Moving from the fallacy of planned, predictable change to embracing feedback driven change and the reality of unpredictability and no control.
The term “Change Management” itself has significant limitations and assumptions attached to it. Manage change sounds much like time management. No one can teach you to manage time any more than you can manage change. With time management, you can only control the actions you take and prioritise them to make the best use of the time available, and we all the get the same amount each day.
As with time, you cannot manage change per se, you can only control your actions in relation to change. Your actions will undoubtedly solicit a response and your actions will be interpreted in ways that you cannot with certainty predict in advance.
Many change management tools and frameworks seem to come from a view that all change is a top-down imposed thing that has to be “sold” to employees or it needs “buy-in” from key stakeholders. Furthering the notion that the parties concerned have little input into the change itself and need convincing or manipulation to get into agreement. Also, there are models that reinforce the notion that this imposed change will trigger an intense feeling of loss akin to that we go through when we’ve lost a loved one. Given the levels of engagement in most workplaces, I doubt that people care that much about changes in the workplace. We’ve been fed this stuff so often and so repeatedly it has become the truth in the domain of change management.
The conventional view of Change Management is based on the assumption that you are already in a steady state and introducing change brings about a level of uncertainty, something that challenges the status quo. In most organisations this is hardly the reality. Initiatives hit business units from every direction all the time. If not internally generated restructures or process improvements then it is initiatives from HR, Safety, or Finance that are imposing changes as supporting functions often do, forgetting that they are there to in fact “support” the primary activities of the business in achieving their purpose. If we’re not dealing with internal change, then we’re dealing with changes in the marketplace or from regulatory bodies. So the steady state that many change management models talk about is more of a myth than anything else.
Many organisations, in line with their command and control mantra, dictate what tools must be used for Change Management, and in what order. Change Management is treated in the same fashion as traditional Project Management and run through various stage gates of approval. This further creates the illusion that we are in control and that projects and change in complex systems can be managed as if you were building a machine. We can design it, build the parts, and put it all together. If we get one part wrong, we can always build another and replace it with a new shiny one.
This view represents a plan-based approach to change; a view that is not very helpful when dealing with human systems, which not conform to a Newtonian-Cartesian view of the world. Change in human systems belongs in the complex domain. Niels Pflaeging suggested in a recent article that change in these systems is like pouring milk into coffee, once it’s done it changes the coffee forever, you cannot take it back and the pattern in unpredictable. This highlights the need for feedback driven change as a more appropriate approach to work with the complexity, rather than plan-driven change that assumes predictable cause and effect.
I believe that we can significantly lift the performance of our organisations changing our approach to Change Management. In fact, I believe that real success means that the term is self, disappears into the history books of management fads as “change” becomes so embedded in our way of working that we don’t need reforms or transformation programs.
In organisations that always change how they do things, they test the value of the change against their purpose as an organisation. In those organisations there is no such thing as “change management”. People are so connected to the purpose that initiatives that are seen to further the organisations purpose emerge and get support without elaborate plans, milestones or blueprints. Which is not to say that selected models from the traditional Change Management library cannot be used, but if they are, they are pulled in as needed and not by top-down decree. My recent post referenced the book “Reinventing Organizations”, which has plenty of examples of organisations that operate this way.
We have a tremendous opportunity to shift our organisations for the better if we only are willing to challenge and critically reassess how we see the world of organisations. To achieve this, we need to shift our focus away from individuals and lift our gaze towards the systems of organisation, the systems that drive the behaviours we experience today. Once there, look further inwards to identify the underlying thinking and beliefs about people and how that has influenced the design of these systems. This is change with an undefined end point as you continuously poke the broader system to see how it responds, you make sense of the ripples you create and take further action, either dampening something or boosting something, and again sense the response.
When we start taking steps to rethink and redesign our organisation let’s engage people in co-creating their environments to set up the conditions for positive change from the start. It is an excellent way to get ownership and people tend to be more ok with things when they have been included in the decision-making process. The process outlined in Sociocracy, for example, is a great start.
Granted, we must take a Theory Y view of people and their capabilities so I guess that is going out on a limb for some. I dare you to take that step and hold the tension – you will be surprised to see what people are capable of when given the chance if you choose to see the world through a different lens. There is a real leadership challenge here for the daring one. Holding the tension when shifting your organisation or business unit from the claws of the Theory X mindset to one designed from a Theory Y perspective will certainly test your leadership capability.