Andrea Belk Olson headshot Andrea Belk Olson

How to lead ineffective change

Dutch philosopher Alexander den Heijer said, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” Not surprisingly, many organizations try to fix the flower. This happens all the time with culture-change initiatives or even brand strategies, where the veneer is the focus of change and not the behaviors that underlie it.

This fundamentally occurs because it’s easier, quicker, and feels more productive. We can build campaigns, create new logos, invent new programs, and do a lot of “stuff” to prove activity is happening – but none of these things really do much to address the actual thing that needs changing.

This applies to customer needs as well, where often companies that become mired in their own “way of doing business” spend an inordinate amount of effort trying to educate and influence customers on their own processes, instead of looking at what’s easier for their audience.

It seems somewhat illogical, as one would believe spending time, money, and effort on what may be considered “window dressing” wouldn’t be in the organization’s best interest. However, it goes back to our Dutch philosopher and the ambiguity effect. The ambiguity effect is a cognitive bias, in which our decision making is affected by a lack of certainty or ambiguity. The effect implies that people tend to select options for which the probability of a favorable outcome is known, over an option for where the probability of a favorable outcome is unknown.

This is why we try to “fix the flower”. It’s visible, tangible, and clear that when we conduct tangible, tactile activities, such as campaigns and logos, the outcome is guaranteed – these items will exist. We can show that an effort was made, and have physical proof to back it up. The outcome is ensured – we made some “stuff” and here it is. On the other side of the coin, efforts to change behavior, environment, and culture are much harder. It’s vague. It’s hard to measure. It moves slow and lacks clear milestones of progress. It basically can feel like an endless project with no objective or endpoint. So it doesn’t fit well into an organization’s structure of SMART goals.

Yet ambiguity is not truly a valid reason to avoid working on the things necessary to create meaningful change. We’ve all seen, both in life and business, those leaders that see the bigger picture and push through that ambiguity to achieve their goal.

But not all of us are in that position, nor feel up to the task. So instead, start small. Give your vague objective some structure by picking one thing you can measure. Be honest about what you really want to achieve. Build a coalition of like-minded folks who share in the vision.

Or you can just keep trying to fix flowers.

About the Author:

Andrea Olson is a speaker, author, behavioral economics, and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of The Customer Mission: Why it’s time to cut the $*&% and get back to the business of understanding customers and No Disruptions: The future for mid-market manufacturing.

She is a 4-time ADDY® award winner and host of the popular Customer Mission podcast. Her thoughts have been featured in news sources such as Chief Executive MagazineEntrepreneur MagazineThe Financial BrandIndustry Week, and more. Andrea is a sought-after keynote speaker at conferences and corporate events throughout the world. She is a visiting lecturer and is Founder’s Club lead coach at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, a TEDx presenter and TEDx speaker coach. She is also a mentor at the University of Iowa Venture School.

More information is also available on www.pragmadik.com and www.thecustomermission.com.