Managing change. Really?

These are, indeed, interesting times.  We are bombarded, seemingly daily, with a slew of economic, social and environmental information which paints an ever more complex picture of what is going on in our world, our communities and our workplaces.  Depending on the lenses through which we view this data, which data we choose to look at and which we choose to ignore, each of us, individually or in our ‘tribes’, make particular meaning of them.  Either the global ice caps are about to melt and our major cities about to be submerged as sea levels rise, or we are simply experiencing the normal pattern of global warming and cooling that has been cycling for time immemorial.  Either we are in the grip of the worst financial crisis ever or it is simply that we have run up more debt that we should have and we just need to tighten our belts for a little while until we get back to business-as-usual (whatever that is).

There does seem to be a consensus, however, that the only constant is change.  I think it would also be hard to refute that the pace of change is increasing, as new technologies influence how we connect with each other, how we work and how we manage information and knowledge.  Sometimes the changes we experience are of our own making because we realise that the status quo is no longer tenable, sometimes the changes are inflicted upon us.

Call it semantics, but I’d like to suggest that navigating through constant change is not so much about ‘managing’ it, for this, to me, implies keeping some sort of rein on it, both the change and our response to it.  Canute-like, we wearily try to manage something which is unmanageable.  I would like to propose that what is needed is learning to embrace change, developing greater spontaneity, deepening our capabilities to relate to others well and growing the capacity to learn and reflect in the midst of all this change.

To illustrate, let me introduce you to C1 and C2, two CEO’s of medium-sized knowledge-based organisations.  They are both successful in their own right, both have been around for years, both of them know their organisations well.  Both of them are big-hearted and have enormous passion for the work they and their organisations carry out.  They are both extremely like-able and well-rounded human beings.  We might say that both of their organisations are also successful, purely in the sense that they are still around, despite challenging economic times.  Both of these organisations also operate in the same industry with very similar challenges.  But if we look a little closer at these two CEO’s and their organisations, we might not say that they are equally successful.  World-1, the world of C1, while still functioning, suffers from high staff turnover, low job satisfaction amongst the majority of employees and the kind of poor engagement that leads to staff actively bad-mouthing the place.  World-2, the domain of C2, has extremely low turnover with people clamouring to work there, high levels of engagement to the point of staff bragging about where they work and excellent standards of performance.

C1 is great at managing.  He forecasts, he plans, he commands.  He has been around for many years and knows the organisation inside out.  He structures, he re-structures, he is a very busy man.  He prides himself on an impressive set of policies and procedures which are constantly under revision; when someone does something that he feels sits outside the organisation’s vision, he puts another new policy in place to mitigate it ever happening again.  He tells people about the organisation’s business models, which he constantly invents and re-invents at a pace which keeps people just confused enough so that they don’t manage to really grasp them fully.  Just as people seem to understand and come on board with the new model, another one appears.  He doesn’t set out to bamboozle people, but that is how they experience his constant re-inventions and modifications.

C1 likes to make pronouncements about diversity.  To talk to C1 and to read the organisational documents, you would think that they had reached some sort of diversity-nirvana.  In practice, what you would see is a diverse micro-cosm of wider society with employees from a range of ethnic backgrounds, creeds and sexual orientations being shoe-horned into C1’s monocultural worldview.  Groupthink is the norm and new staff learn quickly to conform.  Margaret Mead could have been talking about C1 when she said, “What people say, what people do and what people say they do are entirely different things.”

In C2’s world, there are actually few formal pronouncements, discussions or debates around diversity.  What you would see if you went into their domain, however, is a workplace characterised by acceptance of difference, active mutual respect, valuing of diverse contributions from a similar microcosm of the wider society and an organic and evolving culture which is constantly emergent from the interactions and relationships between everyone there.  World-2 is messier, in a ‘we-aren’t-the-same-as-each-other’ kind of way, and this seems to create a real hot-house out of which spring genuinely novel and effective responses to clients and other stakeholders.  World-2 often surprises itself and delights its external stakeholders with the kind of creativity that emerges from its diverse culture and people are compelled to come to work because it feels good.

In World-1, there is a heavy reliance on policies and procedures to maintain order.  This leaves little room for individual creativity, for much of people’s daily work is delineated by the ‘Such-and-Such Manual’ or the ‘So-and-So Handbook’.  The fear orientation, out of which this springs, means that the workplace hums to the background music of “Don’t Make Mistakes,” which then means that people default to endless, time-consuming conversations about whether they are doing the ‘right’ thing before making any move.  People’s frame of reference is “What will C1 think is correct?” rather than “I feel trusted, along with my colleagues, to come up with the most appropriate course of action,” and there are so many policy documents that nobody could possibly know them all anyway.  This over-reliance on codifying means that people’s view of the bigger picture is so obscured by manuals and charts that they have lost their clear line of sight to the organisation’s purpose.   The only person to whom this seems clear is C1.

C2 knows that every organisation needs a certain number of policies, procedures and standard processes that provide enough of an agreed-upon structure within which to work. However, World-2 is light on documentation, providing only that which sets out clear, comprehensible guidelines and secures sensible levels of health and safety.  World-2’s modus operandi could be called ’emergent design’, with new ways of working emerging from necessity and the melting pot of staff interactions.  There is a thriving culture of experimentation and reflection.  People actually look forward to staff meetings because they are mostly filled with idea-generation and  robust analysis of ‘what is working and how can we improve?’.

C1 loves hierarchies.  C1 loves organisational charts.  C1 gets a thrill when he identifies some kind of need for a new level of company structure and can redraw reporting lines.  For a medium sized organisation, World-1 has an inordinately complicated structure.  C2, who runs a similarly sized organisation, seems to know that the flatter the structure, the more agile it will be in its decision-making and the more responsive its navigation will be through the fast-changing world.  C2 appears to keep a gentle hand on the tiller, always aware of what is going on should his intervention be required, but comfortable in the knowledge that their flatter structure is facilitating greater relationship and interactions between staff, thereby unleashing innovation, creative problem-solving and adaptability.  C2 spends less of his time on organisational hierarchies and more of his time concerning himself with fostering healthy workplace relationships and ensuring a kind of ‘relational hygiene’ through regular team and individual development, coaching and mentoring.  World-1 is struggling to keep up with change by re-jigging its organisational charts and process documentation, by which time the rest of the world has moved on; World-2 is adapting and responding to the environment in real time by drawing on good relationship and robust workplace conversations.  World-1 keeps missing the bus; World-2 is driving it.

What could World-1 do to become more like World-2?  

1) Grow a practice of reflection: develop the habit of reflecting and integrating.  A working week should have time built in for reflecting on the work: what is working well and what needs adjusting.  Be conscious of growing this habit or the speed of the world about us can overwhelm.  If you sit at a sushi roundabout with food constantly flowing past, it can be tempting to try to grab at everything, without awareness and attention eating more and more quickly.  Take time to savour what you are eating and let it digest before eating the next piece.  So it is with events at work.  Taking the time to digest, integrate and make meaning will lead to less indigestion and greater readiness to deal with the next thing.

2) Learn by doing: develop the habit of trying things out.  Modelling and growing a culture of experimentation and what Dr. Mark Batey calls ‘intelligent failure’ will begin to unleash the creativity that each person brings to the workplace.  This requires developing personal capabilities related to ‘letting go of control’ and ‘knowing and trusting others’, among others.  Support people to make their best contribution to the system, rather than emphasising mechanical measures of individual KPIs.

3) Grow self-awareness: develop the habit of self-reflectiveness.  Some of the latest research from the world of neuroscience is telling us, for example, that knowing and naming our feelings leaves us less at their behest and more able to respond appropriately to things around us.  Change can bring up scary feelings and if we learn about ourselves and how we feel about change, it can point the way to what we need to learn so that change is something we embrace, rather than something to manage.   If you are interested to know more, Louise Altman writes some intelligent articles on emotional literacy, mindfulness and awareness.

4) Grow your spontaneity: develop the habit of improvising.  Good actors are also good improvisors, and the good ones have learnt how to do this; it’s no accident.  As ‘act-ors’ in our own lives, we can also be better improvisors.  Learning to develop our spontaneity, or our readiness state, will allow us to produce good responses to the sort of unpredictability inherent in change.

5) Increase employee contribution: develop the habit of consulting.  Treat policies and procedures as living documents.  They should be easily understood and relevant.  Listen to staff and find out if they provide good guidance or if they are stifling creativity and responsiveness.

6) Grow diversity: develop the habit of love and care.  This may seem a little out of place for some, but when people have deep regard for others, when they develop the ability to reverse roles with others and when they grow the kind of self-confidence that doesn’t need to knock others, we are getting closer to diversity.  This is important because diversity is one of the fertilisers of innovation and creativity in workplaces; and innovation and creativity are two key ingredients to making your way through change.

None of these things, on their own, will necessarily make change easier to navigate.  Taken together, they will catalyse a systemic shift in workplace attitude and behaviour.  And, as always, this needs to be led and modelled from the top of the organisation.  This can be the hard bit because it its current state, with the current mindset, C1 will feel that these shifts are a danger to World-1 and to be avoided.  But then, he’d be right.

That’s my two cents on this for now and as always, I’m keen to hear what you can add on the subject.

7 thoughts on “Managing change. Really?

  1. John,
    What a refreshing take on change. If we are truly open to change, then we accept that there is no control. I don’t even know if anyone understands what it means to manage change. I think the major skill required to constantly work on letting go of the illusion of control.
    We’re into some deep territory there and the C1’s of the world can’t handle that. I love the bit about the relentless issuance of new orders and policies. C1 tolerates change in a hold your nose and brace for the worst kind of way, although as you say his/her intentions are not always Machiavellian.
    I think C1 and C2 are in an epic battle right now. It’s a proxy battle on the world stage for ways of being in the world. I’m routing for C2 but am always available for a consultation with C2!
    Thanks for putting an emphasis on the “managing” concept. It’s getting worn out and tired. I’m placing myself on notice to rid my vocabulary of it.
    Great stuff.

    1. Louise, I like the way you describe it as an epic battle. I think we are on the cusp of something new and it makes sense to me to see what is happening all around us as a battle of sorts. Many C2’s used to be C1’s and have come to realise that the old way was unsustainable. It takes courage to make that personal transformation you allude to: letting go of control. It is, as you say deep territory and it requires deep personal work, I think. Mindfulness and detachment spring to mind as useful disciplines to master. I’m glad that you are, as am I, ever available for consultations and conversations with the C1’s. Warmly, John.

  2. Hi John,

    I like your six steps at the end of the post to make World 1 similar to World 2.

    @Louise, your statement, “if we are truly open to change, then we accept that there is no control” made me wonder, is “Change control” in project management the right terminology, because we’re not controlling change, we’re just accepting it (or rejecting it/delaying it) through change control.

    1. PM Hut.

      I am not referring to controlling change in the language and meaning of project management. I am speaking broadly about events, but more specifically, to human behavior, where “control” is really an illusion.
      We can factor into systems methods for anticipating or managing “change” but ultimately no system can control events. The ultimate preparation are the internal dynamics of human experience. Few organizations support workers to develop the kind of internal resiliency that responds flexibly and positively to change. It is typically, the one “system” that is overlooked.

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