There are days when I think I will scream if I hear one more person talk about change. This may seem strange. My first non-academic job was in a firm focused on organizational change. I’ve spent more than 20 years helping people and organizations learn how to deal with change and implement it more effectively. But I’d like to suggest that we might be doing some harm in spending so much of our time and energy talking about change as “a thing.” Here are three reasons why:
- All work is change. When we talk about change as “a thing,” there is the unspoken implication that it’s somehow different from what we are doing every day. I would like to argue that all work is change. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of work is “sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or result.” When we work, we change one state of being into another, shift something from one place to another, produce something that didn’t exist before, interact with people to deliver a service and create satisfaction, teach people something they didn’t know before…almost everything we do involves applying our energy to move some aspect of the world forward. The work of leaders is to organize and motivate people to engage in activities that move things forward in a coordinated way.
When we don’t acknowledge that all work is change, we do a number of things that are ineffective. Here are two:
- We create a distorted view of the world in which people who do routine work do not recognize how they contribute to moving the organization forward, and in which we separate sponsoring/leading change from just plain leading, and see implementing change as different from simply working together to make the organization better.
- We set up overlapping structures (governance, planning, tracking, etc.) that artificially separate “running the business” from “change initiatives” and can cause confusion and inefficiency.
- Change isn’t one thing. There is a continuum of change that runs from routine work (a friend of mine calls it “putting tops on bottoms”) to continuous improvement (finding incremental ways to do things better) to transition (initiatives that shift the organization from one way of doing things to another) to transformation (shifting assumptions, thought patterns, and relationships in ways that create open-ended opportunities for new ways of operating). At each point along this continuum, we need different tools and approaches to achieve our desired results. At the routine end, we depend on specificity and detailed measurement to drive efficiency and consistent quality. At the transformational end, we must invoke high levels of courage and imagination and the messy work of true synergy. Along the way, we need various levels of planning, coordination, engagement, and other ingredients. In addition, as we go up the continuum we see a shift from primarily using physical and mental energy to make things happen to drawing on higher and higher levels of emotional and spiritual energy.
When we lump everything under the heading of “change,” we do two things that are dangerous:
- We make change sound harder than it is by not giving employees the opportunity to see how they are changing themselves and the world around them every day, building capabilities that they can use for change activities that are larger and more challenging; we also make change sound easier than it is by failing to emphasize the significant qualitative and quantitative shifts in energy and skills required to successfully engage in transformation.
- We teach people tools and concepts that are useful in one part of the continuum and believe they are prepared for “change.” For example, most “change management” methodologies are geared toward successful implementation of initiatives, but not toward the less structured activities and the interpersonal strengths that are required for doing transformational work or the more quantitative and analytical activities required for supporting continuous improvement.
What would it look like to stop talking about change as a thing? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s easy, partly because even if we agree that it’s not a perfect term, “change” is a convenient shorthand for referring to a set of activities, tools, and skills that are relevant and important. Here are some of the things I’ve been doing:
- Talking about “challenge” rather than “change,” and helping people see that the things we call changes can vary a lot in the level of challenge they present, and that challenges can come from many places, not all of which are things we label as “change.”
- Thinking about the set of tools and competencies that leaders and working groups need to get things done and how they apply across the continuum of change.
- Identifying skill sets and concepts (from OD, OE, I/O Psychology, etc.) that are relevant to change-related work but do not tend to be included in change-related training and tools.
How are you talking about change these days? What are you finding that is helpful and meaningful to your colleagues and clients? I’d love to hear your thoughts.