Navigating the Bermuda Triangle of Change – Tradition

This is the third in a series of posts on Change Management.

In my previous post on this topic, I provided a view on how Policy can be a barrier to effective change. Tradition is even tougher, but it can be overcome, and sometimes even be used to help bring change about.

In the famous Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, the main character is challenged by all the changes around him. One daughter does not accept her arranged marriage, another leaves the family to marry a teacher-turned-revolutionary, and a third daughter does the unthinkable – she falls in love with a Russian soldier. On top of the family issues, the Tsarist state is slowly infringing on the culture of the Jewish town. When the show opens, life in the village is described in terms of the traditions of the community, and why they are important.

In the workplace, tradition is important as well, and sometimes tradition needs to be challenged.

I see two kinds of traditions. One type of tradition is ceremony or ritual. Weddings are surrounded with traditions, many of which cross many cultures. Sports teams and theatre performers all have rituals that they believe are important to assure their best performance. Some make no sense at all, and tradition is sometimes superstition. But a common thread of these traditions is they serve to bind people together, it is something they participate in together.

The other type of tradition is more about method or approach. “We’ve always done it that way”. There are times when no one knows exactly why we have always done it that way. And sometimes, when we learn the reason why, we might find that the reason doesn’t exist anymore. I have  seen grievance processes in a union facility managed in an incredibly ineffective way because “that’s how we’ve always done it”. Propose a change to the process, and someone is sure to think you are trying to gain an advantage, and change is resisted.

If you want to change the first kind of tradition, you better have a good reason, and you better have a good alternative. Why? Because these traditions bring people some sort of satisfaction. If it is important to break the old way – and you should measure that in terms that people can relate to – then be honest about it and give people a chance to participate in replacing the “old way” with something better.

But, in changing the second kind, you really have to work hard on “What’s in it for me?”. If you can’t effectively answer that question, you will have a very tough road.

A few suggestions:

  1. Don’t take anything for granted. A simple engineering change of moving a start button on an operations panel needs operator involvement.
  2. Listen. Ask questions. Listen again. If the change is big, then you need to spend a lot of time getting to understand how people feel about the old way
  3. Identify growth opportunity. Will this change help position employees for a better future? Will it help us move ahead of competition?
  4. Take the time to identify all stakeholders. Customers, employees, union leaders, team leaders, and your replacement (because if you mess it up, chances are someone else will have to clean up!).

Most of all, con’t confuse tradition with culture. They are related, of course, but culture is the hardest to crack. We’ll cover that one next.

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