A senior consultant colleague of mine described her experience on a major Organizational Transformation project. She had been working with her primary client system and leader for the initiative and had been preparing for some time to bring key leaders together to work on the transformation together. Close to the time for the session, she connected with the client to share the design for the day and confirm that her client was prepared to open the session. She heard nothing back. Then just before the session, she got a note requesting the briefing note for the event day.
My colleague’s experience deeply resonated with me as a conundrum that internal and external consultants to senior leaders often face. In fact, when my colleague shared this story, I had just submitted my presentation for the 2016 Organization Development Conference in Atlanta, titled exactly that: “I need Transformational Change! Now Send me a Briefing Note.” This, was a title that was inspired by a session I did with healthcare colleagues where we acknowledged this duality and spent time brainstorming ways to engage ourselves and our clients in it.
A seminal book by Gervase R. Bushe and Robert J Marshak called Dialogic Organization Development was released last year, in which I have a chapter titled Transformational Learning in Dialogic Organization Development (DOD). In the Organization Development community, DOD refers to the mindset and set of practices that consultants use to work in complex situations, such that they create conditions that allow possible solutions and next steps to emerge from the people in the client system most affected by the desired changes. Through these mindsets and methodologies, consultants work in emergent ways that help the client system generate new narratives of who and what they want to become, and plan accordingly. In many ways, my chapter on transformative learning in that book outlines my thinking on how to prepare clients, in contexts where Transformational Change is the request, for the transformational learning that is needed to make the required shifts.
My subsequent workshops on “I need Transformational Change! Now Send me a Briefing Note,” have allowed me to deepen the conversation with consultants and practitioners in the field, specifically to address questions such as: How can we maintain a practice that delivers transformational learning and change when our clients require quick answers? What strategies work? What innovative practices might we adopt?
The good news is that the consensus has been clear to-date – the tried and true foundational practices of Organization Development still hold. If clients want transformation and innovation, and not just a managed change process, people affected by change must be engaged early and often in the process of change. Nothing can replace this humanistic approach to achieve effective, successful change and transformation. And by effective, successful change and transformation, I mean change in which the desired outcomes are achieved, even if not in the manner and process leaders and change sponsors had imagined.
I admit that throughout these workshops I have been looking for some Holy Grail. The thing that consultants and practitioners will say is THE thing that makes the difference. It hasn’t emerged yet. Instead, here is a summary of some simple rules, or ways to work in organizational complexity, that I have gleaned and reconfirmed about facilitating transformational change.
Inquire early and often: Design processes for conversation, dialogue and inquiry with people in the system seeking transformation. Consultants and practitioners agree this means we must become exceptional process designers and system thinkers, while having the business savvy to speak in the language and frames our clients understand. i.e. focus on preparing clients and the organizations for what the transformation process will require of them…and do so in a briefing note if that is what is needed. Consultants and practitioners in the sessions agree and understand that sometimes clients and organizations are just not ready for the discomfort and uncertainty that comes with inquiry-based transformation. In that case, a different contract is needed.
Listen…for real: The practitioners I worked with know what a Harvard Business Review article just recently documented. That successful change and transformation means being willing to listen to what people in the system want. This of course means being willing to let go of pre-set agendas or plans. A trap here is asking people to provide input and shape direction when leaders already have pre-set plans and parameters. If such non-negotiables exist, then let people know and ask them to work within the bounds. If not, listen…for real…and be prepared to work with whatever people offer as possibilities toward the transformation goal.
Learn what works [and let go of what doesn’t]: Along with listening, successful transformation hinges on the willingness to learn and continually shift direction in favour of what works. Helping an organization/system learn about itself is another foundation of Organization Development and it persists in the minds of consultants and practitioners as the way to support organizations achieve transformation. This, of course, requires letting go of past processes, mindsets and ways of doing things, which is easier said than done, but required for transformation.
Iterate to innovate: As we learn in elementary school, if at first you do not succeed…try, try, try again. Innovation, creativity and the agility to move from experiments to prototype and all over again is the name of success and achieving transformation today. There are no more best practices, only best-fit innovations. The reason is simple – what worked yesterday and today, will not work tomorrow in our rapidly changing environment. Only practitioners and leaders willing to try, try, try again are likely to experience persistent, scalable success over time. This requires scanning and learning from other disciplines in creativity and innovation such as design thinking, positive deviance and liberating structures and other emerging disciplines that are teaching us how to think in iterations in order to innovate. As Scott Anthony reminds us, iteration and innovation are friends, not foes. We must be willing to try and fail in order to succeed.