Let it go – Defensive behaviour and how to combat it

Posted on 17 Jun 2016 by

It’s comforting to do what you know, after all it worked in the past and so it should work in the future. But time marches on and clinging on to old ways of working and outdated business models is a sure recipe for disaster.

If we look at current models we can see a massive shift to online delivery of software. Moving towards Software as a Service (SaaS) has taken the world by storm and now the vast majority of software and applications are delivered in this way.

The shift is seismic, so much so that consumers now expect software to be delivered SaaS and are surprised if they have to download a large package or even worse use a CD to install onto a local machine.

Hanging on to outdated practices put the marketing of a company at a disadvantage because the company will be seen as backward looking rather than new and exciting and we can see that a software company that refused to fully adopt the move to SaaS very early on would certainly be at a massive disadvantage compared to their competitors.

In his excellent Harvard Business Review article 1 Vijay Govindarajan explains why companies need to unlearn the past and ‘let go of what made them great’.

He explains that embedded attitudes, especially when large organisations face huge shifts in the environment that they operate in, can be disastrous for businesses.

Smaller companies that are flexible and use speed of reaction as a competitive advantage will see that eroded as the business ages and methods become embedded, and so removing these can actually save a company too.

So how do you identify an embedded attitude?

Govindarajan gives some good examples; the granting of bonuses irrespective of performance and a tight focus on only one sector of business are just two.

For smaller organisations, managers might hear the phrase that ‘that’s not how we do things’ or that ‘it’s not in the procedure’.

Suggestions of change, such as proposing a new product line or implementing a new computer system are met with a list of reasons why not and ideas for departures from the usual way of doing business are simply not even considered.

Of course it is important to take people’s views into account, and rather than being defensive some of the objections may be valid, but if this type of behaviour persists, no matter what is suggested then it’s a clear sign of embedded attitudes.

Dealing with this kind of organisational memory is difficult, but with a determined approach the company can be made to let it go and embrace rather than resist change.

Vijay Govindarajan gives examples of companies that have unlearned old previously successful methods, some of which may seem a little drastic.

The first method is to do something big. This tends to catch people’s attention and proves to them that the business is serious about change.

Examples that Govindarajan cites are the Mahindra Group that scrapped annual bonuses and GE’s decision to sell entire parts of the company that were previously successful but had become moribund.

For smaller companies or in teams in larger organisations there may be individuals that display defensive behaviours and embedded attitudes and different techniques may prove fruitful.

The win-win deal is useful where it is possible to offer a form of quid pro quo. For example a change in working practices that produces an increase in profitability that is then shared in the form of a bonus or other benefit.

Communicating the need for change and the associated urgency is also a useful method of removing blockages. Explaining why it is important for the company to look to new methods is often all that is needed but a deeper examination of the need for urgency and indeed a vision of the future where the business hasn’t adopted the new world is also helpful.

One of the biggest reasons for a refusal to change organisational learning is a fear of the future.

At an individual level it can be as simple as a worry about the person’s own job or could be a general concern of how that future will pan out.

Again giving people a vision of the new methods will be the key here. Making sure there is a focus, not on the firm as a whole but on individuals’ places within the new scheme will tend to allay fears and help to drive change.

Finally make sure that, rather than being simply presented with a new idea, instead employees are fully engaged within the development process. After all it is much harder to be negative about an idea that you have helped form.

Change as we have seen can be a difficult time for both the organisation and the individuals in it however firms that want to thrive need to get rid of embedded attitudes and cultures to allow them to move forward.

Adopting a few simple techniques will help employees to look to the future and dismantle negative thinking from the past.

  1. https://hbr.org/2016/04/let-go-of-what-made-your-company-great

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