Reflections on the ‘edginess’ of change

I was part of a “real play” scenario (you play yourself i.e. how would you respond in the scenario, vs playing a role) the other day, to demonstrate a wonderful coaching modality called ORSC.  The scenario we were playing out was one of a large and established insurer who had aquired a small, agile and innovative software development company in order to become more “digital” and reach a new and younger market.  In the scenario, the merger of the two organisations was being hampered by what was essentially a clash of two cultures.  The established insurer valued stability, safety and structure – they cringed at the perceived “chaos” in the small software company.  The software company felt stifled by the over-constraining processes instituted by the insurer; they were brought in to bring innovation and agility; but they weren’t able to deliver because the insurer was stuck in a mind-set of risk-aversion and safety above all else.  The methodology we explored was aimed at creating a greater sense of mutual understanding between the two groups, then move to action in order to expedite the merger.

What’s always interesting to me is how “visceral” these “real play” scenarios can be.  Even though the scenario is fictional, the experience is often quite real.  One of the participants (who was on the insurer team) used a wonderful metaphor to explain his extreme discomfort and fear to “visit the land of the software developers”.  He said: “I’m scared to go into your “land”.  Where I come from everything works; we have reliable public transport that is always on time; well maintained roads that are well marked – it’s predictable and structured;  I’m feel safe and I know how to get around.   In your “land” there’s no public transport; haphazard roads; no road signs – I feel like I may have to stand next to the road and hitch hike if I want to get anywhere.  It feels unsafe; unreliable.”

What this person did, was accurately describe his experience of what we call “The Edge” – it’s one of my favorite change models: really simple and really effective.  Whenever we are faced with a change, there is the status quo (what’s called the “Primary”) and the new thing that is “calling” (the “Secondary”).  To get from the Primary to the Secondary, a sharp Edge needs to be crossed.  Depending on the context, this can be quite easy e.g. where the Primary has become really untenable; or it can be really hard – sometimes we may also simply be thrown over an edge by circumstances and suddenly find ourselves in unknown territory having to “sink or swim”.

There are many different ways of crossing edges; some people just jump over (the early adopters or pioneers); others need to be “kissed over the edge” i.e. with a little coaching or more information they can be pursuaded to cross.  Others “zig zag”, they cross over, look around, come back again, go for another look etc.  Others get stuck on the very pointy edge and feel unable to move at all.  Still others remain stuck in the Primary, sometimes taking on the role of “tradition holders”; protecting the Primary and refusing to even consider the Secondary.  The key message here (illustrated beautifully by the simple drawing) is that change is not always comfortable, and being on that Edge is unpleasant.

The Edge

I’ve often reflected on why so many change interventions fail.  For example, in the IT industry many organisations are now embarking on Agile transformations.  For those who don’t know, Agile is a project management modality that is based on fast, short iterations with fast feedback loops and sometimes self-organising teams.  It is less structured and predictable than traditional “Waterfall” approaches that employ highly structured project plans, Gant charts and have pre-defined scopes and budgets.  For many who are used to the structured traditional approaches, the Agile approach can seem scary.  In this case, I think the people (mostly technologists) seeking to guide organisations through these Agile transformations forget about how “edgy” change can be, and end up pushing many people into adopting the “tradition holder” role.

The same thing happens in other industries – for example,  dieticians (and other health professiona) who’ve been trained to believe that the most healthy diet is one with very limited fat and lots of “good” carbohydrates (the food pyramid).  In their mind, fat is the enemy, especially saturated fat.  Now there seems to be a growing body of scientific evidence that this is not the case; that fat (even saturated fat) is good for you; and that carbohydrates aren’t (especially not refined carbs) i.e. Sugar is the enemy.  A recent Time magazine cover article lauded the benefits of butter – much to the horror of many a dietician I’m sure.   Prof Tim Noakes, a well respected sports scientist in South Africa was one of the first people to advocate this new way of eating; although many people have embraced his message, to say he has been villified by most traditional health practitioners is probably an understatement.  It is a very pointy edge to cross if you have to admit that something you’ve believed to be true for most of your professional life may not be.  It reminds me of the Copernican revolution.

I think one key reason why we fail to cross the edge is that people don’t trust the Secondary.  In many (if not most) change processes, change practitioners create an ideal future picture of the secondary and devise plans to close the gap between the present and that new ideal.  Problem is that in the vast majority of cases, that ideal future never realises because we live in a complex world that is not predictable and the change levers or drivers we try to employ seldom produce the results we expect.  We therefore end up with whole organisations filled with cynical people, who simply are no longer motivated to give up the comfort of the known to be disillusioned yet again by an unattainable future.

So what do we do?  We find the evolutionary potential that already exists in the Primary (the evolutionary potential of the present) and we start “evolving forwards”.  One way to do this is to find stories in the organisation that already embody a movement in a better direction and we ask ourselves: what can we DO from today onwards to cause people to tell more stories like that.  Similarly if we have negative stories moving us in a direction that is not beneficial, we ask ourselves: what can we DO from today that will make those stories impossible to tell?

In this way, we can evolve forwards into a future state that is more resilient, more sustainable and probably better than anything we could have designed, but probably equally as different.  And we may also find that we end up crossing those scary edges without even being aware of it.

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8 thoughts on “Reflections on the ‘edginess’ of change

  1. Thank you, Sonja. I love this. It is also a plea for the power of fiction, in the sense that it helps us to discover new (possible) realities with the help of elements of the real world. Brian Boyd’s ‘On the origin of stories’ explains that convoincingly…

  2. Nice read! Lots of relevant themes for me…
    1) how to “create a greater sense of mutual understanding between the two groups”
    2) The edge wouldn’t look so sharp if the secondary didn’t look so shaky?
    3) “Technologists seeking to guide organisations through these Agile transformations forget about how “edgy” change can be”, and need to work harder to instill trust and show that it works… results and value will soften any edges
    Thanks for challenging my thinking a bit here

    1. Hi Caroline – it’s great to hear from you! I’m glad I could challenge your thinking (it’s probably what I most enjoy doing :)). That sense of mutual understanding is key … I’ve seen tremendous shifts happen just from that. Are you doiing work with Technologists?

  3. Thanks for your posting – you raise a very pertinent issue of dealing with change – when there is a culture issue such as described there are a few possible outcomes – but in effect it remains in my view an emergent process that is difficulty to predict at best one can take note of positive trends and facilitate them while disrupting negative trends. I a sense that is what you are doing. Short term difficulties may result and in the case presented one will not want to kill innovation while in terms of financial control greater stability may be needed. I worked with an institution recently where a similar clash was evident and it became clear that a new department for service delivery needed to be established while the more traditional manufacturing engineering operations maintained a well established scientific management culture – The services division took the manufacturing division into a changing future on a more structured basis while being able to be innovative and outward focused. The latter became the lead while the former became the follower – both internal to the same institution.

    1. Hi Richard – thank you for your comment! It’s good to hear from you. Key to what you are saying is this concept of ‘finding the evolutionary potential of the present’. It has completely shifted the way I think about change. Thank you for the example!

  4. When you are able to change, you are able to adapt. As we are the species that can connect past, present and future, working with ‘possible’ stories can stimulate and develop flexibility, creativity and collaboration. We ‘only’ have to accept that there is such a thing as evolution. It’s as inevitable as ‘panta rhei’…

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