaten often but rarely hold anyone accountable in a formal way and when they do, they often mess things up. In a living system organization, relationships based on trust are essential. All in management must embrace a tough-love mentality of high standards AND compassion. People must be held accountable so trust can grow along with relationships.

Transformation is a spiritual journey. Real transformative leaders may have to couch change in the language of making money but they know it is really about creating conditions where people can come to work and use their talents to fully engage. Then the money comes.

Few leaders have the courage, patience and consciousness to lead such a journey.

Organizations fail because of the lack of the right kind of leadership.

Old, Alone and Broke

I read a memoir of a man who was born in poverty and achieved unimagined wealth at a young age. He also burned out young and left the world of capitalism, competition and the constant drive for love via success: “If I am successful, people will love me.”

He hired a psychologist to help him understand himself, began to eat healthy foods and learned meditation from spiritual advisers around the world. After he figured life out for himself, he now lives out a great life.

I am often skeptical of those who take the spiritual road after getting rich (or to get rich) along with pride and arrogance in my journey’s more humble beginnings.  After a good start to my adult life, I crashed and my spiritual quest began in the depths of alcoholism and a month in a tough treatment center where I wondered if I would ever be able to create a good life.

Twenty years later, after a successful corporate career, I left the organizational world to go out on my own to use my life as a learning laboratory and to “live a life of emotional, spiritual and intellectual adventures and to share what I learned with others.” I also wanted to take part in a leadership movement I was sure would transform the way we lead, follow and work in organizations.

Along my journey, I made a stop on the side of a mountain near Ouray, Colorado where I lived, read, wrote, consulted and thought for a year. After I arrived on the mountain, I was flooded with anxiety and feared I would end up old, alone and broke (see my post, Did I Do the Right Thing?).

Old age approaches now—it scares me and I am glad to be alive. I’m not alone and I’m not broke. I have a wonderful life and my development continues with as much intensity at almost 70 as it was when I came out of the treatment center at 29. I’ve studied and made proactive and anticipatory changes in my life over the years and I’ve also learned from losses and mistakes along the way. I expect I will continue that learning for the rest of my life. I grow spiritually a bit at a time and become more human as I seek physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual health (a lot harder than it sounds). I am still learning to live and haven’t figured much out other than how small I am in the cosmos and how little I know.

And my sometimes disdain towards those fellow travelers who get rich first and then turn spiritual says the most about me:

I have more work to do.