Relying on reason alone to drive organizational change is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back.
We had done everything right…. or so we thought. We had brought together top-notch talent and the latest technology. We had included all stakeholders in every phase of development, and provided extensive training and ongoing technical support during and after launch.
Expectations were high. Everyone believed that our new business intelligence capability would quickly lead to dramatic improvements in efficiency, profitability and competitive advantage.
But a few months after launch, results were directionally positive but tepid. The pace with which marketing managers were adopting the new analytic tools was slow. But the new system worked fine. User feedback on both functionality and training was positive. And there were early successes that we held up as testimonials, hoping others would follow. What was the problem then? What should we do?
When “Best Practices” just aren’t cutting it, resort to the unconventional
I decided to lead a “refresher” training session, but I knew that playing it safe by rehashing the same business rationale and technical demonstration wouldn’t be enough. I had to try something different – drastic, even, by going way outside my comfort zone. I was going to share the story behind why this initiative was so important to me personally.
Take off the mask to reveal deeper motives
I was nervous before the training session. Generally a private person and introverted, I was about to reveal something about myself that only my closest friends knew.
After a brief technical review with some early success stories, I shifted gears. I told the group that about 14 years into my career, I had seriously considered leaving it all. While I was successful by any conventional measures, I felt a growing feeling of dissonance between my personal values and how I was making a living in the magazine industry.
Spending time in nature had always been an important part of my life – long backpacking trips in the Sierras as a teenager, canoeing trips down the Delaware River, and day hikes on weekends with my kids. I’d been a long-time supporter of various environmental groups and wrote letters to policy makers on environmental issues. And I had a special affinity for trees. In fact, almost everywhere I’ve lived there’s been a tree with which I formed a bond. I’d climb up into its limbs and spend time reading, thinking, or just sitting quietly.
After graduating from college, getting a job in an industry that made its products out of trees seemed a little ironic at first! But as I climbed the corporate ladder, I began to see the magnitude of the waste and environmental impact of the inefficient retail distribution system. Two-thirds of all copies that were printed and distributed to stores all across North America went unsold, only to be destroyed. Irony started to feel more like hypocrisy. I was earning a good living by helping to perpetuate this system. I felt like a sellout.
Navigate the middle way between selling out and dropping out
I went on to say that, as a way of dealing with this crisis of conscience, I took up a daily meditation practice with periods of retreat at a monastery in the Catskills. In hindsight, part of my motivation was to find an escape from my inner turmoil. As my practice progressed, though, I began to see how I had created a false dichotomy in my own mind. So instead of trying to escape the tension, I started to accept it and work with it more skillfully. Rather than leave my job, I began to use it to lead change initiatives aimed at increasing efficiency and profit while simultaneously decreasing environmental impact (and easing my conscience).
Make the abstract real
I then led the group in an exercise designed to illustrate the reality that lay hidden behind the big numbers that fit in a spreadsheet cell. We converted our company’s number of unsold copies into what went into producing them: the number of tons of paper used, the number of trees used given how many trees go into each ton of paper, then what that represented in terms of square miles of trees. The result? The prior year, our unsold copies represented the equivalent of three Manhattan Island’s worth of forest!
I closed the session by turning out the lights, and showed a slide show of photographs of individual trees with classical music playing in the background. The photos had been taken and arranged by a Buddhist monastic friend. I had first seen them at the end of a weeklong retreat, and I remembered the powerful emotional impact they had on me.
As I sat in the back of the darkened room, I wondered if this might have been a mistake. This wasn’t a monastery – it was a corporate training room. The people watching hadn’t just come out of hours and hours of meditation; they had come from urgent emails, print orders to close and client phone calls to return.
Discover where business logic and personal values merge
After the session was over, I felt a little empty. Maybe I had been wrong, even naïve, thinking that this approach would work. Had I come off as sentimental or foolish? Maybe I should have just played it straight as a Senior V. P. and kept my personal stuff out of it.
But throughout the rest of the day, people would stop by my office and thank me. Some said that the session had shed light on some concerns they had secretly harbored as well. Many found the unorthodox approach a fresh departure from the usual training sessions. One marketing manager said that during the slide show she suddenly became overcome with emotion and fought back tears before the lights came back on. She went on to lead efforts to green the office, and started a program of donating back issues of magazines to local nursing homes.
It didn’t happen overnight, but system usage picked up, the percentage of unsold copies began to decrease resulting in millions of dollars of annual savings for our publishers. And while this was all good, there was the additional satisfaction of having forged a deeper connection with colleagues who now came to the office each day feeling that their work had an even greater sense of importance in the larger scheme of things.