Conserving Cultural Strength While Embracing Change

In the mid 90's, I accepted a challenge to work with a cross-functional team of 36 angry scientists in a Fortune 100 company. The Executive Vice President was concerned: composed of high-status employees with excellent track records, the team was actively rebelling against the new CEO's directives. Their project - both mission-critical and high risk - was to invent a new type of cancer drug.

Viewed as "The best scientists money could buy," they were part of a much larger group that was furious at what they believed was excessive focus on productivity - putting the quality of their science at risk. That commitment to the quality of their science turned out to be the first key.

At first, they viewed me as a representative of the "Yankee Greed" which was driving new management to demand a richer pipeline of drug candidates. I listened carefully as they hissed, "We've got double digit profitability - what more do you want!"; "Even Wall St. says we're set for 10 years - what the %@*! is your problem?"; "Who do you think discovered those drugs? We did!"

Like the engineers in Mobilizing A Workforce, they experienced the CEO's imperative as a blow to their professional pride. I knew that by harnessing that pride, I could get them to show me the opening to the change we sought.

I invited them to work with me for one day to find a new approach to an efficacious cancer intervention. They were just shy of contempt in their response, and I quickly agreed that I knew nothing about cancer, nor could I so much as spell the names of the disciplines in which they earned their PhDs and post-docs. But, I claimed, "I do know a little something about inquiry."

My invitation to play with "the linguistic structure of inquiry" provoked their curiosity. I was able to spark neuro-plasticity with a question spoken in their language and using their currency: being smart. They stopped hissing. (I didn't know it at the time, but Neuroscientists have since established that kind of curiosity gets dopamine flowing in the brain.)

I made it clear that any of them could leave at that moment with no negative consequences; I didn't know their names, and wasn't about to report who was present. The believed me; they stayed.

During a guided process, they came to realize that they had been measuring success like academic institutions do: by how long they could get project funding, and how much they could get. They suddenly saw that this practice resulted in their holding on to projects as long as they could - rather than quickly discarding the ones that were not going to yield new drugs. That practice was slowing them down, without making their science any better. In that moment, they saw a new way to succeed. They decided to measure how quickly they could eliminate projects: the second key.

That new measure drove the desired cultural change, while conserving the strength of the culture they called, ‘the best science money can buy.” It fascinated them. It allowed them to be even smarter at a game they wanted to play. They increased their productivity and their professional pride, and the fear of compromise vanished.

In that moment, the cultural change became actionable by feeling right to the people involved. Buzz flashed through the R&D campus, and quickly leapt to other campuses.

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