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Don’t Just Survive an Organization Change, Thrive on the Opportunity

Animated image of arrow with Survive and Thrive written on it

Organizational change is very difficult, disruptive, and often scary. Why is organizational change so hard? Why do many revert to the status quo? How do we approach change in a way that improves the odds of success?    

Change requires a lot of people engaged and committed to it to be successful. So let’s begin by understanding some of the science behind human nature. 

We are hardwired with instinctual behaviors that were necessary for the survival of our species. In his book Change, John Kotter describes two ‘channels’ that are relevant in this context; the Survive Channel and the Thrive Channel. 

 

The Survive Channel

The Survive Channel is constantly scanning for threats. When a threat is perceived, a flood of Epinephrine (more commonly called adrenaline) is released to provide a spike of energy, increase heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. 

Our minds will focus on the threat. We use this energy and focus to eliminate (or flee) the danger and once we perceive that we’re safe, we calm down. 

You may have felt this in real life. You are driving along, and you hear sirens and see flashing lights behind you. Your heart races, your peripheral vision narrows, and you pull over quickly. When the car passes, you calm down, take a breath, and can continue.  

But If the perception of threat persists, our bodies release cortisol and other hormones which keep us on high alert. This drains energy, increases stress, and we can go into an overheated Survive state. This compromises our ability to see opportunities, think creatively, and act collaboratively. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you feel overwhelmed, mind racing, you can’t focus on any one thing; you were likely in an overheated Survive state. And weren’t able to get much done.

 

The Thrive Channel

The Thrive Channel is always looking for opportunities. When perceived, Oxytocin and Vasopressin are released which triggers passion, excitement, and increases energy more slowly and sustainably than Epinephrine. 

Our field of focus expands, curiosity broadens, positive emotions flow which improves collaboration, creativity, and innovation. 

This effect is often seen in startup companies. People join because they believe in the cause. They can more easily work long hours because they see the opportunity and potential. The energy and positive emotions from an activated Thrive Channel last as long as progress toward the opportunity is visible.  

 

The Potential Good In Survive

Most organizational change starts from a threat or challenge as perceived by management. They try to raise the sense of urgency through a ‘burning platform’ message. This activates the Survive Channel in the organization as a whole. and promote movement. 

This can be a good thing if used correctly. 

One company’s Agile transformation was launched with the statement:

 “We are failing to meet customer commitments both external and internal.” 

Activating Survive is needed to get people out of complacency and into action.  

But problems occur when the use of the Survive Channel to that overheated Survive state. 

Change efforts often result in new plans, new metrics and reports, fear of restructuring, or significant changes in the current process. These can be seen as threats to job security, loss of authority, or just lost time with the family due to long hours. 

These factors overheat the Survive Channel which reduces collaboration, creativity, and productivity. Resistance grows because they see the change itself as the threat and not the ‘burning platform’. 

I have seen many organizations start a transformation with goals of reduced cost (interpreted as “reduction in force”), flattened organizations (interpreted as “fire the managers”), and eliminating bureaucracy (interpreted as “eliminate corporate QA or compliance”). The overheated Survive is what causes the “corporate antibodies” to activate and kill the transformation. 

 

Operationalizing Survive And Thrive

Stylized drawing of human head showing creativitySo how do you create a sense of urgency to initiate needed change while calming the Survive Channel and activating the Thrive Channel? 

The key is employee engagement.  

Start by reframing the ‘burning platform’ as a challenge with a big opportunity that ties to purpose and meaning. 

Instead of launching a transformation by saying ‘we are failing to meet customer commitments”, reframe it as “our customer is having challenges with partner commitments, we can capture market share by being the most reliable business partner.” 

This will activate both the Survive Channel to get the action going and the Thrive Channel to increase creativity and collaboration.  

Next, invite volunteers to rally and seize the opportunity. Allow these volunteers to form a network of teams, separate from the hierarchy, with leadership from within. 

These teams can use Scrum (and Scrum@Scale) to create empiricism, conduct experiments, and react to quick feedback loops to guide the change in the right direction. 

The transparency of Scrum will make wins visible. It will also highlight where bureaucracy is getting in the way so that management can remove, streamline, or adjust as needed to increase speed and reduce costs. 

One company has 90 volunteers working on various initiatives to streamline processes, improve innovation, bring more transparency to company capacity, etc. They have seen a tremendous acceleration in their transformation since inviting people into the process. 

 

Make It Clear That Everyone Has A Role

Those that don’t volunteer continue to work in their familiar hierarchy “keeping the lights on” mode. This dual operating system can be essential to a large enterprise undergoing a transformation. 

The hierarchy and bureaucracy make the execution of standard, repeatable activities quick and reliable. The larger and more successful the company, the more standards are needed to maintain quality, consistency, and enhance onboarding for known activities during the initial phase of the transformation. 

Examples of this include facilities requests, handling orders, shipping, etc. Essentially activities that do not require agility stay in the hierarchy. This calms the Survive Channel and reduces resistance since everyone has a home. 

The challenge with the hierarchy is it is slow to adapt to rapid changes in the environment. Work where agility is needed; R&D and transformation; is where the volunteer network comes in. There are fewer rules and roles. Leadership can come from anywhere. The Scrum framework provides the rules, authority, and accountabilities. The product is a transformed organization or a new offering to capitalize on an opportunity. Experiments can be developed quickly, and adjustments made based on the observed results.  

In many change initiatives, employees see the change itself as a threat to their position, authority, and wellbeing. Mandates and forced adoption of changes overheats the Survive response, increasing resistance and reducing creativity and collaboration. 

The dual operating system with an invitation for volunteers calms that Survive Channel and activates the needed Thrive Channel to engage employees and increase leadership and innovation leading to successful change. 

Agile Transformations That Work

Interested in learning how Scrum Inc. can help your organization succeed by operationalizing the Survive and Thrive channels? We're happy to answer your questions. Schedule a consultation today.

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