Enabling change: a manager’s choice (and a leader’s decision)


People don’t resist change. They resist being changed! – Peter Senge

I’ve covered individual change on this blog though various writings (on the willingness or difficulty to change, recognising that the process of changing is slow, wanting others to change), but hardly done justice to the management side of change. And management has a lot to do, and even more to say about change. Particularly about the kind of change that has negative consequences for people (reorganisations, redundancies)…

Are you going to do anything about that change? (Credits: Patrick Mayfield)

Are you going to do anything about that change? (Credits: Patrick Mayfield)

So what are the choices of managers to enable or disable change?
Before we start let’s distinguish two different situations – that often need to be balanced:

  • Change that is internally driven – i.e. decided by that management, or any other group internal to an organisation or an initiative.
  • Change that is externally induced – as a result of signals that were not created by the group themselves.

Recognising this context is essential because it has repercussions on the way other people feel about the change and who they perceive as major beneficiaries or victims of change. Dealing with this well means management can show true leadership. And we know for a fact that complex development work requires many factors to deal with change well.

Internally driven change

What can ‘management’ do here to enable change:

Bring their team on board about the change, as early as possible, to let them see the change as a whole, appreciate positive aspects of that change and how negative ones are really going to affect them – and crucially to let them voice their questions, concerns, feelings, ideas, suggestions.

If even possible, co-create that change and get their ideas on board to shape that change into something very positive that brings everyone’s ideas in the mix to understand the bigger picture – sometimes (often) it is only through this approach that a change can be gauged in its wholesomeness.

Understand that we all have to take consequences of the change and that ‘I WANT YOU TO CHANGE!‘ is not a viable way forward.

Brainstorm (and at the very least, if there is no manoeuvre possible, communicate) about what can be done next, and particularly for that team or group. And also communicate what is not known – but commit to finding out more.

Draw lessons about what happens with that change for the next time around, to be better prepared and to develop the collective capacity to adapt and recombine;

Later assess how the change influenced everyone and what new lessons or measures can be drawn from the whole experience several months after the deed.

The tao of change management (Credits: V. Kotelnikov)

The tao of change management (Credits: V. Kotelnikov)

Externally induced change

This type of change is a result of an external shock or circumstance, and can have either positive or negative consequences (or both – think tradeoffs). All of the above applies here too, but in addition management should:

Analyse with the help of all those who think they understand some of that big picture, what made this change happen, to better understand that whole change and determine with more accuracy how the change will affect everyone. Lead with patterns – and follow some ideas of this Cynefin framework adapted for management.

Management / Leadership in the Cynefin framework (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

Change Management / Leadership in the Cynefin framework (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

Help (and encourage) sharpening the foresight capability of the team to ensure everyone contributes to forecasting the next external changes.

In contrast, what can managers do to muddle everything up?

  • Not change anything (about themselves) – and ignore the famous quote “change leader, change thyself“. On the other hand, change brings wonderful opportunities for innovation (and innovative) leadership.
  • Not anticipate change or keep an old lens (used for previous changes) to forecasting. But even change changes and takes different shapes. “Yesterday’s thinking will not solve tomorrow’s problems”…
  • Not cultivate collective foresight. Not investing in foresight capabilities is signing an organisation’s death certificate. Not doing so with a wide group – ideally based on the entire collective’s capacity (strengthened by PKM and personal learning networks) is only postponing the delivery of that certificate…
  • Not communicate: nothing about the change, nothing about how it affects people, nothing about the measures taken admit this
  • Not learn: no drawing lessons about drivers, initiatives taken or results recorded, just being affected without any sense of agency… Are you learning as fast as the world is changing?

    The process of transition and the feelings this inspires in us (Credits: JM Fisher)

    The process of transition and the feelings this inspires in us (Credits: JM Fisher)

  • Not involve: no taking into account the opinions, experiences, feelings (and there are many – see the picture below) and capacities of all those affected by the change – even in times when change is not happening. And down with your problems with empowerment, please, you don’t have a real choice.
  • Involve and consult but ignore anything coming out of that. In some ways this is even worse as it tokenises participation and instils longer term defiance viz. future attempts at engaging with the same people.

Taking these principles into account should become the ABC of today’s managers, and change management is the one specialised field they should focus on (and here are some quotes that will help them). Did I hear anyone say ‘process literacy’?

In summary there is much that managers can do to deal collectively with change, and it all has to do with the leadership rules for healthy human systems: involve, communicate, listen, encourage, mobilise, reflect, expand, multiply, respect…

Of course, at our individual level, we also have much to do in order to see change in its whole form. We may still not welcome this process but we can nevertheless always decide to seize the opportunities it brings to do something different, and better. But that is another story.

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