On transformation and change (part 3)

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. In part two I offered an alternative approach to institutional transformation and change (T/C) management based on Cultural Theory. In this final article in this series I explore the foundational beliefs that need to change to accommodate such a shift. 

Here we can draw upon systems theory and recognise that there is a distinction between ordered and disordered systems. In the former we can find answers, apply best practice, set processes and guidelines. In the latter, we should see change less as an event to be managed or a utopian end-state to be achieved, and more of a continuous process or evolution of the team or the company. 

Change emerges as a result of the interaction of the parts of the systems and people within the organisation. This is a property of seeing  an organisation as a complex, dynamic system. We need to move away from change as something to be managed and – by implication – controlled, and have flexible and responsive approaches to management. It’s not like flipping a switch, from one state to another, from dark to light. A journey not a destination, to use the cliche. We do this by taking people with us, changing course when a particular view becomes clearer or more opaque, checking our compass when things get foggy. 

Flowing the above is the need to see things in systems and appreciate complexity. This is the antithises to traditional Change Management. Rather than diligently implementing a linear logical project plan we need to seek opportunities to learn. Formulaic approaches, diligently followed, are unhelpful. At best they may offer a check-list of ideas and things to be aware of. Take Presi’s model of Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement. It’s the underlying philosophy and beliefs that are wrong – that people are inherently lazy, need external motivation, require supervision and management and so on.   

Micro-experiments or interventions that test a hypothesis about what we might learn from the system will provide feedback and help us tack in the right direction. If staff are struggling to co-operate across teams a relevant inquiry is to identify the barriers that prevent it rather than offering training courses. We’re a social species and co-operation is a fundamental characteristic of being human. If in doubt, an assessment of the incentives in place will reveal the barriers – and I don’t simply mean financial ones.   

With return to the office a current challenge, we might open up the office and set some broad parameters and see what happens. The early adopters will be the first to return, complete with a variety of reasons and motivations. Laggards are perhaps wilfully being awkward but a more optimistic view of haman nature might recognise those living with health conditions, who have broader caring responsibilities beyond work that they can better fulfil through home working or those who are simply managing their reintegration into society and socialising for the benefit of their own mental health (introverts, unite! – ideologically, of course). 

Ultimately any attempt to buy or manage change is illusory and based on out-moded opinions of human nature and a blindspot to the challenges of working in complexity. The alternatives are uncertain and messy, requiring openness and honesty and a return to showing up as humans. One thing I’ve loved from lockdown is seeing people working in their own life context, complete with cats walking over keyboards, children running past, parcel deliveries, bookshelves and kitchens. I’ve never understood why when we turn up at work we somehow have to adopt a work ‘persona’ along with our smart clothes and shiny shoes. The more we show up as authentically human, the more I suspect we will enjoy our work, appreciate our colleagues, be more trusting, do better work, feel valued and make a difference. 

Will the pandemic be a trigger for workplaces to leave behind the perpetuation of co-dependent parent/child or teacher/pupil relationships? I genuinely hope so. 

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