Rethinking Change: Why change is simpler than you think... or is it?
I smiled with delight after having welcomed five new teaching staffers to our University Professional Development Center community. At the same time, I could not help reflecting on the courage required to begin the process of adding these five new people.
Was it really that difficult to expand our class offerings? Was it that surprising that we needed to respond to the business community at large to fill a “gap”? Our community needed more business courses with a “humanistic spirit,” so how was this a challenge if the need was there?
Starting a process of change may seem overbearing, but often the work is not so exhaustive—au contraire, it becomes the tie that binds us.
Then, I wondered: Is it the system that fails us or do we fail to be a system? Blame is a lovely yet blinding reality as we live our lives. So which is it: Do systems fail or do we fail to organize systemically to address issues? If we do actually fail, why is it that we opt out of being the very solution to the issues at hand that plague companies, families and communities?
In the case of University Professional Development Center, did we need an off-the-shelf system from days of organizational change? If so, how many would we need to study prior to making our initiative happen?
In Rhode Island—just like in many other New England states—we once seemed to be quite good, natural innovators. From the cotton mill of Samuel Slater to the Route 128 technology belt just east of Boston, we have offered the world hope for many years, but where do we stand now? What’s a learning community going to do?
The answer may lie in our failure—as a society—to actually organize and take the initial steps required to ignite a movement of change. Dr. John Kotter led “organizational” change movements three decades ago when his research introduced an eight-step process that helps organization's transition into change. This process actually did not seem to apply to our collective movement. In order to move beyond a mental recession and reclaim the uniform mark “innovation zone” in our region of the New England, how might we change our teacher offerings? ...Oh, Kotter where art though?
After reviewing each step during an action-for-traction meeting, I realized Kotter's ideas were meant for elephant and rhino-sized companies—you know, the big ones. So, here is how and why Kotter’s process in small organizations may fall short or even complicate change processes.
First, let’s review each step and I’ll tell you “why” or “why not” as we move along the “process.”
STEP 1: Establishing a Sense of Urgency
- Examine market and competitive realities
- Identify and discuss crises, potential crises or major opportunities
Why it doesn't work for a small firm: Because community efforts require more than a notion of "urgency" that is push-related. In fact, we are more "of service" and establishing a collaborative nature has less to do with “competitive realities.” Perhaps community-orientated educational initiatives with a business flair are distinct?
STEP 2: Creating the Guiding Coalition
- Assemble a group with enough power to lead the change effort
- Encourage the group to work as a team
Why it doesn't work for a small firm: The use of “power” is quite distinct from the “gifts” orientation I felt which is more like Peter Block's dynamic or conversation consulting theories. This team did not need encouragement but worked together in a dialogical manner. Is “power” truly needed? Well, it did not seem so.
STEP 3: Developing a Change Vision
- Create a vision to help direct the change effort
- Develop strategies for achieving that vision
Why it doesn't work for a small firm: Micro-movements that are “held” in new containers are not susceptible to the mega-meeting mindset. Of course, Kotter’s approach may be more “on point” and relevant in such a scenario, but many organizations are spinning off companies so they are walking away from a local University—in this case—to engage in teaching at a private business-run school or learning center. The change “effort” is a bit overwhelming and tends to deplete energy levels.
STEP 4: Communicating the Vision for Buy-in
- Use every vehicle possible to communicate the new vision and strategies
- Teach new behaviors by the example of the Guiding Coalition
Why it doesn't work for a small firm: This step may actually apply in this business learning center example so I suppose one out of 8 is good, right?
STEP 5: Empowering Broad-based Action
- Remove obstacles to change
- Change systems or structures that seriously undermine the vision
- Encourage the risk-taking and nontraditional ideas, activities, and actions
Why it doesn't work for a small firm: Changing structures has simply given way to flowing to an organization that is in alignment and absent culture conundrums in my case. I wonder how this dynamic may cause others not to fight change?
STEP 6: Generating Short-term Wins
- Plan for visible performance improvements
- Create those improvements
- Recognize and reward employees involved in the improvements
Why it doesn't work for a small firm: Rewards are a bit rat-science like, as we are not governed by such simplistic structures as puppies might be—after all, we do have psyches and are self-determined aren’t we? In fairness, this method was born during a different time.
STEP 7: Never Letting Up
- Use increased credibility to change systems, structures and policies that don't fit the vision
- Hire, promote, and develop employees who can implement the vision
- Reinvigorate the process with new projects, themes, and change agents
Why it doesn't work for a small firm: I actually like the lingo here—this step is agreeable. So, perhaps, this step is also relevant to private collaborative organizations.
STEP 8: Incorporating Changes into the Culture
- Articulate the connections between the new behaviors and organizational success
- Develop the means to ensure leadership development and succession
Why it doesn't work for a small firm: This culture responds with agility. The days of bulky organizational systems is perhaps being challenged.
I like Kotter and consider him a sharp brilliance even though his organizational change methods may not apply to my boutique learning center. I certainly understand the context of large elephant organizations needing these baking instructions to address and implement change.
After thinking about Kotter and how much organizational agility and nimbleness has caused some change models to seem unaligned or unapplicable, I wondered if this worth noting? If change is a constant part of an organization’s and community’s responsiveness, is Kotter's work relevant today? Are methodologies previously applied worthy of second and third look?
I suspect change brews change. In essence, I believe that if we continue to apply the organizational tools from decades past, we may be reductionistic and off-the-mark in inspiring the changes we seek. There is also a possibility that interorganizational structures, new change models, and field work may be more relevant that these previous tried and true models.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that we aren’t there yet—chances are some organization you belong to has a way of proving that it's time to rethink interorganizational structures instead of clinging to old change models.
Interdisciplinary perspectives and models may now be ripened to help us here. I suspect a solid read through the Integral Leadership Review would offer added context and opportunity to the seasoned or newly anointed practitioner who is eager to rethink change models.
As for being stuck and reliant on old, big models of change… well, maybe it's easier to just do rather than think or try to apply a model from yesterday's organizations? Today’s organizations have a different scent, look, and feel, so let's take this opportunity to share ways of rethinking change in our communities—whether it's in New England, the Southeast, the Midwest, or even out West where so many of the latest ways of modeling and rethinking change are birthed.
NOTE: For more information about The 8 Step Process for Leading Change, please refer to Dr. Kotter's book Leading Change.