We do improvement by programmes. Change happens in projects. We ask for innovation at one-off events. We expect people to be adaptive and insightful every few months or years when we tell them to.
And it doesn’t work.
The pace of change is too slow and any innovation is patchy and short-lived.
Boiling a Pan of Water
Let’s say our organisation is a pan of water and transformational change happens when the water boils.
Here’s how we try to boil the water.
We take a thimble full of water out of the pan – take people out of the work and put them on a project team. Then we boil the thimble full of water and pour it back in the pan.
We can heat thimbles of water as fast as we like. We can use a few more thimbles. But the pan of water will not boil.
Moreover, once back in the pan, the hot water from the thimbles dissipates and quickly cools down.
So how do you boil a pan of water?
Turn on the gas under the pan.
The gas is senior management energy, focus, commitment and support.
But if you watch a pan of water, even with the gas turned right up, for a while it will seem that nothing is happening. Then, slowly, small bubbles will form on the bottom of the pan. Those bubbles will start to jiggle and in a little while, they rise up and join together to make bigger bubbles.
The bubbles are change ideas hatching, joining and rising up. At first they are small ones, then medium, then they combine to make big bubbles bursting on the surface.
Not too long now until you get the really big bubbles – fundamental change – and the pan of water is boiling.
Here is the best part. In an important way, a pan of water is not like an organisation, because water molecules are passive. To boil the water all the energy has to come from outside the system – turning on the gas. But people in an organisation can generate energy from inside themselves. They have intrinsic motivation help others, contribute to society, do a good job, solve problems and work in teams. They want to experience joy in public service.
If we can release the energy that lies latent in all our people, then the water will boil itself.
Transformational change is self-boiling water.
However, we can never turn off the gas – management energy and support – otherwise the pan will go cold. Even with the intrinsic energy of people in an organisation, you will still always need senior focus on maintaining the behaviours of improvement, adaptation and innovation.
No More Improvement Projects
If we want transformational change, we have to stop hoping that projects will spread the behaviours that we want across the organisation. It just doesn’t happen. We have to get every person, in every team, having change ideas, testing them, learning, and putting the ideas into practice. We must start with small ideas and give people the experience of running the ideas through a change cycle before they move onto bigger and deeper ideas.
When everyone is doing change at the same time, starting small, then you don’t need to spread it, you just need to just build it up.