How Not To Go About Effecting Behavioural Change And Moving Towards Customer-Centricity

Let’s assume that for the purposes of this conversation that when I use the term customer-centricity I am pointing towards a specific behaviours which show an organisation as being attuned and responsive to the needs of their customers – their core customer base.

How should you go about effecting change in the behaviour of your people, your teams, your functions, your business units, your entire organisation so that your organisation shows up as customer-centric?  The authors of Six Simple Rules point out that managers go about effecting change by typically taking a hard approach (strategy, structure, process). And when this fails or to make it more appealing they introduce elements of the soft approach (training, team building, affiliation events). How well do these approaches – hard, soft, hard+soft – work?

In the last post I illustrated what tends to happen when managers take the hard approach: set direction, communicate direction, set metrics to hit, change the bonus system.  What about taking the soft approach? How does that tend to work out?  Lets return to David K. Hurst’s experience at Hugh Russel:

The top management team emerged from Hugh Russel as a “band of brothers” ….. we found we could “read ” situations better … “contextual intelligence” seemed to be an important feature of our newfound skills.  So, after our near death experience, we set out to create an educational experience that would nurture the spirit of commitment, excitement, and engagement we had seen at the senior level of the organisation….

What did this senior leadership do?  They organised a series of 3 day retreats [“core samples”] where 50 people drawn from all levels of the company (truck drivers, salespeople, branch managers, vice presidents) were invited to a “lovely old cottage”.  What happened on the retreat?  The participants hung out together doing team exercises, case studies, got feedback on their behavioural styles, and discussed the issues that the Hugh Russel was facing.  How did it go? The senior leadership were delighted with the results:

Discussion at the meetings was open and honest, the behaviours observed were cooperative, and the feedback from the participants was excellent..…… our local branch managers, who nominated most of the attendees, told us that they saw changes in the behaviour of those who had come to the session, even staunch union members. We were very pleased.

The soft approach works!  If you take folks from all levels of your organisation to a three day retreat, at a nice place, educate them, teach them, develop them, give them feedback, and allow them to hang out with another then you are well on your way to being customer-centric. Or are you?

Then, over time, the feedback from the managers became less positive…..  after awhile back at work, the participants began to revert to their old dysfunctional habits. Many of them who had been cooperative and open during the core samples became surly and aggressive again after a few weeks back at work.

Slowly it dawned on us that we had completely misunderstood cause and effect….. We thought we were teaching them new behaviours, which they could practice back in the workplace. But they knew these behaviours already since they were the ones the workers used in friendly environments, like their homes or bowling alleys or golf clubs. The open environment of the development sessions evoked those social behaviours.

Please make note of the line that I have put in bold. The behaviour that was being taught was behaviour that the folks already had in their very being: cooperation is intrinsic to us. In infant never makes it past infanthood unless it arrives and is nurtured in a cooperative context.  So if cooperation is not showing up in the work context then it is because non-cooperation is the functional behaviour in the work context. And cooperative behaviour is dysfunctional in that work context.  What can we learn from David K. Hurst?

We had misunderstood the power of context over our people’s desire and even their ability to practice these behaviours back at work. The closed work setting was completely different from that of the country estate …..

Martin Heidegger was on to this phenomenon back in the 1920’s almost a hundred years ago. Most managers are yet to get it: when you ‘deworld the world of its worldhood’ you are in the land of theory. And what is theory? Theory is derived from the Greek word: theoros. What does theoros signify? Spectator.  And if you follow that which I speak here on this Blog, you may have gotten the profound difference between “being in the stands and being in the arena”.

Let’s continue listening to David K. Hurst:

…. we weren’t teaching them soft skills that they didn’t already know; we weren’t conveying any hard skills that might have been helpful to them; we weren’t using live company cases or confronting real issues…… our management development program had some of the ingredients of a behavioural trap – short term rewards and a long terms waste of resources.

How does David K. Hurst conclude this story? With a profound lesson for anyone seeking to effect behavioural change that lasts:

This is a perennial problem with development programs, especially those that depend upon a radical change in context to produce their effects. Climbing a challenging mountain peak or whitewater rafting can certainly build temporary espirit de corps in a team. However, the challenge is not to take the skills learned in those challenging contexts back to the workplace but to create challenging workplace contexts that evoke those desirable behaviours. The development sessions should deal with the constraints that prevent an organisation from creating challenging work environments where learning and teamwork are a natural response….

— David K. Hurst, The New Ecology of Leadership

I say:

1 – That the challenge of showing up as a customer-centric organisation is one that involves a radical change in context to produce the kind of behavioural change that is needed from just about every person in your organisation;

2 – The central task of any leadership team is to get to grip with the existing work context – to understand what it is about the context that generates the behaviour that is generated today; and

3 – Using this insight to nudge-influence-shape the work context (made of up many micro work contexts) such that the only functional way for your people to show up is as being attuned to and responsive to customers.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

3 thoughts on “How Not To Go About Effecting Behavioural Change And Moving Towards Customer-Centricity”

  1. Maz,
    Thank you for writing the last two posts and sharing the work of David K. Hurst and the story of Hugh Russel.

    You bring out a fantastic point about how it is context that drives behaviour and, therefore, to effect change we should concentrate more on changing the context and not the other way round.

    Your posts also reminded me of the book The Goal by Eli Goldratt, which I sure that you have read. If you haven’t then I would highly recommend it as I think you will like it.

    All the best,

    Adrian

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  2. Maz,

    I also enjoyed both posts…

    In the first though I’m not sure it is wrong to Analyse Think Change, or for that matter right to See, Feel Change. The word that is missing for me in both cases is “understand”.

    On a positive note, lack of understanding does keep me in employment.

    For the second I wonder how do you change the context of the work place? It would be great if you could give us some examples.

    James

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  3. Hi Maz,

    It never fails to amaze me when people claim that it’s soft or hard approaches that work or don’t. It demonstrates an incomplete understanding resulting from a lack of knowledge. There have been 3 independant benchmarking studies by Harvard Stanford and London Business Schools that not unsurprisingly came up with exactly the same findings. Those findings have been put into practice by enlightened organisations for 10 years or more. More recently those same findings have been validated by Standard and Poor and JD Williams for the Energy sector. The short answer is without the hard approach there is no strategic direction; without the soft the chances of the strategic direction being adopted are significantly reduced.

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