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Business Culture Change Challenges: The Flat Earth Theory

The concept of a flat Earth dates back to the Bronze Age.  Early Greek philosophers including Pythagoras and later Aristotle were able to empirically develop the concept of a spherical Earth.  Ptolemy, hundreds of years later also used a spherical Earth model in the development of maps and the constructs of latitude and longitude.  How was it that such a developed science could be so easily dismissed in the dark ages?  For hundreds of years, the knowledge and understanding of a spherical earth was documented, yet for over 500 years you were labeled a heretic for even suggesting it.  The crews of Columbus’s initial New World Journey were terrified of the evils of over-speculated sea monsters and the inevitable fall off the edge of the world.  If you are encountering a culture shift in your workplace, then you have nothing to worry about compared what good ole’ Chris endured.

Not only did Columbus need to get funding, he needed to recruit a crew of men to man the ships necessary to sail to the New World.  It is unfortunate the Leif Erickson wasn’t one of his Facebook friends to give him any helpful advice.  He petitioned the cruel and shrewd crown of Spain, dealed himself the future Viceroy of the yet non-existent New World, and convinced a rabble of uneducated sailors and ex-convicts to see his vision through.  As I have quoted a friend of mine before, “All change comes through people.”  Well, if Columbus was a consultant for hire in culture change situations, he probably wouldn’t feel too sorry for anyone contemplating the enormous change necessary to keep business culture developing.  I could imagine that in his classic Italian, he would say “If you are looking for sympathy, try looking in the Dictionary between Sh*t and Syphilis.”   Or, maybe not, maybe that is what I say in my endearing Tin Man way.  Either way, none of our challenges even compare to the daunting pursuit of alternate route to India.

In many business culture shifts, the wheel is truly being reinvented.  In fact, with every new initiative, there can be gleaned artifacts from better times known from years before.   In the blogosphere hotspot of Maintenance and Reliability (har har) you can find experts, self-proclaimed prophets, and even the village idiot going on and on about the importance of good record keeping, planning, mean-time-to-failure, and  (yawn) everything else under the sun as if it was just thunk up.  Of course this pertains to any business culture change, but since this is my dime, I bring up my own brand of Monkey Business.  Either way, different organizations go through cycles of “improvement” where the problems at hand are analyzed in order to develop systems of attack to correct them.  When an organization is in crisis, or late on the draw anticipating change, these new systems are overwhelming for many staffers, even the principals and executives.

It is trite and boring to go into the discussion about why people are afraid of change, most are, so let’s leave it at that.  On the other hand, what isn’t so obvious is why some are vehemently against the upcoming changes and are the biggest road block in front of implementation.  There is a real fear that goes through people when presented with changes in the workplace that will inevitably redefine their work-lives.  To say that people fear change is not enough, it goes so much deeper, in so many ways.  I just want to talk about the Flat Earth mentality that creeps into this situation. 

If you have employees that have been around for a while, they have experienced many different phases of change in the workplace.  Some bad, some good, but invariably part of the new experience reminds them of at least part of these programs in the past.  These programs either withered and blew away or left some aspect of permanent change that remains.  In some cases, the new program may be similar to something very beneficial that was used before but foolishly dismissed during a later arriving management change or change of ownership (both figuratively and literally).  I have experienced co-workers that lament the unfortunate death of a program that they felt was a personal loss.  What is worse, is that they don’t know how to reconstruct the concepts they miss, so they go on and on about the good ole days.  In order to console their broken souls, they have convinced themselves that it is impossible to work or rebuild these schemes and programs from the long cherished past.  Call it cognitive dissonance, call it rationalization, but in all practicality, these people have convinced themselves that the Earth is flat, and that is that.  Even though they lived through the possibilities and realities, they have somehow  convinced themselves that something cannot be done, even though it was a proven fact just years before.  Now bad ideas are bad ideas, so if you are trying to roll-out something now that failed miserably before, better think it through again to make sure you have accounted for the previous failure.

If we go deeper into this, we can discover that the real fear comes from a sense of disappointment that these people have with themselves.  They didn’t know how to perpetuate the success of the past, so they have formulated a reality that it is an impossible task.  When they are presented with a path to new glory, they fight the process tooth and nail.  Why? Simple, they don’t want to admit that they weren’t able to do it all this time.  They would like to believe it impossible so that they can relieve themselves with the responsibility of performing best practices, and they subsequently embrace mediocrity.  When the “new” culture changes are being rolled out, these flat-earthers are ashamed of themselves deep down, and their insolence is a product of a deep seeded fear that they failed all this time and that someone else has to do the job they should have done.

Whew!  That was a mouthful wasn’t it.  Now what do we do? Give them absolution?  Me thinks not; but in a way, we need to help them absolve themselves for thinking this way so we can better enable them to be a part of the culture of change.   These employees may not be your ideal “agents of change” but they are an integral part of the process.  Since they remember a better time, they can be a resource for the upcoming strategic movement only if we are able to draw them out of their medieval funk.  I don’t have all of the answers for this situation, but then again, you hit this site for free so you get what you pay for. 

The typical ways of engaging people always include identifying what is in it for them.  Everyone is different and their personality, skills, and experience will reveal what morsel can be used to lure them back on the ball field.  Let them vent, gripe, and tell you how it can’t be done.  Then look them in the eye and tell them that you believe it possible and need their help to make it happen.  Maybe you can blame someone or something else for the impetus of atrophy that killed things years before, and take the weight off of the shoulders of the one sitting before you.  Perhaps you can assign them a leadership role in the process that appeals to their specialty or niche.  Maybe all you can do in the end is bid them farewell in their dark ages while you move forward into the renaissance. Not everyone can make the change, and those we hold onto with well-wishes of turning their attitudes around usually end up slowing us down and draining our energy.  Everyone makes their own choices in this life, and some choose to wallow in sorrow instead of getting in the game.  If they tell you that you have been “drinking the Kool-Aid”, you need to tell them how good it tastes, and how much it will help them.  If your planned change is thought through then it isn’t poison, don’t let them convince you otherwise.

Hundreds of years ago, we didn’t have the widespread literacy and access to media we have today, it doesn’t mean that we can be condemned back into a dark age where facts are made back into mysteries that will need to be someday proved again.  Smart people, without the use of smart phones and the internet were able to establish a sound understanding of our Earth, only for it to be shattered by ignorance.  This is no different from the poor directions that companies have been led by foolish leaders and greed.  Smart people are born every day, and will be ready and willing to bring a spherical outlook to our dark ages.  Don’t let your fear of being lazy, incompetent, or unskilled scare you away from getting on the fast horse.  Making the change for the good is the only way to win.


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