For a while now, a few brave souls have tried to introduce new concepts, ways of being and working in organisations to help them thrive in complex and uncertain times. I call them brave souls, as the most common response to this invitation, has been: “That’s interesting, but no thanks; We don’t need that here.”; or “This is just too complicated or advanced for us.”
The COVID19 pandemic is touching many of us in different ways. We have all seen our lives disrupted and changed in a matter of weeks, days or hours. No two weeks look alike. We genuinely wish, that by closing our eyes, blinking three times like a genie, we may be transported to the good old days, back to November 2019. The inconvenient truth is that most organisations are unprepared to make sense of this current environment. And may find it even harder to take action post COVID19 or X25– whatever that next global/local crisis may be – from natural disasters to shrinkage of population leading to lower consumption that will redefine wealth and wellbeing. This new collective reality is challenging the ways we think about change.
To help you navigate today’s reality, I want to share with you a framework/ thinking tool that I have found extremely helpful in talking with people about change, opening the door for more in-depth conversations and possibilities. In my search for a more natural way to think about different change contexts, I found Glenda Eoyang’ s work that describes them as three kinds of change: Static, Dynamic and Dynamical. For me, these categories also reflect the depth of our perspective about change. Static, Dynamic and Dynamical are not sequential steps of a process; they are more like guideposts. Each change space makes some of the leadership and managerial theories and frameworks that we hold dear less or more effective as we apply them in different contexts. I call them SHADES OF CHANGE, as I feel that these states are sometimes in-flux, and there are also the spaces in between for which we don’t have labels yet.
At the core of this type of change is the assumption that whatever needs to be changed is inert or unmoving, hence our need to push it. If we stop pushing, it will just sit there. We diligently work on bridging the gaps or moving something from point A to point B, such as packing boxes and moving office. A less obvious example is the traditional performance management system and how goals are set to bridge gaps between where we are now and what we want to be. Increase 15% of net sales from the previous year. We set the goal, and don’t pay too much how the person gets there. To make change happen, we may also use external factors such as incentives, motivations or punishment. Leaders may hold tightly to motivational theories that closely align to the carrot and the stick, or a shorthand version of McGregor’s participatory approach around people being either X (mischievous) & Y (great).
Our go-to theory of change is Lewin’s theory of Unfreeze-Change-Freeze. We tend to focus on the result and disregard what happens in between our starting point and the result. Our performance management systems are copy-and-paste goals from our “goal library,” and goals are never changed or looked at until year-end. And our reviews are about results.
Any new information is shutdown as it distracts us from our goal. Phrases like ‘just change it’ or ‘do it no matter what,’ come to mind. And of course, if it doesn’t move, we just push harder. We see most things in life as problems needing a solution, questions that need answers, or broken things needing fixing. At times we may extend this lens to include people, i.e. we may believe that people need fixing. When our winning solutions have stopped being reliable, and no longer work, there is always someone to blame – including oneself, as we are 100% certain that we can trace the root cause.
Our preference for what needs to happen seems to be crystal clear and quite distinct. This clarity together with a change stance that states: you are either in or out. We know with certainty the way, we cannot even entertain that this may be a polarity to be managed, or that there are two sides of a continuum, e.g. centralised vs decentralised. Our expectations are high, and our disappointments equally hard. When we provide feedback to others, we expect change to happen ipso facto; we don’t care how to do it or if it is even possible.
Looking at what needs to change from this stance is helpful when the path is clear, elements are few, and things are constant, just like when you put a pot of water to boil, turn the switch on the electric kettle and the water boils.
These days when uncertainty prevails, we look for the right answer or the silver bullet that will fix it all. When change is at a personal level, and things don’t go our way, it feels like we are going through what Martin Seligman’s calls the 3 P’s that get us stuck.
We see the change as Personal, Permanent and Pervasive. We may feel that everything is our fault (personal), that things will never change (permanent), and that this unfortunate situation applies to all parts of our life (pervasive). If only we could do more, be more, then everything would be fine.
Thinking of all change only through this shade is unhelpful. When we see the world this way, we think we are outside the system.
Limitations: There are some in-built shortcomings in looking at change through the static shade.
- When you believe there is only one correct answer or way of doing things, and it is usually ours. It cuts off any type of innovation or creativity.
- A view that the end justifies the means, can have serious consequences. Such a view may create a context for unethical behaviour to flourish.
- We may believe that people will always do what we tell them to do. Organisations are unable to harness discretionary effort, and productivity suffers.
- As leaders see themselves outside the system, they are unlikely to engage in conversations around self-reflection, shared understanding or working as a collective. Those dialogues do not get traction.
Warning signs: You may want to to look for another shade of change if:
- It starts feeling like you are fighting an uphill battle despite using the same approach successfully in the past.
- Others think that your “focused approach” to change feels more like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
- As you talk to others about your story of change, the central theme is one of resistance.
In this shade, we assume that there is more to change that meets the eye. However, we believe that these patchy spots have a solution. We may engage in researching, calling experts or importing practices. We feel everything is knowable, manageable and solvable. In this category, we focus on projects that involve working with different organisational areas or the implementation of a new system.
We take our time in understanding what needs to happen in between the before and after, so we plan, set appropriate milestones and standards to be met. As part of our preparation, we conduct readiness change assessments to guide our planning and execution. To ensure that we deliver to the best of our abilities, we inform our plans based on best practice and expect/ anticipate a predictable trajectory to happen. Depending on our organisational culture, we may take more time planning than executing or vice-versa. Nonetheless, we follow a predictable game plan that considers minimising risks and remaining vigilant that people follow processes and procedures.
We use the help of experts to discover new frameworks. To name a few: The balanced scorecard, smart goals, competency frameworks, project management, Kotter’s change model or any other framework that promise our organisations smooth sailing towards the change that we want to enact. At all times, we know what the true north is, and we focus on persistently communicating “the message” to all our stakeholders. We continue to sell and apply pressure when required to get things moving and done.
This shade of change is a favourite among practitioners and leaders. It often has delivered consistent results in the past. However, in times and situations when we face disruption, complexity and uncertainty, this shade of change falls short of providing resolution. It may create more headaches than making traction with change.
Limitations: There are some in-built shortcomings in looking at change through the dynamic shade.
- We believe that we can predict things
- There is a “right” or preferred process and a way to do things.
- The factors/elements of change are isolated and do not interact.
- We trust that if we follow the 100-step recipe, framework it will work for us regardless of our circumstances or context
- There is a division of how we go about thinking/doing change: Somebody thinks it, other people do it.
- We import standards by copying and pasting practices without considering our organisational cultures and capabilities. Common examples include competency frameworks, KPIs, leadership programs.
- We expect our map to describe the whole territory completely. Once we latch onto one or two maps (methodologies/frameworks), that is it, the world becomes flat.
Warning Signs: you may want to consider using another shade of change if:
- The known parts start changing. You can’t understand why, and you fail to obtain the same results.
- Your market, organisation context is being disrupted beyond recognition, e.g. travel industry purchasing tickets on-line.
- You have tried everything, even throwing the kitchen sink at it and things don’t move or keep getting worst.
- Clear process, procedures and training are not enough to produce the expected results.
- As you talk to others about your story of change you realise it is about finding who is at fault.
It is complex. This shade of change has multiple parts, actors, or forces seen and unseen that connect in ways that we don’t understand. The outcome of those interactions generates new and unexpected results.
We use the word complex quite liberally within organisations. We use it to describe projects or companies that are large, span across multiple sectors, the services delivered are non-linear such as health care, or groups were disruption and change are highly valued to name a few. as you might expect, even within those complex organisations described as complex, the shades of change can be mismatched to the challenges and opportunities that arise.
The difficulty with identifying dynamical change is that the issues don’t come labelled as “COMPLEX.” Complexity is alive in more subtle ways. It tends to manifest not just as a disruption but also as chronic organisational pain. Teams across silos won’t work together: processes and procedures that stop delivering the expected results but continue to exist such as performance management programs. Strategic plans that are pulled down by a zillion measures that do not deliver the expected outcomes. These top-down strategies lack buy-in, great ideas that fail implementation, and the list goes on and on.
This landscape can be challenging to read if we use our static or dynamic shades of change. When dealing with dynamical change, we are looking for evolution and movement rather than solutions. Take, for example, the death toll. A target of 0 deaths on the road, is aspirational. If vehicles and people share the road, chances of catastrophic accidents exist.
Even amidst COVID19 lockdown, we continue to see fatal accidents, fewer people involved, but we are still seeing them. The strategy here may shift from elimination which is an aspirational goal to managing the road toll by setting conditions that decrease the number of accidents and incidents, such as the use of more road barriers. By doing this tiny shift in perspective, from elimination to management, a new range of possibilities can emerge. At the same time, we broaden our scope. We begin to look at how other factors/agents interact with each other and monitor for potential unintended consequences that may emerge. If we follow on with our road safety example, the use of safety belts can make people feel safer and potentially also less attentive. The approach to managing safety will also be dependent on the context such as driving culture, and people’s choices—driving when tired increases the chances of making mistakes.
In this context, we move away from describing events to understand the patterns as they emerge. By patterns, I use Glenda’s definition of similarities, differences and connections that have meaning over time, and that is useful to make sense of our current situation. Pattern logic describes the conditions for self-organising in complex adaptive systems. Tiny shifts at one scale have ripple effects on other levels. This small shift in perspective, coupled with a stance of inquiry, can help us move from routines that get us stuck to those that move us towards possibility and movement.
When using the dynamical shade of change in organisations is essential to remember that
- Each person is a self-organising system. That is people make choices and make sense on their own, hence the role of leaders is to set conditions for self-organising that will enable skilful and helpful action.
- Expect to be surprised. Leaders that find themselves over-using the static change lens may perceive that situations and people can’t change and give up without even trying.
- You cannot do this on your own, you need a network (even if it is only one more person) with whom you continue to interact and learn and unlearn.
- Egos can be a significant hindrance when working with dynamical change as they block meaningful exchanges that enhance shared exploration and meaning creation.
- Planning in this environment is adaptive, and hence you need to create feedback loops that can alert you to even the weakest signals of change.
Limitations: This shade has very few limitations. These days, I prefer to start here; because it gives me a lot more thinking flexibility. From this view, my stance is not of a “diagnostician” but that of an “explorer.”
- Specific patterns can become more stable over time and dynamic change methodologies may become more appropriate.
- Even though thinking this way is easy to understand in hindsight, it is not easy to introduce. The opportunity is that by teaching others how to apply pattern logic, people start seeing how tiny purposeful shifts in each of its elements has repercussions on the part, the whole, and the greater whole.
A Warning Sign that you may want to consider using this shade of change if:
- The change that needs to take place is like changing a lightbulb use static change.
- If it is a new system that severely impacts the way others work, and there is a known methodology, use dynamic change.
- In some cases, you will have to use all of them – at different parts of the process. It is important to remember to match your shade of change to your challenge or opportunity. This type of change is not BOTH AND, it is an interdependent polarity. You will make choices of when to use one shade or another.
- Be in the lookout for unintended consequences. Working in dynamical change is ongoing, as new possibilities continue to open.
Overall, as Griff Griffins, a colleague at the Human Systems Dynamics Institute reminds me we lack a language for complex/dynamical change which is why we have such a hard time talking about it, let alone applying it. I hope this exploration of the three shades of change will make it easier for you to talk about your change experience and make choices to influence it.