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The Psychology of Organizational Transformation

Posted on April 13, 2009 at 7:54 am by Eugene Eric Kim

I’ve enjoyed many of Doug Engelbart‘s stories over the years, but my all-time favorite is about bike tricks. When he was a child, he and his brother used to challenge the other kids in the neighborhood to see who could do the most advanced tricks. According to Doug, there was always one trick that was fool-proof: Ride with your arms crossed.

Think about this for the moment. How would you approach this? The mechanics of the trick are actually quite simple. If you want to turn left, you move your right arm. If you want to turn right, you move your left arm. Two simple rules. That seems doable, right?

In theory, it’s a simple trick, but in practice, it’s almost impossible. As Doug tells the story, the other kids would fall off their bikes every time. The problem is that our habits are deeply engrained in our bodies, and no matter how much we want to change those habits, it’s almost impossible.

Almost. Doug and his brother could do it. That’s the other moral of the story. You can change your habits. It just takes lots of practice.

There’s strong research in behavioral psychology that shows that habits are hard to break because of the way our brains are wired, and that we never actually unlearn them. If it’s this hard to change as an individual, imagine how difficult it must be for organizations to change. Most organizations not only want to change, they feel like they must change and quickly. But even with a mandate that strong, change is still incredibly hard. If the roots of this are biological, what hope do we have?

Situational Psychology

There are no easy answers, but another branch of psychology offers some clues. Situational psychology is the study of how our surroundings affect our behavior. The most famous example of the huge role our environment and structure play in our behavior is Philip Zimbardo‘s Stanford prison experiment, and the field as a whole is seeing more popular exposure, thanks to books like Nudge.

I’ve been particularly struck by this field of research, because in my experience, when it comes to collaboration, structure is everything. By structure, I mean everything from the arrangement of physical and online space to the processes we choose.

The simplest example of this is the circle. Have you ever had a great collaborative experience in a room that was designed as a stage? There are reasons why communities that value collaboration have been gathering in circles for generations.

We recently took a survey to try and get a broad sense of how organization’s collaborate. One thing we learned was that while most people surveyed tend to read notes sent before a meeting, far fewer read the minutes sent after a meeting. Those minutes not only contain important knowledge, they represent potential Shared Understanding, which is critical for effective collaboration. If people are not reading those notes, they have no way of fulfilling their full potential.

How can we correct this habit? We could “lead” or “facilitate,” which in this case are euphemisms for “harass” and “plead.” Or we could look at structural changes. One simple structural change is the introduction of a Shared Display. Instead of taking notes in a corner, take notes live on a projector, and position that screen so that it is an equal participant in the conversation. Now, the participants of the meeting will own the notes, they will not just be some afterthought lost in their inboxes.

Change is hard, but it’s possible. Structure and practice are the keys to organizational transformation.

One Response to “The Psychology of Organizational Transformation”

  1. Love the post! I teach a group of children to perform violin together, and our modus operandi has always been to stand in rows, facing the audience. I've been playing with "the circle" configuration over the past several months (after 30+ years of training and practice in rows!), and I have noticed a huge difference in focus, listening, and awareness that each child is part of the larger group. Somehow, in rows, it's only the leader in front who gets a sense of the group dynamic. All eyes are on the leader, but only the leader gets to see the other eyes. Thought provoking!

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