Journeying into the unknown
Organisational change is a journey into the unknown, along changing terrain. Finding your way in that changing terrain requires (i) new understanding about the dynamic patterning of change; (ii) new processing skills of sensemaking and learning; and (iii) new tools to help people in the midst of on-going change to notice and interpret what is changing in their organisation. Organisations wishing to get on the front foot in change can develop these new change capabilities in leaders at all levels to aid them in navigating into the unknown.
Let’s imagine that you’re setting out to travel somewhere you’ve never been before. Actually, no one has ever been there before. So, what do you do?
Do you gather together all the information you have about your destination and plan a route to get there? Do you set off in the general direction, and try to work out the detail as you go along? Or perhaps you don’t even worry too much about where you’re going, you just set off and then take whatever turn looks most interesting.
Organisational change is much like travelling somewhere new. Every organisational change journey is unique. No one else will start from where you are, no one else will end up where you do, and no one else will take exactly the same route. So any maps or directions that you get from experienced travellers (best practice organisations) or guides (consultants) will never be exactly right for your organisational journey.
Nonetheless, let’s imagine that you are embarking on a journey of intentional change in your organisation, setting off on a journey to greater organisational effectiveness. (This is rather different than simply being swept along, perhaps unwillingly, by the tides of change.)
You might choose to be either more planned, or more exploratory and opportunistic in your approach. Your choices may be guided by your assumptions about change ‘management’, from past experience of ‘what works’, and from your personality preferences. No single approach is intrinsically ‘better’ than the others, although some might be a better fit. Yet, whichever approach you take, once you set off into the unknown, you need to be prepared to find your way in ever-changing terrain.
The changing terrain of multi-change environments
How many change projects are going on in your organisation right now?
Most of us work in multi-change environments these days. For many, it has become the norm, we don’t even question it. We simply accept that ‘business as usual’ means change, on multiple fronts. The trouble is that, in a multi-change environment, there are many unknown (and unknowable) interdependencies. As change initiatives collide and people respond, any map you develop of the terrain for change in your organisation is constantly changing.
To make matters worse, the outside world is also in flux. The political, legal and economic landscape; the local and global competitive landscape; the social and demographic landscape; the technological landscape – wherever you look, they are all changing. So, any map you may have is also constantly changing.
Finding your way
Finding your way requires new knowledge, new skills and new tools.
New knowledge: the Dynamic Patterning of change
The first step to finding your way in change is to understand how organisational change really works.
The view taken in this article is that organisational change is a continuous process of Dynamic Patterning. It arises from everything that people are saying and doing as they respond to one another in the normal course of their work (this view is informed by Stacey, 2010). Imagine a large group of starlings flocking (a murmuration) and you will start to get the picture of how unpredictable patterns can develop from repeated interactions.
New skills: sensemaking and learning
Change leadership requires good project skills and excellent people skills. In a stable context, those might be enough, but on changing terrain, we need something more. What change leaders urgently need are great processing skills – skills of sensemaking and learning – so they can make informed responses to the dynamic patterning of live change to influence the patterns that they and others are co-creating.
If it sounds like a little bit like going round in circles, that’s not surprising. Taking responsive action in live change involves engaging in a process of ‘double-loop learning’. What that means is learning before responding, rather than reacting more automatically, in a single loop of learning, based on assumptions about yesterday’s world. Double-loop learning involves taking in more information, asking questions and challenging thinking to inform action. It helps us respond to, and to influence, changing conditions.
To engage in double-loop learning, organisations need to be actively asking questions about what is changing; asking what is new, different, surprising or unexpected? Multiple perspectives are extremely valuable, as each person has part of the picture, and no one can see the whole thing. Chief Executives are rarely privy to the whole picture. People may soften ‘bad’ news and be more inclined to tell the CEO what they think he or she wants to hear.
If you are in charge, whether you head up a team or an organisation, it becomes vitally important to scan for early warning signs of emerging issues and opportunities in change. These might come in the form of an escalation of previous patterns, such as existing divisions becoming more entrenched. Or they may signify something completely new. Small differences and disconfirmation may provide vital clues that something is changing. Leaders will want to listen carefully to these clues and to invite rival explanations about what they might mean.
Actively ask questions:
- What is changing?
- What is new or different?
- What is surprising or unexpected?
- What issues and opportunities might be emerging?
Seek out multiple perspectives:
- Diversity – invite input from multiple people
- Differences – value different views and opinions
- Disconfirmation – look out for ‘black swans’ (Taleb, 2010)
- Rival explanations – what might this mean? What else might it mean?
In changing terrain, organisations would be well advised to formally engage in double-loop learning on a regular basis. Yet this kind of internal horizon-scanning is still relatively rare. Since they tend to focus attention on a relatively narrow range of issues, employee surveys and pulse checks can miss early warning signs of change. Organisations would benefit from taking a broader focus from time to time; and should make sure that they embed a double-loop learning process in every change project, to help them take informed action in live change.
New tools: spotting the ‘vital signs’ of change
The process for finding your way as you journey into the unknown of organisational change is relatively straightforward:
NOTICE – INTERPRET – RESPOND. Yet noticing and interpreting what is changing can be tricky, as the warning signs of change come in the form of valuable ‘weak signals’:
‘As information thunders through the digital economy, it’s easy to miss valuable “weak signals” often hidden amid the noise.’ – Harrysson M, Métayer E, Sarrazin H (2014)
What we need first and foremost, therefore, are tools for NOTICING, so we know what kinds of signals to look out for when we are amid the press and clamour of everyday life in organisations. Leading edge data about what is changing is likely to be small, every-day, qualitative data. For example, you might notice a dip in energy in a team; a new story circulating; people becoming more ‘occupied’ in their own jobs; or fewer people meeting up for coffee.
However, this type of data is easy to overlook or ignore. The good news here is that the emergent domains of change revealed by my recent research1 act like powerful lenses which help to focus people’s attention on the ‘vital signs’ of change. For example, focusing on the emotional domain helps people to notice changes in organisational energy. Regular pulse checks – eg jotting down personal reflections, or doing it with your team – can then help you notice weak signals about emerging change in each domain.
We also need tools for INTERPRETING that data. Rather than relying on computing power, this type of unstructured data needs people to make sense of it. A Harvard Business Review blog suggests that we need to ‘draw on the faculty of human judgement to focus on the smaller picture in order to comprehend the larger one’. A great way to do that is to invite people to create pictures about what is changing. These techniques can help people draw out what is salient for them from a wealth of data – even when much of that data is indistinct and ambiguous, as it so often is in change. Sharing and discussing those pictures can help groups to consider emerging issues and opportunities.
Getting on the front foot in change
There are some practical steps that organisations can take to help leaders and organisations to find their way in organisational change, as they journey into the unknown.
First, they can introduce people to the dynamic patterning view of change and help them explore the implications. For example, what are the implications for leaders, who lead in the midst of continuous change? How can making sense help them to give sense to their teams and signpost promising routes ahead? What about project leaders and project boards: how can it help them to better understand and manage systemic risks and opportunities? How can an understanding of dynamic patterning help HR and OD to anticipate emerging leadership and organisational development needs?
A second way to get on the front foot in change is to scan for weak signals and make sense of emerging patterns of change in your organisation more formally. You could embed the process in leadership development activities, projects, or change programmes. Or, you could conduct a change health scan across multiple projects and use it to inform your OD programme.
The benefit for leaders and organisations that get on the front foot in change is that they will become more able to spot what is changing, when they need it most. They will be better equipped to seize opportunities and address issues sooner in an ever-changing landscape.
Argyris C, Schön D (1978), Organisational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective, Addison Wesley, London
Garrow V, Varney S (2015), Organisation Design in a VUCA World, Institute for Employment Studies, Brighton
Goldspink C, Kay R (2010), ‘Emergence in organizations: the reflexive turn’, Emergence: Complexity & Organization, Vol. 12(3), pp. 47-63
Harrysson M, Métayer E, Sarrazin H (2014), The Strength of ‘Weak Signals’, The McKinsey Quarterly, February
Nowotny H (2013), The Embarrassment of Complexity [Online]. [Accessed 23 January 2015]. Available from: https://hbr.org/2013/10/the-embarrassment-of-complexity/?utm_source= Socialflow&utm_medium=Tweet&utm_campaign=Socialflow
Palmer I, Dunford R (2008), ‘Organisational change and the importance of embedded assumptions’, British Journal of Management, Vol. 19, pp. 20-32
Stacey R D (2010), Complexity and Organisational Reality, Routledge, edition 2, Abingdon.
Taleb N (2010), The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Fragility, Random House Publishing Group, edition 2 [The idea is that you only need to find one black swan to show that swans can be black]
First published by Institute for Employment Studies in: ‘HR in a disordered world: IES Perspectives on HR 2015’
HR Network Paper 104 | Institute for Employment Studies | Mar 2015