THE TENSION OF CHANGE
Heraclitus believed that change was the only constant in life. 2500 years after him, it is not just clear how fluid and uncertain our world is, but also how exponential, interconnected and non-linear technology made it, especially if compared to our social inability to face it and, even more, to thrive on it.
Proof the same is happening in the business domain is the number of digital transformation, change management, re-design initiatives each one of our organisations keeps going through without rest and, unfortunately, with failure rates anecdotally as high as 70%.
What we face is a tension between a mounting rate of reshuffling and adjustment due to unresting technological and social progress versus a structural struggle of our companies to intercept, parse and integrate such disruptive signals as the fuel to foster their evolution. A steady and alarming fall in average life expectancy of organisations from 61 years in 1958 to 18 years today is the testimony of how intense the problem is.
CHANGE HASN’T CHANGED
The more we need to change the less we have time to make it happen. This is largely due to common traits most transformation programs share:
- They are managed centrally — somebody in the leadership team senses or is communicated (e.g. by shareholders, parent companies, regulators, etc.) the need to steer (read it convince) the rest of the organization towards a new route. External consultants may beat the drums for a detailed Gantt to be adhered to.
- They are unidirectional — the space for the average employee to provide feedback regarding the opportunity to launch the initiative is close to zero. Even the possibility to influence how it is done (activities, deadlines, process, etc.) is often limited to a core team of senior stakeholders.
- They are superficial — effort and investment are primarily focused to transform processes, structures and tools or, in other terms, what can be seen. Much less attention is devoted to the underlying cultural, developmental and psychological layers, those harder to see but still so crucial for the long-term impact of the initiative.
- They are single-handed — the same hierarchical nature of most firms makes explicit ownership by a single senior leader necessary for sponsoring, funding and guiding the initiative. At the same time, a lack of inter-functional collaboration prevents the amplification, enrichment or even collaboration in the work by other teams with results that are mono-dimensional and never really owned by the entire organization.
- They generate change fatigue — a covert organizational inertia due to competing priorities, lack of understanding about the what’s in it for me, change needs that are not mindful of the real capacity to absorb new indications by the recipients, generate a dangerous overlap of change waves that confound employees, diminish the perceived relevance of any individual initiative, never touch the beliefs, values and cultural aspects on which the organization is built.
- They are hardly realistic — because the organization is imagined as a complicated but still understandable machine whose parts can be predictably replaced without any interference among them or resistance from those inhabiting the areas impacted.
Are these traits attuned to the current business reality or are they the perfect recipe for failure?
If we had to name the single most urgent and important ability for organisations in a turbulent scenario like the one we are all immersed into, that would surely be a better aptness to experiment, learn and evolve at a pace that is at least the same of the market. The question is, of course, how to do that.
WHOLE SCALE CHANGE DEFINED
Whole Scale Change comes from a profoundly distinct view both of the organization and of how change can happen.
Giving up on considering firms just as a complicated combination of parts, roles, processes and tools to instead carefully acknowledge the deep interrelations, hidden dependencies and the humongous multitude of connections, links and overlaps among them, companies start to appear for what they are: living, complex, self-organising systems of human beings.
With roots that go back to more than 40 years of thinking in adult learning, community building, appreciative inquiry, chaos field theory, systems thinking, action research and socio-technical systems, Whole Scale Change is a robust approach to change that combines small and large scale participatory interventions in order to enable the entire organization to make profound paradigm shifts (strategy, planning, training, process and model redesign, etc.) in a fast, safe, effective, inclusive and sustainable fashion.
In contrast with other large group intervention methods such as Open Space Technology, Future Search and Real Time Strategy Change, primarily aimed at aligning tens or hundreds of individuals around already made strategies, missions and visions, Whole Scale Change is particularly adapt to empower organisations to co-create new complex outcomes such as their own design and restructuring.
By seeing organisations as complex adaptive networks of relationships among human beings, Whole Scale Change aims to overcome the critical failure factor most change efforts encounter, namely the missing ownership and commitment of those who should execute it.
It does so by adhering to a small but powerful set of inspiring principles:
- Wisdom is in the people. No manager or top leader is in the position to provide all the indications required to generate solutions to the needs of hundreds or thousands of colleagues at the speed demanded by today’s reality. Connecting people to each other unlocks both the energy and the collective intelligence to find effective answers in real time.
- Ownership and commitment only comes through involvement. People strongly support what they contribute to. When nobody is seen as a target and instead all the individuals impacted by an initiative are openly engaged since the very beginning to co-create it, execution immensely benefits in terms of speed, alignment, resilience, pervasiveness.
- Honoring the past and the present, to create the future. Organizational DNA, history and trajectory should always be kept in mind when envisioning steps forward that are sustainable and that resonate with the firm identity.
- All the pieces are interdependent. A systems thinking lens is mandatory to acknowledge how every action will generate hardly predictable and extremely extensive ripples. There is no such thing as an external actor. Even change agents are intrinsically active components of the system.
- It takes a system to change the system. When interconnections are everything and causal implications are severed by continuous counter feedback loops, reaching a critical mass of participation is the only viable approach to include diversity, reveal multiple realities, integrate fragmented information, explore enabling dynamics and incubate the way ahead.
HOW IT WORKS IN PRACTICE
Whole Scale Change is both a change journey and a change process in support of more successful transformations by uncovering, combining and unleashing the magics in organisations. It takes the system on an action-learning expedition that leverages the power of microcosms, combines multiple realities and generates a real-time paradigm shift towards future actions.
By decomposing this statement bit by bit, we can appreciate how Whole Scale leverages the following ideas and models:
- Effectively involving a microcosm of the system to present realities and envision the future. Thinking as the entire system thinks is a prerequisite to shift a whole organization at once. A microcosm is a subset that represents all the voices and components of a larger group (employees, ownership, customers, suppliers, etc.). Thanks to it, it is possible to mirror the whole and obtain critical mass even when involving the entire system is not a viable option, due to its size or other characteristics (i.e. geographical distribution). Microcosms are a holistic way to tap into the wisdom of every part and every level of the firm, at every stage of the process.
- The DxVxF>R change formula highlights what it is required to produce relevant and long lasting change in organisations. D represents the drivers and the dissatisfaction that makes change a necessity. V is the shared vision of the future the organisation aspires to. F are the first steps towards that preferred future. Meaningful outcomes emerge only if all these factors are elicited and collectively bigger than R, the inertia to change.
- The Converge / Diverge Model alternates interactions of large and small groups to allow a critical mass of the organization to find a common ground of understanding and shared intention for action. The journey appears as a connected flow along which individuals, small groups and the whole system expand their views (diverge), combine their multiple realities (converge), explore possibilities (diverge) and adhere to system-wide decisions (converge). The program represents a means both for differentiation (through functional and personal behaviours, needs, expectations) and integration (by achieving unity among departments and teams to address market demand).
- The Action Learning Model gives the overall rhythm to the Whole-Scale change process by inspiring the organization to go through many iterations of the same learning cycle. A plan-do-check-act loop helps the system to remain whole across the entire transformation, by continually re-examining and building on top of the results achieved at previous steps, until a paradigm shift emerges.
- The Star of Success Model is a guide or a checklist for system-wide change that includes six components: strategic direction (vision and goals), functions (work processes and systems), form (reporting and functional relationships), resources (people, facilities, investments) and information (in the hands of right people at the right time).
An example of Whole-Scale Change approach is depicted below with its succession of 3 large intervention and high engagement workshops (convergent), supported by 4 intermediate phases of parallel work in small groups (divergent) as to reach at least 15% of the whole system. Each workshop is dedicated to a different topic (people, processes, organisation) as part of a common evolution journey. All the teams, both within the small and large groups, are selected as microcosms of the entire organization. The full program can be planned and conducted in a matter of months to engage a population of thousands of members.
Working with microcosms, from the team to the entire firm, in a series of refinement loops, Whole Scale Change activates a critical mass of representatives and makes them feel “one-brain and one-heart”, while co-creating the organization future strategy, direction and structures, for powerful change to occur rapidly and sustainably.
By exploring all the interdependent dimensions that characterise the complex challenges we are facing, Whole Scale Change is uniquely positioned to help organisations to:
- Avoid any compromise between speed and depth of evolution, because a meaningful representation of hierarchical levels, cultural differences, cognitive and emotional dimensions of the specific context at hand is intentionally engaged at all stages of the journey.
- Increase the success rate of transformation by minimising the time needed, since the effectiveness of change is inversely proportional to the time required to complete it.
- Generate a self-sustaining, self-replicating and self-propagating motion well beyond the people directly involved, to become an acquired systemic behavior.
IS YOUR ORGANIZATION READY FOR THIS?
You can discover that by answering the 5 crucial questions that Paul Tolchinsky, who is part of our team and one of the fathers of Whole-Scale Change, suggests to firms willing to embark on this evolution journey:
These questions can be used as a checklist to evaluate the level of readiness in and resonance of your specific context:
- Do you believe your people are the smartest people on the planet?
- Do you believe that ownership and commitment only come through people’s engagement at co-creating solutions?
- Are you willing to honor the past and the present, to generate the future?
- Do you believe that all the pieces are interdependent?
- Do you believe you can shift a system without involving a critical mass of it?
What do your answers look like? And what if the sense of urgency and responsibility towards a more pervasive, transformative and inclusive change you perceive is still in need of some preparatory steps before getting acted on?
This same checklist can be the starting point for a generative conversation about the inner beliefs, expectations and values of your unique organizational landscape and their impact on its ability to satisfy the needs of both internal (employees) and external (customers, suppliers, partners, institutions, etc.) stakeholders.
In a world whose speed is only destined to accelerate, inability to consistently energize effective transformation efforts may not just destroy employee commitment but potentially condemn an organization to a premature demise.
Whole-Scale change offers an extensively validated alternative to traditional change management approaches that sees organisations as complex living systems, whose evolution can only be determined by transferring ownership to their constituents with the goal of co-creating strategy, mission / vision, operating models up to organisation design, without missing the critical interdependencies and human constraints required to face complexity.
Both through in-person events and online collaboration tools, the right selection of individuals can offer their energy and wisdom to achieve extraordinary paradigm shifts in very short time-frames with maximum impact and reduced inertia to change.