How to leave things better than you found them

Lately, I’ve had a wonderful string of people continually asking me how to create change at work.

While each person’s desired change is unique to them, the concept of “creating change” is the same.

The good news is, change is entirely possible.

The less good news is, there’s no one answer to creating change.

There’s no silver bullet, one size fits all, it-worked-for-them-so-it-will-work-for-us approach. None. Not gonna happen.

Every situation and set of circumstances is unique like the cliched snowflake metaphor because every set of circumstances is made up of a complex system of people, environments, cultures, processes and more. No two sets are identical, and therefore no two solutions will be either.

Sure, there can be “best practices” extracted from past experiences and leading organizations where things have been done effectively in the past — and those best practices can apply nicely to help you improve and standardize parts of your approach to creating change and impact — yet you will still need your secret sauce.

You’ll still need to find your style.

Finding your style

Like good musicians who learn the fundamentals and then expand from there with their own flair based on their own developed taste, creating change is very similar to improv, jazz, and jam sessions.

First, you learn the fundamentals — aka “best practices.”

If you’re a drummer, you learn your rudiments. If you’re almost any other musician, you learn your scales.

You then practice, practice, practice, until you’re blue in the face and bored out of your mind — and THEN you go out and experiment with new styles, try new things, and break some of the rules.

From there, you need to figure out what works for you.

You need to discover your style.

What’s exciting about this is it’s a collaborative process just like a gathering of musicians. While you may sound beautiful on your own, the magic happens when you come together and find a groove among those with whom you share musical tastes and chemistry.

For creating change, a similar approach applies: you’ll be much better, much more effective, and have much more fun if you make “creating change” a collaborative process instead of an isolated one.

Also, make it a process based on some fundamentals just like the musician practicing their foundation of rudiments and scales.

In organizations, these fundamentals often include transparency, trust, experimentation, psychological safety, and other environmental traits that have been proven to cultivate high-performing teams.

The value of admitting “I don’t know!”

Change initiatives can be intimidating because often the thoughts rushing through our heads are “I don’t know!” and “how are we going to do that?” and “I can’t see that working here” along with various other self-limiting thoughts that constrain us and actively hold us back from achieving our most valuable potential.

More often than not these thoughts are what lead people to seek outside help from consultants, coaches, agencies, and other professional support systems.

What really benefits us most, however, is learning to accept and embrace those thoughts of “I don’t know” because they are the honest truth!

I honestly don’t know.

I said that to a client in response to them asking how they can most effectively facilitate a large-scale culture shift within their organization of 800 people.

They want to go from a semi-negative, slightly-unfavorable culture to one that’s more positive, supportive, and cohesive, as they were 50 people 10 years ago and have grown to over 800 people through a combination of organic growth along with several acquisitions over that time. Now they’re a hodgepodge of cultures where there are little if any shared values and norms across the organization.

When asked the “how” question, I thought about it for a moment and then responded with “I honestly don’t know, but I do know that we can figure it out together.”

Turns out, this approach is the reason why I closed the initial project engagement and was then invited to meet with the wider leadership team to explore how I can become more involved in their just-getting-started organizational culture change initiatives.

The point of all this is to say that it’s OK not to know the answer, and it’s OK to say that out loud.

In fact, it can often be the better approach than pretending to know something you don’t.

Traditional organizations often create cultures of fear where not knowing is something to be shameful of and something that might get you in trouble. But the good organizations — the ones that support their people and understand it takes experimentation and lots of trial and error before getting things right — know that admitting “I don’t know” is a sign of honesty, integrity, confidence — and leadership.

I summed this up in a short LinkedIn post which seemed to really resonate with people.

Had a client tell me today that something I said really resonated with their executive leadership team.‬ ‪I asked what it was.‬ ‪She explained “you said ‘I don’t know but we’ll figure it out together,’ when everyone else was being prescriptive.”‬ ‪Couldn’t help but smile.‬

All we can do is experiment, learn, and iterate

Most people in this world are stumbling their way through life one step at a time, myself included.

I don’t know exactly how to build a long-term sustainable business just like I don’t know exactly how to shift 800 people from mostly negative to mostly positive.

BUT, I do believe I can give it my best by seeking to understand the people, understand the organization, and understand the situation at hand. And then, from that place of understanding, I can work alongside both the leadership team as well as the employees of the organization and collaborate on experiments that will hopefully make a positive difference in the processes, policies, relationships, services, and lives of the people who make up this organization.

It all starts with genuine curiosity and a desire to learn.

Being prescriptive doesn’t work in these complex environments full of unpredictable human behaviors, antiquated processes and policies, and beautifully diverse experiences.

The only way to create change is to try new things, reflect as a team, learn from what you try, and then try something new. Searching for “the answer” will only lead you down a path that isn’t quite right for you or the organization you are a part of, and will ultimately move you further away from where you want to be. Plus, you won’t learn as much from thinking as you will from doing.

To quote a friend of mine who recently wrote a reflective blog post on his work after spending the past three years helping organizations evolve,

“To change a system, don’t push it towards predetermined outcomes. First, deeply understand its context. Then nudge it in a better direction.”

— Tim Casasola, Org Designer

I could not agree more.

Know what you want to achieve, gain a deep understanding of the environment and system you’re operating within, and do what you can to improve one thing at a time.

Leave things better than you found them.

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