I have always felt that organizational change simply could not be linear. Somehow the notion that shifts in structure, culture, technology, processes and systems could be introduced according to some fixed recipe has always grieved me, as if it missed the most important components, the deeper humanity of changing what is toward what can or should or must be.
Recently I have been working with a client on an overhaul to rationalize a critical internal service system that is disorganized, boundary-less and somewhat political — and it is a complete joy to watch and listen to the participants as we start a journey that is a fibonacci spiral following the whorl of a shell, not the steps of a pyramid.
© Daryl Benson, Adobe Stock Photos, used with permission
In practical terms this simply means that a few people begin designing an approximation of the organizational changes desired, with more people joining the design process in waves as the spiral expands. As each wave joins in, the process “restarts.” It begins with people saying, “Here’s our idea. We think it’s pretty good so far but we wondered what you think and how we could improve on it. How should this be changed based on what you know?” The change is therefore open for feedback, input and advice on how to make it better. There’s often an intuitive sense about who needs to be involved next and when. For sure, this process isn’t about the CEO directing the change and forcing it, layer upon organizational layer, with measures and performance appraisals and plenty of blame for the laggards. It’s about an opportunity for collaboration and improvement based on what people know about how work and change actually can be accomplished.
I learned to use this model some years ago when consulting with a small accounting firm that needed to become more rigorous about its product lines, staff assignments and management systems. The Managing Partner got things started at my apartment. I gave him a big sheet of paper at my dining room table and suggested he draw some kind of picture of what he thought would help the company move forward. I left him alone for almost an hour. When he got done with it, he and I discussed what his drawing meant and planned the next conversation; this time between himself and the company’s co-founder. As it turned out, the co-founder had plenty to say about the drawing and together they made several modifications. When the two of them were satisfied, they invited the firm’s principals and key managers to critique the drawing and improve on the ideas for moving forward. Once again telling changes in these plans were made. This whole experience of expanding conversations enabled the company to eliminate two mainstays of most “change management” systems: concern about “resistance,” and tricks and techniques to gain “buy-in” from others (I could do a whole rant about the uselessness of the paradigm that creates such negative concepts.) When the changes were eventually introduced to staff, they, too, had their own list of issues, but these unexpectedly boiled down to a central concern about the need for clear career paths in the new structure (something the company had never had), which they then were asked to help flesh out through an informal manager-staff committee. The entire company was only 40 employees or so at that time, so this is no world-shaking model by any means and I’m sure it replicates many other iterative change models available today.
Well, you may say, this is really still quite hierarchical and that is so, but the difference for the accounting firm was in the succession of conversations that aimed to create vertical collaboration rather than management by dictum. It wasn’t about what we are doing to you. It wasn’t about an “announcement” one day out of the blue. It was about an unfolding evolution based on a simple method of engagement and on principles of candor and solution-building where everyone affected could realistically have a say in creating a new way to work together. Sure, not everyone agreed all the time, but it was certainly clear when the collective had spoken or when the Managing Partner needed to take the input and make the call to break a deadlock.
You might also ask, “Will this scale?” and the answer I believe is “yes,” probably better than many people imagine if you use the spiral creatively. I also think it’s probably much faster than any method designed to manipulate the “buy-in” and harass the “resisters,” methods likely to create more of the very antipathy that people are being accused of.
A question remains in my mind and the grief is often still there about why we struggle so with the flow of change in the first place. One part of that grief seems to be that in the midst of evolution we leaders often confuse criticism of the process for change (that we own) with criticism of the desired outcome. It’s not at all uncommon to hear those in leadership roles vehemently complain about resistance and resistors as if all that energy in the organization were directed at bucking whatever shift is in order and protecting the status quo — symbolically thumbing a nose at those trying to do right thing. The harder truth may be that this is only partly so — or even minimally so — and it is more that people are deeply frustrated with how the change agents themselves are operating, whether these change agents are their managers and executives, outside consultants, or internal professionals designated as change champions.
It seems to me we as leaders must understand there is simply no one right way, and this is a blessing not a curse. The solution for the accounting company, as for my current assignment, will be unique. The process will always take unexpected turns and like a river there will be an occasional plunge over the falls after which the boats must be rebuilt. The point is no one has the whole answer, no company is perfect, no formula works all the time, and expertise is often much less important than open, candid environments where co-design is the product of listening to one another. Where change is involved, the human beings, not the egos of the leaders, play the central role.
It seems simple enough, except for our need to have all those answers, to win, to know best how to build a pyramid, when the real job, of course, is learning how to take that pyramid down.
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