Change (part 1/3)- Challenge Your Assumptions About Change

Feb 12, 2019

Academics have been studying and writing about organizational change since the late 1940’s. There are a lot of different theories. Lewin had his unfreezing and freezing stuff. People tried to apply ideas from the psychology of grief. John Kotter came out with a famous model in the 90’s, then played with it and refined it a few times. Various people devised their own frameworks, borrowing and combining different pieces. Much that work is useful in one way or another.

But, if you go back and really look at that classic change stuff, you’ll see there are five key assumptions that are baked into almost all of it:

  1. Defined Initiative: Change is generally presented as a defined initiative. It may be complex, but ultimately there is some particular thing or limited set of things that need to change.
  2. Known Solutions: It’s generally assumed that the right thing to do is known, or at least knowable, in advance. We may have some questions to answer and options to choose from, but we can get to a right answer with a little work.
  3. Steady State A to B: Change is described as moving from one stable situation, through a relatively brief transition, and arriving at a new stable state of affairs. We’re going from A to B and change is the thing in-between.
  4. Top-Down: In the classic view, change is usually something that the leader does to or for other people. The change leader creates urgency. There’s a lot of time spent on dealing with “resistance” among the “recipients” of change. For heaven’s sake, the Kübler-Ross stuff was originally about accepting death. If that’s not a case of unwilling participants, I don’t know what is.
  5. Process, Structure, System: Classic change work assumes the leader needs to focus much of their time on altering organizational processes, structures, and systems for Steady State B.

And there are quite a few initiatives in business that look like that:

Let’s say we’re going to modernize our IT infrastructure. It’s defined: we have a set of systems that we want to replace. There’s certainly complexity, because it touches so many areas of the business, but at the end of the day, there’s some set of cloud-based solutions out there that we can pick from. At some date, we’ll shut off the old ones and go live on the new ones. Then we’ll live with that for a while. That’s a pretty classic change scenario.

Or maybe we’re going to implement global account management: going from simple geographic territories to an overlay of GAM’s with responsibility for top accounts in targeted verticals. It’s another classic change scenario. We’ll pick a model. We’ll restructure parts of the salesforce. We’ll certainly have standards for how we engage with different tiers of clients, who does what, quota crediting, etc. Not everyone will like it, but we’ll “get them on board”. 

Now think about the biggest challenges facing your business today. 

Do they all look like that? Do they fit that set of classic change assumptions?

If your organization is like most, the answer is no. Companies today are coping with new technologies that are reshaping industries; generational trends that are yielding a new workforce and a new customer base; even environmental changes that carry radical implications for established sectors.

If you’re a services firm trying to become a leader in AI, you can’t know everything that entails, because the field is advancing quickly, and nobody has done it before. If you’re a company that needs to tap a new and diverse employee base in order to grow, you’re looking at more than just some new hiring processes – you need to evolve your culture. If you’re a traditional energy producer looking toward a post-carbon future, you’d better not count on a savior CEO with all the answers. You’ll be waiting a long time.

When companies are trying to achieve transformational change, the old assumptions don’t really fit:

  • Rather than a defined initiative, we’re talking about issues with broad and ambiguous implications for the business.
  • We don’t have established solutions to pick from. In fact, we don’t even have a complete handle on the problem yet.
  • Nor do we have the luxury of those long steady-states punctuated by short periods of change. Conditions keep evolving at a rate where we have to move from one wave of change to the next. If we get a brief breather now and then, we consider ourselves lucky.
  • Increasingly, change is being compelled by forces outside the organization, and our response to those challenges is being sparked by people at various levels and in unexpected places inside the organization.
  • Of course, we need new processes and systems from time to time, but the bigger challenge is how we are going to get our people and culture to a place where we can achieve the transformation we want.

Those are really big differences. What does change look like from where you sit? How well are the classic assumptions serving you today?