At S&S you will have heard us talk about change as a constant and viewing change as an organisational capability rather than a sporadic activity. But there are other viewpoints and lenses we should consider. In this blog, S&S associate Susie Palmer-Trew gives us food for thought with an important contrarian lens on the need to pause occasionally and capitalise on the benefit from change.
If you excuse the absolute misuse of Elkie Brooks song lyrics, I’ll get to the point.
We spend so much time changing, talking about change or being told we should be doing change. Change is the only constant; right? If you’re not always changing, you’re standing still; yep?
Wrong. Nope. Doesn’t have to be the case.
The environment in which our organisations operate has become an increasingly complex and uncertain nature and the extent of this context often require organisations to respond by initiating fundamental or transformational change. That is not new news, organisations have been committing to big and brilliant transformations for decades.
Because we change to win, to gain competitive advantage, to make life better for colleagues and customers.
Whilst for most of us change may be considered the norm, there are many organisations that have to confront sudden or unexpected change. And it is this level of disruption that can and does overwhelm those who are directly affected, we can see this impacting individual and collective performance and wellbeing. And what do we need to remember? Change is sometimes temporary.
There will come a time when the change actually ends. When the expectation for change stops and when the need for calm, still and steady takes over.
And that stop is so important.
It’s important to enable a change to embed, for an organisation to educate itself on what happened and where it is, to learn and grow together. To reap the benefits. To see the sunshine. To recover.
It’s important because without it we start to exceed our ability to cope with the constant churn, to want to change and disengagement starts to emerge in both individuals and teams and this can be really damaging to an organisation’s capacity to deliver well and in a way it can be proud.
The importance of stopping, of having the chance to let the dust settle, was something I’d always been told about but I hadn’t really been in the middle of a ‘pause’. My world has always been to enable the change to happen, rather than to create the space for us to breathe. But I remember working with an organisation on a whole scale transformation, there was to be no stone left unturned (and in this case, unchanged) but the work was starting when previous ‘changes’ hadn’t yet finished. And in some cases, we were changing the same things, again. Now, colleagues were tired and disengaging with the changes and their core activities. Divides and silos were becoming more prevalent as colleagues bunkered down to ‘protect’ their heads and hearts. It was dismissed, labelled as change resistance and the organisation went on. But no level of incentive, workshop or volume of donuts can resolve the organisation-wide exhaustion.
So I asked them to stop. A hiatus from the constant churn. A chance for colleagues to have coffee, to use annual leave, and take a break without being fearful of what might be there when they came back.
A pause was announced. And the pause passed and the transformation never re-started. Why? Because with changes embedded and benefits realised, efficiencies were no longer needed when colleagues were working to their skills and optimising how they worked, because they were no longer over stretched and frustrated. And yes, change still ripples through that organisation, but it’s a ripple, not a tsunami.
There’s always a but.
But with change being categorised as one of the most important and difficult problems within organisations, the need to change rapidly, efficiently, and almost continually is prevalent across all industries/Sectors (Zafar and Naveed (2014)). Due to the nature of change, our people are at the crux of almost every change scenario. We continually ask them to operate in a context that is complex, volatile and often emotionally intense and the result is often seen to trigger increased stress levels. Thiscan result in disengagement, blocking behaviours or perceptions of intentional disruption. In some cases, we’ll jump the gun and call this change resistance.
But what would happen if we took it as the same indicator that I experienced (and continue to experience first hand); that we needed to give change time to embed and people time to recover, to stop?
So what can you do?
1. Manage the expectation that the disruption associated with change might be hard, but it is temporary and a time will come when it stops. This can be built into the narrative of your change, use it when you communicate, seek support or request resources. Be clear that it’s a need for ‘now’ not ‘forever.
2. Be clear on who is affected and when; this will introduce recovery time during a period of change. For me, knowing what is not changing is more powerful than knowing what is. Why? Because it gives you something familiar to hang on to, an anchor during the storm. So when you speak with stakeholders or start a consultation, be really clear what’s changing, what isn’t and what they can influence. Cards on the table from day one.
3. Provide time and space for reflection; coach and support colleagues with navigating the intensity of change. Often the hardest one to do, but identify those who might need support to either lead the change or land the change. Because those leading the change needs are often more dedicated support than those affected by it, in order to get it right. Seek expertise, bring in capability that meets your needs, that builds your confidence and competence. Be prepared to stretch. For those affected by the change, informal networks, collaboration or co-creation activities linked to the change are often really powerful ways to provide space for reflection and an opportunity to use your voice constructively.
4. Keep Educating; the change will stop but the learning needs will continue whether that’s linked to the skills or the culture. I use ‘educate’ with precision, because often during change, we ‘train’ to solve the knowledge gap or to enable a transition. Education is more whole, starting at the ‘why’ and travels the whole journey through to the ‘what next’. Education is about improvement and organisational growth – and that’s the beauty of experiencing positive change; the ability to grow and see better.
And when the need to change comes back around (which it undoubtedly will), start the next change where the last one ended. Remember the learning, talk about the mistakes, miss-steps and mishaps. Give yourself the time and space to be ready to go again. Because the place for learning is in the change. And that’s when you see the sunshine after the rain.
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