The APQC Blog

David Shaner explains why Organizational Change needs a Golden Rule

APQC was lucky enough to talk to David Shaner about his book ‘The Seven Arts of Change’ and specifically about how his ‘Golden Rule’ can help lead change in an organization.  David will be the keynote speaker at APQC’s 2014 Process Conference on October 13-15.


In part one of our interview, David talks about failed change initiative, breaking down barriers and why judging and criticizing other departments doesn’t help create the change you want.

APQC: David in a recent blog entry you discussed ‘The Golden Rule’. You described it as The Art of Compassion.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). There are references out there that 70% of organizational change initiatives fail. In your experience, what’s the one thing missing or lacking in those failed initiatives regarding ‘The Golden Rule’ that most failed change initiatives have in common?

David: The short answer is that the failing organizations are simply not practicing The Golden Rule. And, I believe there is a simple reason “why” organizations do not practice The Golden Rule.  It is the causal result of a big organizational development mistake.  When the leaders of the change do not understand WHERE transformational change actually occurs, then the change process will not be successful.  It would be like the leaders of change needing to find their lost keys, but they have no idea WHERE to look.  Real change does not occur in the boardroom, nor does it occur in the cafeteria, at the water cooler, or even in the break room.  Transformational change must occur in the MIND of every stakeholder.  Practicing The Golden Rule engages the MIND of the organization by building a foundation for lasting change based upon trust and mutual respect.  Significant performance improvement is the causal result of treating people with dignity and respect.

In fact, in our October Conference, I will highlight Six Critical Questions that must be answered correctly before a significant change process is launched.  The first of these questions is “Where is the culture of your business?”  The answer to that question is “The culture of your business is in the MIND of each stakeholder”.  If you desire to significantly change performance, then you should expect the behaviors of all the stakeholders/employees to also change.  And so, the leaders and designers of the change process must understand that human behavior does not change unless the mind changes first!  This is a basic principle of human behavior.

The fact is people resist all kinds of change at home as well as work.  Just think of how hard it is for just one person to change and make it last!  For example, think about the personal change process involved with simply losing weight and keeping the pounds off, or going to the gym and maintaining a disciplined regimen of exercise. Unless you engage people deeply and sincerely, giving them the information, benefits, and tools to succeed, then your change process will never take hold in the mind, heart, and soul of the very people expected to change the way they work. 

We are all creatures of habit, but we can break the cycle.  By treating people with dignity and respect; that is, practicing The Golden Rule in daily life, you build a foundation to truly engage people.  This first step is critical, even before you offer a knowledge management process.  The first thing required is TRUST.  This is the real foundation for initiating and sustaining transformational change.  People are sophisticated and can see through insincerity on the part of the senior leaders. For successful change and performance improvement to last, you must first engage the MIND of every stakeholder.  Real change occurs in the mind.  It is the mind that must deeply grasp the overall benefit of the change process. This includes understanding clearly, and even embracing emotionally, the benefits of the change process for each individual as well as for the organization overall.

APQC: You mentioned how a key way to practice The Golden Rule is by breaking down barriers that promote functional separation and the illusion of self-sufficiency. How do you go about breaking down barriers that people are more comfortable trying to preserve?

David: This is an important question.  Let’s go back to basics. Many large organizations have “functional cultures” within a broader “company culture”. For example, there’s the sales & marketing “commercial culture”, and then within operations we have the “procurement culture”, the “supply chain culture”, the “factory culture”, and so on.  This phenomenon is reinforced by the way we track the numbers in the accounting/finance department.  The categories and metrics we use to track performance, and thus reward people, are often function-specific. We track cost reduction numbers largely owned in operations and we track sales, volume, and margins (product line management) in the appropriate language/metrics of the commercial team. 

Unfortunately, these function-specific, performance tracking systems create an illusion, suggesting to people that they can be successful in business by ignoring the “big picture”.  Ultimately, if you are the CEO, you own all the numbers.  From this perspective looking at the whole, excellence in one or two functions/departments means nothing. Thinking that you and your department are self-sufficient is an illusion because you cannot be successful alone.  Unless, the company learns how to act in such a way that everything is actually working together in order to create a value or service that customers are willing to pay for, you have a dysfunctional organization.

But, “how” you ask, does an organization break down these barriers?  The answer is simple, you practice The Golden Rule at work.  When you are required to put yourself in the place of your fellow employees who work in other departments, it is amazing how effectively transformational change can be anchored.

APQC: Another one of your keys to practicing ‘The Golden Rule’ is to stop judging and criticizing others, departments, and functions for their failures. How do you balance justifying and selling change without criticizing how things are being done currently?

David: Again, I go right to the basics.  The fact is you do criticize how things are done at present and perhaps how things were done in the past.  There needs to be that burning platform for change and often it simply means owning up to the fact that the competition has managed to get a leg up on your business.  The truth is you are performing relatively poorly compared to the competition and so you need to “up your game” by changing the way you work, including how people choose to work together in the new era. 

In the new era, practicing The Golden Rule is not a gimmick; it must become a new way of life.  Let’s think about this for a moment.  Do you remember what you were taught in kindergarten in order to create a positive learning environment? Practicing The Golden Rule was a simple means to learn the basics of getting along.  You learn to get along together because you have learned how to put yourself in someone else’s place; you learn to not be so self-absorbed that you cannot get along with others. Specifically, in kindergarten you learned a formula for success!  Practicing The Golden Rule in kindergarten provided you with a means to know HOW to treat each other with dignity and respect. You learned that by putting yourself in the place of others, you could build positive relations by truly understanding the frame of reference of your counterpart.

Or, to think of it this way, let me ask you a question. Knowledge Management is about learning…correct?  Well, practicing The Golden Rule in human relations creates conditions for people (and an entire enterprise) to learn, grow, and develop together.  In other words, your company or organization is just a big kindergarten in need of the same basic principles.

The goal of transformational “change” is just that.  “Change” necessarily means making a break from the past.  Significant performance improvement will not occur unless you first distance yourself from the past.  The burning platform must include a truthful message.  Specifically, it goes like this “unless we change the way we work, including HOW WE WORK TOGETHER, we will continue to get the same poor performance”.  The survival of the company depends upon successfully engaging the workforce and by creating a learning environment based upon trust and mutual respect.

The key to your question, I think, is that you can be, and must be, sensitive to the fact that you are not criticizing people for past deeds.  Rather, you are being justifiably critical of underperforming, or even broken, processes that simply need to be fixed in order for the organization to be the best it can be!