Scaleable Change

Introduction

Change is hard. This is a truism that none would question. Yet, so too would all agree that Change is something we all have to confront. The force of change acts on our personal lives, our corporate careers and of course the technology that surrounds and shapes these.

Whether we overcome, enable, support, oppose or downright obstruct is up to us. Is change a disembodied, mystical force - like aether - that finds and corrupts stability? The tendency of (isolated) systems to move towards the state with the greatest entropy might make it feel so: There are so many places the papers in my study could be…and they often are! Change, or the increase in disorder, is a part of nature.

But change is also deeply personal. When organizations change, altering our jobs, career aspirations and work-life balance, it certainly feels personal. The apparent carelessness with which many managers approach change does give credence to the idea of a disembodied, arbitrary force driving the ‘new way of doing things.’

In this paper, I will discuss how to drive human-centred, effective, scalable change within a large enterprise. There is a simple model and some theory is provided in the form of foundational concepts that explain the model itself. But its use is pragmatic, simple and effective and entirely borne out in my experience.

First, an overview of the ELSA model of change.

Underpinning the ELSA model, there are 5 basic principles.

Principle 1: People don’t change organizations, events do. Principle 2: Adopters of change are unevenly distributed across the organisation. Principle 3: Organizational structure impedes effective behavior change. Principle 4: Early adopters self-select. Principle 5: Not all adoption can be observed.

The Event

An event is some happening that is in some way different from the everyday way of doing things. It is created by a group of people who will typically be fast adopters of the new way. These people will always make themselves known. Finding a small group of say 8 people in a large enterprise to be a part of almost anything new is fairly straightforward. You, your manager or managers will always know who they are.

Integral in the event is what I call an HSM. Depending on your preferences this is a Holy Shit Moment or a Holy Smokes Moment. There should be some simple outcome demonstrated by this event that makes someone - specifically someone who actually interacts with customers - literally say, “holy shit, I didn’t realise that you could do that!!” Creating a customer relevant event is more effective currency in an organisation than some event that is only understandable by those in your little silo.

What is the result of the HSM? Well, prior to the event many people would have said that what was achieved was not possible. After the event, they must accept that it is possible. They might counter that it will eventually fail (“oh, the security guys will never let this go..”) but that still admits the possibility of the event. Now all we are arguing about is how to sustain it, scale it etc.

Language

Never underestimate the effect of everyday language, used in interactions at work, in validating, supporting or denying what is possible. It is difficult to determine who or what is ‘next’ after an initial event. This is the same problem with all change approaches. How do we get from 1 effective implementation ( or perhaps only partially successful) to 10 or 100?

Scale in this sense refers to how we grow the degree of adoption of the new way demonstrated by the event. We know that saying to the whole organisation, “Charlie’s team did it… so now you all have to do it!” is unlikely to work. We need to find that next group(s) that want to do it. The further they are organizationally from the original event team the better.

However, we also need to ensure some linkage between the first team and those that follow. Any new method of operating is at least as much about the organisation in which it must be applied as it is the theory behind the new model. So how do we ensure that lessons learnt in project n are passed on to project n+1? Seeding subsequent teams with 1 or 2 people from previous teams is a great idea.

Practically, these earlier adopters teach the new ’language’ that they have learnt to the others. I am sure that we have all experienced the local languages of projects. As we work together as a group, we evolve short-hand terms for things we do regularly or believe in. Every team member becomes a transmitter, receiver and author of the new language. In turn, as they experience the new way of operating in more various environments the language will evolve and sharpen and they learn / co-produce this more refined language too. This scaling effect adds richness to the language as we begin to encounter and overcome more scenarios where people said it was not possible.

Your next set of quick adopters will identify themselves and start to refer to the event to justify their use of an alternative language of operation. This may occur informally without your knowledge. They may well be observed much later as more formal events begin to pervade the organisation.

Structure

In many approaches to driving change, there is an implicit assumption of an organizational scope. This is for very reasonable and pragmatic reasons. You have to start somewhere. And typically, unless you are the CEO, you start where you are which is defined within an organizational structure. Your location creates a selection bias in how you choose and sequence the actions you need to take to drive adoption through the organisation. There is no solid reason those with whom you work every day, manage directly or have lunch with, should be more prone to adopting your proposals than others. Relationships matter of course, but when considering how to change an entire organization (or at least the majority of one) we need to consider scales that go beyond our relationships and the favors we can call in.

Events, as we have seen, create language that enables people to create new informal groups that try to create something new. As the number of events and informal groups grows, so the ability to question the initial structure does too. This is primarily a resourcing issue from a large scale change perspective. Even your peers are less able to argue against resources from their teams taking part if already there are small cadres working on an element or component of what you have been pushing.

Agency

As the adoption of elements of work contained in the first event begin to spread across the organisation so more people obtain informal permission to act in new ways. So the freedom to act of individuals increases. This new groundswell enables further significant events to be initiated.

And so the process continues.

An effective leader of change facilitates the closing of the ELSA loop.