Creating A Better Future By Honouring The Past

One of the things we are good at in Ireland is funerals. Whether a death is ‘a blessed relief’ or desperately sad and unexpected, we bury people well. Funerals are held within a few days of death. The deceased will be ‘waked’, on view in their Sunday best, with visitors bringing food, washing up and offering support. Tea will be drunk, and stories will be told. The funeral service will be personal and meaningful. We are good at giving people a decent send-off.

And a decent send-off helps those left behind to move on. Organisationally, this is important when we need people to embrace new ways, new structures, new colleagues. Resistance to change is a clear sign that people have not been able to let go of the past. Not because it was better – they are remaining loyal because it hasn’t been given a decent send-off. So, we get silent resentment, “that won’t work” and mutterings about “the geniuses in management”.

What does a decent organisational send-off look like? Well, it doesn’t look like banning the name of the newly acquired company or pretending it never existed. It doesn’t look like an overnight make-over with all traces of the old gone forever. It doesn’t look like decks of slides pointing out the errors of previous ways and the logic of the new. All of that just causes attachment to the past.

Kotter estimates that up to 70% of change initiatives don’t achieve their objectives. That’s a scary prospect for leaders and, faced with resistance, many go into overdrive: “Look at the bright shiny new world we are trying to create. Get on board for heaven’s sake”. Split loyalties are viewed as resistance when what’s needed is to honour the past.

So, what constitutes a decent organisational send-off? Early involvement in the process so that the goals belong to everyone, trust that stakeholders fundamentally want what’s best for the organisation, attention to timing and pace (don’t try to rush it), tons of authentic communication (including listening), a generous send-off for all the stakeholders who are not being taken forward, and acceptance that getting on board with the new world may take time.

And by honouring the past, we liberate the energy that allows people to move into the future.

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