Slaying the Beast: Why Change Is Hard

Change is often thwarted not by outside factors, lack of budget, or too little time, but rather by the sheer momentum, mass, and nested power, of existing systems. Organisations act like a beast that demands it’s favourite food over and over again, and at an individual level, to shape, drive, or participate in change can feel like an unbearable task. We are faced by a challenge: do we continue to feed the beast, failing to change, do we feed the beast but seek to tame it, or do we try to slay it and hope that, from the ashes, a more agile phoenix will emerge?

To answer this question requires us to ask a fundamental but related question: what do Organisations actually do?

There is a range of work: some is vital work, some is curious work, some is necessary work, and some is busy work, or just work we do because it’s comforting, connective, or compliant in the social norms.

Vital work is the purposeful work of the Organisation: if you make clocks, then clock making work is part of the horological purpose of the entity. You need to do vital work.

Curious work explores new ways of clock making: at the outer edges of chronological knowledge, you want some people to be doing curious work, or possibly you want everybody to be doing fragments of curious work everyday, to probe the limits of the achievable, to innovate, to learn.

Necessary work is not directly productive, but is essential for production to occur: stock takes, training, paperwork, and audit. Not exciting, but important. You don’t make clocks when you are ordering clock hands, but you cannot make a clock without a supply of hands.

Busy work is the stuff we do because it fills the time. It’s neither directly productive, not necessary, but still it is done because of a range of reasons: possibly everyone else is doing it so you don’t want to stand out, perhaps it’s a formal metric of work that just needs to be measured for no reason, perhaps it’s an artefact from a derelict process that persists. Or maybe it’s just fun, or acts to reinforce current domain, hierarchy, and structures of power, who have a vested interest in it persisting.

Organisations persist: it’s one of their defining traits. Very few Organisations set out with the express purpose of becoming extinct. And as they persist, they often lose the balance of vital, curious, and busy work.

So how do we tackle the diet?

If you do not feed the beast, it will become angry and bite you. But if you just feed the beast everything it desires, it will become fat and lazy. So do you try to tame it? Keep it happy enough, but aim to tempt it into a new space? Or do you just give up, and seek to slay it?

That’s a challenge: taming the beast sounds appealing, but who are you fooling? Many beasts tolerate our efforts, whilst ignoring the stimuli. They drool, but still get lazy.

But outright conflict, a battle, and a dead beast, leaves you with quite a challenge, because the vital work ceases.

Of course, there is no one answer, but as with many aspects of leadership, there is a metacognitive perspective!

Lift yourself above the scene and look down: what are you doing?

How often are you feeding, how often do you seek to tame, and when can you be seen with your sword in your hand? And from this new perspective, do you have the balance right?

If you are not sure, your Communities are the place to find out: if you all complain about the same thing, but the thing persists, then the chances are that you are feeding the beast. So explore new behaviours.

Change is ultimately a matter of individual agency: give enough people the space, guide rails, and resource, to change their own actions, and aggregate that up to Organisational size, and you may just realist that the beast was simply a shadow. But finding the perspective, permission, and capability to do this can get you eaten along the way.

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.
This entry was posted in Change, Community, Leadership, Learning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Slaying the Beast: Why Change Is Hard

  1. Stephen Burt says:

    Loved the extended metaphor Julian. And the distinctions between types of work is a really useful reflective framework. Often a big barrier to change is not only the work that gets done that adds little value but the intransigence of how work gets done – that sometimes seems to be where and how the dominant culture resides. All the best.

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