Simon Terry

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Change didn’t work? Work the system consistently

The industrial era left management thinking with a fervent belief in the value of transactional interventions. If a linear process needs a different outcome, make a change. The impact should be immediately visible and then you can move on to the next change.

When you start to talk about systemic change, especially involving people, matters get more complex. The future of work is one such example. Change in the future of work often involves many people and systems in organisations. Make a transactional intervention in this situation and nothing can happen or perhaps something happens for a while and then fades as the system reasserts itself. Our work systems are designed to consistently absorb transactional shocks and then stabilise. Remember the system is not broken; it is working exactly as intended.

Culture is one example of these stabilising forces in the system of organisations, particularly for future of work behaviours. Culture is an expectation of how people will behave. That expectation shapes the way we work and does not change on one transactional intervention. Culture does not change until the individuals in the organisation form a new expectation. New sense making won’t happen until there has been persistence, leadership and reinforcing changes elsewhere in the system.

Instead of a linear process where transactional change leads directly to a measurable change in work we have a situation where interventions lead to new practice and to new sense making and that sense making drives new behaviours and better mastery of the practice that sustains different ways of work. The delays, the sense making, the need to learn and master new practice and other forces in the system all make the impact of a transactional change to culture difficult to measure & unlikely to be effective. At best, the relationship is complicated. At worst, it can be hard to draw any relationship at all.

Work on the system consistently

To foster accelerated change in the kind of complex systems faced by those changing work practices, you need help the system participants to form a new sense of the way forward:

  • don’t be wedded to your change. Ask those in the system to define, design and do the work. 
  • do you have enough system participants engaged in your changes? Those you leave out may hold you back or be key to wider complementary changes. 
  • help the system participants move from changing things transactionally to working on the whole system. Help them to see a bigger picture. Ask them to own and work the bigger change themselves and to draw others in.
  • reinforce change and work with the participants to ensure that the work on the system ensures beyond a transaction. Find the other influences in the system that impact change and include them in the work. 
  • be consistent and allow the time for issues to surface and communities to mature. Unrealistic expectations can lead to counterproductive perceptions of failure or at least difficulty.

Champions play a critical role in this kind of systemic change because they are inside the system. This position gives them impetus, influence and insight to help build an enduring new sense of the change. Champions can work in and on the system consistently.


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