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.

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