Four ingredients to allow change to happen from within.
For each problem people face when it comes to organisational change, there are thousands of books, websites and models around, offering the ideal solution for them. Management consultants and change managers are like pharmaceutical companies, spotting chances to offer a newer, even better medicine to attack these organisational illnesses.
Ironically, it is in this same field of medicine that more and more research is showing the power of the human body to use the mechanisms of self-recovery as a medicine. Especially so-called ‘luxury diseases’ (diseases with a disproportional amount of patents in areas with a higher level of comfort and luxury), it appears, can not only be prevented, but partially even cured by changes in lifestyle and specific training, enhancing the self-healing mechanism of the body.
In this insightful documentary on BBC, Michael Mosley discovers how cells recover by a process called ‘autophagy‘, when temporarily being deprived of food:
Dr. Norman Doidge’s research on The Brain That Changes Itself has some remarkable examples showing the neuroplasticity of the brain. He convincingly demonstrates that the brain is capable of ‘rewiring’ itself, creating new neurological pathways.
Instead of treatment with medicine, they actively stimulate the self-healing powers of the body and mind.
Part of the trick is stimulating, enticing and stretching the system to make it stronger, rather than pampering it – which too often is our natural response. Like using the paralysed arm instead of working around it, allowing temporary hunger instead of comforting it straight away with more food intake. These are examples of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls ‘antifragility‘: the ability to grow stronger from stressors like disruption and variety. Just we all know, muscles grow stronger when you put them under pressure by training. The way this happens is that in the training you create tiny little tears in the muscle fabric, which lead to the muscles growing in recovery.
This leads us to the question: (how) does that work in organisations?
Administering medicine, especially when done too often or too early, can actually weaken the system to self-recover in the long term, rather than strengthen it. Even if on the short term it helps attack the (symptons of) the illness – which may be necessary of course.
You could compare this with the consultant advising a reorganisation into market oriented business units: this may well help the ‘illness’ of declining customer satisfaction. Or more urgent: a financial restructuring, closing certain departments in order to help the company as a whole survive .
Even though these measures can help on the short term, there is a serious risk of side-effects. Think of decreasing productivity, an incline in sick-leave, some of the best people leaving the organisation…. they often are the result of resistance against enforced changes. Not to mention the odds that the problem will resurface in a different place or shape, like professional development stagnating or new financial problems in a different department.
Also, the proposed ‘medicine’ may simply not do what it’s supposed to do in the first place.
Using the self-recovering and self-changing powers plays the lead part in creating organisational change from within.
Like you do with Change 3.0.
‘How?’, you ask? By using four important ingredients, in interaction.
1. Start with a clear, thought- and lived-through desire and goal for the change.
First of all, you need to be very clear on why/what for the change is needed or desired: what is the actual problem it aims to provide an alternative to, or what is it aimed to realise at the end of the line? If this is not clear, or doesn’t evoke enough ‘oomph’, you are probably better off not starting the change at all. It’s quite a bit more intense than just taking some pills. Motivation is key. Knowing what you’re working towards as well.
All this is necessary to make sure you’re training the right ‘muscle groups’, and have a clear picture of what you’re going to go deep for, in order to come out stronger. Otherwise, we can guarantee you’re going to give up before you’re there.
2. Find out what works and what doesn’t work, as you get going.
Get started, bring your desired outcome into practice while experimenting; new structures, new ways of working and new behaviours. Start with the things which you expect will get you closer to your desired outcome or have a (potential) strong impact on it. But start small, so you can learn and adjust swiftly. This will also prevent you procrastinating, or making it dependent on all kinds of other things that need to be sorted first.
No big old change programmes, but probing, sensing, learning and adjusting. As a leader, make sure that the people who are part of the experiments are also part of setting them up, and that you as leaders are part of these experiments yourselves as well. Otherwise it’s still a kind of pill, shaped like a sweet but still coming from the outside.
3. Make sure there’s enough of a stretch (and not too much).
Part of using the mechanism of self-recovery is that you first stretch something enough, even break it a little bit (like the muscles, remember?). Otherwise nothing new will grow from it. In the experiments you’re setting up, you need to question if you’re going outside of your comfort zones enough. Like you won’t create a six-pack by getting up from the sofa three times while Netflix-binging, or won’t regain trust just by saying ‘good morning’ to everyone. You seek discomfort. It’s a good check to make: does this still feel comfortable? Then you need to step up a bit.
Don’t exaggerate either, don’t go so far that you will bail out immediately with all kinds of good excuses. One way to do that is to ensure you keep enough as is to be able to deal with the stretch in other parts. You don’t do a triathlon straight away if you never do any physical exercise. You may want to start off with one of the sports, and build each one up slowly. Too many new initiatives at once, and you don’t follow up on any. If ‘everything has to be different’, you’ll do it later, not now. Or you’ll actually tear those muscles beyond repair…
4. Alternate times of stretch with time for recovery.
Finally, the ingredient that gets overlooked easiest: time for rest and recovery. Like one of the Dutch top-cyclists (Joop Zoetemelk, in case you’re into biking) used to say: you win the tour in bed – and ride it on a bike.
Also when the organisation seems in chaos because of everything that is happening in and around it -maybe even more so then- time for reflection, ‘tinkering’ and simply NOT doing more new things in between is crucial. Only then can the effect of all the hard work and discomfort you put yourselves through do its job.
The ‘healing’ of the muscles you’ve been training, grow stronger in this recovery time, after you tore them slightly. Changes you started, strengthen in recovery as well. It’s when they ‘set’, but also when they are get connected with everything around it that influences it. When new ‘neurological pathways’ in your organisation can emerge. And when people simply get a moment to catch their breath before the next stretch as well.
On the other hand, the parallel with sports training also teaches us not to leave the next step too long, or you’ll start back on square one again. You’ll need to find out the ideal rythm in your context. Again, by trial and learning.
By using these four ingredients, you’re shaping what you want to achieve together as you go.
If you apply these, you’re working at creating a change from within, activating the self-learning, self-developing and self-organising capabilities of your organisation.
Not applying an ointment (culture programmes, introducing Agile tools, providing feedback trainings) or antibiotics (reorganisation), but tapping into the self-healing powers.
That’s how you help the system of your organisation to learn how to change and strengthen.