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  • Writer's pictureDean Williamson

Organisational change: A positive or negative experience?

I want you to think about "organisational change". Is your association with this positive or negative? For most people, organisational change brings to mind restructures, downsizing, redundancies, or more work. At best, it's usually just a list of failed initiatives that never "stuck", with the organisation mostly staying inert around them.

In our organisational work, we usually walk into extreme change fatigue. Employees often choosing to not even bother trying new things, because they believe the new initiative will probably just go away too... I mean, my wife went through a "pending" restructure for seven years! Did the change work? Is anything better? Nope!

Thinking differently about change

I wonder whether it's something inherent in an approach to the practice of change management? Even the use of "management" speaks to controlling change. Despite all of the models out there, much in-the-world change management seems to still revert back to a "decide, communicate, implement" paradigm.

We think that looking at change differently produces major, well, change! We are specialists in helping organisations to leverage new ways of working (known as "teal" practice after Frederic Laloux, or self-management).

This prioritises culture and "people" systems as the main assets of the organisation, and a change initiative is embedded within the organisation's culture.

Every change (e.g. a new IT system or program, a new structure) is an experiment in learning about the organisation and how it works, and an opportunity to transform the under-pinning rules of the org.

A real example of leading with culture at Aquadec

As an example, Aquadec (one of our clients) was having major quality issues in installation after installation. It was costing them a bomb to keep going back to sites they should've been able to leave behind, and it was costing them their reputation as well. A traditional change approach would have been to bring in a new quality assurance system, probably some check-lists and oversight/compliance checks. Instead, a culture-first approach saw us go to the irrigators and turn up a heap of systemic issues. They weren't clear on what aspects of a system they were responsible for checking, often assuming that someone else was coming to check the system as a whole. They weren't exercising any contextual decision-making: they could check the sprinkler heights, but they weren't looking at head height and pressure in light of the system they were installing - were they wetting the areas they were meant to be wetting, with the right amount of water? Finally, they felt like they didn't have the ability to pause work to ask these questions, having to hustle on to their next job. The result? They were sinking heaps of time and money into coming back to fix issues.

Once we knew all of this we were able to aim to add clarity and autonomy to their role. We ran a couple of workshops to help them have agreed standards about common irrigation practices that they had never agreed on and trained in. A big part of these was "why" these were, so that the guys were internalising the context of decisions. We also helped them to change the dynamic so that irrigators could negotiate with team leads how long they would need on site, given clear expectations of checks and installation quality. Some of this work needed individual coaching with the irrigators to help them personally wrestle with the new responsibility and autonomy, which can be hard to take up at first.

The outcomes of leading through culture and role clarity

Aquadec hasn't had a major site quality issue in over a year, and they've been able to ride their quality installation and project management into a much healthier price and relationship strategy with clients. But this is because of the culture-first approach instead of what could've been a small top-down change and compliance project, that would have probably yielded little results.

Experiment your way to change

And this is how we step our way through organisational transformation and development - one change project at a time - all directed towards an aligned end point. It's a series of design, try, re-design (involving the people you're designing for), all of which over time re-engineer the firm. For Aquadec, the goal was only partly the quality issue - it's the deeper change towards clarity, responsibility and autonomy that is the real success. And this was simply one small example of the work Aquadec has done (and continues to do) in this culture-led organisational change environment.

You want someone who understands the engineering to build your bridge

I think that we can do this re-engineering with anyone because of our self-management/teal practice. Understanding the alternative ways that organisations can be, and the rules and practices which can make them so, are fundamental to un-picking the canvas of the traditional organisation. So if you want sustained, purposeful change, maybe start thinking more deeply than a change project.

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