How to Transform your Organization - the Tempered Radical

By Amitabh Mishra, Senior Director of IT and Regional CIO, GE Aviation

Transformation is in the air. If you run a search on job titles on Linked In, you will notice a prominent recurrence of titles that contain the word ‘transformation’ or the phrase ‘business transformation.’ In essence, here is what the word means: to rock the boat - in your case, the corporate boat. However, if you rock the boat, isn’t it possible that you will fall out?

There is also another important question to consider. If you push your agenda of transformation too hard, it is likely that powerful enemies will marshal resentment against you, sabotaging your agenda. On the other hand, if you do not pursue your agenda, you will not succeed in meeting your objectives. And indeed, a wall of resentment may build up inside you.

"Become a tempered radical - an informal leader who quietly challenges prevailing wisdom and provokes cultural transformation"

Consider a brilliant approach first espoused by Meyerson: become a tempered radical (‘Radical Change - the Quiet Way’, Debra Meyerson, Harvard Business Review, Oct. 2001). Here’s the idea, in her own words: “Become a tempered radical - an informal leader who quietly challenges prevailing wisdom and provokes cultural transformation. These radicals bear no banners and sound no trumpets. Their seemingly innocuous changes barely inspire notice. But like steady drops of water, they gradually erode granite.”

The basic idea is to avoid direct, angry confrontations. Instead, be gentle - but assertive - in your approach. Listen. Challenge status quo, but gently. Stir up conversations. Let others see the wisdom of your suggestions, and drive those ideas on their own - as if those were their own ideas.

Here is a contrast between the approaches of what I would call a ‘Orthodox Radical’ and Meyerson’s ‘Tempered Radical’: Here is an example of how you can put this idea into practice. Let’s suppose you are moving into a leadership role at an organization where the culture is pretty closed (non-transparent). Leaders sit in closed offices and team members feel apprehensive about dropping in without prior appointment. Another cultural transformation you wish to trigger is the technology delivery mechanism, which is currently the waterfall technique. You wish to introduce agile development methodologies. Finally, you wish to change the culture of late night conference calls by encouraging employees to stick to normal working hours.

If you wish to transform the culture at this organization, here is how you would approach the task, depending on the kind of radical you are: Tempered radicals manage to assert themselves and push their agendas, making a difference in small, incremental steps. They are steady. They set examples that others can follow. Although the individual steps are subtle, and do not involve confrontations, the changes they cause in the organization are massive.

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