Constant Change is the New Black!

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Transitioning People Through Constant Change

William Bridges put it so well in his 1991 book “Managing Transitions: Making The Most of Change” 

It isn't the changes that do you in, it's the transitions

In 2017, I think that this quote could not be truer. However, I do have a different perspective than Bridges intended.

Bridges and I Differ

What Bridges meant is that change is situational. It could be the implementation of new technology, a reorganisation of teams, a change in policy etc. Transition is psychological - the process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.

He talks about the three phases that need to be managed to assist people transition to new ways of working.

·       ending/losing/letting go

·       the neutral zone

·       the new beginning

This is where Mr. Bridges and I diverge.

Change is Constant

I believe it isn’t the changes that do you in, it's the transitions – because the transition is now constant.

To thrive in today’s world, organisations have to enable employees to continually transition to different ways of working.  Constant change is the new norm.

We do not have the capacity to “manage” people through three phases of transition in a world that is now described as VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, in which change is constant.

VUCA is not a new term. It was coined in the 1990s by the US military to describe conditions resulting from the Cold War. It’s now used widely in the business world to describe the terrain we have to operate in today.

·       Volatile – constant and significant change

·       Uncertain – events and outcomes are unpredictable

·       Complex – many interconnected parts and variables

·       Ambiguous – a lack of clarity – no precedents – the unknown unknowns

The existing approaches to organisational change management are simply not suited to o VUCA world.


The Old Approaches to Change No Longer Work

The framework that most organisational change management approaches have been based on, including that of Bridges, is Kurt Lewin's 1947 three stage theory of change - commonly referred to as Unfreeze, Change, Freeze.

In a nutshell, Lewin describes the three phases as unfreeze – prepare for change; change – transition and move toward a new way of being; and freeze – establishing stability once the change has been made.

But today, there is no stability. As Hamel and Zanini referred to it in a McKinsey 2014 article – its no longer about freeze and unfreeze because it is constant slush.

The Kubler-Ross inspired five stage change model – the change curve – still has relevance today in explaining how individuals respond to change – but we no longer have the luxury to determine where each individual, or group of individuals, is on the curve and put in place tactics to move them along the curve.

The Accelerated Implementation Methodology® (AIM) from IMA also has three-phase process – plan, implement and monitor.

Even, Prosci®, one of the most widely used approaches to organisation change today, has a three phase process – prepare for change, manage change and reinforce change.

We are living in a different world that is going to require a different approach to change and transition.

We are not in a state where we can plan, do, embed and then wait for the next change. Rinse and repeat! Those days are gone. Constant change is the new black!

We Need a Different Approach

Today, transitioning people through change is continual and multi-faceted. We need a more agile and iterative approach to organisational change.

As the title of the Hamel and Zanini article cited earlier advises – “Build a change platform, not a change program”.

We are no longer in a situation where change is episodic – where it happens every so often and disrupts what we were doing. It is driven from the top and cascades down through a hierarchical chain of command.

Management of change today has to be baked into the organisational construct, not something that is added on when it is needed.

Today’s organisation is one in which everyone can initiate change, can experiment, and is allowed to fail. Everyone has the capability and permission to be self-organising so that change is truly constant. Energy and ideas come from the entire organisation.

Kill the Hierarchy!

The only role of hierarchy is to get rid of bad bureaucracy. There needs to be a flatter structure, increased innovation and collaboration, and more timely communications. Decision-making is decentralised and autonomy and authority is delegated.

There is a platform for change – not a program driven from the top. Change is driven up and down, down and up, across and out of the organisation.

Sound like anarchy? Well it isn’t and there are organisations that are already making the changes needed not only to survive but also thrive in a VUCA world.

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Shining Examples

One organisation that didn't need to flatten its structure because it was always that way is W.L. Gore – one of the most successful organisations in the world today. Gore has more than 10,000 employees and basically three levels of hierarchy. The CEO is elected democratically; there are a handful of functional managers, and then everyone else. Decision-making is delegated to self-managing teams of 8-12 people.

Gore CEO Terri Kelly says:

“It’s far better to rely upon a broad base of individuals and leaders who share a common set of values and feel personal ownership for the overall success of the organization. These responsible and empowered individuals will serve as much better watchdogs than any single, dominant leader or bureaucratic structure.”

One of the most prominent and successful computer game makers is Valve. Valve’s employee handbook says:

“Nobody 'reports to' anybody else. We do have a founder/president, but even he isn't your manager. This company is yours to steer – toward opportunities and away from risks”.

At Semco, the Brazilian conglomerate, decision-making is delegated. When Ricardo Semler, joined the organisation as chairman in 1983, he worked tirelessly to distribute decision-making. Now one of the firm’s key performance indicators is how long Semler can go between making decisions.  The time keeps getting longer, while the firm has maintained around 20% growth for nearly 30 years now.

Under Semler’s leadership, Semco grew from USD$4 million to over USD$160 million in about 20 years.

In a 2014 TED Global presentation, Semler said:

“We looked at it and we said, let's devolve to these people, let's give these people a company where we take away all the boarding school aspects of, this is when you arrive, this is how you dress, this is how you go to meetings, this is what you say, this is what you don't say, and let's see what's left. And so, the question we were asking was, how can we be taking care of people? People are the only thing we have.”

So what can we learn from these organisations?

Coming Up!

Over the coming weeks and months I will be exploring how we need to take a fresh and radical look at organisational change management, and the changes we need to make if we are to thrive.

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Also remember that older posts from me are available via the Resources section.

Karen FerrisOCM, change, VUCAComment