One of the intractable problems that seem face most companies is effecting real and lasting change across the entire organisation. Many organisations are littered with failed change initiatives and more and more it seems that traditional change management methodologies are failing. Most large organisations seem to be profoundly stuck when it comes to enabling change; plagued with stories of change fatigue and resistance at a time when volatile and disruptive contexts call for greater agility and change resilience in our workforce.
From a narrative perspective, the dominant stories in organisations around change initiatives are largely negative. I often get the chance to unpack some of these stories in workshops and I use a simple question: What do “they” say about change in your organisation? “They” being the ever-present “they” that pervades water cooler conversations e.g., “They say there is another round of restructuring coming” … that “they”.
The answers are very illuminating, some of what’s come up are statements like:
- “Bend over, here it comes again …” – this is one of my favorites as it even had an acronym that had become part of the language in this specific company (BOHICA).
- “Another one … Ignore it, it’ll go away”
- “New leader, new flavor”
- “What’s in it for me?”
- “We have no say; it’s forced on us”
- “Get on-board or get off”
Dominant perceptions seem to be:
- change is something “forced on us” (mandated top-down);
- change is implemented as big expensive long-term processes (we put all our eggs in one basket and failure is not an option – although ironically this approach often brings about that very failure)
- it is a structured process with a clear end goal and steps that have to be complied to;
- the “why” and the “what’s in it for me” is seldom clearly articulated;
- people are dragged along, not enrolled in the change;
- there is seldom any follow-through; it’s one change on another with no method to the seeming madness;
All of this leads to a breakdown in trust between the organisation and its workers; especially between change practitioners and change leaders and the people they are trying to influence.
We also explore the subordinate storylines, in this case personal experiences the people in the room had with change processes where none of the above were true. Themes that emerged from these stories mostly centered around:
- Change being an organic and evolving journey vs a rigidly structured process
- Pull vs push i.e. Inviting others into change vs mandating it
- Changing the environment to facilitate changed behaviour
- Creating a groundswell bottom-up and meeting a top-down effort in the middle
- Allowing people to make the change journey in different “contextually relevant” ways e.g. allowing different departments in an organisation to adopt Agile principles in contextually appropriate ways vs forcing everyone to adopt the same practices
- Experiment – don’t bet everything on large-scale expensive approaches; design safe-to-fail experiments and evolve forwards by learning and adapting continuously
- Being clear about the “why” – on an organisational level, but also answering the “what’s in it for me” clearly
In a recent workshop, this analogy emerged that illustrates this shift in thinking about change. The group imagined traditional change approaches being like attempting to get multitudes of different people onto one very big ungainly ship. Everyone had to be “on-board” before the ship could depart. People had no choice to get on board, some were dragged, others mindlessly comply. Those not happy with this mode of transport was treated with a “get on or stay behind” attitude. This on-boarding process could take a very long time, and by the time everyone was on board, the reason for getting onto the ship in the first place might already have changed. When this happens everyone needs to be transferred to a new ship, sometimes even while some had not even finished boarding the old ship … and on and on it goes. Sometimes, a decision is made to embark on the original journey anyway, seeing as so much time, effort and money had already been invested in this effort to get people on board. Problem is that no matter which option is chosen, no-one on board believes in the end destination anymore or the ship’s leaders anymore, and everyone on board are simply passengers, passively going along for the ride.
Contrast this to the other scenario. Where the main paradigm is creating an enabling environment for people to actively choose and commit to a change. Key to this is a clearly articulated reason for the journey and a compelling vision of the possible destination. Leaders provide a clear direction, but not a fully defined end state. This becomes the “north star” that people use to navigate and therefore ensures that everyone is going in the right direction. There isn’t only one way to make the journey; multiple modes of transport are provided. E.g. if you prefer to sail and use the wind, we’ll provide a yacht; if you prefer a powerboat to get there quickly, that’s good too. Instead of one big ship filled with passive passengers; the journey is made by a “flotilla” of diverse vessels, filled with actively participating co-journeyers. Those that make the journey in faster vessels may become scouts who travel ahead of the main fleet; sending back information of what others should take on the journey, where there are obstacles to avoid and where winds are favorable. Everyone navigates using the “North Star”, however course corrections are the norm. We learn and adapt as we go and we co-create the change; or in narrative terms we co-author the new story.
It seems most organisations and change practitioners realise the need for a new approach to change, yet they seem to be at a loss as to how to do this practically. It is hard to give up the semblance of control that structured one-size-fits-all processes provide. One way to do this would be to map the attitudes to change that exist across the organisation – the current change perception landscape using micro-narratives and a tool like Sensemaker®. This map would provide insight into where in the organisation there are already pockets of change resilience i.e. where people have a positive attitude towards change and therefore change interventions might find more and faster traction there; it would also show us where in the organisation the biggest areas of resistance, cynicism and change fatigue are, and what experiences are informing these patterns. In short, it will allow us to find the evolutionary potential in the present as well as actionable insights to inform the design of safe-to-fail (contextually relevant, short term, low cost, easy to disrupt or roll back) experiments to start evolving the organisation forwards. We find ways to capture stories continuously to monitor the effectiveness of our experiments. Those that work we amplify organically, those that don’t we dampen. In everything we keep learning more about the system and its disposition towards change.
I don’t want to create the impression that this is easy, for example getting an organisation where people are largely disengaged and change fatigued to contribute their stories is not easy. It is doable however, and probably a key to making large-scale change processes more effective.