“Here’s the situation,” said Steve, the CEO of a medium-sized health care organization with multiple locations. “We’re not dealing with just one enormous change at a time any more. We can’t fully adapt ourselves to one before we have to get everyone ready for the next one. And there are three more – that we know of – waiting in the wings and dependent on the success of the current ones. Even though we try to do a good job of change management, and bringing people in on the changes, we can’t slow down the train to be that deliberate with each change. We’ve got to become unconsciously competent at absorbing change.”
Chris Worley, of the respected Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, agrees with Steve. He argues that even the most respected models of change management all make some faulty assumptions about change:
- That a change will at some time be over. Ask Steve about getting people to use the medical records system properly two years after its implementation. Ask him when their data will be trusted.
- That you can adequately prepare people in advance for what is essentially an unnatural event. Ask any new parent how much their parenting classes and books helped them in the first three months of exhaustion and inexplicable crying and disjointed schedules.
- That a view of the future can be handed down. How many of us are in the profession our parents expected to see us practicing and encouraged us to pursue?
Worley makes the case that in today’s business environment, change is the steady state, not the exception to business as usual. And because adaptation to change is never easy and no one can be adequately motivated or prepared for it, it requires rethinking our essential business operational norms and processes. Steve was clear in his own mind that becoming unconsciously competent at absorbing change was critical for his business. And he was equally clear that he had no earthly idea how to do that. Here are some things Steve is now thinking about, to build the ‘unconscious competence for change’ in his organization:
- Experimentation vs. planning. Most organizations already believe that a 5-year strategic plan is futile. Many have opted for two-year or three-year plans. Maybe it’s sufficient to have continuous conversation in the company about ‘strategic trajectories’ – a general direction to head until indicators suggest a change – and then to encourage loads of experimentation to try out approaches to an imagined future. The experiments serve to sharpen the ‘strategic trajectories’, and give everyone ways to try on a different way to work instead of finding it imposed on them. Reward systems are being modified to place value on trying new things that may advance the strategies – and critically, to not penalize such experimenters when the innovation doesn’t pan out. Experimentation is tracked and results recorded; its learnings add to further work on strategy development.
- Evolution vs. change. Although we become parents in name in a single moment, we become parents in behavior in an evolutionary process. Instead of Steve’s messaging to the organization being about ‘why we have to change’, it is becoming about ‘the inevitable evolution of our business’ and the accompanying need for adaptability to new situations virtually every day. Steve is emphasizing the ways in which the organization can – and does – evolve, sending the message that this type of change is something at which they have historically demonstrated success. He is talking about the organization living in cycles, implying a constant need for adaptation.
- Co-creation and networking vs. top-down problem-solving. People don’t ‘prepare’ for change – they live into it. And, like learning a language, living into change is a process fraught with fear, embarrassment about mistakes, and exhaustion from having to substitute something unnatural for something that requires no conscious effort. To the extent that people can help to build the new work process or system, it adds subtle practice time to their learning curve, as well as helps to build the confidence that dilutes resistance. Rather than formalized project teams to develop some aspects of the new work processes, the problem is being articulated to work groups and they are asked to self-form as needed to develop a workable process around a target date and a set of broad requirements. Even where Steve’s organization must implement a standardized system for something like medical records, they’ve established intranet sites for people to post problems they’re having and for others to post responses. Learning from each other is proving to be more effective than repeated training.
- Learning vs. knowing. Traditionally, people are valued and rewarded for what they know – and thus they guard it. In Steve’s organization, they’re working on changing that thinking to being rewarded and valued for shared learning – bringing information to bear from the external environment (‘heard on the street’), adding skills, sharing their knowledge with others in informal ‘training’, discussing what they’ve learned from experiments. The emphasis on continual new personal learning opens curiosity and willingness to explore options. It aids experimentation.
If change is feeling like the steady state in your organization, you may need an accompanying steady state of continual adaptation. You’ll know it’s needed if what you’re seeing are symptoms like widespread change overload, near-constant stress, dug-in resistance, and/or an inability to layer on a new change because the previous one(s) aren’t fully absorbed. Then it’s time to call it what it is: a period of evolution that demands of the organization what Steve so perfectly described as “unconscious competence” in change. And, as Steve also recognized, it demands of you as a leader a new model of leadership. How will you address your own leadership evolution to guide an organization in which change is the steady state?
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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