The Keys to Guiding Positive Organizational Change

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Challenging Assumptions about Change

Management implies a directed process. Guidance implies less predictability and control, allowing change to unfold more naturally.

Change is hard. People do not like change. Therefore, change must be managed. These are all axioms that underpin the philosophy of many change management methodologies. These deeply held beliefs are assumptions about how people and the world operate. And while these assumptions may be true under certain conditions, holding them as absolutes runs the risk that managed change will not only often fail to achieve its intended outcomes but could result in self-inflicted wounds. While we have become used to thinking about change in terms of managing it, perhaps it is time we started thinking more about guiding change. The implications of this are nontrivial. Management implies a directed process. Guidance implies less predictability and control, allowing change to unfold more naturally.

The forerunner of modern organizational psychology, Kurt Lewin, articulated one of the first method-based approaches to change with his "unfreeze-change-refreeze" model. Lewin's model is a useful touchstone both for what it includes and what it omits. Lewin's model captures the notion that change requires a willingness to move away from the status quo through "melting" into a liquid organizational state. Lewin's model also grasps that, to be meaningful, change must be actuated, which is captured in the "refreeze" phase. While the what and how to change in Lewin's "change" phase can be carefully articulated and documented, it is ultimately people who carry out the change, which Lewin's model does not address directly. If people are not carrying out the intended change, the refrozen state may end up looking either like the original frozen state or something altogether unintended and undesirable.

There now a number of change models in the wild, which I regard as a positive step forward in the recognition that individuals and organizations can deliberately use their personal and collective agencies to influence (note: not control) their circumstances. Models for change management also have the potential to endow individuals and organizations with knowledge about the phenomena associated with change. I regard these as good things. On the other hand, many change methodologies rely on a linear process to get from point A to point B. For example, even Lewin's model for change, while basic, is linear.

Another change model that is gaining prominence is Prosci. While Prosci is predicated on the accurate concept that people are at the core of effective change, it is also a linear process, starting with awareness and then moving to desire, knowledge, ability, and finally, reinforcement (aka ADKAR). Prosci and other linear models of change, in my opinion, imply that one step must follow from the previous. And they fail, as I see it, to fully grasp the psychodynamics associated with change. In reality, change rarely unfolds in a controlled, predictable, and linear way. For example, in Lewin's model, the organization may never have been in a frozen state to begin with and may be open and receptive to change already, without any managed intervention to unfreeze. In the Prosci model, the organization or individuals therein may have the ability and the need to change long before the desire of the leadership emerges.

Engineered Change: An Incomplete Paradigm

...the underlying principles where effective change is concerned in human systems are based in psychology and not engineering.

The underlying flaw in a linear process to change is that such processes are predicated on an engineering paradigm. In fact, it is possibly more accurate to call the field of change management “change engineering” at this point. In his book, The Answer to How is Yes, management strategist Peter Block discusses three different archetypes of individual: the engineer, the economist, and the architect. The engineer archetype is oriented towards the perceived reliability, predictability, and controllability of processes. And under many conditions, this orientation is preferable when executing things that can indeed be controlled. For example, it helps to have a blueprint before you start laying the foundations for a house.

We can engineer chemicals, mechanical devices, software, and electronics. So why can’t we engineer change too? An engineering orientation that emphasizes process runs the risk of putting form over function when the hard rules of when and how to pour concrete or mixing chemicals are absent, and the animate and complex human element enters into the equation. Take the analogy of a math problem. If all the variables are static, solving the equation is straightforward. However, imagine trying to solve an equation in which the variables are constantly changing, and new variables are being added and taken away all the time. Solving such an equation would be impossible. A linear process of change assumes that variables are more or less static or can at least be controlled for. However, in reality, when dealing with people and not binary code or circuit boards, the variables are dynamic and often unpredictable. This is why a paradigm of process predicated upon the ability to manage (i.e., control) change is, while tempting, an incomplete approach to change. This is not to say that process-based managed change is useless. On the contrary, as I stated previously, even the acknowledgment of attempting to exercise personal and organizational agencies to influence change is a step in the right direction. What I am offering is that this paradigm of change predicated upon a managed and engineered process is incomplete.

This step forward in acknowledging and attempting to exercise personal and organizational agencies to influence change is a coin with another side that betrays the belief that change is hard and that people do not like change. This is a flawed assumption. I would offer that people like and are more open to change than they are not. The relevant factor in how people respond to change is whether the change is perceived as negative or positive and how people make those calculations on a personal level. This would suggest that the underlying principles where effective change is concerned in human systems are based in psychology and not engineering.

The Resistance

...a person’s refusal to give his/her will is only resistance insofar as it contradicts what someone else wants.

One of the reasons for the pervasive narrative about change being hard within organizations is what I call "manufactured resistance." Manufactured resistance occurs when individuals in positions of formal or informal authority want to make changes where peers or subordinates do not agree with the desired outcomes or the means by which those outcomes are intended to be accomplished. Organizational leaders often frame this as resistance. There are significant power dynamics at play here. Authority figures can never seize control of people's will. Authority figures can persuade, punish, coerce, bribe, blackmail, and even torture. However, as Victor Frankel so poignantly points out in Man's Search for Meaning, an individual's will is his/hers alone to give or withhold.

You can strip a man naked and beat him to within an inch of his life, and he may still refuse to give you his will. Frankel's will, as he describes it during his experience in Auschwitz, was a will to meaning, and a will that he did not cede to his Nazi overlords. Frankel used his agency to find meaning in his experience and not become a victim of his experience. The lesson of Frankel is that a person's will must be given and not extracted. And a person’s refusal to give his/her will is only resistance insofar as it contradicts what someone else wants. Otherwise, it is just his/her agency.

Reframing Resistance

...as people’s stories are told, and a metanarrative is created, opportunities for change surface that might have otherwise been invisible.

Some people will gladly give their will for the right price. Others will give a part of their will to avoid negative consequences. But most people will gladly give their will if they see the benefit of change outweighing the costs. Thus, it is not so much that change is hard because of anticipated inevitable resistance. The opportunity is in identifying a narrative that resonates with people so that they can see what the change will cost and how it could benefit them. And the best way to do this is not to start with the end in mind (i.e., I want X to be the outcome of this change.), but to discover through dialogue what momentum and capacity already exist around positive change, and to capitalize on these preexisting energies within the organization.

When this level of awareness is tapped into within an organization, two important things happen. First, as people's stories are told, and a metanarrative is created, opportunities for change surface that might have otherwise been invisible. Second, as the organization moves towards its opportunities, there will be a great relief among people that good things are happening built upon the positive momentum that has been collectively created. In this space, leaders will find that there is often little so-called resistance. But the cost for entering into this jet stream of possibilities is that authority figures must be willing to give up absolute control over what changes and how it changes.

Leadership and Decision-Making: Amplifying and Elevating Positive Patterns

The notion of giving up control as a leader can seem counterintuitive. People in positions of formal or informal power often have bought into a narrative that it is at the core of their job to be the decision-makers. Abdicating decision-making authority over change to crowd-sourced change initiatives has the potential to result in feelings of powerlessness and resentment on the part of leaders. After all, if you are in a position of authority, aren't you supposed to have the experience, skills, and know-how to make the right decisions, especially since you are the one responsible for the outcomes? The Russians have a saying, "сверху виднее." What this translates to is "things are clearer from the top." During the authoritarian years of the Soviet Union, this saying was used both as a sarcastic jab at the nation's misguided and isolated leaders and also as an ambivalent acknowledgement of the perceived reality that leaders had more information and were, therefore, capable of making the best decisions, even if those decisions seemed wrongheaded from the bottom looking up.

The great fallacy of leadership is that people in such positions are somehow in the best place to make decisions because they are at the top and have a clearer view of things. This is like saying that a person standing atop an underground mine knows where best to dig for gold because he stands above the miners. In fact, an almost universal phenomenon of being in positions of leadership is that leaders can easily and quickly become fat on a diet of misinformation fed to them by ill-intentioned sycophants or fearful subordinates. This is why some wise leaders surround themselves with rivals (e.g., Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln). The best position a leader can be in is to magnify the energies of people and, when necessary, to use discernment, occasionally to make unilateral decisions, but more often to create dialogue around issues that his/her discernment indicates are in need of attention based on keen observations of emerging patterns. Churchill's greatest skill as a leader was not that he was an adept chess-like decision-maker, but that he was able to awaken and amplify the nascent energy and fortitude of the British people to fight against Hitler at great cost. And Lincoln was not a great battlefield commander. But "America's greatest president" was able to elevate the narrative in favor of emancipation over slavery and national unity over division to energize the Union's military and citizenry to fight, endure, and win the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Leaders use their discernment to spot patterns of positive movement within a crowd and make those patterns viral though dialogic engagement, not diagnoses of maladies.

Guided Change: The Power of Dialogue

As...stories aggregate and patterns emerge, leaders can identify matches between the organization’s mission, vision, and values, and endorse and reinforce resonant themes.

So, what is the alternative to managed change? If managed change is predicated upon a narrative of command and control that does not align well with underlying organizational psychodynamic realities (i.e., the aggregate of human motivation, attitudes, and behavior at conscious and subconscious levels), then what is the answer? The best response, in my opinion, is to move from a focus on linear change management with a prescribed formula to an approach of nonlinear guided change based upon nascent or emerging positive organizational energy discovered through dialogue. There may be nascent or emerging positive energies within an organization that could be incongruent with the organization's mission, vision, and values. Not all nascent or emerging energies around change within an organization must be accepted and adopted. I am not advocating mob rule. What I am offering and inviting leaders to do is to create and participate in dialogue and allow people's stories to be told and heard.

As Peter Block says, "We change the culture by changing the nature of conversation. It’s about choosing conversations that have the power to create the future.” As people's stories aggregate and patterns emerge, leaders can identify matches between the organization's mission, vision, and values, and endorse and reinforce resonant themes. As resonant themes emerge and more dialogue develops around the themes and sub-ideas, this is the space for formal change agents to guide what is unfolding by remaining open, and by asking curious questions that allow the momentum to build. This approach is the antidote to resistance, and the best way to get change to take root for two reasons: first, because the change is crowd-sourced, thus front-line employees have a personal stake in it, and second, because what emerges from this type of guided change is likely what the organization is most in need of, most ready for, and that for which it has the greatest capacity.

Leveraging Liberating Structures to Release Dialogue

As patterns emerge, this is the opportunity for leaders to have their Churchill and Lincoln moments by endorsing, reinforcing, and allowing the new norms and behaviors around the change to take place.

If the premise of guided change is based upon resonant, nascent, and emerging themes and predicated upon dialogue, how is it possible to capture the voices of so many individuals, especially when working in large and complex systems? One effective and efficient method is Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless' "1-2-4-All" technique from their book, The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures. This approach to dialogue is powerful. The 1-2-4-All exercise starts out with a personal reflection on framing questions. The framing questions are important because, while everyone loves the catharsis and bonding that takes place over complaining about common unpleasant experiences, this exercise is meant to capitalize on positive energy, not negative. In fact, it is not even necessary to call problems out as such. (See Figure 1. for example framing questions.) 

 Figure 1. 

Figure 1. 

After a person has had the opportunity to reflect personally, s/he then pairs with another person and shares his/her reflections and asks questions based on curiosity and not judgment. This pair then pairs with another two, and more reflections are shared and curious non-judgmental questions asked and answered. This can go until two groups of four share reflections, but diminishing returns are usually reached for groups greater than eight people. At this point, the groups can use butcher paper, large sticky notes, or even just a journal to record the collected reflections of the group. After these reflections are captured, the larger group convenes, and each sub-group can share its reflections with the whole group. There is also a limit to how many people it is practical to have in the whole group (I would personally say no more than 40 people). When dealing with organizations in the hundreds or thousands of employees, each of the smaller groups can elect a representative to share their group’s collected themes that have emerged from their dialogues. It is also helpful to have one or two individuals to observe each of these 1-2-4-All sessions to capture and distill the themes.

As patterns emerge, this is the opportunity for leaders to have their Churchill and Lincoln moments by endorsing, reinforcing, and allowing the new norms and behaviors around the change to take place. This latter part will usually not be neat and tidy, which is alright. It takes time for people to adjust their muscle memory to new norms of behavior. And it is worth calling this out as a leader to help ease the minds of those who crave structure, order, and clarity. There is often a phase, as organizations grow through guided change, where there will be some ambiguity, disorder, and perhaps even a bit of chaos. But this will resolve as the organization settles into its new state of being and lives into its desired future.

Problem Solvents, Not Problem Solving

Sometimes, we become addicted to having problems because in the absence of positive meaning and a sense of belonging, negative meaning will do.

Taken together, the 1-2-4-All and framing questions might make it hard to imagine how problems can be overcome if they are not identified, dissected, and solved. But that would be a diagnostic approach to change, which often tends to exacerbate things by creating a negative narrative. No matter how bad things are going in an organization, there is certainly at least one thing going well. And, by staying focused on the desired future, current strengths, and existing value, problems tend to dissolve. The more we fixate on problems, the larger they become. I know this personally from struggling with clinical anxiety and depression. If my mood is anxious or low and I fixate on it, it grows worse. But, if I accept it and do not become mired down in trying to escape, my mood is no longer a serious problem and becomes a toothless tiger that eventually slinks back into the jungle. If I do not fan the flames of distress, the fire burns out on its own. 

Sometimes, we become addicted to having problems because, in the absence of positive meaning and a sense of belonging, negative meaning will do. And we clutch our problems like a monkey clenching a peanut in a monkey trap. The temptation to become emotionally attached to problems is strong. And, once in their grip, it can be difficult to escape, especially if existential meaning is at stake. All of this is not to suggest that there are no real problems; that would be absurd. Nor is opportunity-framing and future-state focus meant to create a false sense that everything is alright. Opportunity-framing and future-state focus help to create a mindset that allows us to rise above the obstacles that would otherwise stand in our way, by nourishing what is working well and reaching for a future we desire. Generally speaking, what we choose to give our attention to in thought, word, and deed grows because it conditions and reinforces what we expect and accept, resulting in a vicious cycle. If we focus on the positive, all problems do not vanish, but opportunities begin to emerge and previously intractable challenges dissolve. Dialogue is the vehicle by which we can recondition our thoughts and deeds away from an orientation on maladies and towards possibilities, thus breaking the vicious cycle and creating a virtuous one in its place. 

Closing Thoughts

The theory of guided change flips the script by challenging the notions that change is hard, people do not like change, and that change must be managed.

Individuals’ motivations tend to be oriented around either people, process, or results. I have a process orientation, and I have used traditional linear process-based change models for a decade. Moving away from the predictability, stability, and perceived control of process can be difficult for anyone, especially for the process-lovers among us. I still do find that there is a time and a place for linear, processed-based change methodologies, but these diagnostic methodologies are tools, and not every project needs a hammer and nails. My biggest concern about formal change management processes is not that they inflict harm by default; there are too many variables to make such a sweeping prediction. My biggest concern is that this or that change process will corner the market—much in the same way the SAT and ACT (both developed by private non-profit organizations) did with college entrance exams—making it the only acceptable methodology and relegating change management to a linear process with an engineering orientation. Change management is all well and good, but it is important to recognize that it is a sub-compartment of organizational change and not the A and Ω of organizational change.

The theory of guided change flips the script by challenging the notions that change is hard, people do not like change, and that change must be managed. Each of these assumptions follows from the former. But when we realize that change does not have to be hard, we then begin to understand that people do not necessarily dislike change by default. Once we realize that, we learn that change no longer needs to be managed, but can be guided and emergent through dialogue.

In my decade of experience in both formal and informal roles within change management, I have come to understand that the axioms we hold dear about change are only true insofar as we give them life by accepting and expecting them. When we frame change as an uphill battle where we will inevitably meet resistance and must come armed with all the latest acronyms of change methodologies, then yes, change is hard. But I have found time and again that when I step back and create space for dialogue around opportunities, existing strengths, and a desired future, that change unfolds as naturally as a flower seeks the light. All that is required of us is to step into the darkness of uncertainty and see it through until we too see the light.