One of the primary challenges of organisational life today is the speed at which leaders persist in and need to reorganise and restructure to remain competitive. In such environments, if not handled well, change fatigue can take hold.
In three of our major clients, all successful organisations in different industry sectors, I have seen and experienced this juggling of focus, people and other resources become a reality over the last five years. In fact, I was with a key change leader just a couple of months ago. We wistfully exchanged thoughts about this being the fourth major change project kick-off workshop that we were co-hosting in less than three years. These programmes were led by the same executive and ranged from a major reorganisation of the finance function from a regional structure to a global one, to pulling a European organisation back from the brink of underperformance. Each programme impacting several thousand employees, requiring individuals and groups to transform the way that they worked to keep up with the demands of a global organisation competing for market share.
The challenge with this is whether the change initiative actually gets to the point of delivering the tangible benefits. Too often, before the change is truly embedded the leader moves on and some proportion of the total benefits are lost as individuals and groups find reasons to migrate back to old ways. This is particularly so in an organisation in which charismatic, resilient individual leadership is insufficient on its own to deliver change. Rather, groups must be engaged and empowered to drive the change.
There are two key concepts that are important to ensure that delivering the benefits is not totally leader dependent. The first is resilience, the second resourcefulness. Both are ways of being that ensure that groups, and not just individual leaders, are committed to making change happen.
Let’s talk about resilience: The start of a change process is typically accompanied by feelings of both hope and doom. The increase in ambiguity leads to feelings of insecurity, ‘Am I going to lose my job?’, ‘Might I be required to do things I don’t want to do, like make others redundant?’, ‘Will I find the new world motivating?’, ‘Do I trust or even agree with the direction of travel?’ and ‘Is this just another change agenda that will go away if I keep my head down?'. Alternatively 'this is my opportunity ', 'I can see the customer needs this', 'it's time we took a lead and I am excited by the sound of this, how can I help?'.
More often than not there will not be straight forward answers to any of these questions. With increased ambiguity comes a chance for resilience to be damaged. Increased levels of anxiety typically lead to lost productivity whilst people increasingly turn their energies toward discussing the whys and ways of the change.
There are known individual differences in how resilient people feel in situations of increased ambiguity. Some are personality dependent; some of us are more comfortable with ambiguity than others. Some are more situational; if an individual is the only breadwinner and is struggling with money, fear of the future seems more likely.
There are also known group effects; a change agenda changes the task of work of a group and therefore the mood and attention of the group shifts. More unconscious factors such as power and authority and defences against ending become magnified.
Insecurity and instability are of course vital to the change; it is the instability that allows space for new and creative solutions to emerge. And that leads me to my second concept which is resourcefulness.
For new solutions to form, requires that the people within the programme of change have sufficient energy and momentum to think critically and analytically to understand the issues and to work through them to find creative and powerful solutions. Curiosity, creativity and engagement are vital if a change is going to break new boundaries and if things are going to be truly different.
Herein lies the paradox – insecurity and resourcefulness are not particularly good bedfellows. Too much insecurity is at the root of that which we have labelled ‘change fatigue’. Change fatigue prevents resilience forming and has the potential to dampen resourcefulness.
In my experience as a change consultant, I think of three key types of techniques that can help: the first is the use of techniques that ensure containment; the second is to facilitate the conditions of effective group thinking and the third is to develop a systemic process for developing people in change mastery.
Let’s start with containment. Containment helps resilience to form. Containment means ‘containing the emotion and providing space to acknowledge and work things through. In other words, putting a structure around the ‘working through’ process. For example, regular meetings with clear time boundaries help. Keep a set of minutes and be clear that they can only be amended with comments once. Encourage people from different levels and places to come together to explore the issues but hold the group to explore the problem not to dismiss or prematurely fix it. This requires a leader to make legitimate ‘not having an answer’ and holding a group in a space of understanding the issues fully - thoughts, facts, feelings and concerns. Containment is vital for people to feel resilient, it allows groups to explore fully what is going on, whilst knowing that the difficult feelings faced will be contained and not become overly consuming. Lack of containment depletes resilience and reduces the likelihood that people will engage resourcefully in the agenda of change. To spot issues that will benefit from containment, look for symptoms such as increasing absenteeism; meetings that drag on and on dribbling in to conversations outside because the real issues aren’t being surfaced; endless furtive conversations and a general sense of anxiety and unease, and finally lack of emotional connectivity.
With containment working we can turn our attention to the conditions required for effective thinking in groups – there is a big difference between group think and thinking effectively in groups.
The conditions of effective group thinking include space for each group member to talk, think and create solutions to the challenges faced. In my experience organizations could make much better use of consulting techniques such as consultation; consultation syndicates; action learning groups and group narrative techniques. These approaches share one thing – they make clear the role of listening, dialogue and the different components and phases of problem solving. Problem solving remains with an individual, or a small group of individuals – others involved engage in observation, dialogue and sharing thoughts but they never hijack the solution.
Finally, the third point I’d make is about developing change mastery in the leadership of organizations – 75% of major organizational change projects fail to deliver the predicted organizational benefits. That means that there are a lot of people out there who have learnt a lot about what does and does not work. To become an expert takes 10 years (or roughly 10,000 hours of purposeful practice). Purposeful practice is not easy practice. It’s practicing that which is difficult, that which you might not get right, sustained effort at what you can’t do well. The case is clear many change projects fail, change fatigue is on the increase and there are few organisations that excel at delivering change well. There is a mighty need for organisations to focus on developing change leadership, for embedding purposeful practice, for a focus on change mastery. Organisations need a cadre of leaders focused on change leadership and that means they must not just change an organization but change themselves as well. Working at what you can’t do to become what you want to be expert in.
So to finish, let me leave you with a summary of my thoughts:
Containment creates a sense of resilience and belief that ambiguity and not knowing are o.k. There is confidence in knowing an answer but a sense of empowerment in knowing that you don't need to know but can work with groups to let solutions emerge.
Delivering change in organizations is not about individual charismatic leaders or leader led big events, it is about systematic thinking in groups, groups who by creating the right conditions solve their own problems, find a sense of resourcefulness through that.
And finally, mastery of change leadership is under developed in organizations. To become expert in anything requires purposeful practice. When I think back to my days as an athlete, I think of the practice required to become expert. You work to develop skills so that those skills become automatic. But you always have a goal and that goal takes you in to the realm of the unknown. You actions on a daily basis are purposeful and goal directed. It is this that gives you the confidence to operate at the edge of your ability and that is the mastery of change.
If change is the new normal, change mastery must become the new age academy of development.