The title is a cite taken from a comment to a post today at LinkedIn. The post was by one of my connections and was about various things he didn’t like too much about LinkedIn and which he suggested them to change.
Quite a lot of comments came in on that one – like so often on “meta”-topics: those topics witch are about how we live our lives rather than about the actual living of it. And one of the comments simply stated this, that you cannot dictate how people should use a social medium like LinkedIn. Maybe the post-writer would prefer it to be different, but others probably liked it this way – and “everybody will make their own path”. Whatever structure and whatever features are available will be used or not used by each individual according to their own decisions and probably also partly by coincidence. You cannot control it.
After taking a long walk, having a nice dinner (well, a TV-dinner, actually) and doing different things at home, I now must admit that this about individual paths made some understandings meet in my mind.
You cannot control change
The point is, that when doing process improvement activities in a company, you always expect people to change their behavior. If they will just make these small changes, then everything will get better. And you set up various formulas and theories and tools and documentation, so that everybody will know why they must change. And then they don’t!
It is so annoying to work with process improvement. We can, of course, jump from methodology X to theory Y and continue with ideology Z. And we can spend years and more years on it, and earn money on it, if all this attempted process improvement happens to be our job. Bu we cannot make people change. People will, of course, change, but they will do it along the path they set themselves. Then you can try to replace some of the people with others who are already moving along the path that you have set… think about it, your path. Not theirs!
What a lot of theorizing about change and improvement in companies tend to forget is that people are not bees, not ants, not any of such creatures who seem to function as one big organism. People are individuals, and all attempts to find a common social behavior will fail – or at least it will lead to approximations only.
You might be ably to coach each individual and by that guide their development. But it is very unlikely that you can guide them all into the same development, mainly because they have different starting points and all in all different lives, different interests in life, and different capabilities.
You should not try to control change
My suggestion is a different one than trying to control the change. I suggest that you instead make sure that you have people in place who do understand the reason why they are in the company.
I have always wondered who people in larger companies can walk around doing only damage, like it so wonderfully is illustrated by the Dilbert strips. Why is it accepted that a middle manager is hiring 20 people, doing a lot of internal reorganization, closing down old activities, starting and closing down new activities, then firing the same or some other 20 people and all in all ending up with a ruin of a department? Without new products to sell, without the expertise that made the old setup valuable to the customers, and without the proud and happy staff that would be willing to walk through fire for the company.
If you want improvement, start with what you have and then add all the ingredients – of which the most important ones are trust, support, and an open mind – and then see what will happen, especially looking for what is good in what is happening. But get rid of those people who do not participate or who have an agenda, that has nothing to do with making the company work. Just make sure that you give time before concluding anything, as our perception of other people’s motives and thoughts tend to be wrong.
You should assist change
And most of all, accept that things will not go your way. You will be part of it all, but it will get its own life. If you are the manager, you can help solve specific problems and you can help get the resources and the recognition that makes the engine spin. That’s your job, nothing else.
Then people will make each their own path which, in a company populated with people who understand that they are, in fact, part of a company, will also be more or less a common path.
An example from nature
If you take a quick glance at the cover photo of this site, the one with the geese, you will see that this is exactly what is happening there. The geese are moving from the pond, hidden to the right, to the lake, hidden to the left. They always spend the days in the pond and the nights in the lake. The younger geese are not following a straight path, to say the least, but the older geese are guiding them a bit and patiently waiting for them to follow troop.
At the end of the day, literally, all geese will be in the lake – but how exactly they got there and at which point at the beach they entered it is left to each individual goose and coincidence to decide.
Those old geese are perfect leaders who do this organizational change twice a day during all summer. When winter arrives, they know that it is time to go south. And how they manage things down there, I suppose that some local observers will know better than I do.
This all looks very systemic, but think about what goes on in the mind of each of the younger geese – they no doubt feel that they themselves decide what to do and where to go. They take advice, they get inspired, they seek the goal that happens to be the same as the other geese’s goal, but they feel themselves that they are thinking, planning and acting as individuals. That they are making their own path.