The only constant is change, or so it feels. it’s safe to say that organisations are rarely in a state of stability, but rather, exist in constant flux. The only certainty is uncertainty. Change is understood to be something that happens ‘to’ you, not something that you drive.
The challenge with constant change is that it becomes the norm. Instead of being something revolutionary, it becomes evolutionary, although sometimes the journey can be a bit bumpy in places. When we learn, we respond to feedback. When we are young, we touch a fire and respond to the heat, when we first get told off at school, we respond in emotional ways. Responses are predictable and, over time, generate standardised responses. We build up an immunity to change, as well as highly effective learning strategies to incorporate the feedback we get into revised schemas for action. It is the very action of encouraging change, gathering feedback and responding to that feedback that shapes our earliest learning experiences and is carried on throughout our lives.
If we apply for jobs all the time, then we will get to be good at applying for jobs, especially if we listen to the feedback we get each time we fail (or succeed). Any activity that is constantly repeated, either voluntarily, or imposed upon us, will lead to the development of effective coping strategies. constant change will not necessarily create an organisation that is highly effective at changing, but rather it may create an organisation that is highly immune to the change.
Understanding the processes by which we learn to cope with change, and the value of change as a learning experience, means that we can consider different ways of actually driving and communicating change programmes. The question of ownership is, for me, central. Change needs to be something that is owned and driven by individuals, not something that is imposed on people. We need to incorporate the emotional responses that people feel when exposed to change and use them to help shape a response.
Instead of constantly telling people ‘this is what’s changing and this is why it is good’, we should allow people to have input and ownership of change. This is a practice that is not uncommon in industry, where small groups of engineers or factory workers may be better placed to design local solutions than a group of centralised consultants. It’s a model that Starbucks has used widely in implementing Six Sigma principles, allowing localised expertise to shape international strategy.
The realty is, of course, that much change we see in business is driven by cost saving and delivering greater shareholder value; but not all change projects are around this. Many of the types of project we regularly see are around improving customer experience and quality of user experience. These types of projects are far more suited to a democratic approach, to a process where ownership of change is driven out into the organisation and where the leadership is willing to invite both feedback and ownership.
In this light, change can become an enabling activity and also a fulfilling one. It’s about mindset, the willingness to believe that whilst we might not have all the answers ourselves, the people we work with may have a lot of them, if we are just brave enough to ask and to listen. And maybe even to learn.