Initiating Change…and making it happen

Change can be a threatening experience for people

The autumn brings a cycle of change; in temperate zones it is a shifting of the seasons when people traditionally reset themselves for the challenges of the coming year after the pleasures and abundances of the summer.The harvest is securely stored, now the ground must be prepared for the next year’s crops.

In organizations it is a milestone which sets off a new sales season, a refreshed programme of activity, a new intake of students, or  preparations for a new budget.

It is a good time to have  mental ‘re-fresh’ to consider what ‘CHANGE is all about.

Peter Senge (1990) suggests a number of principles in initiating change:

(i) there must be a compelling case for change;

(ii) there must be time to change;

(iii) help must be provided during the change process

(iv) there is a need to keep an eye open to new barriers after initial roadblocks have been removed.

When we make change happen, we need to recognise that, as carefully as we might plan it, we must be poised to learn and adapt to outcomes. Even if plans are thorough, they will always be based to some degree upon assumption – and those same assumptions and expectations might change as we gain more knowledge when we put things into action on the ground.

symbols various

  • • Assumptions can be made about purpose , the reason for being at our place of work
    – we should always test ourselves by asking ‘why are we doing this?’
  • • Assumptions can be made about people, what they do well, or when they make mistakes
    – without understanding the constraints they face; a ‘people problem’ or something else?
  • • Assumptions can be made about good performance, and reasons to celebrate
    – without knowing the true cost of that performance; is it sustainable?
  • • Assumptions can be made about one-off failures, or chronic repeating failures
    – without knowing which is which, nor the underlying causes of their occurrence
  • • Assumptions can be made about cause and effect, and implementing solutions
    – without understanding potential unintended consequences.

The best way of overcoming assumptions is to talk to people to identify things to examine; then to examine those things (by getting useful data); then evaluate the outcomes of our examination; then identify what to act upon and how – Plan-Do-Check-Act (starting at ‘Check’).

We must get better at using knowledge, and distance ourselves from rhetoric and assumption. This is done by understanding the system we work in, how to properly measure its performance, and what we can do about it with careful experimentation.

There is a neat way to define the power of working on the system, versus the expectations placed on people; it sends a message to anyone wanting to improve the way things work in their team. This quote is, I understand, attributed to Geary Rummler:

“Put a good performer in a bad system – and the system wins every time.”

In other words, don’t go around trying to change people; instead put effort into changing the system, and get your people involved in initiating the change…and making it happen.


Further reading:

Rummler G. and Bache A. (1995) Improving Performance: how to manage the white space in the organization chart. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Senge P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Doubleday, New York.

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