Meet Bob. Bob is an organizational change agent. Bob has worked as a consultant with quite a few companies over the last couple of years, and his confidence is obvious to new clients. He fearlessly explains the primary essence of his method, and gets important stakeholders to come together behind his changes. Implementing change usually involves significantly updating an organization’s teams and processes, sometimes drastically. The leadership has high expectations of the remodeled organizational landscape, and who can blame them for wanting everything faster and at a more reasonable cost? Bob’s system requires initial change, but offers a strong sense of quick and obvious benefits. It’s a win-win every time: Bob has a great sense of accomplishment after every transformation, and each company is happy with what he leaves them with, which was all anyone wanted to do anyway. Bob’s confidence and charm inspires the acceptance of drastic changes.
Alice is also an organizational change agent, although she never truly liked that title. Alice doesn’t seem as confident about change as Bob is. Alice doesn’t instantly offer a plan for a big change. She explores, together with the company, exactly where they stand, how people assess current success and failures, from a front-line worker to a high-profile stakeholder, and the good and the bad of their organizational reality. She spends even more time trying to correlate diverse opinions with objective measures, when these can be readily discovered. When it isn’t so easy, she might launch an entire expedition with the sole purpose of uncovering the hidden knowledge that will help the organization assess their value delivery landscape. The management gets a little impatient with her exploratory style at times, and even more so with the gradual process of facilitated growth which comes later. Some think Alice lacks confidence, and that’s why she resorts to techniques that seem so different to Bob’s. Maybe there is something to the idea that humans are great at rationalizing the behavior that is driven by their personality type.
In time, Bob moves to a new client, and the work starts anew. He is fully absorbed, not having the time to raise his head until he is done with all the meetings, and sessions, and workshops. But however involved, Bob always misses one aspect of his work. He doesn’t know what really happens months, or years, down the road. He doesn’t know that once the novelty has worn off, his clients begin to struggle with the structures and processes that Bob devised. It takes a year or two for them to realize things are not working out, and then they desperately seek help again. It’s very likely that they’ll find another Wizard of Short-Term Effects, like Bob, who might seem to have a different approach, but which is still characterized by charm, confidence, and drastic change. The management can never resist the unmitigated confidence of a Wizard.
Meanwhile, Alice sticks with her clients a little longer, and even after she has mostly disengaged, it is an integral condition of her contract (as well as her way of thinking) to have multiple checkpoints over an extended period of time. The essence of her approach is that she cares most of all about context, and tries to get a sense of where the organization’s ecosystem is heading at any time, performing experiments and responsive action along the way. Alice is not particularly admired in the beginning, and even doubted, but in time she is recognized as the Queen of Sustainable Advantage, which is exactly what the company was seeking to acquire.
“But wait,” some may argue, “drastic change has merit, too!”
It does, indeed. But this article is about dealing with complex environments on reality’s terms, not about big change vs. small change. After any drastic change in a complex adaptive system, there is a lengthy period of adaptation, which might take the system far away from its anticipated destination. It takes time, perhaps many months, for a reshuffled system to absorb the shock and produce a response, but only then can you get a sense of the true destination of the system. Sometimes big change is acceptable, but it would be irresponsible and unreasonable to believe that the state achieved right after a drastic reshuffling can be sustained over the long term in its initial form.
If you are an organizational change agent, it is a matter of taste whether you want to be Bob, the Wizard of Short-Term Effects, or Alice, the Queen of Sustainable Advantage: a taste that will define the fate of the organization.