“Change is the new normal”
“The only constant is change”
Do these sound familiar?
These phrases are common but dismiss the importance of considering the rate, scale, and level across which change occurs in organisations.
How change accumulates can have a dramatic impact on how disruptive it is for individuals and teams.
Think of a company as a system
Reflecting on his early days at Novell, Eric Schmidt (Former CEO, Google) describes taking flying lessons as a distraction from the challenges facing the business: “ I approached aviation the same way I approached the company, which was trying to figure out how it actually worked. And once you figured it out, if it’s a well-defined system, it has a certain logic and a certain beauty in it.”¹
Schmidt’s approach to leading the company by viewing it as a system and seeking to understand its inner workings helped him lead a declining Novell through to acquisition, before embarking on an outstanding journey of growth at Google.
This way of thinking demonstrates the power of Systems and Complexity theory² as a leadership perspective which can be used to help people and teams to navigate change.
If you think about a company as a complex system, with its own natural state of balance, dependent on the stability of its components, you can consider the effects of change within the various parts of the system and the overall impact this will have on the whole.³
There are many different ways of viewing an organisation as a system (function, structure, processes, domain, purpose, value-stream, etc).
Change is everywhere
Another view of the system is at the many levels within a business where change can occur:
- Company level
Leadership change, change of strategy, market conditions, competitive environment & disruption, major transformation programs
- Department level
Leadership change, change in scope, change in priorities,
- Team level
Leadership change, pivot in priorities / scope / focus, churn among team members
- Individual level
Change of role, health, housing, financial circumstance, family & friends, stage-of-life,
If we stack all these levels up, they start to resemble a game of Jenga.
Keeping it stable
Whenever we embark on change it’s a little like removing a brick and adding it to the top of the tower. If you move a brick without paying attention to the bricks that have already been removed from other layers in the tower, you contribute to instability of the tower, making it more difficult for the next person to make a move. Or if you aren’t careful you can bring the whole thing crashing down.
Watching a Jenga tower wobble while waiting for the next player to take their turn can make the game exciting. However in an organisation everyone has a vested interest in keeping the tower stable and helping it grow taller.
How change at each level accumulates for different people and teams can create huge variations in how equipped they are to cope with change
This means everyone will respond differently and we need to be empathetic towards people whose responses were not anticipated.
In order to keep things stable in the wake of change, there need to be constants to act as counter-balances and anchors at each level.
Leadership is one constant which acts as such an anchor across all layers. This highlights how important authentic leadership is to keep the system stable and help individuals and teams navigate change.
Other aspects of an organisation can act as anchors that are more specific to each layer. These include clear purpose, boundaries & remits, values or practices which can remain consistent during periods of change. Even constraints, when there is clarity around them, can act as anchors through change.
So, what do we make of all this?
When planning, or responding to a change, consider this change in the context of changes at other levels for the individuals, teams, and departments involved, as well as the company as a whole. Make sure there are enough anchors in place to balance things, and maintain authentic leadership through which leaders live their values to keep the system stable.
Managing change with the whole system in mind can help our organisations become even more beautiful systems, and our Jenga towers will keep growing taller.
This post was inspired by the Job Posting team, who managed to support one another through changes they experienced across: Company & department leadership, a pivot in work priorities, postponing a change to team structure, and people leaving the team, all in the one week. Your tower wobbled, but it did not fall.
- Masters of Scale, Episode “Innovation = Managed Chaos”, 2018, Reid Hoffmann, https://mastersofscale.com/eric-schmidt-innovation-managed-chaos/
- Wikipedia contributors. (2019, June 17). Eric Schmidt. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 04:07, June 19, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eric_Schmidt&oldid=902252725
- Meadows, Donella H. (2009). Thinking in systems : a primer. London ; Sterling, VA :Earthscan,