Why dialog is the secret sauce in change recipes

Dialog takes time. It’s tough. But it leads to deep, lasting culture change.


There are only three ways to implement changes: Push, Pull, or a mix of both.


Push is the use of force and persuasion tactics. Change comes through compliance by employees.


Pull uses visioning, co-operation and listening. Change comes through commitment by employees.


Old-school tools

Famously, 70% of change initiatives fail in the long-term. And it’s easy to understand the reasons for failure when we look at the 10 most-used change tools:

  • corporate change logs
  • communication plans,
  • status reports,
  • steering committees,
  • Board meeting updates,
  • weekly videos messages,
  • executive blogs,
  • change implementation microsites,
  • email updates, and
  • general reports.


These ten tools dominate old-school thinking on change management. Even today, many consultants and executives still depend on these tools – although they know it leads to a high failure rate!


The tools above are nearly all “push”. The thinking is, “We know what to do. Your compliance is needed.” This is like telling the alcoholic or the indebted gambler “You need to change. We know you need to end your addiction. Stop drinking/gambling.” Well, that advice is guaranteed not to work. A addict rarely quits just because to doctor tells him too. The doctor has to help the addict create commitment to quit.


Push is a monolog. It fits cultures where top-down hierarchy is strong (think of the army). It’s one-way, directive communication. Because it relies on compliance the effects on change are short-lived. It’s great for short-term change. (Short-term, co-incidentally, is the same time old-school consultants and restless executives stay at your company.)



What does work?

What is a proven way to implement change in the long-term?

Pull, together with the minimum amount of Push needed to achieve compliance, is the best mix for developing strong commitment and attitude change. The 30% of change initiatives that succeed have exactly this mix.


This is no different to how we changed as kids. We all had at least one subject at school we didn’t like but needed to pass, e.g. maths, science, or history. What got us through? A good teacher or parent who took the time to:

  • understand and listen our problem (Pull tactic),
  • personalize a plan to improve our scores (Pull tactic), and
  • make us sit down at the table and do our homework (Push tactic).



Dialog and what blocks it

Dialog is what is needed for long-lasting change. It’s the secret sauce in any change recipe.


So why do executives and managers avoid meaningful dialogs? Because it takes time and it is tough work.


Banging on the desk, demanding change, is not going to work. On his own the CEO cannot change anything. There are too many people at all levels, who could manipulate and corrupt the change to serve their own interests first (at the expense of the company’s needs).


Those of us leading change have to take the time to mobilise the majority of the managers and employees and keep them mobilised through exchanges and dialogs, by listening to their challenges and supporting them to find tactical solutions (joint-problem solving). This is what builds commitment and change capability.


This is tough work. It’s hard to hear that people don’t understand your cherished vision, your ideas, your plans that you’ve spent long hours working on. It’s hard not to be frustrated by managers and employees. It’s hard to listen to what might be unjustified criticisms. But listen we must. These dialogs are not called “crucial conversations” and “difficult discussions” for nothing.


The good news… compared to a decade ago, I find more and more executives know that they need a mix of Pull and Push because where they need my help is how to enter into meaningful dialogs and still be efficient with their time. In that sense, the leading companies and CEOs have already taken a big step forward over the last ten years. But it’s obvious from the failure rates that many more still need to get better at meaningful dialogs.


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