How to Create New Energy for Change
“I say it has to be done rapidly and it has to be bold!” Those words reverberated through me like a bolt of lightning when I heard them spoken to me by Marilyn Jacobson, author of Turning the Pyramid Upside Down.
I immediately felt the energy and power of the words. They were spoken by a remarkable woman whom I interviewed for my interview series on leading strategies for change and improvement at 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success.
Marilyn shares many personal stories of how she has personally influenced many of today’s most forward-looking companies to turn the pyramid upside down to gain and secure competitive advantage in a global marketplace. The stories are fascinating and riveting. Marilyn states the challenge and the opportunity in the introduction boldly:
Leaders must partner and collaborate with their employees to respond to escalating complexities and inspire new thinking and discovery of fresh ideas.
I’ve written about the dismal track record of most change efforts in other posts at Lead Change Group and at 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success. Marilyn addresses this challenge head on. She believes that “most change efforts sponsored at the top fail because the organization has become preoccupied with incremental improvement, there is uncertainty that the effort will stay the course, or the organization is already running at full capacity.”
Although turning the pyramid upside down may be seen as too radical by many leaders, she believes we are now at a real impasse and bold leadership is required and the clear choice to make. She states in the book:
To be competitive in the new global economy, the magnitude of leadership change necessary defies any possibility that it be incremental.
I highly recommend Marilyn’s book for reading by all leaders. The stories of how she influenced one leader at a time to instigate bold change are truly inspiring.
Marilyn Jacobson (1936-2020)
Marilyn Jacobson passed away in March 2020. She was a management consultant and executive coach who helped senior leaders build highly engaged and motivated workforces.
Her book, Turning the Pyramid Upside Down, makes the case and shows the way for flatter organizations to be more competitive, productive and profitable.
Interviews with CEOs and other senior leaders from a cross-section of organizations, including retail, healthcare, legal, manufacturing, private equity, university, and financial organizations tell their stories.
Editor’s note: This interview was initially published in 2013 for 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success.
Bill: Today I’m speaking with Dr. Marilyn Jacobson, author of Turning the Pyramid Upside Down. Marilyn is an executive coach with deep expertise and experience helping organizations create highly engaged and motivated workforces. Her message resonates and expands many of the common themes on my work at 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success.
Bill: I’m really looking forward to getting started and asking my opening questions, Marilyn, “What is your best process improvement strategy or tactic that has worked well for you or your clients?”
Marilyn: That is a very interesting question. I think that, as an executive coach, my strategy has been to focus on one person at a time. Then there is usually a development plan that is created, which usually then takes different formats.
The great part about being an executive coach was that I would work with the entire leadership group at the top of the organization. The result of working with each individual person was that it was not just the CEOs saying “This is what we’re going to do now. Get ready!”, but now they had highlighted the silos, which enabled me to discover synergies and create a lot of cross-functional teams.
One of my clients was so siloed; it was just incredible that a financial person was isolated in his own department. It took them a while to get to the point before finance was invited into other departments. They finally understood that the financial department needs to be included. Then partnerships developed all over the organization, not just in product development but also in the factory.
The factory was always given the product and told to make it, but now they were involved at the beginning. Once the product was presented, they would suggest ideas like a different color for the product, which is really something that no one had thought of before because no one had ever asked them. The same thing happened with IT. They all started to lead and consult with each other.
Bill: Do you think coaching is an essential requirement to bring about transformation in most companies?
Marilyn: Yes, it really does make a huge difference. I wrote an article about how culture can change if it starts at the top. Especially if there is a person from the leadership team that can truly track the changes to see how important they are to the organization.
I think at various times in my career I thought of: “Who can really make a difference?” As a teacher, I thought, well, students, administrators, but really, as an executive coach, after years of organizational development consulting, I have found that when you reach the top people, it makes a difference ⏤ if they buy-in.
Bill: It seems that quite often most change or improvement initiatives are championed by one senior executive but more often than not it’s not supported by the entire leadership team. I can see how your strategy could make a big difference.
You talk a lot about self–leadership in your book. What is your definition of self-leadership and what role does it play in an inverted pyramid organization?
Marilyn: Self-leadership is something that happens the most in organizations where the environment is collaborative and where employees are encouraged to continuously improve. Not only with respect to their personal performance, but whatever they can learn about the industry, the economy, the competition, and the world.
In a sense, when the opportunity arises, they then emerge. Leaders started to emerge where before there were none or where leadership had no reason to think that they would. That changed them. The important relationships developed through a matrix structure. The matrix then put them into teams, and in teams, they functioned as leaders. That was very exciting to watch.
Bill: Can you talk more about self-leadership?
Marilyn: Once the leadership in an organization started saying to me: “We want thought leaders.” But what was happening is that they were not giving them anything to think about. In some organizations, there is a lot of hoarding of information. Where there is a lot of withholding, there is a belief that if we share too much information the competition will get it.
Self-leadership is there in many organizations and sometimes it is not until there is a reason. After that, they do emerge and make their contribution, and then they go back to doing what they were doing before, more informed and more likely to speak up in the future. I think that self-leadership is part of a culture where personal development is prized and assisted.
Bill: What challenges do top leaders face who want to invert the pyramid?
Marilyn: There is a natural tendency for those people who are at the top of the current pyramid to be reluctant to give up or to have that the structure change dramatically. It is very hard for them to think about newness completely versus the numbers because their lives have always been about making numbers. They have great reasons personally to make those numbers, so it is not easy. That is why in the book, not any one of them independently would have thought of an inverted pyramid, but collectively you see how if you could put all that together, you would have that ⏤ an inverted pyramid.
There is probably a good reason for people not to buy into it because they have a personal bias, and yet they can intellectually feel value. But they are not likely to do it unless they are challenged into it, usually from the world. Right now, with global competition the way it is, and innovation so prized, it is often not a choice anymore. They have to look at it and they have to make changes.
Marilyn: Regarding what to do in order to promote leaders to embrace the inverted pyramid? People are reticent, and I say it has to be done rapidly and it has to be bold. That is why I have found the Harvard Business Review PowerPoint (on how to implement change), going back to those days with change management where you were supposed to do it sequentially, one thing after another.
I think that when you make the kind of changes that make people feel happy, that makes them feel good. If you change the environment, for example, if you do away with cubicles — can you imagine all the people who have been in cubicles all this time are suddenly released from their little cells? Really do it, do it overtly and say, “It is time for this to happen.” And the physical environment is a very good place to start, as long as it is a starting point because that is going to make people feel better almost immediately and want more.
Bill: That’s very interesting Marilyn because most of the advice we receive talks about slow and incremental change, but I can see your point about rapid and bold change is really needed in order for change to take hold.
I’ll share a little bit of my own story in regarding the impact of self-leadership. When I started publishing the “5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success”, I was still working at a large corporation. All of a sudden I became much more visible publicly and people could not figure out what was what was going on with me. But without me really realizing it at the time, I became the expert on improvement and change. When management wanted to change or reorganize something, I was pulled in. It was almost like if it was creating energy around the whole idea of improvement and change, which really surprised me.
This all led to the path I am on now of exploring if I can impact people by telling my own story to encourage them to develop their own self-leadership and help bring about change. That’s the way it unfolded for me, and now I know anyone can do it especially with a little encouragement and guidance. We all have more energy to bring about change than we think we do.
Marilyn: Yes, I think the key word here is “energy”. First of all, I think people today are working too many hours; one person is basically doing the job of two people. Getting organizations lean has almost gone a little too far.
But I think that when you talk about energy and how it gets unleashed, it feels different and the organization can move much better. People are tired, they are tired because they have ideas and they do not share them, or they used to have ideas that they stopped sharing because they were not listened to.
Bill: I agree, Marilyn. I am much more tuned into it personally and in others.
Marilyn: It sounds like your experience has been similar to mine in terms of when things start to happen and the contribution of each person is valued. People can contribute far more than they think they can.
Bill: Exactly. This whole idea of energy is not something tangible, but it is something you can feel and experience and begin to see if you look for it.
Marilyn: I had an amazing experience in an organization. It had been seriously dormant; it was very sluggish and kind of old-fashioned. Then they brought in a new president, and suddenly, you could see it.
One evening I was there, quite late actually, and people were all in an office and they were having a wonderful experience, you could just feel it in the air. The next morning, when asked, I said: “You should have seen what was going on, you could feel the energy!” And that continued.
Bill: The same things happen to me. In my first dramatic demonstration, which was in January, I gave a presentation to a group of people involved in software process improvement, and part of it was talking about the interviews and what I was learning from them.
The second part was telling my own story. When I told my story, there was a point that brought me to complete stillness and brought the room to complete stillness. At the end of the meeting, when people came up to thank me, I could see that they were changed, they looked different. I mean, it was remarkable, and now this has continued to happen.
Marilyn: Sometimes you walk into a meeting and you see all the people smiling. You can just tell that something good is happening. The reverse of that is that you see people reading their e-mail while the meeting is occurring. Either they are checking their e-mail, or their iPhone or whatever, and there is no dialogue that emerges from that. Dialogue is required. How do you change ideas if you don’t talk to each other? The good questions are not asked.
Bill: Yes. They do not engage at all. When no questions are asked, they close themselves off to greater possibilities.
Marilyn: Yes. And I think that your point about stories, telling your story makes a difference. That is how the book unfolded. It tells ten people’s different stories.
Somewhere there was a wonderful article about how strategy is being developed in some companies by telling stories, by getting people to understand why you think this might be a good strategy. That is based on your story, in what process you have gone through to think that that might be a good pathway. So yes, stories are very powerful these days.
I think that they do change people after you told that kind of story that makes them say in a moment: “Ah, yes. That’s the way it is! That’s what it was for me too.”
Bill: Very interesting. Marilyn, I hadn’t looked at it from that perspective. What is coming up for you in the future? Will you be talking and publishing more articles about your experience?
Marilyn: There are a number of articles now that are coming out. Since I stopped writing the book, I’m now writing even more than before. What I see when there is real engagement is people who are both analyzing the environment in a different way, being very analytical, or getting very attuned to what is out there.
But then what they are able to do is to start to pay attention to how they can position the organization to be more effective in this new environment that we all find ourselves in. That is exciting. And it depends on the contribution and energy that each individual is bringing, the analysis that they can do, and the ways they can make a difference and help them to position the organization.
Bill: That’s interesting because what I think I’ve heard you say in several different ways today is that simply by authentically engaging with each other we create new possibilities and new energy for change.
Marilyn: I think most people do not realize that they have that role, that they have that power of accountability. I think it is coming to that and it is coming quickly.
Bill: Marilyn, thank you so much for sharing your story and your fascinating experiences with us today. I couldn’t put your book down, and I hope our short talk here will encourage people to read your book and learn how we can all begin to contribute our energy to change our organizations.
13 Forward Thinking Insights from Turning the Pyramid Upside Down
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