We are constantly told that, in today’s world, change is a permanent feature of organizational life. Given this is it surprising the extent to which organizations struggle with the concept of change in organizations. Myths abound. Working with organizations I constantly hear the refrain ‘people don’t like change’ and ‘change is hard’. Neither of these statements are necessarily true, as we see below. What is true is that the way we understand organizations, understand change, and go about achieving change can make the job much harder than it need be.
Part of the problem is that our ideas in this area are outdated. We think and act as if the organization is a perfectly designed and aligned machine that we can plan to reconfigure, and then just systemically and mechanically set about reconfiguring. The organization is not a machine; it is a living system of people with its own internal logic and ways of behaving. We need to work with the dynamic, inventive, thoughtful nature of our organizations, not against it. In the same vein, our views of leadership can be a hindrance to achieving fast, responsive and adaptive change. We act sometimes as if we expect our leaders to be all seeing, all knowing, all powerful. They’re not. However they are increasingly expected to introduce changes in work practices, routines and structures as part of their leadership role. Unknowingly they have often picked up some unhelpful ‘rules of thumb’ about implementing change at work. Here we expose the fallacious thinking behind five of them.
You can’t implement the change until you have thought through every step and have every possible question answered.
Not True. In many situations it is sufficient to have a sense of the end goal, or key question, along with some shared guiding principles about how the change will unfold. For example ‘We need to produce our goods more efficiently’, or, ‘How can we cut our process times?’ With these in place leaders can call on the collective intelligence of the organization as it embarks on learning by doing: taking the first steps, reviewing progress, learning from experience and involving those who know the detail in their areas.
This ‘all-seeing’ belief leads to exhaustive energy going into detailed forecasting and analysis of every possible impact and consequence of possibilities often leading to paralysis by analysis. It slows things down, allows rumours to fill the information vacuum, and creates feelings of disempowerment. Worse of all it disregards the huge knowledge base that is the organization; wasting organizational assets.
You can control the communication within the organization about change
Impossible! People are sense-making creatures who constantly work to make sense of what is happening around them. This means it is not possible to control communication in this way. By withholding information we convey something, usually distrust or secrecy. But more than this, in this day and age with so many communication channels instantly available to people, there is no chance of being aware of everything that is being said about the change. Instead leaders need to focus on making sure they get to hear what sense is being made of what is going on so that they can contribute a different or corrective perspective.
This ‘control’ belief leads to embargoes on information sharing, ‘until we have decided everything’ (see above) and much investment in finding ‘the right words’ to convey the story of the change. Meanwhile people are free to make their own sense of what is happening uninhibited by any corrective input from management. And when the carefully chosen words are finally broadcast, leadership is often dismayed to discover that they don’t work to create a shared sense of the meaning of the change.
To communicate about change is to engage people with the change
Not necessarily. People start to engage with the change when they start working out what it means for them, what it ‘looks like’, where the benefits or advantages might be, how they can navigate it, what resources are there to help them. They find out through exploration and discovery. They become more engaged when they are asked questions. “How can we implement this here?’ ‘What is the best way of achieving that?’ ‘What needs to be different for us to be able to…?’ People have to use their imaginations and creativity to start visualizing what their bit of the world will be like when ‘the change’ has happened. Everyone needs the opportunity to create rich pictures of what the words and ideas in the change mean in their context. The answer to the question ‘What might it mean for us?’ is jointly constructed and evolves as new information emerges.
The belief that communication alone equals engagement leads to an over-emphasis on communicating about ‘the change’. Staff hear managers talking endlessly about how important this change is, how big it is, how transformational it will be, yet no one seems to know what the change actually means for people. To be part of this scenario is to suffer a confused sense of ‘but what are we talking about?’ This in itself is usually symptomatic of the fact that at this point there is only a fuzzy picture of what this much-heralded change will mean for people: much better to get people involved in finding out.
That planning makes things happen
Sadly no! How much simpler life would be if it did. Creating plans can be an extremely helpful activity as long as we realize that what they do is create accounts and stories of how the future can be. Until people translate the plans into activity on the ground, the plans are just plans. For example I might develop a really detailed plan about emigrating to Australia, including shipping and packing and visas and job prospects and everything you can think of, but until I do something that impacts on my possibilities in the world, for instance by applying for a visa, then planning is all I have done. Plans are an expression of intention. Things start to happen when intention is enacted.
This belief in ‘plan as action’ fuels a plethora of projects and roadmaps and spreadsheets of interconnection, key milestones, tasks, measures and so on. People can invest time and energy in this fondly believing that they are ‘doing change’. A much more energizing alternative is to bring people together to start exploring ‘the change’ and generating ideas for action, and then to write documents that create a coherent account of the actions people are taking.
That change is always disliked and resisted
No. If this were true none of us would emerge from babyhood. Our life is a story of change and growth, of expansion and adaptation, of discovery and adjustment. Do you wish you had never learnt to ride a bike? That was a change. Had never had a haircut? That was a change. What is true is that change takes energy, and people don’t necessarily always have the energy or inclination to engage with change. It is not change itself that is the issue, it is the effect imposed change can have on things that are important to us: autonomy, choice, power, desire, satisfaction, self-management, sense of competency, group status, sense of identity and so on. If we attend carefully to enhancing these within the change process then there is a much greater chance that it will be experienced as life-enhancing growth like so many other changes in our lives.
This much repeated and highly prevalent belief leads to a defensive and fearful approach to organizational change, inducing much girding of loins by managers before going out to face the wrath of those affected by the change.
So, what is the alternative? Once we give up the idea of the leader or leadership team as all knowing, of change as a linear and logical process of compliance, and of people as passive recipients of information, we can start to work in a much more organization friendly way with change. Many new approaches that focus on achieving collaborative transformation are emerging such as Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space and World Café. These approaches recognize organizational change as a collective effort, as a social process that can be inspiring and dynamic with leaps of understanding as well as being messy and confusing at times. They work with the best of the human condition – the importance to us of our relationships, our imagination, our ability to care and to feel and to create meaning in life. In this way they release managers and leaders from the impossible responsibility of foreseeing all possibilities and instead liberate the organization to find productive ways forward in an ever-changing organization landscape, together.
More on using Appreciative Inquiry and other positive psychology techniques to create change can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.
See more about change in the Knowledge Warehouse.
Appreciating Change Can Help
Appreciating Change is skilled and experienced at supporting leaders in working in this challenging, exciting and productive way with their organizations. Find out more by looking at how we help with Leadership and Culture change.
For further information on these alternative approaches to change, please contact us or phone 07973 782 715