10 Assumptions about Change


Change is embedded in everything. It is the subtext of every topic of conversation that I have. It is the core issue of every project that I do.

Our assumptions about change need to change.

First Assumption: Change is bad.

Change is neutral. It is needed in every aspect of life. Without change there is no life. Too much change too quickly can be destructive. Change functions on a continuum between growth and decline, even life and death.

Second Assumption: The Opposite of Change is No Change.

Staying the same isn't a very sustainable strategy. Yet, it seems to be the response I hear most often to the prospect of change.

Third Assumption: Manage Change through Attitudes and Behaviors.

This is a good approach to a point. It assumes that human beings are living in an environment which is changing and their response (attitudes and behaviors) is how we address change. However, I find that this is an inadequate approach to the management of change.

I can understand why these assumptions are the ones I encounter most. They are based on assumptions that are the conventional wisdom of the past century. What are those assumptions?

Fourth Assumption: Large, Global, Transnational Organization is the logical, progressive direction of human civilization.

This assumption is captured most succinctly in the phrase "too big to fail." Yet, we do see failure, decline, possible disintegration and collapse of the world's largest and, at one time, the most progressive and prosperous nations and organizations.

Fifth Assumption: Stability, efficiency and maximumization of resources are the highest values of organizations.

What this perspective actually produces is vocational instability, economic volatility, social dislocation and the concentration of power and resources into the hands of the few.

Sixth Assumption: Urbanization, and the loss of an agrarian socio-economic culture, is the progressive and beneficial outcome of these historic trends.

While I am not an urban sociologist or economist, my on-the-ground observations is that increasing urbanization is more inefficient, is poor ground for the sustainability of inter-generational communal social structures, and increases the cost and demands of daily living. It seems to me that all these factors exist within a continuum where too little and too dense are not ideal for community or socio-economic sustainability.

Seventh Assumption: The above trends have disrupted natural cycles of growth by accelerating the process of change beyond what is now manageable under the assumptions of the past century. 

As an out-of-alignment wheel on a car spins more chaotically as speed and variation increase, so are the cycles of change increasing in speed and variability.

Eighth Assumption: Change is cyclical and we are at the end of a long cycle of the kind of growth in organizations described above.

From a contemporary context, is Greece's economic meltdown the anomaly or is it the canary in the coalmine?  Are we at the end of the era where large, global, transnational organizations can function?

Ninth Assumption: The future will be or should be like the past.

There are two assumptions here. One is if the past is prelude to the future, then what in our past should we have seen that would have helped us to predict the past decade of terrorism, war, political division and global economic recession?

It is helpful to read Professor Carroll Quigley's Oscar Iden Lectures, "Public Authority and the State in the Western Tradition: A Thousand Years of Growth, A.D. 976 - 1976” Quigley was a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University for over forty years. His perspective is unique, expansive and, I find, very insightful.

The other assumption concerns our nostalgia for past golden ages as Professor H.W. Brands of the University of Texas describes them. He describes that much of this nostalgia is focused on the decades between 1945 and 1965, the golden age of American political economy as he describes it.

... for Baby Boomers, this is the age of our childhood. There is this tendency of humans to look back to a golden age. If you quiz people, the golden age usually corresponds to their childhood.  They’ll say, life was simpler. Of course, life was simpler, you were 8 years old.

There’s this thinking of, if we could just get back to the way things were in 1950 or 1960, then all will be well. Part of it is this individual nostalgia.

But part of it is this historically anomalous position during this period from 1945 to 1965. Because in a fundamental way, the US was the only victor of World War II. The US was the only country that came out with a stronger economy than it went in. America’s principal industrial competitors were either gravely weakened, like Britain, or absolutely demolished like Germany and Japan. So, it was easy for the US to embrace free trade. Yeah, level the playing field because we’ve already leveled the industrial capacity of all our competitors.

The weakness of this assumption is that underlying it is a belief often held that our best years are in the past, not the future, therefore, what changes we experience today are taking us further away from the golden age of the past.

Tenth Assumption: Change is Structural, and cannot be adequately faced by just changing attitudes and behaviors.

The future is going to be different. The last stage of acceptance of this will be the recognition that many of the above assumptions are declining in validity. Yes, of course, as individuals we adapt to change by modifying our attitudes and behaviors. We also must adapt by changing the social and organizational structures that have led us to this point in history.

The indicators of structural change are already evident. They are awaiting application in theory, design and practice.  I'll write about them in my next posting.

The Common Ground of Shared Responsibility

Creating an effective business structure is a very difficult proposition. I am not talking about a business or marketing plan. I referring to how a business is structured so that it functions well. 3Cs of Alignment - image

As you know, I look at this challenge through the lens of the Circle of Impact. My sense is that we need to foster alignment between the three dimensions of leadership - Ideas, Relationships and Structure. We do this by focusing on the conditions that create effective Communication, Collaboration and Coordination.

For me this is a baseline from which all organizations need to begin. What happens beyond that is a change in the function of each of the dimensions.

Communication ceases to be a major problem; your message gets out; and work related issues seemed to be less intractable.

Collaboration grows, new ideas emerge from the improvement of relationships, and the organization needs to change to accomodate a higher level of engagement and initiative by people.

Coordination, though, lags in improvement across departments, remote sites, and programs. The reason is that the system of organizaiton is always the last to change. It has the highest resistance to adapting to changing circumstances.  As a result, the optimism that initially rose as communication and collaboration grew also begins to lag. 

After a few months or years, a growing impression of either being at a plateau or in Transition Pointdecline begins to be discussed openly.  Whether rightly or wrongly, the perception that the organization has reached a Transition Point begins to take hold.

In reflection, we can see that the easiest things to change, did.  New, fresh, inspiring ideas infused new confidence and motivation in people, impacting how they communicated and collaborated together. This is what is happening in many organizations.

The jump from one inspiring idea to the next ends up artificially propping up the emotional commitment of people to the company and their relationships together.This is not sustainable.

The resistance of the organization's structure to change remains the primary obstacle to a well functioning, fully aligned organization.

The distance and disconnect that employees have from the mission and outcome of the business is the most basic identifying mark of a structure out of alignment. Indifference that people have to their workplace grows.  The desire to be left alone to do their job so they can get on to what really matters in their life becomes the defacto attitude of the workforce. In effect, there is no emotional access point for them to invest their whole selves in the work they do.

When this scenario is widely experienced in a company, inspiring ideas and motivational team building programs don't have a lasting impact. The problem is a structural or systems one. Issues of communication and collaboration are symptoms of the problem. 

Assumptions about the Product of an Effective Organizational Structure

As I analyze organizations during various projects, I'm looking for various intangilbes that matter. Let's call them assumptions about what an organizational system should produce.

1.  Initiative by employees measured by higher rates of engagement and contribution. 

2. Interaction by employees that is open and collaborative and that transcends organizational barriers to achieve higher levels of efficiency and impact.

3. Impact awareness by employees who can express their own contribution to the organization's impact as a change that is a difference that matters.

These assumptions are difficult to measure, yet relatively easy to see.

Their performance is more evident when they are missing. People not taking initiative. When there is little interaction between people from different parts of the organization. When employees show little appreciation for the organization's mission and impact. 

The question that many of us then have is how to do we redesign our organizational structures so that we realize a higher level of initiative, interaction and impact.

One way to address this issue is through strategic organizational redesign to creates an environment of Shared Responsibility.

Shared Responsibility

Every organization has a responsibility or accountability structure. In older, traditional hierarchical systems, Responsibility resides in varying degrees throughout the organization, but not accountability, which is top down. Shared Responsibility
A shared responsibility structure creates a shared space of mutual, collaborative, coordinated accountability. This illustration shows an organization where management, staff and the board of directors have a common ground of shared responsibility.  The shared space is common ground because the expectation is that each person engaged in this space has an opportunity to contribute out of their own talent, knowledge and expertise within the strictures of their position and role in the organization.

For example, while some members of the management team would not ordinarily work along side of members of the Board of Directors, in this scheme they would because the structure is is organized to provide a shared space of contribution for impact. This approach lowers the organizational barriers that typically make it hard to create a common ground for work.

The purpose of this structure is not order or standardization, but alignment of the functions of communication, collaboration and coordination for the purpose of impact. It is the mission of the organization, not the structure, which drives the change in structure. RK- Org Design

This approach is currently being developed for an international non-profit organization whose constituents are in all 50 states and 20 countries globally.  The board is small in number; is highly active in collaboration with the staff; and works with a large number of advisors and supporters from around the world who contribute  according to their ability.

This organization's aim to create an environment where participation is not boring or disconnected from its mission, but is marked by personal initiative, collaborative interaction, and an organization environment each person has the opportunity to make a difference.

The way an organizational design of this sort works is when the Connecting Ideas of purpose, mission, values, vision and impact are well defined and aligned within the structure, and the leadership of the organization serves as a faciliator of interaction and contribution. Because the organizational structure is a shared space for collaboration, the barriers for constituents to lead through their talent and abilities are low, producing a more highly engagement staff and board.

This kind of structure and leadership must be intentionally designed and developed.  This is not a radical departure from the past, but at the same time, it is also not a logical step forward for most of the legacy structures that exist today.

This approach fosters a shared leadership of responsibility. Leadership from this perspetive is the impact or influence that is the result of the personal initiative take to create impact. When the senior leadership of an organization understands that this is where the future of organizations lays, it requires a change in their own leadership approach.

The Ultimate Question

Can legacy organizational structures change to this model of shared responsibility? 

I believe it can. The pathway to this approach is in appreciating the importance of the relationship dimension for the creation of the strength and impact of an organization.  From that perspective barriers to interaction and collaboration lower or are removed, enabling people to become more engaged with the purpose and mission of the organization, and to do so in relationship with other members of their organizational community.

How to make a transition that matters, with new afterword

Transition through Time

I've been talking about change as a process of transition for several years.   I'm not sure very many people  paid any attention to me, at least until now.  Now, they are seeing what I see, that growth during a recession requires a tremendous amount of energy.  We have to think differently, organize differently, have different expectations for our performance. We have to be open to adapting to the situation as it actually exists.

I was thinking about this while I read Dan Pink's latest posting.  He closes the post by saying,

The bottom line: In a downturn, everything’s up for grabs. More generally, place and time lose a lot of their meaning in an outsourced, automated age.

I'd say that place and time's value changes. They are still important. Here are two examples of what I'm  doing.

Five Questsions - Simple

1. I've created a presentation built around my Five Questions that can last from about ten minutes to four hours. In that presentation, I use these diagrams to help people think more clearly about their situations. I do a lot of the same things I do in longer projects, just in a shorter timeframe. So there's the time consideration. It means that I've shifted from a focus on a few projects of longer duration to shorter projects. 

2. I've also been talking with people about collaboration in their communities. There's the place consideration.  What I'm offering to do is help them organize a Lessons-in-Leadership like event with my Five Questions presentation on transitions as the keynote. The purpose is to come into a community, bring organizations together, inject some ideas, optimism and networking into a day when many people may be at the office reorganizing their files waiting for the phone to ring.

If everything is up for grabs as Dan suggests, then that means your past assumptions may be your greatest inhibitor to success.

Do you assume that leadership training for non-profits and commercial businesses should be separate?
Do you assume that business training can't be charitable?
Do you assume that your business can get by without an online presence?
Do you assume that you can control your public relations message?
Do you assume that customer relations is primarily about the transaction at the cash register?
Do you assume that online social networks have no place in your business?
Do you assume that all you need to do is cut costs and work harder to get through this recession?

I could go on. The reality is that each of us has to aggressively challenge every assumption that we've long held about the business we are in.

What are the keys?

1. Relationships last longer than customers.
2. Service is more important than the product.
3. Trust and transparency build loyal clients.
4. Adaptation opens up opportunities.
5. Leadership is in greater demand than ever before, and more absent that ever before.
6. Pricing is flexible.

The time to change is now.  Don't wait a month. If you need help, I'm here. We'll talk you through the diagrams, and help you figure out how you are going to make it. You may have a vision for where you want to be, but without a way to make the step-by-step transition to it, it is just a dream.

A Personal Afterword (2014)

I'm writing this five and a half years later. Little did I know that within six months of writing the above post that my consulting practice would have virtually gone away. Yet, opportunities abound as, slowly, new, smaller projects began to emerge.

Two years after this post, I transitioned from the state-wide, non-profit board, that I had served on since its inception six years prior, to become its Interim Executive Director with the primary task of conducting a state-wide fund raising campaign.

It was both an exhilariting and a painful experience. It was thrilling to see a vision for linking groups across the state of North Carolina for fund raising, training and support began to take shape. Confirmation of that vision came soon after we began as one donor made with a $500,000 commitment. The painful part came as the Board shut the project down as operating funds diminished, eventually leading to the closing of the organization. It was the first time in my career that I had been terminated from a job. A new learning experience that I'd rather not repeat.

Within a week though, I was asked to step in as the interim pastor of a Presbyterian church an hour from my home. Two years later I'm preparing to leave as venture into another time of transition.  The experience of leading a diverse congregation that had been through a painful season of staff departures reinforced the importance of the six keys listed above. I'm grateful for my time with these lovely, caring folks.

Five years later, the Five Questions resonate as the tool, above of all my diagramatic ones, that provides the greatest clarity and grounding in reality. Once again I am, like many people, in transition. The experience of the past five years has confirmed in me three values that are essential for all that I do, and will do in the future. They are,

Personal Integrity

A Personal Intimacy of Openness, Transparency and Trust

Practice Generosity, that align with Integrity and Intimacy.

My recommendation that you take a few moments and ask yourself the Five Questions. If the answers don't come, then print off this version of the diagram. Carry it around with you. Let the questions become a part of your everyday thought process. When reflecting of a situation, ask the questions. When planning an event using the questions as a projection into the future. The more you use them, the more you will see what you need to see before others do. All the best as you do.

Five Questions - Life-Work Transitions

Are their assumptions valid?

Reading this Financial Times article - Deal could wreak havoc on candidates’ plans - the thought occurred to me that our elected officials and especially the presidential candidates are proceeding on with their campaigns as if nothing has really happened.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi comments in the article - “What does it do to our opportunities to invest in the American people?”

It means the American people will have to find ways to do it for themselves.

The guiding assumption for the past 75 years is that government exists as a stop gap for all sorts of ills that can afflict a society. What we are finding through the past months is that this assumption is no longer valid.

To say that our government is corrupt is really the wrong perspective. It is better to say that the way elections are held and governance conducted is no longer adequate.  In the past, the American public could look to government for support in times of crisis. However, now our world has become far too complex for an elective body to manage the competing demands of appealing to the electorate for votes and doing what is in the best interest of the country.

So, what's the answer? We need a smaller, more agile, more flexible federal governance system. At present, there really is no accountability for failures like what we've seen over the past few weeks.  Getting rid of the people responsible doesn't change anything. These people who are responsible are products of the system.

The further this election season progresses, the more fiscally conservative I am becoming. As I have reflected upon the candidates, I determined that Obama is not sufficiently different from McCain or Bush to make a difference. In his quest to fulfill the same assumption that Rep. Pelosi uttered, he will only make matters worse.  From the moment I heard his first speech in the primaries, my reaction to him has been that he will be the most expensive president in US history.

The assumptions that our national leaders have about their governance of the country need some serious revision. My ony hope is with those "Blue Dog Democrats" who courageously went against their party and voted no on the bail out bill.