As we work our way through the Change framework, i’m looking at the ways we overcome resistance. I’ve categorised the Resistors into four spaces: technology, communication, cognition and behaviour. For each, i’m sharing ways we can understand the resistance and the ways we can plant the foundations of change. Today’s post explores Cognition, and four aspects of how individual psychology and organisational dynamics interact.
Where there is uncertainty, we tend towards safety: uncertainty within an organisation relates not just to the knowledge itself, but to our reputation and security. Not to know something is to admit risk, to admit lack of knowledge and, in an old world environment, not to know something was a weakness. in the Social Age, it’s less important, so long as you are connected into your communities to find things out and make sense of it.
In a space that punishes uncertainty, we tend towards the safety of what we know, so our challenge, to overcome Resistance, is to create spaces for uncertainty, which are open to ignorance and doubt. Spaces where we can admit our lack of knowledge of the road ahead.
Partly, this can be about the location of the story: is the uncertainty mine, at a personal cost, or is it that of the organisation, where we are an asset to be used to understand it. If we face a shared challenge to define and understand it, we are in a stronger position than if we are simply viewed as the problem itself. Better to be the solution.
Related to Uncertainty is Consequence: what is the cost of failure, of ignorance, of failing to know everything? Where does consequence sit: is it with the individual or the organisation?
The thing we fear may be the consequence, not the ignorance itself: indeed, ignorance can be a great motivator of ‘sense making’, but not if the wrong level of consequence is applied.
So how do we understand consequence, how do we influence how it’s allocated or felt?
Consequence is sometimes a matter of perspective, a power we give to others over ourselves. This type of consequence loses it’s power if we cease to fear it: for example, the consequence of daring to think differently only has power over us if we fear being seen as curious or interested in different. If we derive our authority through conforming, we will fear being seen as different, but if we derive our power through delivering results, we may welcome it.
One way we can address consequence is to bring it forward: experience the consequence, or walk it through, before we take the action that triggers it. For example: if we are proposing to use some software, the consequence of failure may be that nobody uses it and it’s judged to have failed. By understanding and walking through the consequence early, we may redesign how we approach it in the first place. Instead of positioning what we are doing as a solution, position it as an experiment, and clearly identify in advance what we anticipate learning through success or failure.
By anticipating failure and contextualising it as learning, we reduce the severity of consequence and, incidentally, make ourselves truly more agile.
Resistant organisations can play consequence up significantly: using it, or the threat of it, as a strong mechanism of control.
In these cases, start by thought experiments, ‘what if’ scenarios. For example, if you think that the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system is unsuitable for the business you need to be, don’t propose a new system, ask questions and co-create stories about what might be felt were there a new system in place. Paint narratives of the future and invite people to shape the narrative with you. So the conversation is less about what you want to change, more about the outcome you seek to achieve. If you build consensus around the outcomes, the challenge then falls to the status quo to prove how current technology can deliver it, or rationalise why you can’t change things to achieve it. The onus is no longer on you to create that argument.
This is important for fledgling change communities in large and resistant organisations: you need to become the facilitators or change, not the enemy within. Nascent change communities lack power or strength to force the organisation out of resistance. They can only achieve their ends magnetically: become powerhouses of thinking and sharing, places where you can built a reputation as a change agent, not a rebel.
The real issue with consequence, through the lens of cognition, is how it causes us to be self censoring: to take ourselves out of the fight before the first punch is thrown. By understanding it and taking steps to reduce it’s impact, we can give ourselves an advantage in building the foundations of change.
To belong is important: social validation and strength in numbers are both driving forces. The pressure to conform and belong can cause long tails to form around bad ideas, perpetuating the lethargy and creating great inertia to change. Indeed, the model of Dynamic change requires us to overcome this by creating opportunities for people to belong to the future state, not the current one, and it’s that very belonging that generates the momentum and amplification that we need to be dynamic, to achieve agility. But more of that later.
Theres a view we can take of change: one that positions the people resisting it as the enemy. But this may be to miss the point of belonging: people are invested in the current state precisely because we reward that investment. We create the circumstances where belonging to the ‘now’ is rewarding, whilst to change is to invoke risk. Once that space is created and inhabited, it’s small wonder that it goes to the next space and actively resists change conversations, it becomes immunised to change. The important thing to remember is that the resistance is conditioned, it’s something we create by allowing people to belong.
That sense of belonging is good: it provides validation and coherence to community, it means we know that someone has our back, that we have support. But it’s not, in itself, an agile feeling. Just belonging is good, but it may lack purpose.
Our model for co-created change is founded upon the notion of creating change communities, co-creative spaces where people figure out what is coming up, and find ways to invest themselves in that future state. It relies on belonging, but gives it a forward facing purpose. That way, the decision is less about whether you believe in, subscribe to or want to engage in change, for the sake of the organisation, but rather it’s a question of whether you want to be part of the change community, or the static one. Do you want to be in the boat as it sets sail, or remain on the harbour-side staring wistfully out to sea?
Ignorance is bliss, or so they say: personally i find that curiosity is king, leaving little space for ignorance, but maybe that’s just me. It’s a favourite tactic of the Resistant organisation to simply deny change, to simply ignore it, and that’s true on the personal level too. Do nothing. Wait it out.
In the Social Age, where the Social Contract between organisation and individual is fractured, where there is no job for life or instinctive trust, sometimes doing nothing is a good thing. Keep your head firmly down. Leave it to others to get picked off, one at a time, as they raise their heads.
Denial of change is insidious: it starves it and lets it wither on the vine. It’s passive, but still aggressive in it’s efficacy. Remove the momentum and you kill the change.
So if we identify Denial at work, we have to counter it with engagement, engagement to effect change, but also to validate the very existence of the conversation.
Curiosity and questioning are good seeds of doubt: asking why. Why don’t we look at this, why don’t we try that, why aren’t we reflecting effectively? Why requires complex answers, beyond the simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Why is about curiosity, not just about challenge, but it certainly does challenge the status quo.
Denial can be passive, rooted in systems, process or people, it can find it’s foundations in culture, in leadership or in teams. Engagement is the only tool we have to root it out and engage with it, and engagement is the enemy of denial. Because to shine a spotlight on it is to reveal it for what it is.
Often our external spaces are the best place to do this: find industry specific and parallel stories to help shine a light, construct stories based upon the wisdom and lived experience of the nascent change community, engage in dialogue to drive engagement.
As we seek to segment resistance, Cognition groups together four of the Resistors of change that we need to address. The solution is common: seek to understand the roots and location of the resistor, then engage to shine a spotlight on it. Seek to engage with positive contribution and stories, to create new spaces for belonging. Deny denial by engaging in co-creative stories of change in parallel sectors or industries, deny that doing nothing is a valid response and use these conversations to gain momentum (which erodes the power of denial).
Counter uncertainty by giving shape and space for conversations, and welcoming the inquisitive process, whilst being clear that uncertainty itself is not a reason for denial. Uncertainty is a welcome sense making space to operate within.