Typical definitions of “organisational change management” refer to the processes, methods, techniques, and tools that are used to bring about change, with a particular focus on the human element. In the organisational context, change management is often used in support of the implementation of change that originates from senior management decisions – to merge, unbundle, downsize, optimise, systematise, implement new technology, etc. Change management in this context would then typically emphasise persuasion – change has to be “sold” to stakeholders to get their “buy in”, there are concerns about “resistance to change” and change management practitioners have to dig deep to come up with answers to the “what’s in it for me?” question that employees are bound to ask.
But is this the best way to bring about change in organisations? What if you lived your life this way? What if, on your way home tonight, you stop off at the local pizzeria and order pizzas for your loved ones without checking with them whether they felt like pizza, and what toppings they wanted? On arriving home, you announce that while waiting for the pizza to be made, you’ve decided to downsize the number of family pets, sell off the front garden to the neighbour and implement a new shift system for watching TV? My prediction is that you will encounter significant resistance – you may even have to think about engaging a change manager to help you…
You may think that this is a silly example – after all, family life is (or at least should be) a lot more democratic and participative than what one could reasonably expect from a large organisation, where different rules apply. The rules are certainly different, but many of the deep underlying human dynamics remain exactly the same. We all want our opinion to be heard, to be consulted, to be respected, to have a say in influencing our own destiny. And we all dig in our heels when this doesn’t happen, regardless of the context. The organisational outcomes of this include poor adoption of change, lots of people in compliance rather than commitment, and a gradual erosion of engagement. The outcomes in family life are not all that different.
There is a better way than simply “doing change” to people. We already know this intuitively at a personal level (“what do you feel like eating tonight, how about Pizza?”) and collectively – there are well-established patterns of collaborative social interaction going back through the ages (in Southern Africa examples include the Indaba, Imbizo, Lekgotla and Padare).
But truly collaborative, fully participative change seems to be the rare exception rather than the norm in large organisations. It may be that the fundamental nature of large organisations – particularly those with a profit motive – may constrain the extent to which true collaboration is possible. Certainly the “us and them” (management and “workers”) dynamic will tend to limit the extent to which truly collaborative processes are employed. For me, working as a change practitioner in the organisational context, the view from the “trenches” over the past decade suggests that there is an ever-widening gap between senior management and employees, and I know from experience that managing change across this gap can be extremely difficult. Change practitioners throughout the world have done well to advance the “processes, methods, techniques, and tools that are used to bring about change” in this challenging context. But there is just so much that can be done when you “do” change to people, rather than embarking on change with them. I believe that there is huge potential waiting to be realised in making this shift, to (in the words of one of my colleagues) invite people into the kitchen to cook with you rather than to have them wait in the dining room to eat whatever you serve up. The value of collaborative change processes extends far beyond the obvious positive implications for change acceptance and stakeholder commitment – the quality of solutions is also radically improved through the engagement of a diverse range of perspectives and the harnessing of the experience and creativity of a much larger population of stakeholders.
There are several methods that have been developed to enable better collaboration and participation among large groups of people – these are collectively known as whole system change methods. The first whole system change conference (Nexus4change) was hosted by the Bowling Green State University, Ohio in 2007 and created a platform for people from across the world to share what they knew about whole systems and participative change. The conference has since been hosted yearly, and today Nexus for Change remains one of the leading ways for change practitioners to connect and share their learning regarding whole system change. This year, NEXUS4change convenes in South Africa – NEXUS4africa – and provides an unprecedented opportunity for practitioners from around the world to attend a conference of this magnitude, focussing exclusively on whole system change, on African soil. You can read more about NEXUS4africa at http://www.nexus4africa.org/.