There is a lot of myth and legend about what it takes to make sustainable change in organisations and, as every organisation is different, it can be hard to tell what really works.
So, we thought it might be valuable to put our combined 50 years of working in change to the task of coming up with a few simple learnings about what does and doesn’t work in the world of organisational change.
Let’s start with the PITFALLS – chosen these because we come across them so often:
Thinking our way into change – when we want to make changes in an organisation it involves changing human behaviour. This might seem obvious to some people but worth stating explicitly as it is not always talked about in this way. There is a propensity to think change can happen in organisations by telling people stuff and that by knowing things need to be different people with think differently and therefore act differently.
The diet industry is living proof that thinking ourselves into changing behaviour doesn’t work. Most people KNOW their optimum weight and most people KNOW how they could achieve this, through healthy eating and activity, and yet obesity is on the rise. To shift our behaviour, we need an EMOTIONAL shift.
Creating a change plan – we often come across project management- style change plans. A series of activities scheduled to make change in the form of a Gantt chart. The issue with these is two-fold:
- These plans are often based around fixing the perceived problems, which usually doesn’t get to the root of issues.
- People don’t change their behaviour in straight lines, so predicting and controlling a plan doesn’t work.
Doing it alone – to really change an organisational system, even a small business, requires disruption, and this is really tough to do from within. This is partly because it is so hard to see the system when you are in the system, and partly because it requires us to constantly provoke, which doesn’t get a lot of thanks, in fact it can get you fired!
So, if these are the common pitfalls, then WHAT WORKS?
Disruption – as you may have guessed from our comments above! What we mean by this is a lived experience that engages cognition and emotion. This is at least uncomfortable and can be quite painful. These experiences can arise from life experience or they can be created in interventions designed to effect change.
It’s probably worth mentioning here, that we do not mean disruption that occurs from doing weird stuff for the sake of doing weird stuff. We have experience of some change makers who seem to thrive on pushing people to do weird and wonderful things for the sake of it. When we talk about disruptive experiences we mean experiences that are designed, with thought and intention, to provoke an emotional response in a way that cares for the psychological safety of those involved.
Iterative, cyclical process – this might start off looking a bit like a plan, but it tends to be more a series of experiments, followed by reflection and noticing what shifts and what doesn’t, to inform what happens next. So, the overall process is a series of cycles of change that emerge as learning and insight develops.
Choiceful external support – the cynic in you might think we are saying this because we are external consultants and, spookily enough, we work in the field of organisational change. Over the years we have engaged external support when we have wanted to make shifts in our own organisation, so we do practice what we preach. External support can operate at different levels of organisational system, here are some examples …
- Individual – this is the fundamental level of any system – coaching, mentoring, therapy
- Groups – facilitation, team coaching, group process consulting
- Organisational – organisational development consultant
The key to choosing the right external support is to find someone who supports the system to fix itself, without creating dependency. So, what you are looking for is someone with an external perspective and specialist skills to keep disrupting the system enough to create a shift.
We use the word choiceful, as it’s a bit like acupuncture. An external person doing the change to you, is not sustainable, but external support to shift and provoke, at specific moments is a bit like the acupuncturist applying a needle to the acupoint, to release energy in the system.
We hope you find these pitfalls and tips useful. Of course, to develop skill in this field, we need more than just an article, we need safe places to practice, so we are hosting a learning lab in London in March.
If you would like to find out more, please take a look at the details and get in touch at +44 1628 471 114 or firstname.lastname@example.org.