If you are trying to change an organization’s culture, you cannot ignore the transformation of the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong.
And while Chairman Mao and his successors’ philosophy, approach, and policies are abhorrent in so many ways, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) brought China into the modern world. How they did it offers lessons in change management that can be applied in more benign environments.
Involve Top Leadership. Every Chinese leader has been an active front man and spokesperson for change. Routine and regular appearances to underscore the effort and tout the party line are key expectations of top leaders.
Create a Party Line. The CCP plans their work and works their plan. They articulate a clear, concise policy line and demand active adherence. The existence of a clear point of view and clearly articulated short- and long-term goals direct and orient the organization.
Use Simple Slogans Frequently. While the CCP will never win any creative awards, they understood early on that communicating big concepts required shorthand that is universally and instantly understood and frequently repeated. Short, punchy slogans bombarded the masses until they were unavoidable, unforgettable, and firmly drilled into everyone’s consciousness.
Influence Every Unit. By identifying early adopters and designating change leaders at each level of society, the CCP mobilized and motivated millions of “change agents” to accomplish their mission. Every house, block, factory, military unit, and sector of society had party members and trained cadres tasked with instigating and sustaining change. Change requires worker bees at every important level of the organization.
Model Behavior. People need to understand what is expected of them. By calling out model citizens, model work brigades, and model collective farms, the CCP held up the desired behavior and then dissected and disseminated the operative elements of the behavior they sought to encourage. By showing the end result, often entirely fabricated, they drove behavioral change by showing the path forward, step-by-step, focusing on the desired end result.
Celebrate Every Victory. The corollary to modeling behavior is celebrating every win. In the case of the CCP many were entirely bogus. Nonetheless, they understood that change is an incremental process where success builds upon itself. Small victories can be compounded, packaged, and merchandized to yield increasingly bigger victories. They also understood the need for people to join a winning team and the attractiveness of perceived momentum as a recruiting and validating device.
Marshall Peer Pressure. People do what others are doing and often comply with widely held expectations. We live in monkey-see; monkey-do cultures. The CCP used every form of peer pressure and coercion to attain conformity. Their methods, while odious and brutal, built a culture where the community reinforced and policed its own behavior. This was further reinforced by the use of content and tangible experiences, music, operas, and common symbols (e.g., The Little Red Book, Mao pins) to consistently reinforce the message. Accepting and implementing change is a viral process that builds on itself until it reaches critical mass.
Focus on Self-Interest. The CCP aggressively used the “performance review process” backed by secret police and Gestapo tactics to help people act in their own best interests. Baking expected behavior into key performance indicators affecting compensation and into personal objectives yields uptake and traction.
Provide a Feedback Loop. Genuine attitudinal change is incremental and evolutionary. By creating ways to solicit ideas and participation and express dissent or frustration, the party kept the effort on track, adapted the plan to changing circumstances, accounted for anomalies, and absorbed the best ideas for moving forward, often over the dead bodies of dissenters.
Historians will debate the legacy of Chairman Mao forever; arguably, he was the greatest cynical tyrant and mass murderer of all time. But the average Chinese citizen today enjoys a quality of life unimaginable just 70 years ago. Within this massive sustained transformation, with all its flaws, evil, and inconsistencies are lessons in change management worthy of observing and extracting.
Danny Flamberg, EVP Managing Director of Digital Strategy and CRM at Publicis based in New York, has been building brands and building businesses for more than 30 years.Prior to joining Publicis, he led a successful global consulting group called Booster Rocket, as Managing Partner. Before becoming a consultant, he was Vice President of Global Marketing at SAP, SVP and Managing Director at Digitas in New York and Europe and President of Relationship Marketing at Amiratti Puris Lintas and Lowe Worldwide.