Change is difficult. The psychology of loss aversion means we are hard-wired to preserve the status quo. Paradoxically, we also desire to improve. But it is impossible to be better without also being different. This applies to organizations as it does to people. When we succeed in improving, it is because we have succeeded in becoming different.
I work at the Communications Security Establishment (CSE). We’re Canada’s Cryptologic Agency. We protect critical Canadian information infrastructure, and we provide foreign intelligence for the safety and security of Canada. This is a complex mission, influenced by geopolitics and technology. Consequently, we have had to change repeatedly to remain effective. While our track record for individual change is good, we know we need to be stronger at creating and sustaining change in general.
In 2009, we began planning a new headquarters facility. Our leadership decided that this new facility would act as a stimulus for change. It would enable all the ways of becoming better that we had been talking about for many years. The design would support agility, collaboration and innovation. It would enable us to become a cohesive and determined community.
A workplace is not a field of dreams, however. If you build it, it does not mean they will come. So we also needed to address our organizational culture. The best definition of organizational culture I know is the way we do things here. We wanted to change the way we do things here.
Organizational culture is hard to talk about. You need to be able to discuss the elephants in the room. Our first step was to introduce transformational leadership, not just to our leaders, but to all our staff. One outcome of this program was to make the behaviors that support or inhibit collaboration and agility part of our common vocabulary. We know the frustration of being in a meeting where the real issue is not addressed because of fear, impatience or a lack of useful vocabulary. We used this program to push through that.
Only when you can talk about elephants does it make sense to talk about actions. Our next step was to create a transformation program, mirroring Blueprint 2020, and led by our deputy head and ADMs. Our leadership realized that they need to be present and visible to make the change real. And by being so, they also set the example of engagement for the entire executive cadre. We now have executives fostering working-level initiatives to create flexible teaming, an innovation framework, and a new leadership development program, among other change initiatives. We have made it clear that being a steward to these efforts is fundamental to being a leader.
We are adopting crowd-sourcing as much as possible. In the public service we tend to entrust the design of new processes to the same people who created the old ones. That’s not always a good idea. We are giving the creative lead to the people who have to implement the processes. Consider performance management: it’s one of the most difficult and yet important things we do. Our team leaders are the most important element of performance management, so, under the stewardship of HR, we have invited them to create a new system appropriate to our desired future.
We must remember that diversity of attitudes and opinions is a source of our strength, and social engineering tends to result in disaster. We tread a fine line between directing change as a corporate whole, and allowing differences among teams, professions, and personalities to self-determine the ways they can become better. One of my colleagues says that “leaders help people to see.” We need to help our people to see the possibilities in becoming better, and how to balance organizational and individual needs to achieve these possibilities.
For some people, things aren’t happening fast enough; they’ve seen us try and fail before, and they are cynical. Okay. I used to smoke. Then I stopped. I’ve quit a few times in my life. But each time I started smoking again, it did not deny the fundamental truth that stopping was the right thing to do. Failing to quit didn’t mean I should give up trying. These attempts to become better provide an opportunity for learning, and the self-knowledge we gain is not the same as being cynical, but rather can help us understand why change is both difficult and also necessary. This way, knowing who we are now allows us to become different.