Ok, this topic is a biggie. This is pretty much the primary reason I decided to do an MBA, although I have always been slightly skeptical because I have never seen ‘change’ done well so management theory can’t be all that great on the topic.
Before reflecting on my learning directly, a couple of side topics need to be covered to set the context.
There are a lot of systems and metrics used to measure, analyse, and direct organisations. One trendy system mentioned in class by someone whose organisation was currently implementing it is ‘Human Synergistics’. I think such systems can be helpful, in that they raise topics for discussion and reflection which may not otherwise be raised. However it was raised in discussion that, as organisations are complex systems, there will always be unintended consequences to introducing a formal program. Using Human Synergistics as an example, it is possible, over time, for managers and staff to learn the language used in the program, and this can lead to a bias towards describing the desired behaviours in the surveys. It’s not a reason not to do it, but people must be aware that a program itself will not change an organisation, and the program itself will alter the system it is introduced into in unpredictable ways.
Just a quick note to remember that complex systems, and systems theory is the underlying thinking for this topic (and all topics as I see the world!). This means that organisations are not newtonian machines - they cannot be reduced to component parts, and there are no simple linear paths from A to B to C. Organisations are complex systems made up of multiple formal and informal feedback loops, unconscious assumptions, and subject to unpredictable dynamics.
“Change is not compulsory. You do not have to survive.” - W. E. Deming
The data on ‘managed’ organisational change is not encouraging. Similar to large IT projects, across the literature there is somewhere between a 70 to 90% failure rate. So if managed change fails so often, why do we continue to do it?
I think one significant reason, is that managers view organisations as newtonian machines, as noted above. This can be seen in the plethora of ‘X Step Programs’ for your organisation to achieve greatness. The assumption is that a linear implementation of systems or step will result in some desired outcome. By applying a big change, you get a big effect - or conversely applying a small change will only yield a small effect. This may hold true when smashing large heavy objects together, but it is generally not the case in organisations. I can think of several instances from my own experience where a ‘small change’ in an organisational policy has significant and unforseen effects elsewhere in an organisation.
Newtonian thinking can also be seen in the language used about change. A manager has to ‘drive the change’, they just need to ‘roll it out’, and they must have the ‘strength to overcome the resistance’. Team members must ‘embrace the change’, and ‘get on the bus before it leaves’. Very concrete language which implies that change is almost like a tangible object, being rammed through an organisation.
However there are instances where change can come about as the consequence of good planning and effective implementation: technical projects. Ron Heifetz suggests there are two categories of change: Adaptive; and Technical. Generally, adaptive change is where people need to learn something as part of the process - where the solution is not clearly defined at the beginning, and exploration in a domain of knowledge is part of the process. Technical change, such as some IT projects, generally don’t require much learning. The domain of knowledge is well known to the implementors although to users of the system it might be an adaptive change.
The temptation for managers is to treat adaptive change as technical. The assumption is that they know the solution, and we just have to properly implement the new system - but that assumes that there will be no learning as part of the process. Technical change is seductive. It is clear, well defined, and confidently predicts what the future outcome will look like. Unfortunately, in most cases, it is just not true.
So what to do? How is a manager to instigate change? The lecturer used a phrase to describe the position of a manager in a complex system who desires change: “hold the space”. By this he means, don’t let the moment of opportunity slip past in that conversation where someone asks a rhetorical question, or asks if there are any further issues for discussion. Agitate. Sometimes it’s like bursting a bubble - something is no longer true just because everyone believes it, like the story of the ‘Emporer has no clothes’. I must admit that this model resonates with me strongly - probably because of my anti-authoritarian streak. But I also know it to be effective. Being that lone voice around a table who raises the question no one else asks is something I am used to, because I have found it works.
There were further tips from the lecturer from his experience:
- Allow people to engage and explore in adaptive change
- Don’t let the stress get too hard, otherwise people lose the ability to learn
- Don’t resort to technical methods
- Don’t allow people to retreat
If these tips look familiar, it is beacuse they share much with the techniques used in coaching. In fact, that is an excellent model to use.
The exciting, and challenging implication of this understanding is power and control are no longer bound together. It is meaningless to have all the power, because there is no ability to directly control things in a way which can effect positive change. Managers cannot control an organisation - but they can influence the outcomes. But by surrendering control, managers can powerfully influence outcomes. I am reminded of the earlier references to the influential piece by Donella Meadows where she advocates ‘dancing with the beat’.
There are many good analogies for how to effect change, but my favourite, by far, is that a manager is a midwife. Just as a midwife works with the woman giving birth, so a manager has to gently but certainly bring the change into the world. It is a subtle, gentle engagement - very far from the image of pushing, driving, and ramming change into existance.
So how do we know if we’re getting it right? After all, in a complex system learning is the norm, and this implies errors will occur as a necessary part of the process. Goal setting is one option, from the performance management discussion, but as noted above sometimes the goal is unknown. We can again turn to Donella Meadows, who used the term ‘envisioning’ to describe how to move towards a common objective.
Donella believes that for whatever reason, adults in the western world have lost the ability to express what they want in positive terms. We constantly talk about what is wrong - complaints are one of the safest things to talk about with a stranger! Why can’t we instead talk about what we desire - like children. For example: “No one in the world should be hungry”, or “Adults shouldn’t work so much”. At some point in our growth into adulthood we decide that it is preferable to be ‘serious’ and ‘pragmatic’. We have lost the ability to dream, and articulate what we want to achieve. By expressing in positive terms, a picture of the destination, people can align themselves with it. (Note that this is often very different from the stale, generic, non-specific organisational ‘vision statement’)
At this point, I was very much reminded of science fiction as a realm which allows the exploration of utopian worlds in a manner (somewhat) socially acceptable for adults. Perhaps it is no coincidence that those who can make big changes in the world - geeks - are associated with a love of science fiction, and a childlike naivite about the world. I am proud to be a geek!
People often have more values and feelings in common than separate. The thing that often gets in the way, is thinking about it. As in an earlier lecture, our culture values rational thinking, logic and reason over all other types of intelligence. It is so embedded and instinctual, how can we bypass it? There is recent reseach by Hamalainen and Saarinenen which suggests that we all have the inate evolutionary ability to make sense of complexity. This is exciting, because it means we don’t have to learn it, we all have it! It just needs to be un-surpressed. There are early, crude methods which can be used in organisations to harness these abilities for organisational benefit, using photos or stories.
I think something which has helped me to put aside my analytical mind for great benefit is gardening. There is very little direct control one has over a garden, and the best gardener is one who ‘finds the beat, and dances with it’. By going with the natural and dominant systems in an environment, you can achieve great and beautiful things for very little effort.
Somewhat more controversially (although I don’t really know why) there is the possibility that ‘women’s inutition’ is exactly this sort of logic poor, highly systems aware and valid intelligence. I am excited by this suggestion, because it brings a theoretical base to the empirical observation that organisations with a balance of men and women are more productive, enjoyable, and sustainable.
So, now to answer the question my wife always asks: “So what does it look like?”. If (adaptive) change is not a directed activity comprised of action plans, 10 step programs, and pep talks, what does it look like? Well, it turns out lots and lots of talking. But thankfully not the sort of talking which occurs in formal meetings - that is often dry and inhuman. It seems that the most effective managers in implementing change are those who ‘use their humanity’ and talk to people, one on one or in small groups. Not talking ‘at them’, but in that natural style which happens already. Hallway conversations, those over morning tea, and those ‘office pop-ins’ are the most effective way of communicating. As someone in the lecture noted, it turns out those conversations arn’t a distraction from work - they are the work!
There is much more on this topic, and its practical application. For further discussion is the misconception that organisations are static, undergo a change process, and then settle to static again. The environment is always changing, and so are organisations. Change is the norm - stagnation is not! How much damage is done in the name of ‘driving change’, and what is the skillset required for a manager as midwife - totally different to those skills traditionally ascribed to ‘leaders’ I’m sure. What does this mean for the popular model of ‘all hail the glorious leader’ who has a vision and leads his followers on? What of organisations with strong tradition (such as Churches) who have a structural aversion to change? So many questions!