It's list season again and the 10 best or top 10 list for this and that are being published. I don't like that very much because the lists can rarely be anything more than superficial and often focus on 'gee whiz' type items. So, I won't go there, instead one thing stood out for me this year as I worked with my clients, and that is our shifting understanding of change. My work is all about change - scanning uncertainties to try and understand that nature of change that's coming, helping people identify the implications of relevant change for their organisation, using the information gathered to craft alternative future scenarios and then working to understand implications for strategic action today.
It's all about building a longer term context for today's strategic decision making.
It seemed to me this year that our undertanding of organisational change hit saturation point. Previously, we talked about 'change is a constant' but this seemed to be an 'out there' comment. Now change seems to have surfaced into our collective consciousness - in here - instead of being a phrase we used when we were overwhelmed at work. Now we are still overwhelmed and have increased the complexity we face by realising the depth of that change is more than we ever thought possible. The depth, multifaceted and interconnected nature of the change people in organisations face is becoming real, as is the realisation that there are no easy answers, that this is the realm of wicked problems.
Yet, our response still seems to be change programs - or as universities are prone to do, restructure yet again. I see change programs everywhere and I also sense that people are fed up with them. They aren't fed up with change, just how organisations make them respond to change.
Why? At the surface level, because change programs rarely live up to the rhetoric or the positive intent they come with. This results in people saying things like It's just change for change's sake or There's so much change but nothing's really changing. Change programs are usually a response to some major change in the industry environment, which is akin to treating the symptom of a disease rather than the cause. Industry change is driven and shaped by deeper, global forces of change which is best described as a messy change ecosystem - time spent understanding that messiness will pay off in the long run by providing that longer term context to help decide really needs to change today.
My sense is that in most change programs there's a lot of attention paid to the change program project design, progress reports, the agreements with unions and the structure of the restructure but there's less attention paid to the intangibles of change - the people side. After all, it's people who implement change, yet often staff are treated as pawns in the game of change, kept in the dark, not given information, not asked to participate in the process, just implement the change.
Even when staff participation is there and it's good, generating energy and commitment, organisational politics often get in the way, derailing all the best intentions. Little or no time is spent on helping people change the way they think about how they work and relate with each other, so people move offices and buildings, get a new title, a new desk, a new boss and some new work colleagues - but nothing about how they work really changes.
I do wonder if it's time we stopped talking about change and began talking seriously about about transformation. For effective change to happen, people will need to transform the way they work, and that means transforming the way they think about how they work. That requires transformational leadership and transformational processes. Individual transformation must accompany organisational transformation.
Tweaks to the status quo with a new structure or a new title or a good consultation round won't be enough to deal with the depth of change we face anymore. We need to move beyond addressing they symptoms of change to transforming how we think, work and organise what we do to be futures ready, to be flexible enough to respond to change before it hits. Our organisations need transformation that so that flexibility is inbuilt, innate and unquestioned, and our thinking needs transformation so that we can let go quickly and adapt to the new. It's time to stop moving the deck chairs.
Transformation as a pathway to the future for organisations is not a new idea. Burton Clark talked about the entrepreneurial university as a way to achieve transformation in 2001. It seems that we haven't been paying attention to what the word really means in practice.
What does it mean? Of course I'd say reframe your strategy processes by infusing them with foresight approaches - this will generate the space, resources and collaborative processes needed to move towards transformation. That's the starting point.