by Joseph Flahiff

How CIOs can be champions of culture change

Sep 14, 2015
CIOIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Why most organizations fail at culture change and what you can do about it

How are decisions made in your company? If it is anything like most organizations leaders make the decisions and everybody else executes what they decide. Isn’t it true? If your organization is going to be nimble you need a different approach. 

Today this, directive, approach has questionable utility. Among other things it has a significant decision making bottleneck in the leader. Today; markets, customer demands, technology and your competitors are changing and changing quickly. If your organization cannot keep up with even one of these sources of change, your business is not going to last long. Someone else is going to come along and eat your lunch. 

A better model is distributed decision making. In distributed decision making, leaders understand that the best decisions are made by the people who have the most information. These leaders relinquish their right exercise positional authority over people and they give the decision making over to the people that they support in order that the organization as a whole can make better decisions, faster.  They have two jobs, first to communicate the purpose and principles of the organization. Second is to be the supporter, removing obstacles, giving authority and creating leaders at all levels of the organization.

When I start working with clients this model approach comes as a shock-to-the-system. It is as different from typical leadership roles as a backward bike. If you have not seen this video yet before you read any further watch it.

In the video Destin is given a bike with handlebars that work the opposite of normal handlebars. What is remarkable is how difficult it is for him to learn to ride this bike.  It seems as though it would be easy. We all know how to ride a bike. We know that the handlebars for this one are backwards. That means if you want to turn right you turn the handles left. Simple, right? Wrong…It took eight months for Destin to learn how to ride the backward bike.  What in the world? Why would it take eight months? Is he some kind of moron? Did he even try?

From his own telling of the story he wanted to learn, he was determined so he dedicated himself to practicing every single day. And yet it took him eight months.  The neuro-pathways were so established in his head over years of bike riding.  It took him eight months to change those paths. Pathways that were set when he was six. They were reinforced over years, not riding all the time but probably a couple times a year. At one point it all clicked. Eight months of practice, fail, practice, fail, practice, fail. Then all of a sudden it clicked and he was riding.  He had relearned how to ride.

You and I have neuro-pathways too, so does every person who works in your organization. Some of these pathways like, the role of authority, have been established and reinforced for a very long time. Those ruts are ponderously deep and getting out of them is not easy. 

Once they get the idea people want to learn how do be supportive leaders. So, they read a book or attend a class, thinking that will do it. If they read it, if they study it, maybe if they go to that three day workshop, then they will get it. But sorry, like riding a backward bike, Knowledge ≠ Understanding. It takes a long time to make it from knowledge to action.

Sure, go to the class, read the books but don’t think that doing that is going to change you in an instant. Change takes discipline. You will need to work at it. These neuro-pathways have been established over years. I often work with clients for months to help them change their habits. They start to get it and then something distracts them, like when Destin’s cell phone rang and he forgot how to ride the bike.  You will do the same thing. There will be an emergency at work and you will slip right back into the old pattern. 

Falling off the bike is not bad and no one should feel negatively. This stuff takes a while to learn. It just takes time. You are trying to change a long term well-established neuropathway. I believe it is more established than how to ride a bike.  You need to get back on that bike and keep trying. Discipline is not doing it right every time. Discipline is getting back up after you fall off for the umpteenth time. Fall 100 times and get up 101. That is how you will learn.


How does your organization make decisions? Do you have centralized, slow, decision making? Or do you entrust the people with the information on the front lines of your organization to make the decisions.


Try it. Start today, by trying an experiment. In some small way, give authority and freedom to your team. For example: give purchasing authorization for new computer hardware to the individuals who need it. If you do, you also need to give them the information about the rest of the budget and how their purchase will impact the organization.  With the authority and the right information, they will likely make as good of or better decisions than you or your managers.


Start a conversation with your executive team about what it would take to give more freedom to choose to your team members. Discuss what other experiments can you try to give to your team members, and what information do they need from you to make those decisions?