Peter Turgoose argues that change programmes will not achieve their intended business outcomes if sufficient attention is not given to changing peoples’ mindsets. And, as mindsets become embedded over time, it is important that we fully understand why they exist if we are to have any chance of delivering sustained change.
There can be little doubt that the economic conditions that have prevailed over the past few years have driven many organisations to make rapid changes in order to remain competitive and profitable. Responses have been many and varied: we have seen pay freezes, shorter working weeks and reductions in overtime, redundancies and closures, restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, changes to operating models, etc. The one thing that most of the changes have had in common is that the time from decision to implementation has been much shorter than the organisation’s people had expected or seen in the past. Whilst these programmes may have resulted in change, will they be sustained? Has the mindset, and the resulting behaviours of the organisation’s people, also changed?
Mindsets are powerful anchors to the present
Many change programmes deliver short-term financial benefits, but fail to deliver sustained business benefits, not because of technical issues but because the mindset and resulting behaviours of the organisation have not changed to align with the intended business outcomes. A mindset is a set of assumptions, methods or systems held by one or more people or groups of people. They are usually so established that they create a powerful incentive to continue to adopt or accept prior behaviours, choices or tools. Changing well-established and often deep-rooted mindsets is much more difficult and takes longer than changes to underlying cost bases, operating models, structures and processes.
Generally, when leaders implement change they are expecting the organisation and its people to act and behave differently as a result. They are expecting a different mindset throughout the organisation, but are they doing the right things to develop the mindset they want? When we embark on a programme to change the cost base, we spend a lot of time understanding the current cost base. When we embark on a restructure, we spend a lot of time understanding the current structure. When we embark on a change to an operating model, we spend a lot of time understanding the current operating model. We then carefully plan the changes we want to make, cost them out, assess the ROI and then devote resources to managing and measuring the change. How often do organisations apply the same rigour to prepare for the mindset change that they need if the sustained performance improvement is to be achieved?
Organisations can fall into a trap of knowing how they want their people to act and behave and then putting in place programmes, often training and communications, which they believe will result in people acting and behaving in a different way. More often than not, this is done without putting any effort into really understanding what it is that is causing people to act and behave the way they currently do. As a result, resources and money are often wasted through a failure to address the root causes of the current mindset. The fundamental causes of the current mindset in an organisation will be both multi-faceted and complex, and will take time to change. Mindsets develop over time and become embedded through a number of unwritten rules that people in the organisation come to believe are truths, which then drive their decisions, actions and behaviours.
Mindsets drive behaviour
If the mindset in an organisation is to be changed it is important to understand what the current mindset is, and it is critical to assess what the causes of it are. We recently worked with an organisation that we found had a developed a mindset that could be summarised as “it is OK to blame the supplier” if a customer’s request was difficult to deal with. This organisation was getting poor customer feedback, with customers saying that they were unresponsive and difficult to deal with. Their response had been to invest in customer handling training for the entire frontline staff, but the customer feedback had not improved: frontline staff were now just more skilled at blaming the supplier. They had neither understood the current mindset, nor its causes.
In another example, we found that the organisation had developed a mindset that “transactional accuracy was more important than anything else”. As a result, their customer handling processes were very slow as staff checked, double-checked and often got a colleague to also check all of their inputs and calculations, while the frustrated customer waited in the store. An internal communication and awareness programme had done nothing to improve the time it took frontline staff to handle customer enquiries and orders. Again, they had neither understood the current mindset, nor its causes. In both these cases an assessment of the current mindset and its causes helped the organisations to understand what was causing their people to act and behave the way they were. Based on the findings of their assessments, they were each able to design and implement a change programme that brought about changes to actions and behaviours, which delivered measurable and sustained changes to business performance.
Mindsets can be assessed and understood
Assessing the causes of the current mindset of an organisation requires a structured approach, looking in detail at the factors that have led people to believe in certain truths and develop unwritten rules about how to act and behave under a given set of circumstances. The assessment must be an iterative process that considers
- where people look for role models for their actions and behaviours – rarely is this the senior leadership;
- which formal and informal communication channels people listen to as they develop their understanding and beliefs about what is really important;
- what actions and behaviours the organisation’s systems, processes and procedures drive, and what conflicts arise as a result;
- the levels of confidence and capability people have to act and behave in given ways.
The assessment of the current mindset provides the organisation with a detailed view of what the deeply embedded beliefs, truths and unwritten rules are that drive actions and behaviours, alongside what the real intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are for their people. No two organisations will ever have the same set of causes and, therefore, there will never be a simple off-the-shelf solution such as a training programme or a communication campaign that will deliver the desired change.
Changing mindsets is a journey
Changing the mindset to a desired future state always requires a carefully planned journey that helps people experience and learn new ways of acting and behaving, discover new intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, and develop a new set of beliefs, truths and unwritten rules, which will guide their actions and behaviours.
Changing mindsets in an organisation is possible, but it is neither quick nor easy. However, it is impossible if you don’t know the causes of the current mindset. We would not embark on any other change journey without a detailed understanding of the current state and the desired future state: why do we often try (and fail) to change mindsets without knowing the current mindset?
I welcome your thoughts.