Avoid the Beethoven mistake

Companies that have the most agility and resilience create differentiation. This requires responsive organizations that effectively anticipate changing (market) conditions and adapt organically. For this to be possible, a number of principles apply. These relate to employees, teams, departments and the way in which they work together. To become more responsive, a culture and behavioral change is often required. It is often assumed that realizing this change is closely related to structures and processes. But nothing is less true.

The Beethoven Mistake
In his book “Our Inner Ape”, biologist Frans de Waal discusses the relationship between the behavior of great apes and humans. He explains that for a long time people’s morals were explained by religion or culture and not by nature. Because by nature people would have no morals. But we now know that even great apes have a moral sense. According to De Waal, the earlier assumption arose out of confusion: because natural selection is a cruel and ruthless process of elimination, it was argued that it must produce cruel and ruthless creatures. In other words: the process is confused with the result. De Waal calls this ‘The Beethoven mistake’: Beethoven composed great and unparalleled music. You wouldn’t expect such a person to be unkempt and sleazy and living in a dirty and smelly house. Yet that was the case.

Confusion of process with result
In doing so, De Waal points out a fallacy that is often made in change projects: the tendency to develop structures or processes in the assumption that the intended behavioral change will arise naturally from this. But processes and structures are inconclusive about the success of cooperation between people.

Why is that?
Processes and structures work according to the laws of logic. You can set up a mechanical production process in such a way that the quality is statistically almost perfect. Six sigma is based on it. But people function according to ‘psychologica’ with their motivations, conditionings and (unconscious) beliefs.

As a result, collaboration in organizations is always a bit of a ‘black box’. You make agreements about objectives, responsibilities, tasks, way of working, et cetera. But just like with a football team, it is not yet certain how the match will develop and what the exact result will be. The outcome is largely determined by responsiveness: how events and setbacks along the way are dealt with.

Responsiveness and motivation
Effective behavioral change occurs when teams are given the space and freedom to determine the implementation of the plan themselves, based on a shared vision and goals. People are motivated to do this when their work matches their ambitions (am I doing what I want to do?) and talents (am I doing what I can do?). It is important that there is room for personal interpretation and a certain degree of autonomy.

Motivated employees connect easily, take responsibility and come up with solutions to problems themselves. As the production manager of a factory once put it: “If I let the employees focus on delivering the products to our customers on time, they are smart enough to order the necessary parts on time.”

Breeding ground to inspire change
It works the same way with behavioral change: the task of management is more facilitating than guiding. Aimed at the right breeding ground for change. One that brings people together and inspires change.

This requires managers to let go of control of the process and focus on the motivation of the people in the team and their mutual relationships. Employees need growth and inspiration and derive their meaning from the extent to which they are challenged and contribute to success. Not following processes ‘as such’. Successful managers understand this and focus on the emotional dynamics between people. As a result, they bring people together and create the right atmosphere. The creativity and connection that arises as a result often produces astonishing results. It is not without reason that there is increasing interest in working with self-managing teams.

Realizing the unique potential
In nature, the simple rule is that organisms exist by surviving and reproducing. How they accomplish this is left open. That is why nature has such a great diversity. The same law applies to responsive organizations: successful behavioral change ties in with the unique potential of an organization and can take many forms. Good processes and structures are of course helpful, but not decisive. Or, as De Waal puts it: ‘the process does not specify the path to success any more than the interior of a house in Vienna tells us what kind of music is coming out the window’.

Why change management often fails

Responsive organizations are better able to adapt successfully or anticipate developments in their environment. If you want build such an organization, it is important to understand why conventional change management often fails, as we discussed in one of our other blogs.

Organize for succes
In many change projects, companies do not organize well enough for success. By that we do not mean organization charts, KPI’s, reporting lines or meeting schedules. These are usually well in place. Maybe sometimes a little too much.

Many companies do not adequately tap into the human ability to change.

No, we mean that the plans take insufficient account of people and their  relationships. For example: are people energized by the company’s strategy or change plan? Does everyone do what he or she wants to do – and does that match their abilities? Is there sufficient agreement – or ‘buy-in’ – on the goals and priorities? Is there enough focus, or is the number of priorities so great that no focus is possible? And do the teams involved have sufficient capacity to realize the change? 

Friction
Common sense tells us, that agreement, focus and capacity are prerequisites for successful change. And it is clear that, when these factors are not addressed well in the process there will be too much friction. Friction exists within organizations as well as between organizations and their environment. A certain amount of friction is good – it leads to resolutions and innovations. But too much of it creates resistance, frustration and lack of progress. This is the case in the far majority of change initiatives. It prevents companies to tap into the human ability to (contribute to) change.

Understand blockages to change
This was demonstrated by the Artificial Intelligence specialists of Praioritize, led by Dr. J.M. van de Poll (See: van de Poll, J. M. (2018). Ambition patterns in strategic decision-making). They have conducted a global study among more than 4.000 teams. Part of the study was to find out how teams score on the factors of agreement, focus and capacity to change. The results are quite revealing.

Agreement
On the one hand the study measured the agreement among the teams of the respondents with regard to their priorities (from low to high). On the other hand the study measured the teams’ agreement with the objectives that were set by upper management (low to high):

Most teams have insufficient agreement on priorities

Seventy percent of the 4.000 teams does not agree with the company’s objectives (!), and 40% of the teams do not agree among themselves. How will that bring about coherence in the organization?

Ambitions
Another factor that was measured was the ambition or focus level of the teams. For this, the study looked at the number of priorities the team wanted to improve (the width of improvement) and by how much they wanted to improve them (the depth). Again, the results of the study offer a surprising insight:

Most teams choose too many priorities in change projects

Only 3% the teams have a clear overview of a limited number of improvement points that they want to improve significantly – on the road to progress. The other 97% of teams either pile too much on their plate – wanting to improve too much at the same time or they have no ambition (improve a few points just a little).

Effort
An organization could agree on highly ambitious objectives, but what if the organization is not up to the required effort? The next image illustrates that only in 20% of the teams, the team can easily meet the required effort. In the other 80%, the effort is either (too) high or unevenly distributed among team member:

The effort required for teams is usually (too) high, or not evenly distributed among team members

Capacity
Last but certainly not least: we could all agree that there must be capacity to change in the team. Capacity can be defined along two dimensions: two what extent are people working on non-priorities and to what extent are they already scoring the objective on actual priorities? As with agreement, focus and effort, the research has revealed that the majority of teams has the tendency to ‘bite off more than they can chew’:

Capacity is another factor in change management that is generally overlooked

Take the basics into account…
Change is hard when there is lack of consensus and lack of focus. It is also hard when there is consensus and focus, but the required effort is unevenly divided among the team or does not match the capacity of the organization at all. As the results of the Praioritize study demonstrate, the far majority of change programs start off at the wrong foot and fail to take into account the basic managerial factors that enable organizations to move as one and accomplish change for the better.