Managing or facilitating change, not just a question of words

The other week, I participated in a change management training course at ILRI. Like many organizations, ILRI is currently going through an intense period of change. Perhaps I should say: like most (all?) organizations, ILRI is perpetually going through an intense period of change. But this time, on top of it we are developing a new strategy for the next ten years. A very good moment to look at how we deal with change.

Control change  - perhaps new but still not the right way to deal with change (credits_DaleC_FlickR)
Control change – perhaps new but still not the right way to deal with change (credits_DaleC_FlickR)

So we had a very lively change management session, we discussed the kinds of change we observe at ILRI, how change happens in general, reasons for resistance to change, possible rationales behind change etc. all kinds of very useful slides and ideas which I partly covered in this blog post and others mentioned below. But this post is more about the subtle yet essential difference between facilitating and managing change.

The change management course we went to is inspired by the general CGIAR reform that (helpfully) urges all CG centers like ILRI to cooperate more with other CG centers and with development partners. A very good reform, and the interesting thing is that it is triggered by CGIAR donors – i.e. external actors – who want more bang for the bucks they give. So here we are essentially trying to cope with a change that outsiders hope to bring upon us. But ‘coping with change’ doesn’t sound very serious so we are focusing on ‘managing change’.

That’s where I’m wondering if it’s not worth dimming the management side and amplifying the facilitation side, as in dealing with complexity. Let’s explore this a little more, shall we?

Change management gives the idea that we can (and should?) manage change. In the course we heard change usually happens through external stimuli. So, managing change means managing the consequences of external events. It gives some security to manage that change, to carefully and neatly put it in a box and know that it’s tame… that eternal need for security and certainty which pushes us to manage and control. But there are three interrelated fundamental mistakes in this approach:

A) Managing change gives a false sense of stability and security. Change is not a destination to reach, it’s a voyage to take advantage of. A voyage that will change you and make you better prepared for future changes, perhaps inspire eagerness for more change even. This leads to the second point.

B) Managing change perhaps misses the point of embracing change. It feels like we have to manage it or it will get out of control and bring a disaster. It sounds to me like the man vs. nature argument again – dominate or be dominated. We probably can manage change and put it in a box and we will end up at the desired destination, except that the dynamism, thirst for learning, opportunities to work as a an empowered networked set of teams using change as opportunity for improvement – all aspects posed in this presentation which I featured in my last blog post – will dwindle. Usually all these positive effects of change are squeezed out by the time pressure requiring us to change quickly before the environment catches on with us. Fighting the change, not riding it…

Managing change can lead us to catastrophes... let's think carefully how to surf it
Managing change can lead us to catastrophes… let’s think carefully how to surf it

C) And finally, managing change, with its emphasis on command and control, means that we go down the road of hierarchy, as opposed to the connections between all parts of the system (be it an organisation, network, team etc. going through the change process). Change can lead to great bursts of empowerment for teams and people, which leads them to become more effective. Remember Daniel Pink’s Drive lessons? Autonomy, mastery and purpose are what drives us to go the next mile. Change is a wave and rather than having one person surfing it and telling others to keep their head above the water, it’s better to have more people surfing together and in the same direction, it brings you further.

But back to the externally-imposed reform. The change management that unfolds from such impulses means that we see change as a necessity to survive. Sure. Better late than never, so we might as well wake up and try to survive. But a smarter way would be to see change as a necessity to thrive. To have a proactive take on it.

This is when facilitating change comes in. It’s not about reacting to change but rather anticipating it and surfing on it, dancing with it. making change part of the working factors affecting the system, accepting that it happens and taking advantage of it rather than suffering from it and minimising its consequences. Change can be seen as a way to raise our game and perhaps even change it (remember the double and triple loops of learning?).

Rather than change management, we should perhaps bet on adaptive and proactive management and on facilitating change. In practice this means keeping attuned to perceiving signals, analysing feedback loops and using those signals to mitigate what is not going well or amplify what is going well, turning challenges into opportunities.

Here’s a table summarising some of the key differences between managing and facilitating change:

Managing change Facilitating change
Being run by the change Running the change
Adapting Anticipating
Aiming for the destination Appreciating the voyage
Change leading to new stability and security Change leading to ongoing dynamism and flexibility
Working under time pressure Working with a smart use of time
Imposing solutions Co-creating solutions
Commanding and controlling Empowering
Strengthening central capacities Improving feedback loops and capacities on the edge
Being affected by change Becoming change
Change management Change facilitation and (ongoing) adaptive/proactive management

At the end of the day, it really boils down to going fast alone or going far but together. Except that one attitude is about running behind and the other one is about walking forward, with – if ever so slightly paradoxical – the confidence of uncertainty.

Related blog posts:

Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Ewen, I had not seen this blogpost before but got to it from the post on Cees and Mark (two individuals who’s work interests me as well).

    I find what you write very interesting because there is a lot of overlap with some of the issues that I pick up when blogging about KM and KB ( However, the differences that I talk about are more tangible (structurised) than what you point to here.

    However, I agree that this is not merely a difference in terminology but think that there are underlying and very different philosophies at work that we are not always aware of. Thanks for pointing to this. It would be great to see you at IDS in March.

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