Are you in an organization where everything seems to be changing daily?

A common lament I hear from the leaders I work with is that the rate of change they experience in the organizations they work in is disruptive to their ability to achieve maximum performance.

Here’s the change drill they experience: Initiatives tied to a strategic direction are launched and they reorganize, scramble, and regroup to mobilize to align to them. Before they have time to take root, new initiatives are started to replace them and the very ones started that were so important and essential to the strategy are suddenly abandoned. The sweat and tears it took to make the first ones launch seem to have been in vain, so change fatigue and cynicism sink in.

Sound familiar?

A poignant discussion of this condition came up a few weeks ago. I was conducting a class in a leadership program for a group of government leaders. One of the books discussed in the class is Robert Quinn’s classic book, “Deep Change”. Quinn talks about how deep change in organizations happens when individuals make deep changes on themselves and their own behaviors. The concepts profoundly resonated with the group, as they confessed to experiencing the feeling of being powerless victims of meaningless, seemingly reactive changes that have no long-term, lasting impact. That’s when someone in the class proposed a thought that resonated with the entire class.

“We need a book on how to survive shallow change…”

The class laughed but the concept stuck. How often do we as leaders implement change for the wrong reasons? While change is a constant in our world and in our everyday lives, we also need to monitor the reason why we are changing something, and then actually stick with our change long enough for it to manifest, unless real external circumstances disrupt that plan.

Sometimes, as leaders, we are the actual instigators of “shallow change”—change that has no real impact but serves to scratch an organizational itch or serve a personal agenda.

Ask yourself — Is the change you are initiating one that will have a lasting effect and impact on the organization, or is it a reactive and temporary attempt to survive and fulfill your own personal goals and agenda?

Here are three ways leaders in organizations initiate shallow change that produces little real impact and causes more disruption than necessary:

1. Change to prove yourself and make a personal mark as a leader
It happens everywhere. You’re a new leader coming into the organization with a change agenda. Everything the previous administration did is deemed flawed, and you are here to save the day. You want to prove how capable you are and how good you are at driving change. So you create everything over again, even if you recreate the exact same thing with a different name. You don’t ask questions to understand the past, or preserve things that are working. You are merely rewarded for making changes. The changes you make will fulfill your personal agenda of being seen as a change agent and getting your next promotion. Until the next leader comes in after you to do the same thing.

2. Launching an initiative to fulfill your annual performance goal
Sometimes annual performance goals drive our shallow change march. You are under the gun to deliver a particular result for the year. Why not launch an initiative to address it? It gets your goal met for the year, and you can show some sort of results to prove your performance. A well-intentioned director I once knew received a report that customer service needed to be improved in his organization. As a result, he implemented customer service training for everyone in his organization that year. Check. When I asked him if he had dug into the cause of the negative report, he became defensive. “We implemented a customer service training initiative to change behavior”, was his reactive answer. Needless to say, nothing changed.

3. Failure to take an integrated approach
Since most of us are responsible for a compartmentalized part of a larger organization, it is easy to operate within our own silo without taking into account the larger system when driving a change. So we break things up into small pieces and launch disconnected initiatives to produce change in the whole system. The problem with this approach is that all the pieces influence each other, so without collaborating with the other parts of the system that interact with the change, the changes are disjointed and not integrated. Despite our best of intentions, they are shallow and don’t last.

Driving deep change is not a reactive endeavor. It is actually quite intentional, systemic, and deliberate. It requires a commitment to a larger agenda than our own personal agenda. More than anything, it requires deep personal change by the agent of change.

Most of all, it requires a risk.
It requires the risk of rejecting the safety and comfort zone of driving shallow change.