Tackle Transition

Lesson 3: Topic 5 of 8

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It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.

Charles Darwin

You worked hard at creating a culture that you and your coworkers love. But life is not static; change happens. How do you keep what you’ve built while undergoing transition to a new phase of doing business?

There are times when corporate culture becomes fragmented because the workforce goes through change, and owners, managers, and/or front line staff no longer agree as to where the focus should lie. “I miss the way it used to be around here” is an expression of grief over unwanted change. As a leader, you want to invest in helping people successfully navigate the changes (even when you dislike the changes yourself).

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How does this happen? There hopefully is agreement on core values which are non-negotiable. There needs to be constant communication ― subtle and overt, stated and demonstrated ― that these are still in place regardless of other changes. And you back that up by rewarding efforts to live out those values.

In their book Decisive, brothers and bestselling authors Chip and Dan Heath bring up this very scenario. They discuss Interplast (now known as ReSurge International), a humanitarian nonprofit organization which provides life-changing cleft palate surgeries to impoverished children around the world. In developed countries, this is a small, fast, and inexpensive procedure, but in some parts of the world this surgery is simply beyond reach. Disfigured, mocked and rejected, considered a bad omen, deemed to be cursed, in some cases starving to death because they are unable to eat, those afflicted with cleft palate suffer hellish lives. Surgeons recruited from developed countries donated their time, skills, and money to help, and the results were literally transformational. 

Interplast had great success and was doing wonderful work until they grew to a point that their two primary corporate values were in conflict. Their twin goals were to “provide free reconstructive surgery for people in developing nations” (initially done exclusively by volunteer surgeons) while at the same time “assist host country medical colleagues toward medical independence” (which deemphasized the role of volunteer surgeons in favor of training and equipping local ones). American surgeons who volunteered their time were also a major source of donations, and there was fear that funding would be jeopardized if Interplast announced those services wouldn’t be needed any longer. After a few Board clashes, the nonprofit finally realized that both goals could not be of equal weight. Ultimately they decided the second had to be the one guiding their organization. They began to primarily focus on surgical training of local doctors. Interplast’s success forced it to transition, and it was handled well because, as the Heath brothers put it, having well-defined core values helps you anticipate and overcome future challenges.