A conversation with Barrett C. Brown

Barrett C. Brown is a global expert on developing leaders to successfully navigate complex challenges and rapid change. He supports leaders to access deeper cognitive, emotional and relational capacities so they can become more effective in VUCA environments.

A conversation with Barrett C. Brown...

Barrett C BrownBarrett is a global expert on developing leaders to successfully navigate complex challenges and rapid change. He supports leaders to access deeper cognitive, emotional and relational capacities so they can become more effective in VUCA environments. Currently, most of his work is focused on the intersection of large scale global change or conscious capitalism and the international NGO community. He works with leaders that have authority, power and influence in those systems, supporting them to bring more of their deepest selves to the work in order to move forward together. Click here to learn more about him.

Jo: How do you cultivate cultural development? 

Barrett: First and foremost is to recognise that there are no unreasonable goals, only unreasonable time frames in which to accomplish them. Therefore, the first thing is to really recognise that it's a longitudinal process that takes time. In order for a culture to change, that means people's relationships to themselves, to each other and to the system, need to change. In general, people tend to be in an open state or arrested state with respect to their development and their worldview. Usually, in order to change your relationship to yourself, others or a system, you need to be in an open state. If people are in a closed state, then they're accepting life as it is and are not that interested in changing, so whatever type of things they're being taught are not going to really shift much in how they see things and how they engage with the world. If you assume when looking across the population of an organisation that you're trying to support a culture change, that a certain percentage of people are going to be in the open state today, this month, this year even, and a certain percent of them are not.

There needs to be kind of relaxation that it is going to take time and also a significant curiosity about those people who are open. Who are the people that are going to be able to serve as change leaders in those systems and how can you target them very specifically in your interventions? The social psychology research clearly indicates that you can reach a tipping point within a particular group after you get about 10% of people shifting to a new way of seeing things. After that, it then begins to cascade through the system much more rapidly. There will be a set of fast followers that will essentially give you numbers from that early 10 - 25% of the culture and at that point the laggards start paying attention because, to switch metaphor, the train is leaving the station.

I think it is really important to think about where the acupuncture points are in that particular culture; for example, who are the ones that could really support the change most effectively at the level below the leaders that have already gone through the programmes? Targeted interventions that actually identify and work with those change leaders, may be a practical thing that can be done. An organisation doesn't always have the money to put next level down managers through some sort of culture change programme, but they may be able to run some webinars that support that group of people coming together. So that's a practical thing.

The other critical piece of the puzzle is translation. Oftentimes the framing for why we need to change and practically what we need to do to change is communicated to an organisation in a way that it makes sense to an executive leader. This doesn't necessarily make sense or resonate with the language and the worldview of those that are being invited to transition, especially if there's a difference in action logic or developmental stages between the leader and the people that are working with that leader or that group of executives. So if it's simply being presented at a more complex level than the people that are working with those executives, then it's unlikely to essentially resonate deeply for them. The notion of ‘speak to the other person's hearing’ is very important - it's a concept from Stephen Covey. Translating the cultural change message to the hearing or the level of resonance of the people that you're working with makes total sense and in practice is rarely done - it's quite hard to do.

The third thing that I would offer is that what we know from human development and organisational change is that people in systems don't tend to change in significant ways, unless there is either a burning platform that they are leaping from, because it's so painful that they have to change, or there's a burning vision that they are motivated to move towards. People don’t tend to change unless there is a potential for great pain or joy.

Part of the work of cultural transformation is getting the narrative built in a way that it is very authentic, feeling that inner motivation that aligns with people's dreams, their own sense of who they want to be and who they want the organisation to be. Tapping into that deep reservoir of human fuel to change or the reality of, ‘hey, we're getting our asses kicked and you're going to get your ass kicked, unless you change’. Unless it's one of those two then, the change is unlikely to happen.

Jo: Yeah, I think something can be considered ‘nice to have’ or ‘nice to change’, especially when there are other things going on or other “fires”, then I guess they become bigger or more important and you can’t focus nor have time to reflect.

Barrett: It does. Your point brings up another important aspect, which is that many organisations have too many change initiatives going on. And so you need to think about this cultural change initiative within the larger context of how many ways are we actually asking people to change right now. We've got, you know, a new IT system that we're rolling out, we've got a bunch of new processes that Jo just launched and we've got a bunch of new ways of thinking, and now you're asking us to do this. At a certain point, there's just change overload for people. It's actually a violation and dishonouring of them, so an executive team needs to do significant prioritisation about what truly are the most important changes needed now and what's the sequencing of those.

Oftentimes you get really smart, enthusiastic executives who have a bazillion ideas and they're always seeing ways to change and they're like, just throwing stuff over the fence with the organisation or the team thinking ‘you're crazy - we're overloaded’. So there's resistance that comes up from that team or organisation being under-resourced and unable to actually get up on the balcony and look at what's happening and step into a transformational change process. They just can't do it because they have two hundred emails in their inbox that are related to the other seven change processes that are going on concurrently. That is real and it doesn't matter how good your change process design is - if it's in the context of a Maelstrom of change initiatives, it'll just fall flat because essentially there's not the energy and attention to engage in it.

Jo: You’re bringing up something else for me - when consultants join RISE, they can feel like there's a lot of different things going on in the community and we are often introducing new things and it can be quite overwhelming. For the core team, this is the main thing that we work on, so we're going to have more time and headspace dedicated to it. I think a lot about getting the right balance between involving people with what's going on and inviting them in but also not giving them too much stuff to have to think about when they've only got limited resources. I’m going off on a RISE tangent...

Barrett: No, but you exactly nailed it. I think what’s really important is for us to have a discipline of looking at across the system and going, what truly is important here and focusing on those one to two to three maximum areas of change and giving that a year, given that process, six to twelve months to actually make those changes and then you bring on something else. Beyond that, people literally don't have the time to engage and change process.

Jo: How does it fit with a world that's changing quickly? If you make the decision to stick at this for a year and then something in the environment externally changes and you need to adapt. How do you suggest that should work in organisations?

Barrett: Yeah, you know you're absolutely right. At any given moment, the leadership of an organisation needs to determine what's the most important thing to invite the organisation to focus on. That can certainly mean when a quarterly review is done or there's a crisis that happens that there's a re-prioritisation of that focus. What tends to happen though is that some crisis will happen or some pivot is required and the organisational leadership just adds on another change initiative in addition to the existing three things or twelve change initiatives.

So it's about recognising the amount of headspace and heartspace bandwidth, keeping it within scope of what's actually viable and consciously saying, ‘okay, let go of this and let's focus on this’. That adaptive management is - you're totally right - it needs to happen and it needs to be done in a way that pays attention to attention management and ensuring that really there's bandwidth to do that. Can the executive team get up on the balcony and ideally in partnership with the organisation say, ‘where are the synergies here?
Where could we actually make a higher level move that's going to help us to accomplish many of these changes that we're talking about doing? How can we cut back on what we're doing but do deeper work?’

That's where systems thinking, mental model and the triple loop learning approach makes a difference. Where you look at not only what can we do tactically, which is the first loop, what can we do tactically differently? What can we do strategically differently? That's the second loop. But what can we do from a mental model or our assumptions and beliefs? What would be more effective? What are different mental models or beliefs that we could bring into a situation? And that's the third step of learning. So that the type of reflective moves then enable creative identification of higher level interventions that can ideally cover as much of the change agenda as your organisation wants with less actual practical changes that are being required, when we're just in crisis mode and tons of stuff needs to change.

So that all being said, there's no formula for change and it's a super mysterious process like a big black box. It can go all sorts of weird directions and have unintended consequences. Part of it is going into a change process with a degree of humility and close attunement to the system and listening to what the system is saying back. A fifth thing that we can add in addition to the fourth point that you brought up, is to very early on, get clear about the change that the organisation wants.

Oftentimes when cultural change initiatives are launched, the good ones will essentially do surveys about what type of values the organisation want to have exhibited and what types of values are actually exhibited. So for example, Richard Barrett's cultural transformation tool does that. The leadership circle has a culture survey that does that as well and where you get this sense of the organic drive of the organisation. Where does it want to go? How does the organisation want the culture to change and how do we work to align and create the conditions for that to emerge? This is opposed to the executives’ teams, sort of cartoon version of who the organisation should be, because if that doesn't align with where the organisation actually wants to go, then your entire change initiative is basically trying to swim upstream. Early tuning into the system is one of the most powerful ways to set up the conditions for an effective change process.