Change is well sought after these days, be it innovation, transformation or even better disruption. Long forgotten are the days of continuous improvement, intrapreneurs and the learning organisations. Six Sigma had its days, and we vaguely remember Total Quality Management and the high-performance organisation. Now everything is Lean, Agile and Design Thinking. But it is not a too successful story. We saw change projects failing, over and over again. We have been there, done it and got those T-shirts with the promising claims. And honestly, nothing changed really. The story of change in organisations remains a story of trial and error. But we can do better. It is time for true change.
True change seems to be more than anything else the re-entry of common sense into the organisation. And this is not to say that all these change theories, methodologies, methods and instruments, are pointless. On the contrary they are powerful tools. Yet, a fool with a tool is still a fool. True change needs to acknowledge a few sobering facts. First, change is not an end in itself. Second, organisations are entities in their own right, with their own logic. Third, whenever people are involved, things are inevitably complex. Hence, true change needs to be systemic change, or it is a waste of resources.
For a start, we need to acknowledge that change is inevitable. This refers not so much to the ancient Greek idea panta rhei (all flows) than it does connect to the Tai Chi philosophy. The essence of life is a balance of Yin AND Yang, of integration AND transformation, of continuous improvement AND innovation. It is a question of balance and a question of sufficiency. For every living thing there is the requirement of sufficient and balanced change to survive. Thrivability is a question of permanent renewal, of action and learning.
Certainly, the engineering paradigm created organisations that had forgotten about the necessity of permanent change. We were rendered with the idea of strategic plans and their implementation, a change approach which almost granted failure. Organisations are conservative and do not like change. They wait too long until something urgently needs repair. But out of all incentives for change, fixing broken things and cleaning the mess are the least attractive. – One stitch in time saves nine.
Today’s world is VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – they say, yet it has always been that way. We made it here, so we must have gotten something right. Intuitively we know that, first, survival or even thrivability is the goal we need to meet. Second, we must have a feeling for the possible in specific organisations in contrast to alien best practice approaches. And third, that projects succeed or fail because of people.
True change is possible. It may start with the need for rapid reaction or the necessity for a progressive transformation and it is always about learning. In organisation true change needs a clear business case, a return on investment, on resources applied and a return on expectations. Organisational change tends to come in the form of a project, so we better know something about project management. And true change needs to be well communicated, before, during and after.
True change can build on a rich tradition of successful practices of systemic intervention, e.g. Total Quality Management or Six sigma. True change can thrive on integrating the playful approaches of Lean, Agile and Design Thinking. And True change will be accelerated by the means of smart digital tools. Yet, it is compatible with martial arts. It is not your mastery of the tools that brings success. It is your mastery of the situation that wins the day. A simple Scrum meeting possibly makes all the difference in the course of a large cultural transformation. And on the other hand, the better any change endeavour is contained within a well thought-through change project and communication architecture, ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
True change aims at and realises the best possible. Forget about disruption. One step at a time will get you where you want to go. Systemic inquiry reveals not only all the information you need about the feasibility and desirability of your goal but also the feasibility and desirability of the way leading there. Just ask and you will be answered. And this is neither swarm intelligence nor the wisdom of the crowd. Systemic inquiry is appreciative inquiry empowering people to live up to their potential.
True change comes in all sizes, from small to large. Yet, it needs to be sincere. And in the pursuit of excellence it follows the three maxims of Delphi: know thyself, be, and nothing in excess, which translate into: reflect, create and balance. If this reminds you of the PDCA-cycle – plan, do, check, act – then we are talking. Reflect, then create and then reflect again. This is the rhythm of learning and the rhythm of life. True change is organisational learning. Organisations need to learn to change and learn to learn. And suddenly, all the frustrating experiences with change become a rich well and a plenty of resources for successful change and a better future. True change!