This article was written by Sarah Lewis M.Sc. C.Psychol, chartered psychologist and author of ‘Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management’
Change is a permanent feature of organisational life – so why do organisations struggle with the concept of change?
I constantly hear that ‘people don’t like change’ and ‘change is hard’. Neither of these are necessarily true. However, the way we understand organisations, understand change, and go about achieving change can make the job harder than it needs to be.
Part of the problem is that our ideas are outdated. The organisation is not a machine; it’s a living system of people with its own internal logic and behaviour. We need to work with the dynamic, inventive, thoughtful nature of our organisation, not against it.
Similarly, our views of leadership can be a hindrance. We sometimes expect our leaders and HR departments to be all seeing, all knowing. They’re not. However, they are increasingly expected to introduce changes as part of their role. Unknowingly they have often picked up some unhelpful ‘rules of thumb’ about implementing change at work.
1) You can’t implement the change until you have thought through every step and have every possible question answered
Not true. In many situations it’s sufficient to have a sense of the end goal along with some shared guiding principles about how the change will unfold.
For example: ‘We need to produce our goods more efficiently’, or, ‘How can we cut our process times?’ With these in place leaders can call on the collective intelligence of the organisation as it embarks on learning by doing.
This ‘all-seeing’ belief leads to exhaustive energy going into the details and can end up with paralysis by analysis. Worse of all it disregards the huge knowledge base that is the organisation.
2) You can control communication within the organisation about change
Impossible! People naturally try to make sense of what is happening around them. By withholding information we convey something, usually distrust or secrecy. Plus, with so many communication channels instantly available to people, there is no chance of being aware of everything that is being said about the change.
Instead HR needs to focus on making sure they get to hear what sense is being made of what is going on so that they can contribute a different or corrective perspective.
This ‘control’ belief leads to embargoes on information sharing, ‘until we have decided everything’ and we have ‘the right words’ to convey the change. Meanwhile people are free to make their own sense of what is happening - and when the carefully chosen words are finally broadcast, leadership is often dismayed to discover that they don’t work to create a shared sense of the meaning of the change.
3) To communicate about change is to engage people with the change
Not necessarily. People start to engage with the change when they start working out what it means for them. They become more engaged when they are asked questions. “How can we implement this here?’ or ‘What is the best way of achieving that?’ People have to use their imaginations and creativity to start visualizing what their bit of the world will be like when ‘the change’ has happened.
The belief that communication alone equals engagement leads to an over-emphasis on communicating about ‘the change’. Staff hear managers talking endlessly about how important this change is, yet no one seems to know what the change actually means for people. To be part of this scenario is to suffer a confused sense of ‘but what are we talking about?’ This in itself is usually symptomatic of the fact that at this point there is only a fuzzy picture of what this much-heralded change will mean for people: much better to get people involved in finding out.
4) Planning makes things happen
Sadly no! Creating plans can be an extremely helpful activity but until people translate the plans into activity on the ground, the plans are just plans.
This belief in ‘plan as action’ fuels a plethora of projects and roadmaps and spreadsheets of interconnection, key milestones, tasks, etc. People can invest time and energy in this fondly believing that they are ‘doing change’. A much more energising alternative is to bring people together to start exploring ‘the change’ and generating ideas for action, and then to write documents that create a coherent account of the actions people are taking.
5) Change is always disliked and resisted
No. If this were true none of us would emerge from babyhood. Our life is a story of change and growth. Do you wish you had never learnt to ride a bike? That was a change.
What is true is that people don’t necessarily always have the energy or inclination to engage with change. It is not change itself that is the issue, it is the effect imposed change can have on things that are important to us: autonomy, choice, power, desire, satisfaction, group status, sense of identity, etc. If we attend carefully to enhancing these within the change process then there is a much greater chance that it will be experienced as life-enhancing growth.
This much repeated and highly prevalent belief leads to a defensive and fearful approach to organisational change, with managers feeling they have to face the wrath of those affected by the change.
So, what is the alternative? Once we give up the idea of the leader or leadership team as all-knowing, of change as a linear and logical process of compliance, and of people as passive recipients of information, we can start to work in a much more organisation-friendly way with change.
Many new approaches that focus on achieving collaborative transformation are emerging such as Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space and World Café. These approaches recognise organisational change as a collective effort that can be inspiring and dynamic as well as being messy and confusing. They work with what’s important to us. In this way they release leaders from the impossible responsibility of foreseeing all possibilities and instead liberate the organisation to find productive ways forward, together.