Change Curve: The Constrained Organisation

I’ve been introducing the Change Curve, a framework for dynamic organisational change in the Social Age. It identifies three manifestations of change: ‘Resisted‘, where the organisation deploys antibodies and kills the change, ‘Constrained‘, where the organisations wants to change, but won’t relinquish control, and ‘Dynamic‘, which is the state we are aiming for, where change is amplified and embraced, giving us true agility. Most organisations get to ‘Constrained‘ and stick there, churning away. Their heads are still above water, but they’re getting nowhere.

Dynamic Change in the Social Age

The Social Age is characterised by constant change: in our technology, in organisational structures, in our patterns of travel and work, in our social communities. There is no one system, mechanism or process that can let us thrive, except agility: the ability to ‘figure it out‘, time and again, often facilitated by technology, but crucially alongside and within our communities.

The agile organisation displays greater fluidity of response than the hierarchical one: it’s able to reconfigure itself according to need. That ability to reconfigure in response to pressure and demand comes through the creation of facilitating mindsets and structures, where people are primarily engaged with the notions of change, less with the hierarchies and systems of power. It’s a culture where Social Authority prevails, subverting or trumping the formal and hierarchical. In practical terms, it means that people who are collaborative, supportive, effective and purposeful gain reputation and Social Authority along the way. If you are invested in the future state, an agent of change, then your voice will be heard.

Social Authority

What of the relationship between formal and Social Authority? Are we advocating for anarchy? Not in the least: social reputation, earned within communities, is available to everyone, founded purely on the actions we take and the investment we make in others. That social reputation is the foundation of our Social Authority, which is what gives Social Leaders their power, but it’s available to all. Formal leaders can develop Social Authority that will complement their hierarchical power and enable them to form, engage in and support communities more effectively. But everyone else can also develop Social Authority, based on their own actions within the community.

Social Authority is democratised, distributed and contextual, so a formal leader may have it in one context, at one time, but not in all contexts at all times. Hence also that anyone else in the organisation may have contextual and time bound Social Authority, the ability to lead a community in ‘sense making’ functions. Whilst formal authority is a manifestation of the hierarchy, Social Authority is a function of the community. It’s distributed and unlimited. I’m talking about it here, because of one specific outcome of the socially enabled organisation: control.

Organisational Change: the Control Effect

Formal organisations have clear reaches of control, clear responsibility and clear accountability. That’s still true in the social organisation, but with the caveat that Social Leaders exist outside of formal structures and may actually be the ones getting stuff done (the ‘stuff‘, in this case, including change). A limiting factor can therefore be how the organisation responds to socially moderated mechanisms of change, where the change originates from or is owned within, the social community. In other words, if it’s not ‘official‘, how does the organisation respond.

Does it deploy antibodies to kill it, or does it amplify and enhance it? That’s the difference between a resistant and a dynamic change space, but the picture is not always that clear.

Change Curve - The Antibody Effect - churning

There are good reasons for organisational hierarchy and control, not least of which are to insulate the organisation from unacceptable risk. The question here is, ‘what constitutes risk?‘, and the attitude required is not ‘how do we avoid it?‘, but ‘how do we use it?‘. Risk in itself is not bad: it’s just opportunity. The agile organisation has to recognise when risk is the fuel of change, and when it’s the fire that may consume us. It’s a fine balance, but without risk, without taking some risk on, we can’t thrive.

So how does this relate to change?

Change starts with intent: either from within or imposed from the outside. That intent moves to awareness: a broad anticipation of change. As we saw in the last article, in the Resistant organisation, this is where the antibodies deploy, smothering the conversation and tangling the embryonic change community in process, system, control, denial and lethargy. In the Constrained organisation though, the antibodies are held at bay and we move to action: projects start, conversations run, momentum and energy are pumped in from the organisation in the form of resources, spaces and permission.

Initially the momentum is external, fuel that is bought by the formal hierarchy of the organisation: it ‘initiates‘ change, forms formal communities, dedicates resources and seconds people onto projects. It rewires the architecture, throws the switches and pumps the pedal to the metal. This is all good: but it’s ultimately still a ‘push‘ model. The change is still owned by the organisation: both the direction and route-map.

Organisations can be socially enabled because they want to be, or because that permission is claimed by the community. In other words, social engagement, the formation of change communities, does not just happen because we want it to: it happens because the community wants it to. The difference is that one is formally sanctioned, whilst the other is formally tolerated.

In either case though, once momentum has been given, once the gates have opened, the social communities start to operate, which is precisely what we want to happen in a co-created, co-owned model of change. We start to get engagement and energy from within the community. Ideas start to emerge.

The Co-Creation and Co-Ownership of Change

Organisational change is more likely to succeed if it’s co-created and co-owned

Let’s just pause a moment to examine what we mean by a ‘co-created and co-owned‘ model of change. Essentially it’s about investment: where are you invested in the organisation? In formal, hierarchical models, individuals are often invested in the status quo, because their formal power is invested in it. Their power is grounded upon position and it forms the foundations of their authority. To change the position changes the power, which may not be a desired outcome.

In a Social Authority model though, authority is founded upon reputation, divorced from any anchor to formal position, so we can more easily be invested in change, and it’s that investment that we are looking for.

In a co-created and co-owned model, the organisation can still frame the direction of travel, but it relies on the community to co-create the conversation. This provides space for people to visualise and realise their part in the future state, and it’s that process which is vital for momentum, because by being part of shaping the change, people can be invested in it. And if they are invested in change, they will fight for it.

All good so far: so how does an organisation become Constrained?

Essentially because they are unwilling or unable to abandon the last vestiges of control: they want the future state, and they may be tantalisingly close to getting it, as they start to see and feel the benefits of an engaged change community, but they ultimately resort to formal definitions and expressions of power, authority and control. Ultimately, they kill their own potential by throwing on the brakes. The organisation becomes Constrained through an inability to relinquish control to enter a truly co-creative model.

It’s probably a false question: by default, most organisations already are Constrained. We recognise the truly agile organisation because they stand out as Dynamic.

What does this look like in practice: i am working with an organisation, heavily committed to more social ways of working. But they’ve paralysed themselves by adding layers of moderation to a social community. They’ve imposed formal controls in a social space, and it’s crazy not to see how this is killing it. You can have social spaces, where people kick things around and conduct ‘sense making‘ activities. Or you can have formal spaces, where they will say what they think you want them to say. But you can’t impose formal controls on social spaces, without just making them formal! Remember, ‘social‘ is not a function of technology: you can have someone sell you a ‘social‘ system, but it’s how you use it that counts.

Are all the ideas that come out of communities good? No. But it’s not about getting the right idea first time, it’s about exploring all the ideas and having the right mechanisms (and mindsets) to filter and improve them. Because by the same token, it’s co-creative. Whilst you can’t achieve momentum and purposeful outcomes just with formal mechanisms, neither can you achieve it just through social ones: it’s co-creative and co-owned. You need both. So you still have a hand in the game as the organisation. It’s just that you don’t own it. You are in the conversation, but the conversation is co-owned.

That comes down to small actions and large mindsets.

In the Constrained organisation, the controlling aspects predominate. Through small actions or large, they default to formal control, gently stifling the change and perpetuating the lethargy. Like the organisation i mentioned above: they have invested in the technology and even engaged the community, but through an isolated action of control, they are losing agility. Constrained organisations are not failed, but they are not winning either. They are stuck in the churn, through an inability to unleash their own burgeoning potential.

Change or Churn?

Most organisations manage to get out of ‘Resistant‘, get stuck at ‘Constrained‘. They look busy, they feel busy, they even feel good about themselves, but they are not fully enabled. In two years time, they will feel substantially the same, and ‘the same’ is not a good thing in an ecosystem that demands ever greater agility.

The Social Age is a time of constant change: it requires agility in action, system and mindset to survive, to thrive. We want systems that allow for both organisational input, but also the co-creative excellence of communities. After all, that’s what you hired them for: to be excellent.

To move from Constrained to Dynamic, we have to overcome the Control effect, which i’ll explore in more detail later.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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40 Responses to Change Curve: The Constrained Organisation

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