It’s time to change the way we change

The digital age marks a phase of unprecedented upheaval that’s showing no signs of slowing. Large, traditional business models are continually being disrupted by new technologies and the fearlessness and speed of small start-ups, from outside and within their own industry.

Such unparalleled levels of disruption and unpredictability make transformation an imperative, not an option. Yet many large corporates with well-established approaches to change are struggling to keep up. Many have their blinkers on. Some are left paralysed, overwhelmed by the complexity of the job ahead. Others remain unsure about how to move forward.

Speed is the key to survival: what digital businesses and successful start-ups have in common is the ability to create value fast, rapidly turning new technology into growth prospects and responding quickly to new threats, ideas and opportunities. Traditional organisations will need to embrace the dynamics of the digital world in order to compete alongside those born in the digital age.

Put simply, it’s time to change the way we change.

The myth of control in a messy world

Born in a world of sporadic change, traditional approaches are linear and formulaic. Planning horizons can be long with timescales often planned in at the start for every phase right up till project completion. Project sign-off typically only happens once there is confidence in the outcomes following a rigorous business case process, underpinned by detailed assumptions and requirements, and supported by comprehensive documentation.

Once underway, each phase must be completed before the next can start, with leadership sign-off at every stage. Key stakeholders and/or customers are rolled-in at key points, typically taken through detailed documentation that outlines the work that has been done so far. Changes to scope are viewed with caution and frustration, accepted only once they have jumped through all the hoops of the change-control process. Change is managed through control, with energy and time invested in minimising tension and disruption in order to ‘smooth the way’ for successful implementation. This is a top-down, leader-centred model where success is placed in the hands of a strong and charismatic leader, and desired outcomes are represented by a single message consistently voiced by the leadership. But change ‘control’ can only work in contexts where change is actually controllable. The reality is that life is actually rather messy! Stuff happens that we cannot predict or imagine. Competitors take us by complete surprise. Regulations change. Natural disasters hit and permanently transform communities. Add to all this the fact that advances in technology are increasingly reducing the unpredictability of our world. Yet traditional approaches to change tend to encourage, value and reward an unwavering focus on delivering the benefits case set out at the start. Unfortunately, this often results in the blinkers coming on — new information is overlooked, modifications are seen as inconvenient, and learning and changes in the wider context are discounted.

And what really happens? The change project is delivered on time — big tick! The leadership is happy. The project team is happy. Everyone goes to the pub to celebrate. Fantastic! However, after a while this elation starts to fade as issues we thought we had resolved start to resurface because, in our determination to deliver the benefits detailed at the start, we didn’t sufficiently update project scope or priorities to reflect what we were learning or the changing context. We have solved the wrong problems — uh-oh! We need another project! So, a new project gets kicked-off…and, unfortunately, change cynicism in the organisation starts to grow. Sound familiar?

We all have a hunger for structure, to varying degrees, and having a ‘robust plan’, and following it can give us a sense of control and achievement as we hit our milestones. But so often it’s just magical thinking. We are in control but of the wrong things. Our commitment to delivering the plan often serves to undermine success and instead creates the conditions for negative experiences and attitudes towards change to emerge.

Letting go — creating the space for dialogue, learning and genuine value creation

Contemporary agile-based approaches embrace the omnipresent and unpredictable nature of change in today’s world, and put trust back in the hands of empowered teams. Instead of setting out and working through distinct project phases, contemporary approaches recognise that change is part of a continuing work in progress and that success, in terms of real value creation, comes through constant iteration, learning and pivoting. The planning horizon is short-term — test quickly, fail fast and pivot.

Contradictions, ambiguities and tensions are ok. In fact, they are more than ok, because it is through sharing and exploring differing perspectives, that our frame of reference and understanding is expanded, along with our awareness of the options for creating real value. And at the heart of all this is genuine dialogue, not one-way ‘internal marketing campaigns’ which seek to gain compliance to the official viewpoint. Change is enabled through autonomy and action with tension and disruption used as an opportunity to fuel novelty, innovation and value. Instead of with leaders and managers, success is now placed in the hands of empowered self-organising teams who are active in the process, working collaboratively and transparently alongside key stakeholders. No longer do project teams slave-away creating long slide decks outlining the work that has been already been done, ready for when they are wheeled-out to formally present on progress to stakeholders and leaders — because they are constantly talking to them. Documentation is limited to that which moves the work forward and creates real value.

Of course there are organisations and professions, such as software development, which have been using agile-based approaches to change for years. But many organisations are very late to the agile party. For many leaders and managers who have flourished in a different paradigm, this new way of thinking about change extends too far into the abstract for them to feel able to make the transition from well understood and established ways of working that create the illusion of control. Furthermore, an agile-based approach is difficult to wield without surrendering the very power they have come to understand is key to leading successful change.

So for those organisations who have their blinkers on, for those who are overwhelmed by the complexity of the job ahead, and for those who remain unsure about how to change the way they change, embracing a new kind of leadership will be key to finding their way through this transformation challenge. In the digital age, leadership flies in the face of what many will have learned from their mentors, business school degrees and even their own experiences. Today, leadership is about letting go. It’s about leaning in to complexity and creating a different kind of structure — one which opens the space for people to participate, explore perspectives and tensions, and creates the conditions for true collaboration around the issues that really matter.

By Helen Charles-Edwards, Head of Organisation Development, Stone & River

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