Just like the Red Queen (in Alice in Wonderland) we have to run faster to stay in the same place, these days. The pace of change and disruption is accelerating, and change-readiness, agility, and resilience are vital for both people and organizations. (As shown recently by the Corona pandemic).

Deep change is what we need. That’s transformation: it means learning to learn together. Top-down change is not possible when top executives don’t know exactly what will happen either. Change goes against the part of human nature that prefers the status quo and fears the unknown, and against the innate tendency toward stability that organizations have. 
How do you deal with that? In their book “Engage – travel guide for change adventurers”, the authors Woody van Olffen, Raymond Maas, Wouter Visser offer tools and a travel guide to organize change and engage the whole organization. This book gives a great overview of the latest organizational change and development theories and approaches. Check it out or add it to your summer reading.

Learn Together

They advise to work with the powerful question:

We need to learn together to be more…

Answering this question, you’ll find your core change theme. The urgency is included (“need”), the focus is on doing it “together”: we need real-time learning in complex situations. The “more” is positively stated, implying that we already have parts of what’s new in ourselves and our team or organization.
Van Olffen and partners advocate a dialogic change approach, just like my approach of working with culture in Change Circles. Today’s change asks for co-creation, learning together, instead of top-down change management. Approaches that foster dialogue engage all levels in the organization and benefit from a variety of viewpoints. When people co-create they’re more likely to change, too, and do the new behaviors that are necessary.

The Change Canvas is a visual tool to help you coordinate that joint change effort and can help to turn change into a movement, including both formal and informal leaders. The Engage app can help teams track their changes if you like.
Learning Culture

One of the priorities in organizational change is developing a learning mindset. You also need a network for the lessons to spread and make the desired behaviors as easy as possible for people.

A successful example of reinventing your organization because the times are changing is the Dutch multinational DSM. They started as a coal mining company, then transformed into a chemical production plant, then diversified into health, food, and sustainability. This happened over the course of 120 years, and they evolved from a product focus to a customer focus.

During organizational change, you need a learning culture. Moreover, organizational culture is a foundation for organizations more than ever before, with structure and strategy changing often in this VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous). As Van Olffen writes: “Innovation-driven values such as flexibility, creativity, and change do much better than efficiency-based values such as stability, consistency, and control.”

The necessary change skills are:

  1. A certain level of openness
  2. Debate and critical reflection (asking good questions, challenge)
  3. Creativity in the quest for new answers
  4. Collaboration 

These four skills embody change potential if they are balanced. If you have too much of any of these you might not get anywhere. Openness can turn into chaos, debate into bickering, creativity into hallucinating, and collaboration into groupthink.

How’s your score on these change skills?
How can you develop and improve them?

Behaviors, Resistance, and The Dip

Once you know what you want to change, you need to help others to start doing the new behaviors. People need to understand why this behavior matters, they need to feel that they can do it and that “important others” endorse it. The next step is learning, doing, and then repeating it.
If you want the “change movement” to go viral – engage more others in dialogic approaches, for instance, a World Cafe.
Recent experimental research shows that a small group of early adopters of 20-25% is enough to trigger a shift in the system; the tipping point. So, don’t worry if not everyone is enthusiastic right away.

As some consolation during change: resistance is okay! It means you’re changing something. It’s okay to deal with open resistance: you can have a dialogue, find the hidden objections and fears and solve them.
Real red alerts for successful change are formal leaders that undermine the change – in actions or interactions, people that don’t challenge each other on new behaviors. Also: when giving feedback is too scary, when your group of change agents doesn’t grow, the quality and frequency of change circles go down, when key people are replaced… Do you recognize any of these situations?

I bet many consultants and leaders do. You’ve started with enthusiasm but it slows down and then it becomes quiet… What might help during a dip, is to do a post-mortem exercise. Imagine you’re in the future and the change effort has failed. Looking back, tell each other what caused it.
Now, in the present, you might have some clues about what to adjust to make the change successful.
Sometimes it helps to organize a complaint session: let’s vent and get it out of the way, then adjust our approach and try again.

Last but not least: don’t give up. Change is part of life, and according to Immanuel Kant: Optimism is a moral duty.

In the next post, we’ll look at Change Leadership.

© Marcella Bremer, 2020. All rights reserved.

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