Leading Change and the Refraction Layer

My father used to help people who set off explosions on the surface of the Earth. No, this was not for blowing things up. It is what is called “non-destructive testing” in hunting for oil. With the right kinds of sensors on the Earth’s surface and some sophisticated math, you can develop a image of the Earth’s interior many thousands of meters deep by interpreting the feedback of compression waves from the explosion.

Imaging the Earth using compression waves is complex in part because of refraction layers. What’s a refraction layer? A layer whose substance is distinct from the layer above it. Refraction layers change waves. The more distinct the substance of the refraction layer, the more dramatic the effect on the wave. A refraction layer may deflect a wave into oblivion partially or completely, change its direction and speed as it continues downward, or otherwise cause it to dissipate entirely.

Organizations have refraction layers too. Like setting off an explosion at the Earth’s surface, leading change from above propagates waves downward through management layers. The greater the difference in thinking, behavior and values from one layer of managers to the next, the greater the impact on the change effort as it propagates. A refraction layer in an organization can deflect a change effort partially or completely, sending it off into oblivion, or it can dramatically alter the its direction and speed. Sometimes, a refraction layer can cause a change effort to dissipate entirely.

One of the most common mistakes I see in change efforts in companies is the attempt to bypass a refraction layer. For example, a global ship services company in attempting to change the way its Japanese sales organization sells was reluctant to hold senior sales managers accountable for the changes.

“They have strong personal relationships with big clients,” an Asia-based senior director explained. “They have always sold in a specific way and it has worked for them, and they don’t want to change. I don’t want push those managers too hard, because I don’t want to jeopardize the sales they bring in even though this change what we need for future growth in the current business environment. So, we have focused our efforts on the more junior staff.”

However, the junior staff take their cues from the senior sales staff on how to sell and how to behave. In the end, none of the changes promoted by the leadership were adopted by junior staff, and the company continues to lose market share to competitors.

A Japanese client company of mine had a refraction layer in the heads of its several sales divisions. Most were resistant to the change promoted by the leadership. Previous attempts to bypass the division heads and focus only on changing the behavior of sales staff had failed. Desperate for change, the company’s leadership overcame its reluctance to deal with the division head layer. Some division heads were replaced and others were given support in handling the change. None were ignored. As a result, the behavior of sales staff changed and performance jumped.

Many Japanese companies inadvertently create refraction layers through systems of seniority-based promotion, whether formal or tacit. People who enter a company as graduates tend to move up through the ranks together over the years forming distinct layers, like layers of sedimentary rock in the Earth. Yet unlike the interior of the Earth, refraction layers in organizations are are not, well, set in stone. Managers can be changed, and they can be changed out. However, refraction layers whether imaging the interior of the Earth or propagating change through an organization cannot be bypassed or ignored.