On framing change

My original COVID-19 change framework was a simple attempt to help track what’s going on in the aftermath of a crisis event and offer some potential routes forward once things start to settle down a bit. I captured this in the idea that it’s not as simple as stopping what you’ve started and starting what you’ve stopped. This gets you back to the status quo and one thing we do know about crisis and disaster is that they are transformative events that offer a portal to a changed landscape. In other words, the former status quo will no longer be fit for purpose in this new world, no longer be a helpful way of being, of organising, of doing. It will be a poor strategic fit. This is why evolution favours the most adaptable to change, those most suited to the new environment. It may be a result of an existing trait or positioning that serendipitously confers competitive advantage in the new landscape or through the awareness of the need and flexibility to adjust and respond to the new. What about in times that are less dramatic than crisis and disaster? 

I argue the same rules apply, only the intensity and duration are different. We all face disruptions and obstacles on a daily basis, and these mini-crises or challenges are simply opportunities to learn, to evolve, to get better at what we do. When framed as a negative they are like bumps in the road; as a positive they are opportunities to learn and to course-correct as we proceed on our journey. As I have noted before, the power of a disaster is the extent to which its intensity and duration allows it to more fully break through the ties that hold the status quo in place. But these smaller, day-to-day challenges are more frequent and offer more regular feedback on the world we are living and working in and therefore are opportunities not to be missed. How do we ensure that we capture the learning? 

I have been experimenting with a varient of my former change framework and at its heart is something the change framework didn’t include – core business. This includes the routine tasks that are performed in respect of a role, a team or an organisation. Maybe they are still the things listed in your job description, in your team’s service plan or in your organisational strategy. They are the things that you know you have to do and they recur routinely throughout the day, week, month, quarter, year. Weekly project meetings, monthly reviews, quarterly reports and so on. Sometimes they are so routine that you can forget you even do them, like locking the house behind you when you go out. 

The outer layer is Context. We all too often forget that context matters; some argue it is everything. We behave as we do in large part because of the environment in which we find ourselves. We become adapted to it. Problems occur when the context changes and we don’t realise it; often these changes can be imperceptable, but may lead to a broken relationship, critical illness, unemployment, business obsolescence. When context changes, behaviour changes. 

We have to track what’s happening around us, in other words, in order to continuously course adjust and spot the emergence of opportunity in that changing contect. If we don’t, well miss it – the chance to shift a bad habit, develop a new friendship, repair a creaking relationship, create a new business. We must be on the lookout for what are often described as ‘weak signals’ of change. More than that, we have to have a sense as to how we can best respond to these signals. 

The middle layer sitting between the core, business-as-usual work and our operating context is the layer of churn. This is where the turbulence of day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year activity sits; the ‘messy middle’ or the ephemeral zone of things coming and going, starting and stopping, emerging and receding. Whereas the competent can contend with the activities in the BAU core, as by definition they are more stable and routine and therefore present more opportunity to practice and perfect them, the churn layer requires a much more flexible and responsive mindset and approach. 

It is where the noise and stress of our lives emerge simply becaluse they are layered on top of the routine. Indeed, the routine is usually a full-time job to manage; so often we are asked to address elements in the Churn zone on top of our BAU – whether in our day job or in our own lives. There are two broad aspects to this zone, the things we start that are new and add to our workload, and the things we stop that create space for the new. Of course, many of the problems in workload that we face come from the imbalance between these two; few managers are content to agree thing that will be paused or stopped to create the space for the new. 

So that’s the broad framing, a short conceptual overview of my revised framework. 

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