From the bottom up

A couple of weeks ago, during a session on organisational evolution with a group of genZ students, I was telling them that all real “change” or “transformation” happens, in essence, from the bottom up. It starts at the front line and works its way up (most of the time overcoming real struggle), as it happens with a natural spring. The students replied that they did indeed see it that way too, but that all the professors of the programme told them over and over again that “real change comes from the top management”. Being politically correct, I commented that the interesting thing about the programme is to hear versions from different profiles and backgrounds in order to have a plural perspective on the matter. All that helps students to draw their own conclusions. However, here among us, I have to be honest: I don’t understand how at this point we still innocently buy the silly mantra “changes come from the top” or “those at the top must sponsor changes if we want them to happen”. Nothing could be further from the reality that I see every day in my projects. Let me explain why.

In a post that Professor Franc Ponti published a few days ago, he talked about a study that says that boards and management teams are actually aware of a sad 7% of what really happens on the front line of their companies (where the business is “cooked”). Looking at the reactions to the post, everyone agreed wholeheartedly: oh yes, top management, usually, “do not have a clue”. If we all openly assume so, why are we buying the idea that boards should be considered the only true sponsors and enablers of “transformation”? Let’s apply the sense of logic: if the boards do not know the reality of the front line it means that they do not know the real business. Therefore it is impossible for them to decide what coherent and consistent “changes” they have to apply. We could say, then, that a large part of the “change” or “transformation” projects that come “from the top” (often designed with the help of external partners and without taking into account the criteria of the front line teams) will be projects where the change is indeed “sponsored by those at the top”, yes. But, unfortunately, this change will have nothing to do with the real “changes” that the organisation is likely to need. Thus, this “sponsored change”, which is designed without the baseline teams, is implemented top down and, oh surprise, we see that it does not generate any impact or adherence in most of the internal population of the company. Then comes the second silly mantra: “people are change-averse”. Well, again, I strongly disagree. People are not change-averse per se. People are averse to change when no one has made them part of the process, when no one has asked them their perspective, when no one has given them context or explanation, when it comes from someone they have never spoken to before and, most of all, people are averse to change when that change does not contribute to make their lives easier or better in any way.

So I propose to stop buying sentences such as “change comes from the board”, “people are reluctant to change” and the like. Let’s accept once and for all that “REAL change happens when it is sponsored from the baseline”, which is where we find the biggest group of internal customers and where things really happen. Let’s believe it and act accordingly. Anything less is 20th century content.

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