Organizational Change Using Authentic Attributes

by cv harquail on December 14, 2009

My friend Charles just took a new job ‘making rain’ for a creative services agency. The agency is well-known in its industry for producing top-quality product, but its business isn’t growing.

Why has their business stopped growing? Charles thinks that the problem with the agency is that it is “Too German”.

What does it mean to be “Too” German?

The agency delivers on all the attributes that you might think of from a firm that’s, well, German. Things are produced on time, within budget, with truly sophisticated design elements and dazzling production values. Clients love this about the agency.

200912141040.jpgBut somehow, this isn’t enough to attract more clients.

I asked Charles to tell me what he thinks needs to be changed.

The way that Charles describes it, by the time a client gets to the point in the creative process where they use his firm’s services, everyone is really tired. The excitement of ‘ideation’, the thrill of creation, and the adrenaline of execution have all been enjoyed, and now clients (and the product) are down to the final mile, the finishing touches, the coming together before the release to the market.

And, Charles believes that these tired clients don’t want to come to a polished, minimal, high-design place (even though this is what produces the outstanding results). No, he says:

“Clients want to come home. They want to put their bags down. They want to do their laundry (figuratively speaking). They want to be comforted.”

“So, I’ll telling them they need to be less German, more American. Don’t you agree?”

I don’t think it really works to tell  organizations that they are “too much” of whatever they are, and then ask them to change. Especially if you’re asking them to be somehow “less” of who they are.

Better, I think, to ask organizations what other attributes are part of their identity. Then, ask them how they might express these attributes in a new way to meet clients’ needs.

200912141048.jpgFor example, what does it mean to “be welcoming” and “feel like home” in a German way? Is there a way to meet clients need to feel at home, and relaxed and confident that the work will get done, in a way that draws out the organization’s authentic German identity?

Think about it this way– both of the photos here illustrate German dining areas, where the physical environment reflects the social environment. The first photo is of the lunchroom at the Bauhaus. This room was explicitly designed to be kind of uncomfortable, to reduce the amount of time that students and teachers would spend there. Contrast this with the second photo, of a German restaurant, a much homier, relaxed place. There must be ways to make clients feel at home that are also “German”, no?

I’m betting that Charles’ new colleagues would rather think about who they already are and how they can be more themselves.

Organizations who need to change, to adapt, to grow, do better by drawing on and drawing out their identity. It’s a more authentic strategy for change.

Do you agree?

Bauhaus Dessau Kantine by 96dpi on Flickr


Christa M. Miller December 14, 2009 at 1:43 pm

Hmmm, in an ideal world I would agree, but I also argue that it is too easy for many organizations to keep making excuses for the way they are.

I know of one European company entering the American market, which neither understands nor wants to understand its customers here. It wants to *sell* to them, but not build relationships; it wants to continue to do business the way that “worked” before. (I suspect it only worked before because when they first came on the scene in 2003, money flowed freely.)

Granted, this is a different problem from the one you talk about… to an extent. The excuse I frequently hear is, “They’re from [Europe], they do business a little differently over there.” So if its employees told it 1) to build relationships and 2) to do this the same way they do in their country… I’m not sure it wouldn’t backfire, at least within that particular company culture!
.-= Christa M. Miller´s last blog ..A starting point for professional officer development: LinkedIn =-.

cv December 15, 2009 at 11:16 pm

Hey Christa-

You’re right — it’s a fine line between making the excuse “this is how we are” and asking the question “how can we do this in a way that is authentic given who we are?”. The first statement is an excuse; the second statement is a challenge.
There are far too many organizations ready to use ‘who they are’ as an excuse, and not as a jumping off point for insights.

Probably a more complete way to phrase the agency’s specific challenge is — how can we create something that feels welcoming and homey to Americans, while being our German selves?

Along with my academic colleagues Kevin Corley and Spencer Harrison, we think about authenticity as being about the question “What does it mean to be (who we are) in this situation?” to ask organization members to look for new ways of being (ones that fit the situation) that are linked to a deeper identity (the values that define us).

This is not really an issue of national identity or culture, though it was framed that way initially b/c that framing made sense to Charles, fwiw.

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