Note: This is a tweak of an old blog that collates several thoughts, some from other articles and videos I’ve posted recently on LinkeIn. It may be of value…
There is undeniably a resistance to changing management which is deeply entrenched within the business world, predicated on decades of “but we’ve always done it this way!”, even if we know that way doesn’t work on multiple levels. To survive, leadership are slowly realising that they need to be open to different views, focus, and structures – to change. And they need to do this faster.
When I speak of change here, I am speaking about evolution and acceptance of beneficial change within human systems and business, not radical destructive change such as the Climate Emergency or personal enlightenment. Not all change is good – destructive change is to be avoided – but as a result, we shy away from beneficial change, too, and that’s my focus here: the change within ourselves to adapt, not the change we attempt to enforce order on our world through innovation and similar. I talk about human fear of change and comfort zones elsewhere, too, but much of this is applicable.
Whether we experience it individually or within human constructs (religion, organisations, families, clubs, etc), there is a Fear of Change ingrained in us in both business and personal life. Humans are comfort-creatures; we value stability and comfort in our lives, be it professionally or at home. So what happens when the ever-changing Universe rudely reminds us that everything is, ultimately, transient?
It is very human to deny that change is happening, that a system has become (or always was!) un-ordered. The reaction is often to then try to impose order (constraints), and often we do this to systems or situations that cannot by nature be ordered, making the problem worse.
Change represents the oft-acknowledged deepest fear of mankind: that of the unknown. Uncertainty.We know we are here, and find comfort, even in uncomfortable situations; true change will really change things, and this can induce anxiety, worry, discomfort, fear – not only of the consequences, but the change itself.
If something isn’t working, a change is needed for it to begin working. Sometimes the fear of change is so great that we would rather it simply continue not to work, because at least then we know it isn’t working; in other words, we have some form of certainty. This, of course, isn’t helpful in the long term, for delivering value, or in urgent situations, and to accurately gauge this we also need to understand the benefits or risks of making the change.
But what if something is already working?
One response is: why change if something works?(which can also mean, if it sort of works well enough, maybe, also I don’t want to spend money).
Why indeed? But as with everything, this isn’t a black and white situation, much as we love to polarise. It may be barely working, or require workarounds to complete. It may be inefficient or cause rising/unnecessary costs, or added complication and hassle to daily life. If it works well enough, which is highly subjective, you have to ask if it is worth changing. If the benefits of change are outweighed by the risks or clear negatives, or it is poorly perceived or understood, it is probably not worth doing.
But if you take any organisation with working processes in place, the chances are high that people will usually say, “Yes, it works, sort of – but it could work much better” about many of them, and then specify where the inefficiencies impact their overall effectiveness and workload. (A problem I have often found is that, where an organisation does undertake to make changes – be it a new system, process, or team – it is usually a higher-level decision that often doesn’t fully provide training, positioning, and applicable usage to the people actually doing the job, and can be either too simplistic, over-complicated, or ill-applied – in other words, not appropriate to resolving the core issue. This is why listening to the people doing it matters!).
If this is the case, and benefits clearly outweigh risks… why not change it to make it work better?
The place to start with processes, change and the fear of that change is the same: you start with the people.
Why start there?
All processes, all base decisions, and all value delivered stems from the people within an organisation. People are interconnected individuals working within an organisational structure towards a common set of goals in a variety of ways; without those people – and their interconnections – the innovation, the products, the organisation itself would not exist.
Another way to say this is that people both create and are the value delivered by an organisation. Or, to put it in a more succinct fashion, Value Streams are made of People (Keogh).
So, recognising that the value of your organisation is the people is an important step, for a number of reasons. It is people who fear change, not the products or the infrastructure within an organisation; it is people who make an organisation work.
People fear the change wrought in any organisation because it disrupts processes and workarounds that may work imperfectly but still more or less work, and allow at least some value delivery. Worse, it may cause further inefficiency and unnecessary stress, or expose workarounds that are not strictly in line with company policy – but bureaucracy may have left them no other choice to achieve their business goals, which brings potential personal risk into play even in a clearly failing scenario. Gaming Behaviour is a clear sign your organisation is in trouble, and is probably too rigid to even see that, let alone adapt. It doesn’t work properly, and people have to go against it to achieve what it demands.
In this environment, change will not come from people concerned with being perceived as catalysts for disruption; change must come from leadership.
“It works well enough.” “Let sleeping dogs lie”. “Don’t rock the boat.” “Don’t stick your head above the rest.” “Don’t stick your neck out.” “Don’t be sales/delivery prevention.”
These are human qualifications of not wanting to cause further potential problems, and become progressively more fearful of being singled out for causing issues, even if the root aim is to resolve perhaps more fundamental issues within the organisation to provide better, smoother value streams. Politics, bureaucracy, interdependency and tradition can all turn what looks on the surface to be a simple change into a highly complex situation and possibly render a goal unattainable, even though it may be to the greater good of the organisation. In a perfect world, a flexible and reactive enough organisation – one that recognises itself as a complex systemoverall – shouldn’t need covert workarounds; experimentation should be built in.
A root of this fear lies in uncertainty. People require certainty to maintain stability, comfort, and (relatively!) low stress. Knowing a situation is good or bad is far preferable to not knowing if it is good or bad or even what it is, so the natural inclination is to maintain the status quo and not be singled out, as long as this isn’t disruptive enough to become worse than the potential uncertainty (there is a fantastic example of the effects of uncertainty in a study involving rocks and snakes used by Liz Keogh in her talks).
Why do organisations and leaders not recognise this?
Some do, of course, but not many seem to fully realise the causes behind it. One of the most important things to understand is that the landscape has shifted, and it is accelerating in modern business. Knowledge has become the primary global economy, with business being undertaken around the world, around the clock, and data being digitised and made available and changeable at exponentially greater quantities and speeds than ever before.
The management of this knowledge, and the methods used, have become key to an organisation’s productivity, innovation, and agility (Snowden, Stanbridge). Sprawling bureaucracies are giving way to entrepreneurial practices, and many companies are caught between the two, trying to apply often contradictory methodologies of both to their staff and their products.
At the same time, the latest and not yet widely-understood shift to virtual systems, the increasing use of AI and IOT, and knowledge digitisation has moved business to a realm we have no prior experience of or reference for, and this causes fear and concern because we are being forced to changeat both a personal and industrial level at a speed that isn’t just uncomfortable but alarming. Organisations push back against this by acting as they always have with The Cycle of Woe and traditional management – cutting costs, replacing management teams constantly, and so on – but the simple procedures that once seemed to work do not produce any benefits past the extreme short-term (I talk about this in much more detail in https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/red-pill-management-science-christopher-bramley/).
This is because we are now experiencing the Fourth Industrial Revolution (possibly the 6th), which is an entirely new landscape requiring new understanding and actions. Because organisations do not have either, many of them currently “feel like they are in Hell” as a result of the Dark Triad (Kirk):
• Antagonism (“Arseholeness!”)
…and they occur both at an organisational and a personal level.
So how do Organisations and Leaders currently react?
One of the key reasons for these responses may be because of two things:
1) The still-existing and long-term investment in structures based in Taylorism (which dates back to the 19th century, yet is still a core of today’s management science), a root of Process Engineering. This can be interpreted as the belief and (and action upon the belief) that an organisation is a machine with people as cogs or components that will consistently deliver the exact same output in quality and quantity – or, that an organisation conforms exactly to rules.
It contains 3 of Mintzberg’s 10 Strategy Schools:
2) The more recent but equal investment in Systems Thinking which is used to model and project towards perfect goals using outcome-based measures, removing human judgement and relying heavily on causality and prediction.
It contains the other 7 Schools:
The problem with these two widely-used adherences, now used as a combined modern modification of Taylorism, is that they are based on the assumption that business and organisations are ordered, causal and predictable as per the matrix below, whether they are applied in context or not:
Cynefin Knowledge Management Matrix (Cognitive Edge)
Business and Businesses are neither ordered nor predictable. Despite the realisation for decades that modern Taylorism is actually detrimental and only a slight shift from a perception of “machine” to “human” (Peters, Senge, Nonaka), businesses have only just started becoming aware of the importance of truly humanising business and redefining the core values. This is the crucial understanding of moving to the top right sector, Social Complexity.
In other words, a vast number of companies still try to force their organisation to fit the modified concepts of modern Taylorism because it is trusted and traditional, despite being proven ineffective, and act as if it will forever output the exact same quality and quantity in a forecastable fashion.
Why this approach simply doesn’t work
The very presence of humans who can vary output, focus, workloads and innovation both within and driving an organisation dependent on a number of factors that aren’t necessarily causal or logical – that is to say, complexity – means an organisation can’t be a rigidly ordered system. It is by nature complex, un-ordered, but the tools we mostly use to resolve issues are based on it being an ordered structure with simple rules. The understandable preference, based on certainty and comfort, is to seek simplistic identically-repeatable approaches (“recipes”) based on clear and idealistic outcomes (Snowden).
Ontologies in relation to basic Domains (Cynefin)
What’s interesting is that people will try to manage an organisation as ordered when it isn’t, yet adapt very quickly to managing home life which is similarly un-ordered, often within the same day! In other words, between two complex systems, leadership will flip from Modern Taylorism to Social Complexity. This is really interesting, and brings into focus the concept of our different identities, or aspects we transition between seamlessly to fit into different situations (more on those in other articles) – something older generations have more strongly than the newest.
It is also very easy to miss that many instances are multi-ontological. As a very simple example, if I run a lab when coaching, I deal with an obvious domain in much of the basic subject, but also complicated areas in advanced concepts; technical systems I may use to train are largely complicated; and the addition of students themselves bring complexity, as the learners drive the class and every class is different to any before as a result (it’s rare that a session descends into chaos, but it’s not unknown, and usually requires outside influence!). So I can end up dealing with all three ontologies in one course! Order, un-ordered complexity, and un-ordered chaos all require different management, but they can all be managed.
We have to think in terms of multi-complexity in a world that is multiply-complex; there is no simple answer, and another company’s will not be likely to be yours.
The visible effects
50+ years of business practice have left a huge number of organisations not fully comprehending that the shift of many markets from product to service, and Industry 4.0,requires organisational agility and change. Markets are seeing the stifling of innovation and a downwards dive of productivity (Snowden).
This inevitably sparks the above frantic reaction (change of focus, sudden arbitrary swerves to “disrupt the market” without recognition of opportunity outside a narrowly focused goal, cost cutting, redundancies, management team swap-outs, further cash injections, etc) without looking at what is working, and more importantly understanding that this is not a one-fits-all recipe that can merely be transplanted inter-organisation for success (Snowden).
It is becoming clearer that collaboration, reactive approaches, SME level agility and innovationare where markets now grow in this new landscape of people being and delivering value via a knowledge economy, and this is a beneficial realisation for organisations struggling “in Hell” to take a first step into new understanding.
So what now?
“…Where we go from there is a choice I leave up to you…”
The more I look at the current struggles to achieve the results of yesteryear, my own experiences of the last twenty years plus, and the new evidence of Industry 4.0, the more I realise how accurate the above is. Interdependency is clearly now essential in a new, barely understood industry of High Demand/Ambiguity/Complexity/ Relentless Pace (Kirk). We haven’t been here before.
To find balance and prosperity, and deliver real value once more, collaboration, agility of approach and innovation are all required. We need to sense-make; we need to path-find, or forge our own new paths.
“Reacting by “re-acting”, or repeating our actions, merely causes problems to perpetuate. In a new landscape, a new reaction is required for change” (Kirk) – and it’s currently how many companies ARE acting. This is also one of the keys to Cynefin and managing complex situations; it is virtually impossible to close the gap between the current situation and a goal projected based upon causality when dealing with complexity, a system with only some constraints where each aspect affects all others. Instead, you must see where you can make a change, see where you can monitor that change in real-time, and recognise the opportunities to amplify success and ignore failure when it arises via experimentation (Snowden).
Or: instead of trying to achieve an idealistic goal impossible from your current standpoint, instead make changes to the system that may throw up even better goals, watch for them instead of focusing on the old goal exclusively, and then grasp them when they arise. You must start from somewhere, but the key is to start – a certain step is the first one to conquering uncertainty.
“Organisations and people ALL matter, because they drive, innovate and ARE value; we matter because everyone else matters” (Kirk), and industry becomes, not forced into trying to be a destined-to-fail machine system, but a safe-to-fail ecosystem – holistic and interconnected, not only able to adapt to change, but driven by it.
I constantly quote her words here, because they are overwhelmingly true.
You know who is comfortable with change, both because they know it’s needed, and because they were born into this landscape as it developed?
Outliers, and the Millennial Generation. I mention them time and again because, like it or not, they are both the catalysts required, and the workforce and consumers who now need to be engaged in every sector.
The problems we still face
The issue in many organisations, and with many managers, is that it is still the de-facto belief that correlation = causation, and that simple universally-applicable recipes give idealistic outcomes. These beliefs have led to years of failure and problems, and are a driver of the industry “waves” of best practice management fads that don’t work long-term but propagate because they are new, and short or medium term results may have been seen by some other organisations (see: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/secret-shortcuts-innovation-christopher-bramley/)
What works to fix or improve one organisation is not necessarily (in fact very unlikely) to work perfectly for other organisations, or work subject to simplification and/for general application. This is a core concept still used that conforms to the Process Engineering ideology. You cannot take something in complex situations and reduce it to a repeatable generic recipe that works perfectly; it just… won’t. No two organisations are alike. Every instance should be approached, investigated, and worked on individually and holistically to see if it should be managed as ordered, or un-ordered (complex or chaotic). There is benefit from seeing what other organisations did to resolve similar problems as long as it is understood the approach and fit must be modified: the incorporation of aspects, rather than the dogmatic following of a whole.
Furthermore, the more people find approaches to be effective, the more they seek to codify the concepts – which is fine to a point, but can easily lead to them then structuring the approaches, modularising them, and then seeking to force them back into the ordered ontology (the Cynefin domains of Obviousness or Complication) as a simple, universally repeatable recipe, when many are ultimately agile and flexible tools to manage un-ordered systems (Complexity or Chaos). This is something that appears to be happening to the concept of Agile at the moment; it is becoming less agile itself as it is taken in by large organisations and constrained (see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/never-mind-buzzwords-christopher-bramley/).
At the same time, there are constant clashes intra-organisation. Organisations want to both be fully ordered with infinitely repeatable output, but also flexible and innovative. The first of these is causal (repeatable cause and effect), and the second is dispositional (you can say where you are and where you may end up, even simulate, but not causally repeat or predict). They are very different in nature. By their very nature and composition, an organisation cannot be a simple ordered system, and this is where the work within Cynefin into Social Complexity/Anthro-Complexity begins to make sense of these systems and the management of complexity and chaos.
There is also the requirement for a deeper comprehension of the fuzzy liminality of whether or not you should make a change, which differs in each situation; a risk/benefit exercise where we weigh up the benefits – deep and long term as well as short term – of making a change, where the former is often ignored in favour of short-term profitability. Where the dangers of making a change are not defined or understood, or are clearly not beneficial, it is wise to consider carefully whether you should do so – and if so, what the correct manner of doing so is.
Finding a new way forward
One of the fundamental movements that resolves many of these issues will be a shift from Hierarchies, where organisations are ranked internally relative to status and authority with a focus on control (power), to Ecosystems, where organisations recognise the relationships of every person to each other and to the organisation, with a focus on delivery (value).
This is geared towards agility, adaptability, acknowledging change and the driving by change, and that organisations are largely complex and cannot be distilled into simple recipes repeatable for idealistic outcomes. The market, the industries, the universe itself inflicts change, as do the people within, and order is impossible to maintain rigidly, so recognising how to manage un-ordered systems is required.
Before this can happen, organisations (and the management thereof!) need to understand how much efficiency and value delivery they will gain from the also-fundamental shifts in their traditional beliefs: it is understandable that organisations wish to impose order and tighten control to make sense, but Dave Snowden warns against the effects of “over-constraining a system that is not naturally constrainable” – you are asking for more inefficiency and problems, not less.
Many of the concepts touch on Agile, Lean, Cynefin, and other concepts and frameworks all at once. There is a reason I tell organisations they need to view this holistically, not just engage firms based on the latest buzzwords and processes.
Change is a fact of business, and life, and can be feared for good reason; but that should not stop change where change is required or beneficial, or strive to stop change that cannot be stopped. Instead of fearing change, we can teach ourselves to change fear into something more productive: an awareness of grasping opportunities that change will throw up. You have to let go of the old with at least one hand to be able to grasp the new.
You only learn when you are open to change, you move outside your comfort zone, and you accept failure as a lesson that builds success; that uncertainty is the point from which new understanding can grow. The more used to taking that first certain step into uncertainty you get, the less you fear the challenge, and the more you relish it. A good teacher can help place your feet on that path, and walk the first steps with you.
Don’t be afraid or too egotistical to reach out to me for help to understand how to change. We all need unbiased guidance with context from time to time.
If you do it correctly, you and your organisation will change for the better.