It’s true that in our ‘right hand’, so to speak, we’ve got barrel-loads of tools, techniques and frameworks that have been designed to help us manage change. Unfortunately, although these appear promising on paper, they seem to be less so in practice!
The problem is that most of the mainstream approaches, such as Kotter's Eight Steps, are based on flawed assumptions about how organizations work. They focus on the formal, rational, structured aspects of organization, and ignore the hidden, messy and informal bits, through which outcomes actually emerge. Many of the conventional, 'right-hand' tools work well for the matter-of-fact changes in the design of structures, systems and processes. But, in terms of organizational change and performance, this is only part of the story – and rarely the most important part. Instead, those charged with bringing about change need to look at - and engage with - the messier stuff that's going on in the organization's 'left hand'.
Organizations are not machines
Organizations don’t follow the same rules as inanimate structures, systems and processes. Instead, they are made up of shifting networks of people interacting with each other. And people have a habit of not conforming to the machine-like assumptions that still govern much of the mainstream thinking about organizational change and performance. Assumptions which suggest that, if you pull the right levers, predictable results will follow.
Yes managers need to make effective use of formal processes and tools – do these better and get them right. Although ‘less is more’ might be a good watchword to use here! But however well they do that, they will not succeed in organizational change unless, as leaders, they get to grips with the informal, ‘under the table’, 'left-hand' stuff as well.
Too often, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Or doesn’t want to know. Or doesn’t think that it matters.
So where does that leave us – and what can we do?
Let's think about what typically happens when changes are introduced according to conventional wisdom.
At one extreme, we have a 'revolutionary' approach to change. This involves commanding and controlling its introduction at speed, with very little up-front involvement of staff and using a highly structured methodology to programme- and project-manage the changes. At the other end of the spectrum, we have more participation and greater flexibility in the methods used and the outputs that are achieved. And both approaches emphasise the importance of a planned communication programme, designed to inform people about what changes are taking place and why.
Many organizations carry out these formal, structured elements very well. However, the change is not complete (if ever it is!) when the new structure has been announced and the organizational boxes filled. Or when the new systems have been installed and formal training carried out. Or when two merging companies become a new legal entity. And so on. In terms of our left and right hands, we’ve only reached the point where the heels of our hands are touching. At this stage, the fingers of the two hands remain wide apart.
Change is not successful until a critical mass of people are fully engaged with the new ways of working and have changed their behaviours to match the new requirements... when, metaphorically speaking, the fingers are intertwined. And this can’t be achieved simply by relying on the formal, 'right-hand' approaches. It's much more about engaging directly with what’s going on in the organization's 'left hand'.
If this isn’t done, people will still carry on interacting with each other and making sense of what’s going on, of course. But they are likely to do this in ways that preserve the old ways of working or that do the minimum to achieve compliance, with no real commitment or engagement. In other cases, it might spur them to go off in a different direction altogether – for better or worse in relation to the organization’s current performance and formally planned changes. So a primary change-leadership task (for line managers from the CEO to the first line) is to work to draw these threads (and fingers!) together.
I shall look at this further in the next and final post of this ‘trilogy’.
Other posts in the series - Part 1: The missing ingredient?