The Social Age is a time of constant change: to thrive, organisations must adapt. But that adaptation means change in itself, change which is hard to visualise and harder still to embark on, to steer and to achieve. The result? Lethargy, churn and lost opportunity. Lethargy is where we fail to gain understanding, buy in or momentum. Churn is where we rush to activity, but fail to achieve transformation. Lost opportunity is where we fail to innovate, to adapt, to be creative in our approaches to our evolved ecosystem and to grasp the opportunity that it presents to us.
Change is complex: both in it’s conception and execution. It involves a journey from intent to transformation and requires both micro and macro adaptation. Organisations progress at different speeds, with different levels of success: I’m creating a framework of the ways that this change is manifested, to determine patterns and to provide insight as to how an organisation can progress. In this picture, you can see a change curve that bifurcates: on one leg, we achieve momentum and transformation. On the other, we end up with churn and lethargy. Between these spaces, most organisations fall and fail.
The Curves of Change
A change journey starts with intent: a recognition that change is needed, by at least one individual or sub community within an organisation. This may be a group within a formal hierarchy, the formal ‘leadership‘, or it may be engaged individuals at other levels, but change starts with an intent.
There follows a process of socialisation: building awareness of the need for change and the direction of travel. In formal contexts, this tends to be accompanied by the design of formal communication (which shows the organisational version of the change narrative). When the positioning is complete, we move to activity.
This is where the model diverges and we move to churning: the rollout of workshops, IT projects, training, a plethora of activity intended to induce momentum and movement in a population. Often it doesn’t. Often it just churns: everyone is busy, everything is juddering and shaking, lots of activity is taking place: but this is not change. It’s churn.
The model for transformative change in the Social Age is to set a direction of travel, but to co-create the detail. Why? Because through this process of co-creation, we are able to become invested in the change, we are able to shape it. Only be having this engagement and investment can we move out of churn and into change itself.
Organisations that get stuck at ‘churn‘ appear to be busy, but their efforts will increasingly leave them adrift of where they need to be. Or organisation that is churning cannot get traction or momentum, and without momentum, we cannot hit transformation.
Later this week, i’ll explore dimensions of change: the role of technology, community, psychology and hierarchy. For now though, let’s stick with the curve and consider three places that an organisation may end up:
1. ‘Intent’ to ‘Lethargy’ – The Antibody Effect
When the prevailing energy of the organisation is lethargy, disturbance is reacted to by organisational antibodies.
They identify the conversation and descend upon it: each formal vertical, each empire, each invested individual and team blocks and stifles the change story. I use the term ‘antibody‘ deliberately: these are not bad people doing bad things, but rather well honed survival skills operating at peak efficiency to maintain the status quo, to keep equilibrium. Which was fine, until the ecosystem changed. That’s the problem with the Social Age: everything has changed and will continue to evolve. Doing what we’ve always done will fail to deliver even the same result: it’s a law of diminishing returns.
The antibodies heal over the open wounds of disturbance, they seal the skin, making it impermeable to new ideas. And each wound leaves scar tissue, thicker and less flexible than before: it’s the curse of the lethargic organisation to deepen and embed it’s own lethargy.
How do we counter the antibody effect? You have to address the grass roots problem: it’s not about how important the change is, or even how you are sharing the story. It’s about learnt behaviours based on what has gone before. The previous change initiatives, the budget wrangles and fights for survival. The importance of maintaining strong hierarchical authority and power. The constant change. All of this pushes some organisations towards lethargy. To tackle it, we can look at developing an awareness of and capability in Social Leadership: a view that personal authority can be vested in reputation, not formal position. Which creates the potential to get people to see a new future, where they are enabled by the change, not constrained by it. And by identifying your Social Heroes: the people outside the formal hierarchy who wield reputation and social authority. They may be agents for change, embedded deep in the system. But make no mistake: the lethargic organisation faces an immediate challenge: it’s infra-structurally geared up to fail. For these organisations, engagement is urgent.
2. ‘Intent’ to ‘Constraint’
This is by far the most common manifestation of change i see in organisations: they share intent, they build awareness, but get stuck at ‘churn‘. The energy of the change is dispelled by the urge to control. The system responds to change, driving us back towards lethargy.
Type 2 organisations are in a better position than Type 1: they successfully disturb, but they run out of energy, because they rely on an external battery for power. Change which is driven from the top is the hardest change to drive: where the story is shaped and distributed, it faces friction and attrition at every level. And the only response we have is to push harder.
These organisations tend to to to action first: they rush to collateral and activity. And they are busy. And they stay busy. Initiatives, programmes, communication, all of this, in isolation, may be excellent. But without community and engagement, it’s never going to provide enough power to maintain momentum. And without momentum, we can’t have transformation. Because change isn’t about learning new things, or just following a new process: it’s about mindset and skills too, it’s about spaces and permissions.
The key to moving beyond constraint is social empowerment: forming and nurturing communities, co-creating the story of change, and co-owning it. Again, this is about developing Social Leadership skills, where individuals with formal, hierarchical power rely more on their social authority than the formal, but they build this by sharing compelling stories, by engaging in the debate, by avoiding argument. They do so with a mindset of humility and inclusiveness that recognises that they only have half the story.
To break out of constraint and move to transformation, we need co-creation and co-ownership, we need to recognise that the organisation no longer owns the story: it can frame it and shape it, but it can’t fully own it. Because trying to own the story and engineer the change decreases our power and provides space for antibodies to form.
3. ‘Intent’ to ‘Transformation’
The agile organisation blends a healthy mix of formal structure, social authority and engaged community. We can recognise it by it’s ability to innovate, to flex, to adapt, and to do so at every level, constantly. Because the process of adaptation is no longer fighting the antibodies or losing power to overbearing control. The agile organisation is empowered by scaffolded and reconfigurable structures, by uninhibited curiosity, and by a constant narrative as it works out loud. The agile organisation learns, and shares it’s learning.
Sound like a pipe-dream? Dream on: it’s this state of agility that any organisation should seek to achieve if it wants to be fit for the Social Age. Lethargy will kill you. Churn will keep you busy whilst you die. Agility is the only hope: building an ability not to just survive, but to thrive.
Most organisations get stuck in the second manifestation of change: they successfully create disturbance (or it’s successfully imposed on them from outside), and they manage to get to action. It’s the focus and purpose of this action where they fail. Not spectacularly: they may be doing great work, but it’s just the wrong work. Mechanisms of control sap the energy and they fall towards doing what they’ve always done. They compromise. In a world that doesn’t forgive.
Agile organisations achieve type 3: they are enabled by their community, led by leaders with both formal and social authority, and they embrace the stories that are told by their communities. They thrive on this tacit, tribal energy. The agile organisation is humble in stance, fair in outlook and behaviour and kind in action. The agile organisation co-creates the change, within a framework, and co-owns it, meaning that every individual can be invested in the change. That’s how it successfully severs the ties that hold it to the past.
Understanding the framework and pitfalls is just the first step: it helps us chart the path we want our organisation to follow and decide on the best route to get us there. But once we have decided that, the real work starts, which is what we will move onto next, as we try to understand the dimensions of constraint and how to tackle them.