Imposing change doesn’t work (or work the way you think it might)

You can take the boy out of Newcastle but you can’t take Newcastle out of the boy. In other words you can’t suppress culture.

Making a change without engaging the stakeholders will bring about behaviours you hadn't expected and will devalue the benefits that might have accrued

I’ve been fortunate recently to have a vacation in Peru where I visited many archeological sites including Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas.  However, as one visits such places there is so much to learn and often that learning can be applied back into our working lives.  There are two key messages that I’d like to share from my trip, both based on the same theme of imposing change or engaging people with a change.

The Incas dominated a large swathe of South America over approximately 100 years before being subjugated by the Spanish.  In the case of the Incas, they were keen to take the best of all the cultures they conquered.  Thus much of the remaining structures in the area are not actually Incan but from pre-Incan times.  The skills of cutting and placing the stones were adopted and (pardon the pun) built upon, literally and figuratively.  However, they didn’t really engage with the people they overran and when the Spanish arrived it wasn’t horses and disease that led to the downfall of the Incan empire but the fact that those that had lost to the Incas sided with the new enemy and helped them conquer the Incans.

Of course, the Spanish had a different approach.  This was all about domination and at every opportunity they demolished Incan temples and structures and built Catholic churches on the same foundations or locations, in an attempt to eradicate the Inca culture.  Everyone was forced into Catholicism on the pain of death so most people “complied”.  However, the Incans found ways to comply yet resist.  Much of the Cusco school of religious painting from the time of the Conquistadors is highly rated but when you investigate the subject matter it becomes clear that hidden in open view are many of the Incan beliefs.  For example, most of the paintings avoid Jesus and focus on the Virgin Mary – which symbolised to the Incans their own god of “Mother Earth”.  The sun appears everywhere which helped the Incans retain their belief in the supreme god, the Sun God.

So despite the conquest of the Incans much of their religious beliefs were retained, albeit hidden and to this day (over 500 years later) many of the Catholic festivals and high holy days are linked to Incan festivals and celebrations.

Therefore I just pose the question – when you make changes at work without the full engagement, involvement and participation of those affected, do you really think that they will “buy-in” to your ideas or will they, like the Incans, find ways to retain their old behaviours (like the Incans) or to subvert your intentions by banding with others to resist (like the pre-Incans)?

I think the term “buy-in” is part of the problem when it comes to ‘change’.  For me it suggests that your idea is not up for consultation or amendment but that you expect others to buy your idea and leave their own views behind which as we now know is a recipe for failure.

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About the author

Dave Dyer

Dave Dyer is a principal consultant within the Operations Improvement team in ABB Consulting. His speciality is in bringing sustainable change and operational benefits to an organisation through the engagement of its people. He hopes to share good ideas and good practice, to inform and to learn.
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