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Freezing Change Starts at the Top

Oct. 3, 2013
Like water molecules, ideas about change (and changes, themselves) crystallize from the top down, from CEO to management to cubicle or shop floor.

Ever thought about why an ice cube floats? Or, for that matter, an iceberg? Why does a pond freeze from the top down, rather than the bottom up, as it would if it were filled with almost any other liquid? And what does any of this have to do with change management?

We'll get to that, I promise. But first a little Mr. Wizard stuff:

Liquids, water included, decrease in volume as they cool. Their molecules, robbed of the energy they need to bounce around like kids in a mosh pit, begin to slow and contract, packing tighter and tighter together. In most liquids, this contraction continues until the molecules undergo a state change and freeze in place.

But water is something of a contrarian. At about 39° F, the bonds connecting hydrogen and oxygen in water begin to relax, causing the molecules to move apart. When the temperature hits the magic 32° F, water molecules really stretch their legs, taking up even more space. As a result, ice cubes (and icebergs) are less dense than the water surrounding them. In a pond, ice crystals rise as they form, making for ponds that freeze from the top down, great for skating on and appreciated by all the little fish and turtles and other life forms that avoid becoming fish-cicles and turtle-cicles and other sorts of -cicles.

Crystallizing Change from the Top Down

How does this relate to change management? It has to do with crystallization. Not of molecules, but of ideas, specifically ideas about how beneficial change is, how possible it is, and how committed to bringing it about one is. Like water molecules, ideas about change (and changes, themselves) crystallize from the top down, from CEO to management to cubicle or shop floor.

If water didn't freeze this way, life as we know it wouldn't be possible. If beliefs about change don't crystallize from the top to the bottom, change itself is unlikely. Maybe impossible.

Of course, we're talking about sponsorship, championing change. But were also talking about ownership, making change your personal business. We're talking about managers who own change because their CEOs own it. We're talking about employees who own change because those to whom they report own it. And those above them. Top to bottom, just like freezing water.

If you want to change, and if you want that change to stick, you have to first get solid at the top and only then work your way down. Active and visible sponsorship throughout the change process and at all levels is critical, as is ensuring that your sponsors are credible and capable. And when you do it right, in the right order, with the right people on board, that sponsorship can become ownership, the kind of ownership that dissolves even the most calcified resistance and solidifies organizational change for the long haul.

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