Are you Gonna Go My Way

mused on 20 Apr 2016

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Change Management, Transformation Programs, Digital Disruption, This change thing is ever present in our organisations and yet the statistics suggest we are really bad at it.  A recent article by Forbes¹ suggests only 25% of programs are successful in the long term, but take your pick there are plenty of studies and stats. 

Now why does this matter to us?  Largely because when we talk with large organisations we meet people who tend to think in terms of large programs and projects, big initiatives and large transformations.  We think that this makes each initiative difficult to agree with the many stakeholders and fund, and the outcomes uncertain. 

Are we really all reluctant and resistant to change?  How can that be? Even when we sleep our brains are reprocessing, restructuring, and laying down in our long-term memory the narrative of our existence.  We know that what gets consolidated into long term memory is only that with which we associate significant meaning, which meaning changes and morphs through time (don’t believe me?  read an old diary, is that the same you?), and that is only a tiny percentage of the vast amount of information/stimuli we process every day.  While we now know that every cell is not replaced every 7-10 years, it is true that the roughly 37 trillion cells that make up a human being do have a finite lifetime and most are replaced very regularly, red blood cells every 4 months, white annually, fat 10% per annum.  Even in our resting state we are moving with the Earth’s whose axial rotation where I live is about 600 mph, the speed the earth travels around the sun is roughly 70,000 mph, and the sun’s orbital speed is 450,000 mph.

We are hurtling through space/time at incredible speed, regenerating ourselves physically and psychically as we go, actively seeking out meaningful stimuli from the rush of sensation that hurtles past us, consolidating the important stuff into our memories during sleep: incredible.

So, resistant to change?  The fact is we are biological and psychological marvels of change; change processing and assimilating is our foundational skill.  Every minute of every day we are undergoing change, as are all of those around us, and the environments and contexts in which we exist. 

Have you noticed that little of the language we use when talking about change recognises this perspective?  In fact most of our metaphors and models for change assume that the individual is stuck in some static resistant state and most go through some process to achieve a different state: the old unfreeze-change-refreeze model.  Think of the way that change conversations are framed in management circles:  we talk of change/transformation programmes as if our lived realities are frozen solid (a polaroid snapshot), we talk about people being stuck in the past, resistant to change, or perhaps (in a positive sense) change enablers.  There is an implicit assumption in our language that implies stasis unless we take action and nothing could be further from the truth.

Here’s a proposition:  Change is perpetual and all around us, it is at its core the only truth of our existence individually and organisationally.  We are all hurtling forward on our own trajectories against evolving and changing backgrounds and contexts.  All of our communities in which we spend time are in fact huge complex systems.  We know that the definition of complexity is that the linkage between cause and affect cannot be detected looking forward because of the system complexity and emergent properties.

We can’t compel people to change the way we want them to; it won’t work.  We can select for compliance, but then we starve our organisation of the creative tension of a bit of contrariness and individuality.  We must create the conditions that enable people to choose to come our way, environments of meaning in which those individuals hurtling along their trajectories choose to adjust their orientation because they find meaning and connection in the direction of collective travel.  This is about meaning, connection, community, about emotion.  It’s a very different perspective for tackling change.

This being the case, we think a focus on small incremental change, in which we encourage our colleagues to join in because its ‘more fun’, ‘more meaningful’ over here where we are, is much more likely to yield the productivity increases, the loyalty and engagement benefits and to create the kind of effective high preforming teams that we all wish we worked within.  We see these methods embedded in Design Thinking, Digital Delivery, and Lean approaches to management; rapid testing, prototyping and delivery and then adjusting to feedback and taking the next steps. 

Instead of the big frightening program, lets do lots and lots of small incremental steps and we can adjust our course along the way.  That’s the human way to do this, in fact that’s what we are all doing every moment of our existence.  Lets tap into that genius. 

Well, that’s what we think anyway.

¹ Forbes article:  New Study Explores Why Change Management Fails – And How To (Perhaps) Succeed