The 3 principles of organizations embracing change to make it a strength

July 16, 2021
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Organization

There is a very contradictory feeling that appears with the return to the office. We meet again, we see each other more, but the collective seems more fragile.

In this post, I share my opinion on this transition and I propose 3 principles that should become the foundation of evolving organizations.

Foreword

What the organization is able to do under constraints.

For 1 year, we were able to adapt at all levels of the organization.

Making remote work mandatory was imposed on everyone in the same way. And, extraordinary things happened: trust appeared by magic, proposals for change were listened to and received as opportunities, common interest prevailed and erased the turf wars between departments.

In spite of strong external constraints, the result is that the organizations were able to implement things that were unimaginable for them weeks earlier: new practices, new ways of working, new tools.

Above all, everyone understood and agreed with the decisions... even the radical ones.

Why are we (un)able to change?

Able

When an external constraint appears with a high stake and a high balance of power, we are able to find solutions to all problems even if the situation is complex.

However, as soon as this constraint disappears, everything becomes more complicated.

The reality is that the little voice in our head that usually tells us that "this is not possible" is completely inhibited when the external constraint appears.

A little diagram to help you understand... no... just kidding, I needed to do this to clarify my thoughts :) *

Unable

Usually, outside of crisis periods, everyone observes a change through their beliefs and fears. And instead of guiding our fears, we will be guided by them.

And this leads to long arguments (or excuses) to force (or block) the change.

Examples?

  • "Remote work is not possible"
  • "Remote meetings don't work"
  • "Collaboration doesn't make me gain market share, I have more important things to do."
  • "If we go to the cloud, I no longer guarantee IS security"
  • "I need training to use this new tool"
  • "The tool prevents me from being efficient / is too complicated"
  • "We don't have the means to invest so we forget"

Our reactions and decisions are quite different in "normal" times.

When this kind of debate is allowed to happen, conflicts of interest appear, we distrust what others think, and changes are perceived as threats.

Thus, for many years, nothing changes, or only marginally. And when change does occur, it is through chaotic reorganizations.

Worse, sometimes the decisions are courageous but they are not adopted because everyone at his or her level will activate their beliefs and fears in order not to have to adopt the change.

The announcement of the "return to normal" sounds like the trumpet of unconsciousness.

Return to normal ⇒ Return of useless brain functions ⇒ Return to collective unconsciousness ⇒ Return to status quo.

The 3 principles of organizations embracing change to make it a strength

What resonates with organizations that succeed in transforming themselves outside of any crisis is not deciding how many days to work from home, it's not installing tools, it's not implementing new practices. Yet this is often what they share on social networks or in webinars. However, these achievements are the consequences of an attitude rooted in them, which they are not always aware of.

What resonates with them is that they experience change on a regular and frequent basis.

They use 3 principles that are interdependent.

  • Rely on experience rather than beliefs
  • Rely on collective intelligence rather than decision makers
  • Ask the right questions before jumping on the solution

Let's take the example of remote work:

1. Rely on experience rather than beliefs

When I meet someone who is pushing for remote work (for at least 2 days/week) and who was against it before (the vast majority of us), I ask him this question: "what could have made you change your mind?" The answer is unanimous: "nothing, except what we were forced to experiment".

The crisis forced us to experiment intensively with remote work. It would have taken some organizations 10 years to take this first step. Just that, we have to ask ourselves some existential questions about our past ignorance... which could have been revealed by a voluntarist experimentation.

I have great admiration for all the organizations that have experimented with intensive remote work before covid. We should look at them, not at those who "only" reacted to the crisis.

We can also learn from the experiences of others. I prefer to read Welcome to the Jungle's feedback on the 4-day week ** rather than books by sociologists and philosophers on this topic. The field, first the field!

One should also be careful with studies. They are very often biased. It is very difficult not to orientate them, because there is often a bias on the part of the organization that designed it.

I would also say that we are too often afraid of experimenting.

A manager who wants to test a tool with a team (let's take Trello, a task management tool at 9€/month/user) will have to make a purchase request. Which will be refused by the purchasing department, which controls investments, refused by the IT department, which requires that its tools be used and which protects confidential and personal data, refused by the HR department, which ensures that people are not disconnected. I am not caricaturing because it is the essence of the manager to manage risks. Who benefits from the opportunities? Directly to managers and employees. But the decision-making system too often leaves room for pessimism.

The organizations that counter this say "yes, you find it interesting for you? ok, do it and take care of these points and we will review in 3 months". Decision: 5 minutes! Accepting any experimentation and drawing conclusions afterwards will save k€ of brainstorming meetings that lead to nothing.

2. Rely on collective intelligence rather than decision makers

Collective intelligence is not about agreeing with management and staff representatives on the right number of work from home days.

Collective intelligence is to allow everyone to contribute equally, whatever their rank.

In terms of work organization, the first concerned are not the people mentioned above (who have "ad hoc" behavior).

The first ones concerned are the managers and employees.

The decision by management to impose a remote work framework on teams without taking into account the jobs, constraints and aspirations is characteristic of organizations that have not yet opted for this path.

The trap is to make an attempt at collective intelligence such as:

  • Conducting a survey among employees and drawing conclusions in a silo
  • Bringing up ideas in a brainstorming session and nothing happens behind.

This is fine but not complete. The collective intelligence must be present on a daily basis. And this is quite clear when you listen to evolving organizations. There are rituals, follow-ups, working groups, roles, a decision framework that gives everyone the possibility to contribute and be part of the change.

3. Ask the right questions before jumping to the solution

What happens when you decide to change your organization?

When faced with a change, there are 4 types of profiles:

  • the fan (I understand the stakes and I validate the change)
  • the observer (I don't really feel concerned by the change or I am neither for nor against it)
  • the follower (I agree by default)
  • the protester (I am against by default)

When faced with a decision to change, it is natural to question it (is the decision a good one? have they taken this situation into account? what is the purpose behind this decision?). These questions, although natural, are detrimental to change. They lead to making suggestions, to being suspicious of hidden agendas, and finally to redoing the debate (at the famous coffee machine).

In the end, we risk spending more time justifying decisions... which will not be accepted out of principle..

The protester takes up space and his opinion influences other people (follower or observer), which harms the group's commitment.

What happens when you start asking questions?

First of all, it gives everyone the space to step back. The leader can ask himself as many intelligent questions, but if he is the only one who understands why change is needed, he will find himself facing a wall of misunderstandings.

The questions are like markers, guides so that everyone can become aware of what they really think.

When we propose the questioning, we accept that the answers are diverse. We put ourselves in a position where we are forced to put ourselves in the place of others and welcome opinions that are different from our own.

This allows you to free yourself from your own biases and to challenge your own beliefs.

Questioning is also my best tool to identify and bypass saboteurs. You may have in mind manipulative attitudes of those who know everything after the fact and comment on decisions. If people choose to remain silent during questioning and become agitated after the decision, they are in flagrant sabotage.

Questions raise awareness and turn people into actors of change

It is wise to consider that one must question one's organization very regularly in order to take a step back.

All aspects of the organization will be called into question with remote work: premises, recruitment, team spirit, management, tools, customer relations... and if we want to master remote work, new fields will appear such as formal communication, asynchronous communication...

Making teams believe that the boss has all the right answers is a dead end.

Best leaders ask the right questions rather than give the right answers

The organization thought on the truth of the day is not ready for tomorrow. Mentalities, expectations and practices change very quickly. Regularly questioning and being open to new questions is a sign that we accept that the organization is perfectly imperfect.

The magic potion

With these 3 principles, we run away from our beliefs and fears.

We confront them with reality. We accept contradictory opinions. We welcome our fears in order to better resolve them. This helps everyone to become aware of the situation.

This path allows us to go further and more serenely in the organizational changes.

Conclusion

Through these 3 principles, there is a belief :) that the best solution comes from the team.

The best solution comes from the team

But it's a belief we've experienced time and time again. You shouldn't try to transform a team if they aren't ready. Even if you are convinced you are right, it gets you nowhere and is often counterproductive. We can act by activating these 3 principles. There are rituals, approaches and tools that can support this, depending on the maturity and needs of the team.

I find that the most interesting tool is questioning because it feeds the need to experiment and is the first step towards collective intelligence. But it is important that it is not biased and that it is diversified, objective and actionable.

In a future post, I will try my hand at the art of questioning the collective 🎨

* Thanks Benoit Coux for the inspiration ;)

** See Welcome to the Jungle's feedback on the 4-day workweek

Guillaume Raverat

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