Why you need to play with change models, not rigidly follow them

Imagine that you are leading a major change initiative in your organisation. You have a clear vision of what you want to achieve, a detailed plan of action, and a strong team of supporters. You are confident that you can follow the plan and deliver the expected results. Sounds good, right?

I must ask, what decade do you think you’re in?

Change management used to be all about setting a clear goal upfront and pushing all efforts in that direction.

Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for everything to change partway through implementing a plan. The external environment becomes more volatile and unpredictable or is never stable, internal stakeholders have different opinions and expectations, and industry approaches are shifting rapidly in response to broader system impacts. You realise that your original plan is no longer relevant or feasible and that you have no idea what the outcome will look like. How do you feel? Confused, frustrated, anxious, overwhelmed?

One of my coaching clients has been experiencing this. They are amid a major change process, but it’s uncertain where that change will land. They feel like they are in a forest, unable to see the trees and with a heavy sense of uncertainty about what the future will look like for that part of their organisation. Where it will land could be anyone’s guess.

This is not uncommon, and it is why we need to talk about the importance of helping people with changing over clinging to any one change model or framework.

Managing change can feel like you’re riding a rollercoaster blindfolded. You anticipate ups and downs and unexpected twists, but you don’t see the end until you arrive. This approach to changing is all about adapting and learning as you go rather than sticking to a fixed plan.

It can be even more challenging if you are working with consultants on a project that influences system change. If you and they adopt a traditional consulting approach, you’re setting yourself up for failure if you insist on doggedly sticking to the original plan used to calculate their fee.

If multiple studies suggest an estimated 60-70% of organisational change initiatives fail, and systemic reviews question the evidence behind many change models, why would you let one model constrain your efforts?

A more flexible approach lets you adjust plans as you learn new things and situations change. It’s like updating your route on a GPS based on live traffic updates.

Valuable upsides to this more flexible approach to changing include:

  • Trying new ideas and learning from them to allow more creative solutions to emerge that might have been otherwise missed.
  • Developing organisational resilience while everyone is changing and getting better at handling uncertainties and adjusting to changes as they happen.

However, without a clear end goal, team members might feel unsure about their roles and future, which can lower morale if not managed well. It can also be harder to use resources efficiently when goals are not fixed. You risk burning people out if you use too much effort or change plans too often.

If you’re finding yourself in this type of hurly-burly change, you may want to:

  • Ensure you have a strong focus on managing uncertainty and the lack of clarity for yourself and others. Notice your personal responses and impact on others, and be curious about other people’s experiences. Consider using credible tools and frameworks like the NeuroLeadership Institute’s SCARF Model to manage uncertainty more effectively for you and your team.
  • Keep Everyone Informed. To reduce uncertainty and build trust, start communicating early, be transparent, use multiple channels, repeat key messages, make it easy for people to provide feedback, and tailor your messages for different audiences to help them embrace the change.
  • Empower people by giving them the skills and authority to make decisions. Ensure people are familiar with what I like to call the eight skills superpowers for tolerating ambiguity, improving performance, and boosting well-being: mindfulness, finding focus, curiosity, assertion, unlocking inertia, flexible thinking patterns, creativity, and courageous actions. Then, work with your team to develop a shared understanding of core principles for delegated decision-making to reduce the cognitive load and result in quicker and more confident decision-making.
  • Use those skills superpowers when you block out regular time to explore what’s working, what isn’t, what has changed, what goals need to be adjusted and what decisions need to be made.

Avoid desperately clinging to one change management model at all costs. This will prevent you from continually probing, sensing, and responding, which is crucial. Hold different models lightly and play with what works best for the specific context.

As Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon says, “We humans coevolve with our tools. We change our tools, and then our tools change us.”

If you need support with enabling your team to embrace the unknown, I’d love to chat.

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