Tag Archives: change

The beauty of learning – nothing is wasted

Spider WebThe term ‘learning organisation’ first gained popularity in the 1990s and is, unusually in the faddish world of  ‘management-speak’, one which seems to have endured. What is a ‘learning organisation’ and why try to become one?

An organisation that learns is best able to adapt. It finds out what works and what doesn’t and, most importantly, does something with that knowledge.

However, a learning organisation doesn’t just accrue information. Some organisations appear to be addicted to data – searching for the ‘facts’ before decisions can be made. This is NOT a characteristic of  a learning organisation since it will cause one of two problems (or both): either the organisation will boil itself to death in trivia and noise and not pick up the important signals;  or statically churn data without adapting – paralysis by analysis. This is not learning.

A definitive feature about learning is that it involves proactively seeking out knowledge; to make good judgements based on insight. If we want people in our team, department or organisation to start learning, then we should steer them towards good judgements based on insights from analysis. The statement ‘costs are out of control’ is an opinion. However, if we define costs and out of control, we can then test that hypothesis and progress in our understanding (Scholtes 1998). This requires new disciplines of thought. For Deming, part of this transformation is about getting managers to see themselves as experimenters who lead learning.

The Learning Cycle (adapted from Scholtes 1998)
The Learning Cycle (adapted from Scholtes 1998)

A good way to represent this type of approach is the Deming Wheel (or Shewhart Cycle, as Deming labelled it) Plan-Do-Study-Act; the never-ending cycle of learning (Scholtes 1998). Deming called for a change from ‘opinions’ to hypotheses which we can test, understand and then apply to our work activities.

Scholtes explains the phases of learning. ‘Plan’ and ‘Act’ are the stages of developing and reviewing theories and hypotheses. ‘Do’ and ‘Study’ are about application – work and the examination of work and outcomes. The phases of thinking and doing are intrinsically linked.

“There is nothing as practical as a good theory”
Kurt Lewin

Further Reading:

Drejer, A. (2000)”Organisational learning and competence development”, The Learning Organization, Vol. 7 Iss: 4 pp. 206 – 220

Scholtes, P. R. (1998) The Leader’s Handbook: A guide to inspiring your people and managing the daily workflow, New York: McGraw-Hill

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


Other references:

Lewin, K. (1952) Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers, p. 346. London: Tavistock.


Metamorphosis: significant change requires energy

My son and I have been monitoring the frogspawn in our garden pond since April. It has been fascinating to see the tadpoles hatch, then grow into monstrous alien-looking aquatic denizens. Suddenly in the last couple of weeks they have started sprouting limbs, then their feet and toes have lengthened becoming mobile. Body shapes change, the tails shorten and a new form develops.

This is interesting stuff, but the biggest talking point in our family has been the observation that the reasonably big, fat tadpoles end up turning into relatively-speaking quite tiny froglets. Why is this?

Clearly the metamorphosis takes energy; the gut system changes the body shape of the animal, but all of the excess (most obviously the tail) has to be reabsorbed to fuel the transformation. The result is a smaller animal – but one which is much more adaptable, capable and resilient – and which, as it moves out of the pond, hunting and feeding, soon outgrows its original tadpole form.

The moral of the tale is, hopefully, obvious – with change, you don’t get something for nothing. If we want change to happen we need to expect an investment – to put something into the change.

Remarkably, however, investment in change does not primarily mean money and resources. Initially, the resources are within us.

What change certainly requires, as in the frog, is an investment by us – a renewal in our thinking
– and that takes EFFORT.

The effort is expressed in establishing new thinking, in questioning ourselves, in being open to new ideas (which stretch our minds or challenge our emotions), and in getting into new habits through practice.

Of course it is always easier to do nothing and sit on the proverbial sofa…

…watching the same problems occur again and again.

Further reading:

Coppin, A. and Barratt, J. (2002) Timeless Management, Palgrave MacMillan, NY



Leadership in Action

By Cindy Vallance


I was very pleased to be asked to present our University of Kent leadership and management programme participation certificates at the annual Learning and Development Awards Ceremony in late January.

However, before I presented the certificates I was given the opportunity to share a few thoughts with the 120 staff members in attendance. A few people asked me afterwards for my references so I thought it might be useful to repeat the words I shared with that group again here:


Everyone in this room today that is receiving an award has demonstrated leadership. This type of leadership is self-leadership and is the foundation for all other types of leadership. An American professor by the name of Charles Manz provides an explanation of the concept of self-leadership in relation to self-management. He stated that while self-management is largely concerned with a set of behavioural and cognitive strategies that reflect a rational view of what people ought to be doing…self-leadership goes beyond this to place significant emphasis on the intrinsic value of tasks.” (Manz, Charles C. “Self-Leadership: Toward an Expanded Theory of Self-Influence Processes in Organizations,” Academy of Management Review, Volume 11, No. 3, 1986, 585-600.)

The individual who exercises self-leadership does not simply respond to a leader’s vision; the individual helps to create the vision. Your achievements reflect your individual part in helping to embody a wider organisational vision for the University of Kent.

I have also noticed a number of common themes recurring increasingly in discussions across our leadership and management programmes – behaviours that appear to resonate to participants, managers, and sponsors alike – qualities that I am happy to see not just being spoken about but also demonstrated.

These themes include: collaboration, community, respect, fostering diversity, transparency, trust, breaking down silos, appreciation, balancing creativity with consistency and focusing on a purpose that is larger than ourselves to inspire and motivate others.

Everyone can help to demonstrate their self-leadership and belief in the themes that are resonating across the University by practicing six keys to leading positive change. These keys were coined by one of my favourite thinkers, Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter and are really very simple:

“Show up, speak up, look up, team up, don’t give up, and lift others up.”


Restoration, re-invigoration and renewal

Two types of change are commonly experienced at work (or in life) – ‘incremental improvement’ and ‘renewal’. In a previous blog I discussed incremental improvements and change.

Sometimes this terminology gets muddled – people often talk about ‘incremental change’, as if this is to be expected and welcomed, but it risks us accepting uncontrolled or ill-considered changes…

Drifting in a storm of change is a worst-case scenario!

… analogous to the experience of an untethered boat, without power or sail, bobbing across a choppy sea – at the mercy of external tides and winds and its own susceptibility to leak!

To cope better with change we need to anticipate it, by being proactive in improving our service before it is forced upon us and by getting everyone involved in shaping the change and being a part of what needs to happen. It is of course important to know which change to address and when and part of this is informed by involving people who know what is happening on the ground.

‘RENEWAL’, on the other hand, is a much more glamorous cousin; highly visible, demanding ‘out of the box thinking’ (I think this is the correct parlance) and often packaged as ‘strategic’. Each of these aspects can be very useful, but should be handled with care. Many of us will recognise the renewal approach as the preferred option of many a manager (particularly people new into a role):

One only has to think of a new football manager installed at a Premier League club, who ushers players out (‘dead wood’) and in (‘new boys’) for millions of pounds to ‘get the team into shape’, or to ‘have them working my way’.  By the time THAT manager has been fired (often in a matter of months) another ‘new man’ comes in (they usually are men) and does the same thing over again. On occasion the ‘new man’ may re-install players who had previously been in the club, whilst offloading the previous set of new boys…and so the cycle continues. Coincidentally a sacking occurred in the Premier League this week; Chelsea’s manager was hired temporarily in March, formally appointed August and fired in November.

After eight sackings since 2003, Chelsea Football Club now seek a ninth manager in as many years.

This is NOT to say that renewal is bad. Clearly at times it is vital – but it can easily be mis-handled. When well directed and purposeful, renewal is essential and can have significant impact. The caveat is that when it is not purposeful nor well-directed it is causes disruption (or worse).

So how do we avoid the problems? One major problem with many efforts at renewal and incremental improvement is that it is not really renewal at all, but simply an attempt at copying the previous experience of particular managers or other organisations. Whilst this appears perfectly plausible, attempts at applying methods from one place to another may not work. This lack of success is not just about people, but about the complex needs of different users (customer, clients etc), systems and the way that work is organised. Rather than copying, it is much better for teams to examine their users needs and the work they do to deliver the service. At that stage, use that new knowledge to make decisions about change – which may be incremental or may involve more significant renewal. Well-focused, well-thought out effort will enable change to have a better and lasting impact.

And as for meeting the changing demands of a vibrant, challenging world – what can we really do to be effective? Well, with the right effort and focus, even a tiny turtle hatchling can negotiate an ocean…


BBC Sport (2012) Roberto Di Matteo sacked by Chelsea after Juventus defeat,  21 November 2012

MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK.

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


Conversations, Not Just Words

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

One of my favourite thinkers in the areas of  innovation, strategy and change leadership  is Harvard business professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter .

A blog she wrote has relevance to the Social Sciences Change Academy and to the University more widely. It’s entitled Ten Essentials for Getting Value from Values  and in it she first confirms what we all know – that the ‘values’ words contained in vision and mission statements and in strategic planning documents across many organisations are eerily similar and are usually somewhat generic (eg. respect,  trust, equality, etc. – in fact, some of the same words we have used in describing what we say we care about within the Social Sciences Change Academy).

What can we possibly take from sets of words that could be used to describe any organisation? I agree with the view of Rosabeth Moss Kanter; the value comes not from the words themselves but from the conversations and dialogue that they have the power to initiate.

I was in a meeting very recently where we discussed ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ as two words that underline what we want to achieve at U of Kent in supporting the student experience. To me, these words describe the values of what the group is working to achieve. As Professor Moss Kantor states “Values are aspirational, signaling long-term intentions that guide thinking about the future.” But how do we make time for these conversations that make values real over time? Aren’t we all just too busy getting the work done? Here are just a couple of options:

One way is to intentionally combine different sets of individuals across a range of roles and functions in project work so that a larger group can contribute to work to be done – individuals who are perhaps beyond the range of what sometimes may seem to be ‘the usual suspects.’ Be sure to include discussion on the values underpinning the work from the outset.

Another way is to find out what others are up to. This then can help us make values connections across seemingly disparate areas. An easy way to do this is through social media. One of the biggest benefits I find from twitter, for instance, is that it gives me quick access to a range of what is going on within and outside U of Kent.

In 10-15 minutes, I can read the latest newsletter from the School of Anthropology and Conservation (@SACA_Kent), catch up on Kent Union Sabbatical Officer Kenny Budd’s most recent blog (@kbuddinyourface) and see at a glance what the THE (@timeshighered) has to say about the latest HE league tables. I can often then have more productive conversations because I know a little to start with about a wider range of activities than I would otherwise have time to explore; how else would I know that a big long term priority for @KentUnion is an improved facility – for, you guessed it, conversation, meetings, and network development.

What can we all do? Get a conversation going about values. Having coffee or lunch with someone we don’t normally interact with is a simple way to start. What are they working on? What is important to them? How might this intersect with the work we are doing? Values then start to become both real and shared.

What do holiday snaps have to do with the University of Kent?

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

I couldn’t help but think of the University of Kent during a recent trip to France. I stayed at a hotel one night that had an intriguing history.

The hotel was once a wing of a fortified castle constructed in the 11th century by Robert de Dreux, grandson of Louis VI, King of France. The castle was passed down through various royal family members and enjoyed by kings, from Louis XII to Charles IX, for 200 years through to the 16th century. Its history then became more volatile until the 18th century when the castle was inherited by Philip Egalite who in his efforts to seek approval from the Republicans ordered the partial demolishment of his own chateau and sold many fixtures and furnishings from the castle. The present chateau, once a wing of the Royal castle, rose again through restoration in 1863 and was ultimately converted to a hotel in 1956. Further refurbishment was continuing when I stayed there; rooms were being redecorated and a spa was being added to the site that will include underfloor heating (harkening as far back as Neolithic times). Restoration work was also underway on the existing ruins to preserve a lasting legacy for those who visit.

So why did this make me think of Kent? For me, the castle/chateau and its many transitions throughout history tell me a story of survival and of success. The chateau has reinvented itself multiple times while still retaining an appreciation and sense of its colourful and rich history.

When I came back to work, I couldn’t help but notice afresh the building and renovation work happening here at Kent and the hive of activity within the walls where staff and students are making decisions about what actually happens here.

As we continue to find our way through times of uncertainty for the higher education sector, what buildings, traditions, practices and offerings will we retain and what will we change to meet the needs of our future students? As we think about Kent’s 50th anniversary in 2015, we are given the opportunity to consider what our story has been and what our story will be 5, 10, or 50 years from now. What will Kent look like – a crumbling ruins or an exceptional destination that is proud of its heritage and that looks unwaveringly to its future? I personally firmly believe that our collective talents, knowledge, and commitment will serve us well in preserving Kent for generations to come.

What does ‘good’ look like?

Usain Bolt didn’t fit the ‘norm’ for championship sprinters, but his performances redefined ‘what good looks like’

Early in my career I was fortunate enough to work with some very good change experts who introduced me to some very useful ideas which have proven to be very enduring.

One perspective was to understand ‘what good looks like’. Although essentially straightforward, this is not about the obvious. In the world of work, what ‘good looks like’ is about how ‘good’ actually works. Good is good because it is effective (not because it is trendy or fits current norms).

Look beyond the outward signs of ‘good practice’ (i.e. methods) and seek the inward signs: symptoms versus causes, stability and control versus instability and chaos,  integrity versus game playing and politicking.

The best change leaders engage people’s attitudes and mindsets before discussing methods; they are able to engage with feelings and emotions. Human beings are emotional entities and, to put it bluntly, we don’t behave rationally. This happens because we process logic through the intricate filters of emotion and experience. If we ignore emotions of working people, we are unlikely to get their support. Charles Jacobs (2009) suggests that we engage people with the story of change, not merely the logical argument. Why? “Because people are more likely to change when the motivation comes from within, and when we ask rather than tell” (Jacobs 2009).

We need to emotionally own and engage with the change on our own account. As Coppin and Barret (2002) put it, “whether we believe we can  or we can’t, we’re right” – we need people who choose to make change happen. They remind us of the words of George Bernard Shaw:

“People who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”

Or to paraphrase Ghandi: “…be the change you want to see in the world.”

Read more here:

Coppin, A. and Barratt, J. (2002) Timeless Management, Palgrave MacMillan, NY

Jacobs, C.J. (2009) Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science, Penguin Group Portfolio, NY

Change the words – keep the message

It is 7 months since the Change Academy team started these blogs, in which time we have have covered a lot of ground. There is a tendency in change initiatives to get trapped in a web of  jargon – using a lot of buzz-words without understanding the message.

So, to informally test this out lets have a look at a wordle created from my blogs of the past few months:

 John Macdonald (1998) talks of a mischievous attempt by engineers at Honeywell bust the jargon culture. Their ‘buzzword generator’ included three columns of words, where a choice of one from each column generated plausible (but nonsensical) buzzwords, such as’ parallel synchronised timephase’ or ‘compatible policy projection’ to throw into discussions with colleagues.

To put a positive slant on his idea, lets play a similar sort of same game in reverse, using phrases suggested by this Wordle, and instead look to get some value from the message:

‘People need change’ – we are adaptive creatures and getting stuck in a rut appears to lead us to boredom (at least in work). Boredom reduces creativity and improvement; the rut deepens. On the other hand change (though perhaps stressful) energises people; new ways of working get noticed and new behaviours rub off.

‘Theory changes behaviour’ – theory is often presented as the opposite to ‘being practical’, but actually this is not the case. Theory shapes thinking and your thinking shapes your behaviour, so useful theory should change behaviour in useful ways.

‘Things values see (better)’ – if we define our values (rather than relying on what we assume to be values), we open up new conversations that begin to challenge what happens round us.  We start to see dis-functional working relationships and inappropriate practice and this allows us to raise questions and make challenges on things that previously never hit the radar. Our organisation becomes more alert and ‘alive’ to new things.

‘Work suggests approach’ – people who do the work know the work, warts and all. Their knowledge should be used to identify and implement improvements. Often change initiatives involve implementing great new ideas or benchmarks from other organisations which fail to work in the context of our own organisation. Don’t impose outside solutions until you know what is actually happening to the work on the ground and why it occurs. Only then are you going to get on the correct route to improvement.

Although this is just a bit of fun, change can be a serious business – always remember to keep your mind open and your feet on the ground.


Read more here:

MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK

Some preview material is available on:





The Need for Speed : let’s not assume that change is a slow business

It is easy to slip into thinking that  ‘change’ as a slow and often difficult process. After all, we know that we can become creatures of habit, enjoying the comfort of the familiar. But this is not what defines us. Human beings are creatures that have mastered  (or, at least, have developed) the art of adapting; changing our knowledge, decisions, behaviour, environment, relationships. It is too easy to think that we ‘don’t like change’. This is simply not the case. We are beings that not only adapt to what is around us, but we often actively choose to influence what is around us. After all, it is not uncommon for us to choose to find ways to make things better or different (either for ourselves or, sometimes, others!).

My great-grandfather (who was still around when I was a youngster) was born into the victorian age in the 1880s. He was already a young man when the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, yet he lived to experience being a passenger flying in jet airliners and saw the Apollo astronauts land on the moon. His life experiences, work and education had to adapt fairly radically, but I imagine it was a fairly natural process – that’s life.

Organisations can change faster that society as a whole. Perhaps we need to start seeing change in our organisation as a ‘natural’ process, although one which we can actively influence ourselves. We need to see change happen in noticeable timescales; weeks and months not years. If we want people to believe in the changes we want, then they need to be able to see those changes. This implies that changes should move over short timescales rather than at barely-observable ‘glacial’ rates. Herrero (2006) goes further, suggesting that if cultural changes cannot be observed in short timeframes, then something is wrong.

He suggests that we should reject two assumptions:

“Cultural change is a slow and painful long-term affair.”
No -it need not be slow – there is a better way.

“Short-term wins are tactical but they do not usually represent real change.”  Again no – with viral networks, small changes can lead to a big impact.

So, what is the challenge? We need to accelerate change by engaging networks of people in making things happen. In a previous post it was suggested that small sets of behavioural changes, taken on and shared by informal groups of people can generate improvements in a non-linear way, as Hererro terms it, a ‘viral’ spread.

Of course, our blog posts and comments have raised questions about how the position of our leaders influences change. What if leaders don’t want the change? That places the challenge on us to influence them. Influence changes to the way routines are followed and then enable people to see the impact as it evolves.

At a recent staff conference on Service Excellence we included a keynote speech and workshop led by the student union president. This is not revolutionary, but merely having students in the room at a staff development event changes perspectives and establishes new conversations and ways of thinking.

To influence others we need to encourage quick, meaningful changes; not just ticking items off the ‘to do’ list, but adopting new behaviours, new ways of thinking, new habits. These things may appear less tangible, but they do have impact, they don’t need to wait for a sign-off at the next Academic Committe Meeting and they do allow change to happen much quicker.

Remember to read:

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.


Don’t be discouraged: keep your eyes wide open

I was recently reminded of Peter Senge’s (1994) work on ‘Systems Thinking’ and change. He observes that often things (including behaviour) appear to “grow worse before it grows better”. He suggests that this happens because we start to see underlying issues more clearly. For us, those issues were previously either unmentionable, unnoticed or just not a priority.

This bubbling up of negativity, challenge and expectation can cause despair – we start seeing the dangers of the iceberg lurking below the waterline. Also, other people might not like the fact that we want to challenge ‘the way things get done around here’. But don’t be discouraged!

This is a measure that things are getting better; formerly ‘undiscussable’ problems have simply risen to the surface – things can now change! As Senge notes, taking things forward might mean that an occasional toe will be stepped upon. But keep experimenting, keep building a better understanding of what is needed and keep seeking solutions to make things better.

More from Peter Senge:

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

Senge, P. (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London.