Next week I’m hoping to finish the full manuscript of the new book on organisational change. At the heart of this work are observations of the three manifestations of change that we see: Resistant, which denies and abhors change, Constrained, which is actively trying to change but ultimately failing to, and the Dynamic organisation, which is fully adapted to the realities of the Social Age. I started using a language of the Socially Dynamic organisation to describe this adapted state and am considering rolling that language back to the other manifestations as well.
The reason for this is that we need to look at two aspects of organisational change: the formal aspects, which under the control of the organisation, and the social aspects which are owned by and under the control of the community. Formal aspects we can directly control, but will not achieve change, at least not everlasting and deep variety, whilst social aspects we can only influence if we earn the right by developing social authority and working within a co-created and co-owned model of change as I describe within the core of the book.
So in this new language lets consider the three manifestations. The Socially Resistant organisation denies change communities and individual Change Leaders any voice or permission to question their authority, or to propose change. They occlude the view and reject any authority to challenge that position. That rejection may be active in terms of putting people back in their place, telling them it’s not their job, penalising people who question authority, or slapping down the actively curious, or it may be more insidious and show itself as a slow starvation, as huge amounts of static within communication that dampen down and silence unwanted voices. The Socially Resistant organisation is extremely comfortable in its current space.
The current space is a space that it is inhabited for a long time: it has nested there and made itself both comfortable and sleepy. Resistant organisations are, by their nature, lethargic. They may occupy the current space through history and mass alone. They are neither interested in change not actively seeking it out, indeed their primary concern is to maintain their current power and utilise the existing mechanisms of control to silence dissenting voices.
Socially Resistant organisations may have an abundance of system and process but virtually no active social communities that are visible to the organisation. I use that term with care, because there will doubtless be many social communities, many of them dedicated to criticising and complaining about the organisation itself, but they are hidden and, where felt, subversive.
The Socially Resistant organisation will frequently confuse technology and space for conversation. They will believe that by restricting access to collaborative technology, they will stop people from collaborating on the wrong things. They believe that by controlling access to learning and handing it out as though it were a prize, or something to be earned, they can prevent people from learning the wrong thing. The wrong thing being anything which challenges their formal and received version of the story.
The Socially Resistant organisation will often believe it knows its market well, and that any ripples at the edge of that market are simply annoyances, not the tremors that precede the earthquake. The Socially Resistant organisation has little interest in earning the respect of their community, because they do not believe the community can add anything to their existing knowledge.
Within a Socially Resistant organisation, we see strong vertical mechanisms of control: the HR function is experienced as one of reprimand, punishment, and the ultimate sanction of formal authority. Attending a meeting where HR is present is a sure sign of trouble.
IT is seen as a prize that is earned: the most senior people get the nicest kit, things are locked down beyond what is necessary to manage risk, but rather to a place where experimentation is impossible. The role of the individual is to bend their behaviour around what the system can do, not for the system to facilitate what needs to be done.
Learning pathways and competency frameworks give the impression that the organisation knows what makes someone excellent: but it is a one-way dialogue. The Socially Resistant organisation does not listen to its own community: it seeks to control it through policy, through guidelines, and by maintaining an iron grip on formal communication channels.
If it sounds like I’m painting an overly negative picture of the Socially Resistant organisation, I do so with good reason, because without the wisdom of the community, engaged and effective, the resistant organisation stands little chance of truly adapting. It holds on to the misnomer that seniority equals wisdom, it mistakes control for having all the answers.
The second manifestation of change within an organisation is Socially Constrained: it has multiple communities, is well-intentioned, and is actively trying to change. The Socially Constrained organisation is extremely enthusiastic. it is well-meaning in thought and action, often highly active, and definitely busy. In fact it’s the busyness which can be an issue: mistaking being busy the true change. The energy is unaligned, so lots of motion and lots of heat, but ultimately no true change.
In the change curve framework we see that the initial intent leads to action, but ultimately the Socially Constrained organisation tries to maintain control, and through doing so, the energy dissipates and momentum is lost. We can sometimes describe the Socially Constrained organisation as being breathless: it is capable of some change, but without the energy being aligned, it’s like pushing against a sack of balloons: it distorts and moves, but just bulges out elsewhere. It doesn’t truly change.
In the diagram at the start you’ll see that I represented a wall that separates what’s inside the organisation from what’s outside: in reality represents the gap between organisational leadership and the communities within. In the Socially Dynamic organisation there is no wall. Don’t mistake the lack of a wall for a lack of control: the Socially Dynamic organisation is highly effective, indeed because of its collectivity it is better able to innovate, adapt, and continue to change. It’s just that it does so not through strength and brute force, but rather through connection, cocreated energy, and a self-sustaining momentum. Its energy is fully aligned. It is fully adapted to change and change again.
The Socially Dynamic organisation is trusting of the people that it hired in the first place, but it is also trusted by those people for the simple reason that it has earned its trust. It’s done this through consistency of action over time, through humility and leadership, and through a lived experience of fairness. Because it is fully adapted, it’s able to face challenges and be agile in its response, not because it knows all the answers, but because, being Socially Dynamic, it’s able to figure it out.
There will be many layers of community, some internal, some external, and many that cross the barriers between. There are many layers of stories, fully integrated social learning surrounding the formal aspects of learning. Indeed learning itself is seen not as something to control, but something that is everywhere and always. The social heroes of the organisation other ones who facilitate others to learn, to lead, and to perform. The type of leadership that is experienced within the Socially Dynamic organisation is, naturally, Social Leadership, a form of leadership that is contextual, consensual, and rooted within our reputation within the community.
Ultimately, the difference between Socially Resistant and a Socially Dynamic organisation is one of communication and momentum. The resistant organisation resists any attempt at movement, relies on formal channels of communication, and freely executes hierarchical control. The dynamic organisation moves effortlessly, because it is fully adapted to change, it still has formal channels of communication but it listens widely to the social ones and has permission to engage in some of them, which it does with humility and respect. The dynamic organisation still exerts control, but it does so fairly and with restraint. The strength of the organisation comes from the internal control bought about by dialogue within communities.
This is the journey that many organisations need to take: to break down aspects of resistance, and to move beyond being constrained. The journey to being Socially Dynamic is a hard one, indeed for many organisations constrained as the best they will manage. This is because the constrained organisation is able to operate effectively today through hard work and goodwill, it’s an organisation full of good people doing good things, but ultimately it supremely adapted to the world it lives in, not the world it is heading towards.
Within the dynamic change framework, I describe the steps of this journey: how we recognise resistance, create external change spaces and build a change leader community, overcome 16 resistors of change, and the trust of an expanding change community, generate individual ownership and agency, become high functioning and coherent in our communities, and ultimately, become fully Socially Dynamic. Its hard journey, but not an impossible one. The first step, were we start to listen, is often the hardest.