If you are thinking about hiring a 'change consultant', there's something you need to know...
Change is such a tricky concept to grab hold off.
It covers everything, from the mundane (I want a new point of sale system) to the profound (I wonder if now is the right time to expand into the European market).
And we don’t know whether we love the idea or hate it. As a society, we have negative judgements about people we consider ‘indecisive’ or ‘two-faced’ or who seem to change like a chameleon. There’s something untrustworthy about them, we say. We want stability. We want people to be predictable, steady. We want our lives to be that way. We don’t trust change.
Yet, paradoxically, we yearn for change. We celebrate innovation. Our stories are rife with tales of the change-maker, the hero, the renegade who went out and changed the world, who challenged the status quo. Steve Jobs who revolutionized the world of technology. Elon Musk forging his way into solar power and aerospace.
Rosa Parks demanding a seat on the bus.
So, let’s try to get hold of the paradox of change. Love it or hate it, we see change (and science backs us up here) as a constant, as something intrinsic to nature. Everything is constantly in flux, both us and the world around us.
So as a business systems analyst, the way I approach a ‘change project’ is not to ask “is this business changing?” (because I know it is), but rather questions like:
That last question is particularly important. Because this is where a lot of organizations stumble, and where understanding of systems, especially large scale systems, is crucial.
Because large systems tend to be self-protective, more often than not, they’ve been designed not to change.
Once you understand this, you start to see ‘change initiatives’ and “change projects” in a whole new light.
To be blunt, I’ve seen a lot of ‘change’ projects where people are just ‘tinkering’ with bits of the system - doing cosmetic ‘fix up’s that don’t really get to the heart of change.
They avoid the big changes by making small adjustments (firing someone, upgrading software), they send managers to a leadership or stress management program, or in a trend I’ve seen more and more, they …..
recruit and hire a ‘change management consultant”.
They usually recruit for a ‘decisive, independent thinker' with a background in change management who can ‘consult with senior leaders’ and participate in ‘strategic planning’ and ‘change initiatives'.
I read these job recruitment postings and I can’t help imagining a knight on a white horse .. riding in over a hill just as the sun rises … to save the day at the last moment of the battle.
But here’s what happens in real life. The knight charges in with his sword out, ready to lead the charge, and the other knights immediately start to question him (“hey, I thought I was the King’s favourite knight, who are you? I have more years of knight-training than this new guy, besides, my sword is shinier”).
The King may welcome him at first, but after a while, if he’s challenged, will say to himself ‘hey we’ve always fought this way, why should we change to your method, after all I am the King”.
The common soldier says “who the heck is this new guy thinking he knows how to lead us into battle?”.
Large systems are self-protective - they resist change. It’s in their nature. The ‘change agent’ you hire will become part of the system, and once that happens, then the only kind of change you will get will be change coming from within the system, derived from, presented and implemented, by the system.
That ‘knight in shining armour’ you hire is not going to save the day - he’s just going to become another mouth to feed in your army - he may contribute to the system, but he will not be a true change agent. You know why?
Because he is paid by you, supported by you, and dependent on the good will of the other knights and soldiers.
If you are serious about changing the culture of your business or organization, whoever you hire to work with you must have the mental and financial freedom to swim against the current of resistance that is bound to come at them. Yes, even from you, the “King” or “CEO” - you are also embedded in the system and are likely part of the problem.
(Are those tough words to hear? Can you feel the resistance building up a bit? See how important independence is? It allows me the mental and financial freedom to say to you what needs to be said).
As the CEO, you and your organization (which you are both crucial to and embedded in like the queen bee in a hive) will try to protect itself. If you hire a change agent as an employee, then, like the medieval knight, they are financially dependent on the organization, on the “King” or the CEO.
Once you hire an employee, there is a dependency set up - their salary is set by the organization - it’s their source of income, your ‘change agent’ needs you, they’ve built up their skills and their career and put it all on the line for this job.
Even if you promise them ‘independence’, I promise you your employee/change agent is not going to be truly independent. The system structure simply doesn’t allow it if they depend on the salary you’re paying them.
Systems and structures override good intentions.
Think about it - as a change agent, your ‘knight’ will become part of the system - eventually they will become like every other employee, and will have a vested interest in having things go a certain way. The system is set up such that your ‘knight in shining armour’ will inevitably become just another fish swimming with the tide of the organization.
Human beings are designed to work in groups. Once we embed ourselves into one, we synchronize with it. We become ‘team players” and fight for the system. It is very hard to swim against the current once you’re in the middle of the river.
If your employee/change agent pushes too hard against the current, you or your senior managers will fire him or her and and you’ll convince yourself "oh well, we hired the wrong person”.
And here’s another big one - what if you or your ‘senior leaders’ are actually the cause of the problems?
Will you be able to truly listen to this new employee in a way that leads to transformation and change? Or will you put your gold crown back on and tell your knight to leave the real decision making to you and hand back the power to the throne? Are you ready to hear real truth-telling?
A true change agent has to be able to draw a definitive line in the sand and not back down - they have to be able to rise up, place a new stake in the ground, and withstand all pressure to settle for anything less.
True change (as opposed to cosmetic ‘fixups’) actually leads to a new reality. If you are already swimming in the river, fighting the battle, you will not see the new reality.
Whatever the ‘new reality’ is (the business is sold, new markets open, innovative product lines, streamlined operations and profitabilities, new roles, partnerships or visions), you will not see it because it is outside your line of sight. It exists outside the system you are embedded in.
You need someone on the shore looking at the big picture - objectively looking at the inner workings of the organization from the outside. The Possibility Process is all about looking at the big picture (the whole system) from that objective viewpoint. It is about watching the processes and system as they occur in real time - observing what’s actually happening instead of what the CEO or business owner hopes is happening.
When you are able to have that outside perspective, you can see anomalies and rogue processes that waste time, money, and human resources.
Anomalies (in both human systems and business systems) that someone inside the system (yes, even the CEO) is never going to see, and frankly may not even want to see.
Like I said in the beginning of this article, change is a paradox; it’s a double-edged sword, a shape-shifter. We hate it as much as we yearn for it.
At Hume Chalk, we know that in order to be true change agents, we have to walk the line between what is true now and what the system is capable of becoming. We have to see multiple sides and angles and interconnections.
The late Dr. Steven Covey talks about personal and organizational growth as a path from dependence to independence to interdependence. An organization that wants to change, that wants to move from a state of dependence/stress into the end goal of a powerful, well running interdependent organization (one that is engaged with and connected to the outside community and marketplace, while not being dependent or in a state of stress/unbalance), must pass through becoming independent.
A change agent in a state of dependency will not be able to guide the organization to the end state because they themselves are not independent.
They could have great people skills, great ideas, great leadership skills even, and while those are very important, they are not what ultimately brings about change.
Changes come about through actualizing both personal and systemic leadership within an organization. It happens through this journey:
Hiring a change agent is a seductive trap at the entrance to the cave of change (in Hume Chalk’s latest book we call the process of change “The Cave You Fear to Enter”) - it can actually stop the organization from going on the journey of change in the first place.
It’s the ultimate shadow play - it is telling the world you are willing to undergo substantial change while setting up a system that is guaranteed not to bring it about. It’s a shape shifting move of the sort we instinctively don’t like - the kind of move where hidden agendas and mixed messages are in charge, instead of truth and clarity. It is an attempt to channel and control change within the rigid structures of a system that is not functioning well in the first place.
If you are a CEO about to post such a job, take a pause and think deeply. Be completely honest - ask yourself what it is that you or the system itself is trying to avoid doing or even thinking about doing? What is inside the cave that you don’t want to enter?
Instead of yet-another avoidance technique or distraction, think about talking to a truly independent outside team that can sit down with you and help you start to see a larger picture - a team that can help you see the forest for the trees.
A team that is willing to dig in their feet and take on the system itself.
Start demanding real change, and see what happens.
Tana Plewes, Business Process Master, Hume Chalk, designs and builds communication structures and practical systems that navigate the realities of people working together–behavioural economics. Tana holds a Masters Degree in Leadership from Royal Roads University and applies best practice models such as Lean Startup, Business Model Canvas, SCRUM/Agile, E-Myth Mastery and others. Read more.
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