On transformation and change (part 2)

In part one of this article I explored some frustrations with traditional approaches to transformation and change in our organisations and how all too often they are driven by finance, HR and IT. As Matthew Taylor, my former Chief Exec taught me, artfully describing the problem is not in itself enough. We need to back that analysis with ideas for a different way of doing things.  How, then, might we think of T/C if it is not seen as in some way a ‘deficit’ discipline, a fix to broken IT systems, broken employee motivation or broken resourcing strategies?  

In this article, then, I offer an approach that might together offer an alternative approach to institutional transformation and change (T/C) management, by applying insights from Mary Douglas’ Cultural Theory.

Cultural theory, something I’ve written about before, suggests that the power dynamics at play in any given situation are a product of individual motivation, group solidarity and hierarchical power. A fourth, fatalism, is the passive viewpoint that ‘it doensn’t really matter anyway’. To understand change we need to understand these different motivations. 

The individually-motivated will favour autonomy, entrepreneurialism and action, being freed of constraints. At best, they are self-starting and energising agents of change, spotting and doing what is best for the business; at worst they are selfish and competitive, seeking personal gain and reward at the expense of others and the organisation as a whole. Such individuals can do a Kurtz⁠1 and go rogue. 

The community-minded will seek norms of engagement and solidarity with team-mates and colleagues. This can create a strong sense of shared purpose and collective motivation to act, where everyone looks out for everyone else and the group stand or fall together. The shadow side is the emergence of cliques, of barriers between teams and an inter-team competitiveness that is not always for the benefit of the organisation and can counter efforts at collaboration. 

The hierarchically-motivated will see rules, processes, guidelines and policies as the  critical levers of change. By specifying requirements and clarifying governance and decision-making there is both clear expectation and accountability. This can be the case when lightly-held and enabling. All too often thought they are a response to previous failings and weaknesses of both the individual and the team. Lowest-common denominator policies and rules assume the worst and crowd out flexibility. The aim becomes compliance and monitoring not enabling and supporting. This is the approach we take to welfare benefits in the UK: assume everyone is out to defraud the state, refuse to accept the legitimacy and solidarity of community and volunteering and put in place a benefits regime based on conditionality and sanctions. We seek to control failings with hierarchical sticking-plasters.

Every team will have a different purpose, a role within the whole. Every team will have a slightly different operating environment. Never more-so than in a local authority where you have environmental health officers investigating out-of-hours complaints, call centre staff operating 9-5, housing officers hosting meetings at weekends, and so on. Let’s enable each team to respond to its own requirements and needs within a lightly-held framing. 

If we can balance the best of the individual (motivation, agency, autonomy), the collective (norms and solidarity) and hierarchy (rules, processes, governance) we stand a better chance of running an effective organistion. Such an approach accommodates complexity and the continuous work of managing in a dynamic and evolving context as well as a more optimistic view of human nature – whilst acknowledging its shadow side. 

Unfortunately, all too often I see organisations wanting to ‘manage’ change and buy solutions to challenges and situations that can never truly be solved. This might provide the assurance to superiors that we know what we are doing, but deep down we know life is more complex than that. 

Buying in a simple solution to a complex challenge is simply going to make things worse – whilst also perpetuating the myth that there is a solution to everything. It’s founded on a negative framing of human nature. In the final article in this series I explore the foundational beliefs that need to change to accommodate such a shift. 


1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurtz_(Heart_of_Darkness)

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