When do people support change?

Did your key project fail to deliver the expected result? Has your organization undergone a massive restructuring process, yet nothing has changed? Did your city spend a fortune to brand itself, but in reality nobody has cared? Don’t feel bad, because you are not alone: Turns out 75% of organizational change projects do not yield the promised result. Let’s start with the root cause of this problem. Then, we will discuss how to fix it.

I remember vividly what a high-ranking military officer once told me:

“If you give three orders to a soldier, he’ll forget two of them, while mismanaging the third.”

The officer meant his soldiers are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. But was that it? Could it be that simple? Then, I remembered the last time I gave detailed instructions to someone, who followed them exactly to the letter. To my surprise, that has never happened. People accomplished their tasks, but never anyone followed my instructions like a robot. Turns out they never should! Here is why…

By Felix Burton (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Felix Burton (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Us, human beings, have a tendency to separate ourselves from the rules of  nature. We are disillusioned to believe that we can bend, reshape or disregard natural processes. The irony is, we are the product of those rules and processes. Obviously, neither us, nor our organization (whose name already suggests that it is alive!) is an exception. As Margaret Wheatley says, “Life is the best teacher about change.” So, if we want to change our organization, first, we have to understand how change takes place in life.

The basic rule of life is that every living thing (a microbe, a cell, a tree, etc.), has the freedom to create one’s self. That means life has the freedom to become whatever it wants. It also means life has the freedom not to become anything it does not want. Nobody can dictate a particular outcome to an organism. Can you tell your fingernails not to grow? Or, should you move a tree to a new location, can you predict if it would survive or not? No matter what you want, life unitarily chooses when and what to react. If the tree survives, you cannot predict how similar or different it might look. Nobody can impose his will upon life’s freedom to become.

Only when the disturbance in the environment is too much to disregard, and if the organization decides to react, something magical happens: Life changes in order to stay the same! You can expose two organisms to the same disruptive environment, only to see that they would interpret it differently and recreate themselves completely distinctively. If an organism dies, it is because it chose not to react to radical change:

Extreme disturbance + Inaction = Extinction.

On the other hand, if an organism survives a radical change, it means it interpreted the information and has already created a future that includes itself:

Extreme disturbance + Reaction = Co-creation.

The organism’s reaction cannot be predicted, so the creation cannot be anticipated, because life never reproduces – It self produces.

Human systems (teams, organizations, communities) follow the same rules: We choose what to react. When we are given an order, we either take the order or not. If we take the order, we must interpret the information to make it our own. Only lifeless things (robot) would react precisely as ordered. So, when your directions are slightly reinterpreted, it does not show resistance or stupidity. It actually means that the individual accepted your idea, and made it his/her own.

As the video above suggests, we must re-vision organizational change with these lenses. For human systems to change, they must be part of the change process. It is naïve to assume that people will follow our directives to the letter. Think about this: If soldiers don’t obey like a robot, why employees would? On the next article, we will discuss ways to change people and human systems.

Today’s actionable insight: Do not disregard humans’ freedom to become and don’t expect people to act like a lifeless machine. Topdown directives, imposed ideas or tyranny cannot work, because they are against nature’s rules.


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