Igniting Sustainable Change in Scientific & Technical Organizations

Whether driven by pre-emptive thinking or business pressures, many scientific and technical organizations need to raise their game. Under the banner of contemporary catchphrases such as “open innovation”, “customer centric product development”, “strategic outsourcing”, “customer partnering” and “R&D transformation”, such organizations have been striving to initiate change programs for achieving the same two age-old aims:

  1. Get more done with less resources.
  2. Generate something unique and valuable for their customers.

Such organizations have been re-structuring their reporting lines, working processes, teams, governance committees, metrics and supporting IT systems. While many have achieved attractive short-term results such as lower headcount, shorter timelines and more new projects, they are struggling to sustain these improvements over the longer term. And it has proven very challenging to enhance their organizations’ fundamental ability to innovate and generate superior outputs which will distinguish them in the marketplace. In fact, the emphasis on re-structuring and process optimization may actually be counter-productive – one R&D executive commented to us, “we have become very quick and efficient at creating products that no one wants to buy”.

The roots of these challenges stem from how the change programs were launched at the outset, in particular, failing to capture the ‘hearts and minds’ of the entire organization and tapping into its cultural strengths. To illustrate this, we highlight three typical leadership beliefs that we feel have been seriously flawed when simplistically applied to organizations of scientists, engineers and other knowledge workers.

Misconception #1: “We need a Burning Platform”

The conventional wisdom is that people do not initiate serious change unless threatened by imminent negative consequences. For example, many highly successful manufacturing improvement programs were triggered by the threat of site closure, spurring their people to make transformative changes. But rarely does the threat of closing say an R&D Center lead to more innovative thinking and more customer value-adding new products. Instead, many scientists and engineers lose motivation and send out their résumés to find new jobs. Rather than threats, knowledge workers need the following to embrace the need for change:

  • A strategic direction or intent, set by their Top Management, that incorporates an aspirational purpose. The latter must go beyond survival and financial incentives, to appeal to the scientists’ and engineers’ core values and beliefs. Typically, knowledge workers like these want to create something useful or important for their organization’s customers, or even better, for society at large. They also value professional recognition by their peers, and seek to preserve or enhance a working environment that allows them to solve challenging problems in their domains of expertise i.e. they want to do interesting and professionally rewarding work.
  • Self discovered dissatisfaction with the current way of working i.e. a realization that continuing in the present way is not good enough and that a better way might well be possible. Self discovery is crucial, as bringing in external experts with benchmarks often has the opposite effect of miring the process in months of discussion about the relevance and comparability of these benchmarks.

Misconception #2: “Management needs to Define the Solution”

Unfortunately, too many change programs have kicked off with the Management Team (or even just their Leader and a few key conspirators) working with external management consultants to define a detailed plan for how everyone should work in the future. Management feels that going to the organization with a ‘half baked solution’ would trigger too many questions which they could not answer and result in chaos. But paradoxically, in organizations filled with knowledge workers, this approach is one of the quickest recipes for entrenching resistance across the organization, even if the solution propounded is actually a good one. Scientists and engineers feel their intellect should be valued and their opinion listened to – they hate someone else telling them how to do their work. They want and need to be part of the journey, and ownership comes from participation in creating the solution. Of course it is Management’s role to first define top-level business goals and set the overall strategic direction based on logically weighing up the different emerging market and technological factors. But the important next step is to then incorporate an aspirational purpose into that strategic direction which everyone can buy into, and subsequently involve enough people across the organization to (a) understand why major change is needed to reach those goals, and (b) define the solution for getting there.

Misconception #3: “We need a Totally Different Culture”

A lot of change programs start by defining an ideal solution without reference to the organization’s current culture. Moreover, these change programs then try to define a “new culture” and a set of “new values” to go with this ideal solution. Unfortunately, the current culture is almost always deeply entrenched, and so not surprisingly, the implementation process soon runs aground. A much smarter approach would be to accept the current culture for what it is, look for certain characteristics of that culture which can be built upon or evolved in order to achieve the organization’s business goals and aspirational purpose, and then develop a solution around those cultural characteristics. It is much easier to extend and build on what is already there, rather than to import something alien. Over time, as these positive cultural characteristics get even stronger through proactive reinforcement and application, the negative characteristics of the old culture eventually fade away. So a key step at the outset is to understand the current culture, and to identify which of its characteristics can be leveraged to initiate and drive positive beneficial change.