When I was a teenager growing up in Montana, we occasionally would set out on Saturdays with our .22 rifles to “go shooting.” That usually meant adventure and fun and we were responsible enough that we resisted the temptation to shoot road signs and other illegal targets (including each other.) One destination was to walk railroad tracks, and like in the movie Stand By Me, we would whimsically dreamed of having to dodge a train or perhaps of finding something really cool (besides a dead body.)
Nothing so dramatic ever happened, but on one excursion, we did find a train tunnel and ventured into it. Naturally, it was dark and foreboding and we had no flashlights, but none of us would admit to any cowardice or dare shy away at the taunt of a peer, so we foraged forward into the black abyss. The tunnel curved slightly, so at one point we lost sight of the light at our entrance and we also could not see the light at the other end. That was the point where our fears confronted our bravado face-to-face. Fear, or perhaps its second cousin, common sense, prevailed and we turned around. It’s odd how long even a rather short train tunnel seems when one is faced with the prospect of walking some portion of it without either egress being visible.
So, where am I going with all this? Well, I know a company that is metaphorically going into this kind of tunnel of change right now and without any light. The company initiated a huge program late last year on which it is pretty much betting its future and that work will encompass several years. The “light” that is needed is “working differently” according to its management. The senior manager of the IT department recently wrote about it and used Eastman Kodak’s recent bankruptcy filing as a springboard for his message: Technology enables us to revolutionize the way business is done. Technology can help us leapfrog the competition. It can also be the way we are taken out of the game altogether.
He then reiterated an oft-heard mantra (even now considered a bit of a platitude around the organization): to make this change happen we need to work differently. The change of which he writes is vague and in my discussions with various people in the organization, many express that there has been little clarity offered about the meaning of working differently. Of course, they offer their speculations and opinions about what that phrase might mean, but the fact is that there has been little guidance from management, especially senior management, about what they believe it means. One thing that does resonate across the workforce is that management does not appear to be working or behaving any differently than before this edict and the sense is that workers are being demanded to do things differently, but not management. That doesn’t bode well for either the workers or the management.
Whatever the term change actually means to the management (and it is critically important that management have a common understand of what it means), change in this context will involve what author Robert E. Quinn calls transformational change, described in his acclaimed book, Change the World – How Ordinary People Accomplish Extraordinary Result. Quinn describes this kind of profound change as a body of principles based upon seed thoughts of masters of transformation that reflect the simplicity from the other side of complexity.
He contrasts this revolutionary change with normal (aka incremental) change that occurs almost constantly in organizations. This change gives rise to another frequently used cliché variation: the only constant in our business is change. The difference in the change types is that Incremental change is actually “normalized” in that it typically conforms to or at least does not disrupt the behaviors, norms, and culture of the organization. It is rarely very disruptive and it often occurs as the result of management decrees and instructions. This can also be termed intrasystemic change because it is encapsulated in within the culture that is organic to the organization’s system.
Transformational change is typically catalyzed by a person (or sometimes persons) who become the masters of the transformation. This kind of change is extrasystemic because it is often seen as very radical and a perturbance to the status quo. Quinn uses Ghandi, King, and Jesus as examples of people who were masters of transformational change. They were catalysts of great change that endured beyond their lives.
Normalized change tends to come about from telling people they need to change through reason and argument and by forcing change (where the presumption is that people usually resist change and must be told to do it.) This actually formulates into a 2-step process for incremental change: first, communicate the reason for change and then force the change if the target audience resists and fails to adopt it. This kind of change will fail if it is significant - i.e. transformational. The company of which I speak has taken this approach so far.
Transformational change requires a participative strategy where people collaborate and embrace change on its merits. They do so because it will be good for them, for others, and for the institution. The US civil rights, women’s rights, anti-war movements, India’s independence and the end of apartheid in South Africa are all examples of successful transformational change that resulted from collaborative activity. Such change events are often termed ‘movements” because of the change brought about enormously impactive change. While violence can be associated with such societal change, equivalent organizational change rarely involves violence. However, the change is still enormously uncomfortable for many people and they often actively and passively resist it because it threatens the entrenched culture and authority and related norms, behaviors, conformity standards, power structure, etc.
Quinn goes on in his book to describe the framework that can enable transformational change based in eight transformational seeds:
1. Envision the productive community
2. First look within
3. Embrace the hypocritical self
4. Transcend fear
5. Embody a vision of common good
6. Disturb the system
7. Surrender to emergent process
8. Entice through moral power
Interestingly, much of what Quinn describes is also part of the calculus for Steve Denning's radical management as described in his book, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management - Re-inventing the Workplace for the 21st Century. Denning describes seven work principles that organizations can leverage to do well in the modern economy: