‘Organizations Don’t Change. People Do.’

The behavioral change management expert on three challenges that leaders who are serious about change must grapple with. He will facilitate a session April 16 at PCMA APAC’s The Business of Events conference at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

man with fucsia mohawk in blue suit coat

Dominic Thurbon will facilitate a session called “Connecting the Dots,” on April 16 at PCMA APAC’s The Business of Events conference at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.

Dominic Thurbon, a partner at the consulting firm Ernst & Young Australia, where he works in climate change and sustainability services, is in the business, he told Convene, “of helping people ‘do’ change in the face of disruption and uncertainty.” An entrepreneur who has founded two companies and created behavioral change programs for clients around the world, including Apple and IBM, Thurbon has also led the research for Peter Sheahan’s book, Flip: How Counterintuitive Thinking is Changing Everything, and many other books on innovation and change.

What ties all his work together, Thurbon said, is “a deep belief that organizations don’t change, people do.” Thurbon will facilitate a session called “Connecting the Dots,” on April 16 at PCMA APAC’s The Business of Events conference at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.

Convene caught up with Thurbon, who is based in Sydney, over email to ask him about his upcoming participation in the conference and his thoughts about leadership and organizational change.

You’re an expert on behavioral change. What are some of the key behavioral changes that you think leaders and organizations should be making? 

I’d say there are a few “home truths” about behavior change that we need to grapple with if we want to be effective. And I think leaders need to grapple with three things if they want to become effective at doing change, and also making change:

  1. We won’t go professionally where we don’t first go personally. Change is a fundamentally human act. Even though we’ve learned to speak a language of “organizational change and transformation” — which makes it sound like it’s the organization or “systems” that are doing the change — it’s really the people that are doing the changing. If we treat people like robots or act like they’re just cogs in a machine, we’re unlikely to see results. We have to embrace the chaotic messiness of real people and understand that companies don’t change, people do.
  2. If we can’t tell the truth we’re going to find it hard to accomplish anything sustainably. We need to cling to a capacity to tell the truth like it’s the most valuable thing in the world. Telling the truth can be hard, it can seem risky and uncomfortable, and it is almost always going to threaten or annoy someone — but it is absolutely vital to building organizations that last, strategies that succeed, and businesses that win. If leaders want to be effective and make change happen, we need to cut the jargon, get behind the buzzwords, see beyond the spin (including our own spin), and tell the truth.
  3. Where there is ego, there is excess. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in rooms with senior executives where we go around the room to do intros and everyone’s introduction starts with, “I’ve got x years’ experience doing my job.” Don’t get me wrong — experience is great! Experience is the sum total of everything in your past that makes you who you are today. But there’s an extremely fine line between experience and baggage. The only way we know the difference between our experience and our baggage is to let go of ego and tell the truth about whether our experiences are serving us well or serving us poorly. If we can’t do that, we are going to be anchored too heavily to the status quo even when that status quo no longer serves. And that’s where change so often fails.

You’re a very successful and influential speaker. Why are you embracing the role of facilitator at the Business of Events conference, where your session will be collaborative and focused on dialogue between participants?

I really love all forms of speaking and working with people — presenting, facilitating, keynoting, lecturing, teaching, coaching. But I am particularly passionate about facilitation, because it’s the format where I think the most change happens. I think too often people assume that because someone is on the stage presenting that they’re somehow smarter than everyone else or are the only person in the room worth listening to. Nothing could be further than the truth. Once you have the realization that every person in the room is bringing something unique, valuable, insightful, relevant, and important, and that those things have value for everyone, then sharing the mic really becomes the obvious, unavoidable choice. In a context like the Business of Events conference, that is even more true and important. This is going to be a room full of experts in the industry grappling with a shared set of challenges — with loads to say and loads to share.

What are the top two or three ideas or insights that you hope that conference participants will leave with? 

I have just one thing I hope people take from the event, not just from my session but from the whole event, and that is that there is no change without behavior change. The most common place for people to wind up after an event is actually back where they started. The energy fades, the buzz subsides, people get back to work and get back to being very busy and much of the impetus is lost.

Leaving [an event] with a notebook full of insights, a head full of ideas, and a heart full of hope are actually not the desired outcomes — they’re steps towards the desired outcome, which is actually making changes in your business and your life that leave you better than when you arrived. So people need to be on the lookout over the whole event for the answer to the question: What am I actually doing to do differently afterwards?

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

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