Information and Insights
Dynamism and therefore change are a given and a gift. There is no such thing as an organization that is quiet, still and unchanging. A vital organization, like all living systems, is constantly adapting, learning and restructuring. If it weren’t, it would be dead or dying. We’ve seen organizations so controlled that their creativity is stifled and vitality suppressed. We wonder how they survive.
Life’s dynamism is largely beyond our control. As a result, it stretches us. Learning how to work with change to gain its benefit requires a core set of skills. No matter how hard we try, we cannot prevent change from occurring, nor can we manipulate it to our advantage in any realm of life. And this is a good thing, because interacting with and receiving feedback from circumstances beyond our realm of experience or control provides us with endless opportunities to learn and grow.
Unfortunately, our response to changes, big or small, is often negative. We close and contract, rather than open to absorb and expand to encompass it. Learning about life and its dynamic nature can’t happen in a rigid state. Unexpected dynamics don’t always feel like gifts. It’s easy to interpret the unknown and potential as a problem. When a situation is new, unexpected or beyond our control, we don’t always understand or appreciate the input that it is providing us. Instead, we close down and struggle. We get caught in our own or others’ emotions, fears and tensions. We lose sight of the big picture and get lost in details. This way of responding to change can negatively impact individuals as well as the organization as a whole. It can result in a culture of confusion, lost confidence, frustration, and - from the quality perspective – wasted time and people resources.
Managers have a unique role in “managing change.” First, their job is to control the uncontrollable. Second, given their positional power, their skill (or lack thereof) in working with the dynamics of people and process impacts the broader organization. Their control function and far-reaching influence make managers change agents or change bottlenecks. On a continual basis, they are faced with the challenge of managing and directing the dynamism within themselves and throughout their organization. They have authority and power – especially at the executive level. If they are not clear and purposeful, and if they don’t know how to align and integrate, then they send confusion, frustration and operational fuzziness out into the organization. By virtue of their status and skills, leaders broadcast clarity or confusion out to the broader organization. How they choose to use this power in the face of continual movement and shifting can strongly influence the trajectory of their own well-being, that of their employees and the organization as a whole. A healthy response facilitates clarity, orients the workforce and cultivates creative flow.
Is there a reliable approach to managing change? How can we relate to and navigate organizational dynamism in a manner that results in greater clarity, purpose and energy? What process and personal skills can shift the organization out of confusion and anxiety to a relevant focus and creative flow? How can we lead and manage through change so that the people we work with share an understanding of what is most important and sustain a motivated focus?
The healthy approach starts with a 4-step process that repeats itself endlessly and throughout any organization that is striving to maintain its vitality. We can use this process to tap into the creative potential inherent in change and lead our organizations to ever-greater expressions of health.
• 1. Hold a vision of a healthy system and commit your attention and actions to it.
• 2. Take responsibility for your state through practice.
• 3. Use every interaction as a building block for improvement.
• 4. Connect and align the building blocks into an integrated whole – clear on its purpose and energized to fulfill it.
Step One: Hold a vision of a healthy system and commit your attention
and actions to it.
The first step in this continual process of successfully navigating change is to hold a vision of a healthy system and commit our attention and actions to it. Without a vision of where we want to be, we essentially become victims of circumstance and change, and are unable to utilize the potential inherent in change either for our own or the organization’s growth.
The “circle-arrow-circle” diagram (Illustration 1) clarifies the importance of having a vision and its role in creating desired change in our lives. When faced with uncertainty, or change, if we ask “where do we want to be?” and “where are we now?” then we are able to choose a course of action to move us from here to there. This helps channel and intensify our focus and energy.
As the diagram suggests, it is not enough to simply have a vision. We must make efforts to align our lives and our work with that vision if we are ever to achieve it. In traveling towards our vision, we discern, differentiate, experiment and make choices. Holding to our vision will change us and our organizations. We must explore our values and apply them in our daily work. Organizations must pronounce what they believe in and then live it through management practices applied consistently. This activity is the on-going process of Identity and Direction Setting.
Tension – dissonance – arises when our values and vision
(what motivates us at work) are not aligned with those of our workplace.
Tension also arises when we see a pattern of inconsistent application of
the values and vision of our workplace. “Is this a place I want to
work? Can I commit to the vision? If the organization doesn’t walk
its talk, can my own vision and value for a healthy workplace survive here?”
If we are not able to envision health for ourselves as individuals, then our ability to cultivate health in the organization is limited. Likewise, if we are not skilled at envisioning health for our organization, the resulting confusion and chaos of our work life will inevitably take its toll on our individual health. Ideally, our individual health and the health of the organization will reinforce one another and result in movement in a desired direction. When one aspect is well, the other benefits. So having this vision of health is a key to managing and leading through change.
Step Two: Take responsibility for your own state and practice.
Committing our energy to a vision of a health requires taking responsibility for our own state of health. Practice is an important part of taking responsibility. By “state” of health, we refer not simply to physical health, but also to inner balance, clarity and focus. And by “practice” we mean the categories of activities – or disciplines – that assist any leader in cultivating health within themselves and in their organization. In the last issue of Yoga of Leadership, we focused on five of these strategic leadership practices. In summary, they are:
Five Strategic Leadership Practices
• Focus on health and know what it looks like for
• (Re) design your organization for health – flow, integration, focus and clarity.
• Stay open to change as an opportunity for growth and improvement.
• Release tensions and blocks in the flow of health throughout the organization.
• Respect and serve the larger system within which you operate.
Taking responsibility for our state of being is played out in our daily work activities but is initiated and sustained by our inner state. For example, we may have ten large projects underway, each having its own set of challenges and complexities. We’re coordinating and collaborating with project teams comprised of uniquely dynamic personalities. We’re planning and executing activities associated with our project responsibilities. Guided from the inside out, we approach our project activities and teammates through our own mental, physical and emotional inner landscape.
The more aware and conscious we are and the more we use the 5 strategic practices as we move through our daily project management activities, the more likely our project results and the processes we use to get there will align with our vision. Refer again to the circle-arrow-circle diagram in Illustration 1. We discussed this Illustration in the context of envisioning health. Looking at the model through a lens of responsibility-taking, we can start by asking, “What is in the space between where I am and where I want to be? (Þ The Arrow) Is it confusion and frustration and complexity, or is it clarity, enthusiasm and creativity?” At any moment, the answer to take question of self-awareness challenges us to take responsibility for our inner state and outer actions. Rising to this challenge, we adjust our approach to our outer activities accordingly – an attitude adjustment toward focus and ease -- and in harnessing our inner condition, we can better focus our energies towards our goals.
Step Three: Use every interaction as a building block for improvement.
In addition to holding a vision and practicing with discipline, a leader “managing change” needs a toolbox of workplace-specific KSAs (knowledge, skills and abilities). These KSAs fall into five groupings that reflect how we conduct our work.
They are represented visually in the following diagram (Illustration 2):
Leaders must be able to:
Establish identity and set direction
Create and maintain effective processes
Identify and manage discreet projects
Hold productive meetings
Develop healthy working relationships.
These 5 groupings or building blocks are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are component parts that, when combined, form a structure and framework across which change is understood and acted on. Leaders, regardless of discipline or functional area, need to be skilled in each of these building blocks. They are the means by which we can lead and manage others through change, and simultaneously cultivate clarity, purposefulness and enthusiasm.
Notice that four of the components are general management technologies: strategic planning; process improvement; project management; and meeting management. The fifth component, working relationships, may be the most important of the building blocks. Healthy and productive working relationships are the linking structures that connect the other blocks. They are the interstitial, connective tissue between and amongst and around every other kind of activity we engage in. Leadership can be defined, in this respect, as the ability to cultivate and sustain healthy relationships in the workplace – at all levels: top to bottom and side to side.
At full efficiency, every one of our actions would be in support of improvement – whether it be defining, understanding, exploring options, differentiating or coming to agreements. Assess your KSAs in the basic management building blocks for improvement.
Step Four: Connect and align the building blocks into an integrated whole – clear on its purpose and energized to fulfill it.
Leaders of change also need to know how the building blocks interact and use them in an orchestrated fashion to create healthy systems. As the diagram illustrates, the five business structures are nested and interconnected. This means that if one of the building blocks is misplaced or poorly designed, the overall structure will suffer. And if all are used effectively, the organization will have a steady and flexible structure to support its work. Leaders and managers who understand the interconnection of these structures are like architects or contractors designing and building a house. They know how the building blocks go together. They have a reliable process to follow. They know how the sub-contractors must coordinate. They have plans for and hold a vision of the final product.
To be an effective leader of change at any given moment, working on any of the five building blocks, you must be aware of (or seeking to know) how the present activity fits into the broader picture. For example, in a one-on-one conversation, keep the overall vision or direction of the company in mind, and let that awareness help shape the conversation. Be mindful of how other meetings, projects and processes might impact your conversation and vice-versa. And in meetings generally, whether between two people or twenty, be sure the attendees see the connection between the items on their agenda and other stakeholders, projects and work processes.
What skilled leaders of change are able to do – and remember that a leader can be anyone in the organization – is integrate and get others to integrate all the various large and small activities. They align the vision, activities, people and resources, and they reintegrate or adapt as the goals and direction change, so that even through change there is integrity.