This past year, I have been sharing my work and thinking on the Grey Zone of Change. I define the Grey Zone of change as the space in-between systems—the space between an existing system (System A) and an emerging or envisioned one (System B) within a context of complexity, where there are more unknown than known factors about the present and future. A successful journey through the grey zone results in transformational change.
In the first, second and third blogs, I defined it, talked about the mindset shifts required and simple practices that work to be successful in grey zone situations. My systems lens also compels me to unpack what gets in the way when all else has been tried to transform a system and it remains stuck. In this post, I share some things that get in the way of success in the Grey Zone of Change: Inertia & Entropy, Immunity to Change, Hysteresis, Impatience & Anxiety and Reactivity (Triggered clients, Triggered Change Practitioners).
System Inertia & Entropy
Inertia is the idea from Newton’s First Law of Motion that an object will remain at rest or move at a constant speed in a straight line unless it is acted on by an unbalanced force. This widely accepted principle reflected only one side of systems life as we know it today based on the complexity sciences, which tell us about the tendency for systems to be every-changing, self-organizing and in motion. When a system remains at rest, it moves towards entropy, whereby the energy within it for productive work gradually dissipates and leads to breakdown, much like what happens with our muscles and bodies without movement. The issue that gets in the way of success in the Grey Zone of Change is when a system in whole or part, chooses their comfort zone that then leads to inertia, over the unknown of change. Quinn (2004), calls this choosing slow death, over the work of deep change. I am referring here to the continued choice to remain at a status quo state, even after all the work and strategies for navigating the grey zone are exhausted. This is the point at which adults, who are free to choose, choose not to engage the emergence and possibility of the grey zone. This is the scenario in which no amount of coercion or force (the burning platform!) or attractors to change (transformational leadership) result in change. It’s also possible that system readiness is just not present. When this is the case, the system will either remain stagnant and tend to decline, or the parts of the system that want to change will bifurcate either individually or collectively to do so.
Immunity to Change
Sometimes, a client may commit to changes or actions but consistently fall short and even act in opposing ways to doing what is required to make changes a reality. This may be due to the idea of competing commitments, as defined by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (Kegan & Lahey, 2001). They note that when people develop ‘immunity to changes’ they espouse to want, it is because of an unconscious application of productive energy towards equally important competing commitments. Think of this as a fixed mindset, kept in place by unconscious assumptions that remain untested and unexamined. To achieve transformation, we must fundamentally shift fixed mindsets, not just acquire new information. Kegan and Lahey have offered a diagnostic set of questions for uncovering the competing commitment and underlying assumptions supporting it, which can be found here.
Another system characteristic that may influence success in the grey zone is hysteresis. It is the systems idea that learning and change are non-linear and that “every phase shift—cognitive, cultural, social, physical—goes through a confusing state where past and future exist side by side…hysteresis explains that the state of a system depends on its history. The past overshadows the present as a change process goes forward” (Eoyang, 2017, p 1). Hysteresis explains the phenomenon where complex adaptive systems seemingly backslide or forget lessons learned until there is enough backward and forward movement for the new to eclipse the old and become embedded. Hysteresis can get in the way of success in the grey zone when humans forget this system tendency and give up before transformation has taken hold. It is why I advocate for patience and perseverance when the conditions seem right but the transformation appears to be taking too long. Given the right conditions, it is literally a matter of time (and reinforcement) before transformational change happens.
Impatience Plus Anxiety
Anxiety is already an issue in the Grey Zone of Change. It is amplified by impatience. Thus, anxiety plus impatience become an impediment to successful transformation when different stakeholders respond to system pressures or their own need for certainty by asking for quick answers. Those who may still be outcome and diagnostically minded without depth of understanding of what is needed for transformational change may keep asking: “are we there yet?” The drive for quick wins from business sponsors, requests from Boards, queries from investors can all create pressure for performance that amplifies anxiety. This may lead to a default back to the usual way of doing things that will create short-term success but no long-term transformational change.
Triggered clients, triggered change practitioners
A change practitioner who does not exercise self-management of their own reactivity may amplify already anxious and easily triggered clients. If an unhealthy pattern of interaction ensues between those key change agents who are leaders and holders of the change process, it can get in the way of successful outcomes in any number of ways. People may lose faith in the process, the leaders and the change practitioner, thus slowing down or inhibiting transformational change.
So, if working through the Grey Zone of Change comes with these edges and the discomfort of transitions, learning and group development, why chose it over traditional ways of working? For me, this is a more intuitive response. My immediate thought in response is: why not? Or as one of my siblings loves to ask: what is the alternative? The outcome of staying the same and doing change in the way it has always been done in a simpler world is inertia, status quo and slow death. The alternative is to engage emergence by walking wide-eyed and anxious into the grey zone, knowing that the possibility of transformation lies at the other side. This is the core of my Dialogic OD practice, which has equipped me with the mindset and methodologies to understand, navigate and influence the Grey Zone of Change that I am more often than not working within.
Courage will continue to be required of us as Organization Development and change practitioners, in a present and future world full of grey zone changes. When we see the conditions above at play, we must counter them with a laser focus on possibility. We do this by listening deeply, asking transformational questions and co-creating actions that help the systems we work in get unstuck (see grey zone series blog post #3). That is part of the value we bring as Organization Development Consultants in the Grey Zone of Change.
- Eoyang, G. (2017). Hysteresis. Retrieved from https://www.hsdinstitute.org/resources/hysteresis.html.
- Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2001). The real reason people won’t change. Harvard Business Review.
- Quinn, R. E. (2004). Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide to leading change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.