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“All change comes from the barrel of a gun”— Mao Tse-tung
"Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change." —Tony Robbins
“What do I gotta die before you realize I was (expletive) with open eyes?”—Ice T
There’s been a lot of fury and fuss about how the secret to improving workplace safety lies in increasing the value on which the corporate culture places on the safety of the workers. As individuals our values dictate how we spend our time, money, and efforts (If you want to know what is really important to you just take a careful look at where you spend your time and money), as we grow older and mature our values, if they serve us well, become deeply ingrained and difficult to change.
Few of us experience the sort of galvanizing event that terrifies us enough to fundamentally change our world-view, but unless we do, we cling to our values without any meaningful impetus for change.
When it comes to change, organizations aren’t all that different than individuals. The larger the organization the more resistant to change the organization tends to be. Edgar Schein, considered by many as the father of organizational development (he coined the framed “corporate culture”) said that change could only come when Dissatisfaction + Vision + Next Steps > Resistance; it’s a good theory; in fact, it’s a great theory. While it can be fairly easy to craft a compelling vision for the future and to identify the next steps required to get your organization there, creating dissatisfaction is far more difficult. If personal change requires a “life-changing” event, how much more dramatic and jarring does the event have to be before an entire organization has to experience before substantive lasting change can take hold?
Comes from within, catalysts come from without
Firestone, BP, Exxon, and the U.S. auto industry all had significant emotional events that created the impetus for change. In each case, a significant event (or series of events) created a climate where the very survival of the company was threatened.
In 1984 leak of the highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. Even 28 years later, nobody is really sure how many innocent died in their sleep (estimates range from 3,000–8,000 killed in the initial exposure with some experts claiming that approximately 20,000 others have succumbed damage they received from exposure to the gas.) This tragedy changed not only Union Carbide, or even the chemical industry, but also how people viewed industry in general. Exxon is still haunted by the Valdez spill, BP will be forced to work diligently and relentlessly to restore people’s faith in it, and the U.S. auto industry—facing unprecedented overseas competition underwent sweeping changes in the 1980s. The changes in these organizations came from within, but the catalysts were disasters of such magnitude that the organizations could not ignore them and retain any hope of survival.
Only the most foolish companies wait for a colossal disaster before attempting change, but internal efforts to change often mimic our personal efforts to lose weight—they start off strong, but soon other priorities start to get in the way and after awhile we lose any incentive we once had and the desire for change rapidly dissipates. When internal forces drive change it is too easy to give up. The fire in our collective belly subsides and ultimately we fall back into old behaviors. We construct all manner of excuses but in the end we just didn’t want it bad enough.
Creating a catalyst for change
Between the internal dissatisfaction (“we’re all screwed up here” or “our injuries costs are out of hand”) and the decision to act lies the tricky business of creating a catalyst for change. A planned catalyst takes skillful planning and artful execution that combines guiding the organization on a journey of self-discovery while building an irrefutable case for change. Typically this activity will require a combination of internal and external resources.
The realization that change is necessary comes relatively easily, but the recognition that change is inevitable, and what’s more, inescapably linked to the organization’s survival takes more effort, and if done poorly, can lead to disaster.
Poorly managed change initiatives are more than a waste of money; they can hasten the demise of an organization (or at very least an executive regime), and while most people will eventually accept change few will forgive it.
An outside source of a planned catalyst (a safety transformation or intervention) is the best chance an organization has at success, but with all the quacks shilling safety transformations finding the right provider is tricky.
While there is no fool proof way of finding an appropriate change professionals (the hacks crowding the field have the cunning of a rat, the diabolical charm of Ted Bundy, and the hutzpah and line of bull of NAME Ponzy. But for all that here are some things you should consider when you hear the inevitable knock on the door from the companies promising to help you change:
Track record. When choosing any vendor take a hard look at its track record. If the provider is long on theory and short on success stories be wary. Also, don’t be fooled by the “confidential” companies that so many vendors try to pawn off as grinning, thrilled customers. I found truly thrilled companies will find a way to recommend vendors that have served them particularly well. There are exceptions of course, but they should be able to produce at least one or two customers who are so thrilled that they can’t help but crow about the vendor’s success.
Business model. Most reputable change providers make their money on the change intervention and then ride merrily off into the sunset. If the vendor in question makes money selling software licenses, charging for training manuals, collects fees for certifying instructors, etc. it’s a good bet that the “change” intervention is just a vehicle for long-term parasitic relationship between customer and vendor.
Sustainability. Many vendors can provide an organizational shock to the system that becomes the impetus for change, but without a change in the organizational infrastructure the change is not likely to be lasting.
A true transformational change intervention can quickly improve an organization’s safety performance and greatly improve the value it places on safety, but choosing the wrong change provider is worse than doing nothing at all. A poorly executed organizational intervention is potentially catastrophic.