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People talk about change a great deal and there’s a thirst for knowledge in how to deliver better, more lasting change.  There are models (many of which have valuable content) but – as I concluded in a recent talk I gave – getting better at change might just be asking the wrong question.

Examining the idea that someone wants to deliver better, more lasting change, I fear they might be making a few critical assumptions:

  1. Change is a process with a definite start and end.
  2. Change is either successful or it isn’t.
  3. A repeatable set of steps exists to deliver change easily and effectively.

And that could be very true if we take the case of a simple change, like this:

In this case, it’s reasonable to imagine that there could be enough specificity in the inputs, outputs and process to mean it’s a reliable process.  A reliable source of flat, equally sized paper + adherence to a tested folding process = a good quality paper aeroplane.

Increasing the component parts, we could extend this idea to a complicated change, like getting the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) satellite from Earth to orbit Mars (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MAVEN).  Here it is in pictures:

Images: Phoenix7777 – Own work Data source: HORIZONS System, JPL, NASA

In this case, there are significantly more moving parts – and over a period of 11 months rather than minutes, but the result is still calculable.  We can, with the right expertise and experience plan and execute reliably.

However, when we start to move up from here – to changes where there’s unpredictability, uncertainty and a fluidity to the environment we’re working in – we reach complexity.  Imagine now this change:

“England has an ambitious plan to eradicate smoking by 2030”

The assumptions from earlier start to fall down.  What exactly does eradicate mean?  Is a significant reduction enough for us to consider it a success?  Where are we right now?  How do we know?  How will we know if we’re making progress?  Has anyone done this before (in this exact environment)? Can we plan and account for the myriad parts in this system? 

Given that the first biological link between smoking and cancer was made in 1954, it’s pretty clear that this is anything but a straightforward change.

So, what’s the question?

If it’s not “how do I deliver better, more lasting change?”, what is it?  Perhaps “how do I learn to (help my team) better influence our results in a complex environment?”.  That’s a question I can help with:

Step 1 – recognise complexity

If the change you’re delivering impacts people and you’re working in an environment where there is uncertainty (tech, customer, market etc), the change is complex. 

Recognising that condition exists in almost every change, start from the basis that your changes are more like the ‘stop smoking’ change than the satellite or aeroplane. That being the case:

There is no process, best practice or detailed plan that will guarantee you get there
(wherever there is!)

You cannot plan in detail or make wide assumptions about cause/effect.  Efforts to do so will likely frustrate and end up causing delays or ‘failures’, and it’s this fundamental misunderstanding that’s the root of published statistics like “84% Of Companies Fail At Digital Transformation” – Forbes or “Only 30 percent of change programs succeed” – Kotter

Side note:  I’m using the Cynefin definitions here (simple, complicated, complex only) and there’s more about that in this article They Need to Run More Trains and of course here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynefin_framework

Step 2 – think differently

Starting therefore with the expectation that we’re in this complex, fluid world of “perma-change” – we must think differently.   Here are the five themes I shared in my talk:

1. Clear (evolutionary) Purpose

Clarity about purpose is essential for a team, function or organisation to change.  A connection to purpose will guide and influence all actions, decisions and activities that teams do.  Never underestimate the influence and value of everyone being able to ask the question: “Given that purpose, does what I’m doing make sense?”.

Secondly, keep yourself open to the idea that the purpose could itself change.  As you progress, learn and discover new possibilities, your horizon may well shift.  It doesn’t make sense to pursue a purpose which is no longer as valuable or important as something else!

2. Engagement and Focus

With a high chance (guarantee, even!) for change while we progress towards our purpose, it’s reckless to lose focus.  Many of us have witnessed ‘New Year’s Day’ changes where we suddenly announce something – “We’re agile now!”, “Customer care is our #1” – and then don’t follow up.

The result is a loss of focus and while initial intentions may have been good, the truth is you can’t move an intention forward without effort.  Influence takes time.  Think of change like getting fit, or learning a skill – you wouldn’t expect to achieve without putting the hours and repetitions in. And if that doesn’t convince you, take a look at the ‘forgetting curve’ (Ebbinghaus)

Even if we were to engage people and teach them our new way of working, much of what they learn is lost almost immediately and only truly comes through with repetition and practice.  The saying that ‘if you really want to learn something, teach it’ is true – it works in part by repetition.

3. Tackle Stacked Systems

This might seem specific amongst the other points, but it’s worthy I believe to call out.  Systems in organisations – the ‘how’ link between some kind of input and outcome – can often themselves be a block to progress. 

Imagine a change where we want a Service Desk to fix more of our customers’ problems.  That is, rather than answer the phone and direct their call, the agents fix more of them in that first call – an increase in first-time-fix.

However, we discover that the agents have two measurements placed upon them: first-time-fix and time-to-answer.

There’s an obvious dilemma here.  How is it possible for an agent to BOTH answer calls quickly (which implies getting off the phone quickly ready to take the next call) and spend enough time to actually fix a customer’s issue?

The agent will do their best, no doubt, but if they don’t satisfy the desires of our change, we cannot hold them accountable.  The system is stacked and you’d better fix that first.

4. Experimentation and Iteration

By now, we have a clear (evolutionary) purpose, we’ve accepted that we need to maintain focus and to keep a close watch on system-level barriers holding back our change. 

To amplify that thinking, our approach to complex change is best served by experimenting.  I love the Facebook quote (I attribute to them anyway) which goes:

“We have a long-term vision and check every 3 months to see if we’re still going the right way.”

Within our purpose, picking a shorter horizon to aim at and applying agile techniques for iteration give us the chance to learn, adapt and fulfil our first point – that purpose might evolve. 

More, if our approach is to experiment – we believe X hypothesis and will test it in this iteration – it’s possible to see our results objectively and/or empirically.

Finally, and important here is to take a look at perfection.  If your expectation is 100% complete: must happen, then people might fear to act.

5. Feedback and Safety

Which brings us to point 5, safety.  Psychological Safety is a now well-known topic thanks to the work of Amy Edmondson and notably the influence at Google (search Project Aristotle).

In case you aren’t familiar, psychological safety is a state of mind where a person feels no inhibition to share, speak up or be vulnerable in a group.  They can contribute the whole of themselves without fear of recrimination, judgement or humiliation.

There are many examples of the opposite across industries, and we all implicitly understand this. 

Imagine a data centre engineer being asked to join an organisation’s executive meeting and talk about their role and challenges they face.  Would they be open, candid and confident, or would you expect them to hold back or say something that they think people want to hear?

But the results are more insidious, and in change, critical.  If a person doesn’t feel psychologically safe, they won’t just hold back in the executive meeting, but are far less likely to try new ways of working, experiment or share their own views about what would help.  Understanding that you hired capable, knowledgeable people, are you willing to lose their creativity and insight through fear?  Assuming not, do something today to begin to address this.

Good luck!

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