What I’ve Learned about Organizational Change

I initially thought that the change process was complicated and complex because of the many theories and intervention strategies out there in the literature. However, I’ve learned that the backbone to any theory, strategy, or process is commitment and buy-in from everyone in the group. I am not trying to over-simplify the many frameworks and lenses one can implement change; however, I have learned that there are some common, basic principles all change agents must understand in order to implement successful change initiatives.

The Mindwalk video shown in class confirmed my personal change credo in regards to society’s interconnectedness. The most successful change in any organization or system understands the importance of relationships.  People make up businesses; therefore, I believe that business is people. To change a business, whether small or large, means respecting the employees in the business enough to let them in on the decision-making process. I agree with Kanov and others that compassion should occupy a predominant role in business (Kanov et al, 2006, pg. 793). Even though, companies are hesitant to address “feelings,” I don’t believe you can separate feelings from a change effort because another underlying principle to any change effort is motivation. Part of Kotter’s first stage is to generate a sense of urgency because employees need to feel empowered, energized, and committed to change, which are all individual emotions connected to a larger purpose (Kotter, 1996, pg 21). Thus, change is people-centered and involves basic human emotions.

Like Lewin, I view an organization as a social system (Burke, 2006, pg. 27). I’ve learned that there are a variety of strategies that can fit a particular context, especially when it comes to large-scale interventions. The opportunity to facilitate a large-scale intervention supported the literature in class and other classes I’ve take in this program. The exercise pulled it all together, so I could see the research in action. The course has given me the tools and resources necessary to apply certain strategies in my own work environment. For instance, I think Appreciative Inquiry or Action Learning could be a useful tool for a staff meeting in which my boss addresses change within our unit. In previous staff meetings that address changes to orientation, registration, course curriculum – you name it – our meetings can be unstructured with one or two people dominating the discussion. At the end of each meeting, I feel as though my input isn’t heard or doesn’t matter because the “power of a few” gains consensus. I have thought about approaching my supervisor about some of the change strategies used in our class as a useful tool within our own department.

Overall, the course has confirmed my previous thoughts and feelings about change, but broadened my knowledge about implementation techniques. A core change principle is involving the “whole system in the room” (Weisbord & Janoff, 2010, pg. 48). However, how a change agent goes about doing that can vary depending upon the organization and situation.

Facilitation Afterthoughts

In class this week, each group presented on four change strategies and then facilitated a mock-intervention. Out of all four strategies, my favorites are a combination of Future Search and Action Learning. Open Space Technology and Appreciative Inquiry were missing the action piece for me. Future Search’s detailed-structure appeals to my organizational side when it comes to change. I agree with Weisbord and Janoff that the whole system needs to be in the room. The idea of everyone openly communicating their thoughts and feelings about what they do establishes trust and shared values, which is the backbone to any change strategy. I think the action plan at the end brings it all together. In my opinion, the action planning takes it from a counseling, psychological strategy to a business strategy. This is also why I like Action Learning. I think humans learn by doing. Even if a proposed solution doesn’t work among the group, at least the group learned from it as a team. I like the continuous, cyclical effect of Action Learning. The idea that the whole process is a never-ending cycle appeals to my need for continuous improvement. I think Future Search and Action Learning blended together is the perfect pairing. Future Search seems like a one-time shot at transformational change, whereas Action Learning is an on-going strategy with many layers and sub layers to learning.

If there was more time this summer, I would have loved the chance to experience a change strategy in real life. The facilitation was a neat and creative way to learn about strategy options. I enjoyed the examples chosen by each group as part of our facilitation. An opportunity for further experiential learning with a real organization or group would have added another exciting element to the class. Nonetheless, I can honestly say that change strategies has given me a lot to think about in my own work environment. I know now the best times to use each change strategy and can possibly see myself suggesting one of methods to my boss for a retreat idea.

Managing My Boss

For class, I read another great article by John Kotter all about how to manager your boss. I really liked this article because it gave me the opportunity to reflect on what I could be doing to better my relationship with my boss.  I believe relationships are a two-way street. One person shouldn’t have to carry the burden of responsibility. Kotter (2006) writes, “…because the boss-subordinate relationship is not like the one between a parent and a child, the burden for managing the relationship should not and cannot fall entirely on the boss” (pg. 505). Instead, part of the responsibility falls on the worker to seek out the boss’s goals, problems, and working style and to make adjustments that establish mutual expectations (pg. 512). This requires the worker have a good sense of self-awarness as well. As an employee, you need to also know your strengths and weaknesses. The bottom line comes down to openly communicating with your boss about your own goals and expectations. Simply expecting the work to speak for itself cannot substitute for a good working relationship.

When I became interested in academic advising as a profession, a personal friend set up a meeting with her colleague who is now my current supervisor. When I first walked into her office, she was so warm and inviting, but most of all, passionate and enthusiastic about her job. After all, most advisors have a counseling background. She treated my new found career interest from an counseling perspective. She mentored me to figure out my own path, which ultimately led me to this profession. My boss shines when it comes to individually motivating our team to work at their best. Of course, there are  considerations that I think make it a bit easier for me to get along with my boss. She’s a Gen X and I’m a Gen Y, so we are pretty close in age. Larger age gaps can sometimes make it more difficult to understand one another. She has an open door policy and welcomes frequent questions and concerns.

Even though spontaneity is acceptable with her, I still make it my goal to schedule monthly meetings with her to tell her my interests and needs for professional development. She always listens and supports my goals. But what am I doing to figure out her professional goals? Are we in alignment? I feel as though I have a good working relationship with my boss, but  it could always be better (especially after reading Kotter’s article). Kotter says just taking time to pause and ask yourself questions like “Do I really know what my boss expects of me? Am I satisfied with these expectations? Does he or she know what resources or information or help I need?” can help a great deal (pg. 515). I like readings that force me to stop and question if I’m operating at my best.  I have to admit that I don’t think I do a good job listing out the specific things I need my boss to help me with. I could also take more time to ask her about her own professional goals. I can tell her my goal for career advancement, but what does that specifically mean to her? What do I need my boss to do in order to help me get there? She isn’t responsible for outlining the steps for me. She supports me, but ultimately it’s my job to let her know what resources and help I need. I’m reminded of Schein’s argument that people aren’t resistant to change; they’re resistant to ambiguity. The role of a change agent is to work with a client to specifically list the details of that journey. If I’m going to develop myself professionally, I need to be more specific with my boss on ways she  can help me.  After reading this article, I’m inspired to show up more prepared in my next individual meeting with my boss. I’m also encouraged to ask her more about her own professional goals to make sure we have a mutual understanding and shared expectation.

Process vs. Content

Nothing has made more sense to me than Schein’s article on task process versus content – probably because I grew up with a dad who was a family systems counselor.  He constantly preached to my sister and I growing up about paying attention to “process thinking” instead of “content thinking,” which meant thinking about the emotional process in relationships rather than the actual subject matter. It’s more important to understand why a person is acting the way they are rather than the act itself. I was often told growing up that alcoholism is only a symptom of the actual problem. The actual problem isn’t the alcohol, but simply a way a person is choosing to deal with what’s really going on in their life.

I never thought to relate that concept to organizational development until I read Schein’s article, Facilitative Process Interventions: Task Processes in Groups.  I agree with Schein’s argument that it’s more important to think about how things are done rather than what is done (Schein, 2006, pg. 286). In an organization, the staff meeting agenda is the content matter; however, it’s more important to understand how groups formulate problems, generate proposals for action, seek out opinions and information, and forecast consequences. Paying attention to group dynamics and how the discussion involves commitment to action should be the focus of concern in organizational development. The role of an HRD or OD change agent is knowing when to ask the right questions in an organization that keeps the group focused on the process and not the content. Schein (2006) writes, “One of the toughest tasks for the consultant/helper is not to get seduced by the content, not to get so caught up in the actual problem the group is working on as to cease to pay attention to how it is working” (pg. 289). I think this can be one of the hardest yet most important aspects of human resource development work. If done right, it has the power to fundamentally change organizational culture.

What is change?

When I was first asked this question in class, I thought this would be an easy answer. At its most basic level, change is the process of making something different than it was before.  Positive change is the art of making something better than it was before.  From a business perspective, I kept repeating the term process improvement.  Yet, why is change so complex? Why is it oftentimes met with resistance?

I realized that change is something we can easily define in our head, but it’s not as easily planned and/or implemented in real life. Organizations are social systems. They involve people and people are complex. Changing an organization involves changing the way people do their jobs. Positive change depends upon how well an organization’s employees interact and work together at all levels of management.  Each worker, therefore, is invested in the change effort. Change also takes time. Long term and lasting change that impacts the organization’s culture cannot be done overnight. It takes time to create “buy in” from each employee. Due to the long term investment, some organizations consider change too costly and prefer short term changes that generate a quick return on investment. When in actuality, lasting change is more cost-effective in the long term. So, what makes organizational change successful?

Several success factors exist in the literature today. However, a few stick out to me. Committed leadership is probably the most important factor. Workers look to leaders during major change efforts. It’s important for leaders to remain active and supportive of the change process for others to “buy in” and get on board. Also, the idea of workers being a part of the changes they helped create is another important factor. I completely agree with Lewin’s argument that people will commit to a change they helped create. Lastly, there needs to be a planned and well-organized structure and/or program in place that involves everyone and relates to the organization’s mission. Again, the success factors sound great on paper, but are easier said than done. I’m looking forward to putting these thoughts into action as a part of this class.