How to lead organisational change

“People don’t resist change, they resist being changed" Peter Senge, Senior Lecturer, Leadership and Sustainability, MIT

At Impact we often find ourselves in rooms full of senior leaders talking about the need for their organisation to change. It’s great. We like it. As a​ creative change agency, it is what we do. But all too often we have the same conversation - it goes roughly like this:

Senior Leaders (SL): “We know we need to change because... So we hired some consultants who produced a report, and we think we now have the right strategy...”

Impact: “Looks great. How did it go last time you implemented a new strategy?”

SL: “OK. We reorganised and restructured a lot, took out a lot of layers, reduced headcount etc...”

Impact: “Did that work?”

SL: [after a lot of debate] “Well yes... kind of...”

Impact: “So what have you learned from the last time that you will do differently this time?”

SL: [after a lot of debate] “It seems we can’t agree on what we learned exactly... There is something about the culture we find it very difficult to change. We aren’t agile enough around here etc.....”

Most of our work on organisational change boils down to this; senior leaders knowing clearly what they need to do, but not knowing how to do it. Why? Because the how is all about people, and people are messy, complex, brilliant things.

Impact’s view on the how of organisational change is simple;

All organisational change is people learning to do work differently or learning to do different work.

Let’s break that down:

People

In our experience meaningful change only happens when people are empowered to own the change that needs to happen. Not just what needs to change, but also to understand the wider purpose that is driving that change. Involving people in change is not getting them into a room and telling then what is happening - it is collectively leaning into the unknown. It is stumbling together, failing together, and jointly working through process. It is flows of communication, pockets of excellence, it is liberating brilliance throughout an organisation.

Learning

Leaders can appear vulnerable when they don’t know the answers or what to do. But none of us have all the answers. How could we? There is too much data to process, and technology is changing the rules of the game faster than we can keep up.

Leading change is a process of leading learning. It is noticing patterns and not repeating the same approaches that we’ve always tried. It is participation, collaboration, talking together, learning together.

Work

Successful organisational change requires a laser-like focus on the work, and on the things that people in organisations are actually doing. Ultimately it is the work we want to change, and if the work that an organisation is doing isn't different in some way then there hasn’t been any meaningful change.

We hear leaders talk about how tough organisational culture is to change and culture is important, but in our experience culture is not something that can be influenced directly by senior management teams (“right we are off to change the culture....”). That’s because organisational culture is an emergent property of how work gets done. Start changing how things are done, and the culture will begin to move.

At the heart of what Impact has learned is that all successful organisational change happens when senior leaders focus on the specific work that needs to change, they give ownership of that change to those already doing the work, and they design the change method as a learning process for all involved and for the organisation as a whole.

We are living in a period of unprecedented technological, economic, and societal upheaval, and when the world is changing so must we. As leaders it is critical that we re-evaluate and transform our approaches to how to bring about organisational change. And we can.

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