Change is easy

Organizational change often seems difficult because organizations are not having the type of conversation that actually leads to change. In a recent talk at the MITRE Corporation, I discussed how change occurs in relation to three domains of the human mind:

  • Thought, which applies a learned logic to break things down into their component parts, define constructs to describe them, and map causal or correlative relationships among them;
  • Intuition, which provides an awareness of the whole and suggests precisely appropriate actions in new or unfamiliar situations; and
  • Emotion, which is the experience of feelings resident in the body that predispose us toward certain attitudinal or behavioral responses that may or may not be appropriate to the situation.

Organizational change becomes difficult only to the extent that people stay lodged within the domain of thought. All thought is from the past: it applies by rote the logical processes that we have internalized throughout our upbringing and education, and it does so within the constraints of a belief system that constitutes the “reality” in which we live. This belief system is something that thought itself has constructed in order to keep at bay one or more emotions that we do not want to feel.

One such emotion is fear of the unknown. But since the unknown is inherent in change, we find ourselves caught in a paradox. We want change, which includes the unknown, of which we are afraid. To keep our fear in check, we remain in the domain of thought, which is from the past. So we don’t change.

The best example of this is Kotter’s famous 8-step change leadership model, all of which takes place within the domain of thought. (If you disagree with that assertion, please add a comment and we can discuss it.) The steps are:

  1. Create a sense of urgency
  2. Build a guiding coalition
  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives
  4. Enlist a volunteer army
  5. Enable action by removing barriers
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Sustain acceleration
  8. Institute change

A change leadership approach that has recently gained in prominence is design thinking, the steps of which I have summarized below:

  1. Define the problem, audience, and success factors.
  2. Research the issue, including any existing obstacles, other attempts to solve the same issue, end-user perspectives, and thought leaders’ opinions.
  3. Generate as many ideas as possible to serve the identified needs of end-users, suspending judgment throughout the brainstorming process.
  4. Prototype multiple ideas and seek feedback from a diverse group of people, including end-users.
  5. Choose the best solution in light of the problem definition.
  6. Implement the solution by developing plans, task descriptions, and resources.
  7. Learn from end-user feedback to determine if the solution met its goals and what could be improved in the future.

Most of the design thinking process occurs within the domain of thought. The only real exception to this is step 3, which allows some intuition into the process by suspending judgment during the brainstorming process.

But design thinking remains a predominantly thought-based activity. In fact, the principal difference between design thinking and traditional change models like Kotter’s is that design thinking is guided by the belief system of the end-user rather than by the belief system of the organization itself. Of course, the end-user’s belief system is just as past-oriented and could be just as pathological as the organization’s, which suggests that while design thinking may be appropriate for situations where customer satisfaction is the only concern, it may not be appropriate when the goal is to elevate humanity rather than simply to placate it.

So what is one to do? Is there any change model that reaches substantively beyond the domain of thought, which because it is a product of the past is fundamentally incapable of guiding real change?

Let’s consider a change model that has proven quite successful for many people—the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, the steps of which are listed below:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

This approach makes a grand tour of all three domains: Step 1 is a complete admission of powerlessness that disarms the self-protective belief system that thought has created. Steps 2 and 3 open one up to intuition, which is beyond the belief system of the self. Steps 4-6 move boldly into the emotional domain to see what’s really there, then step 7 moves into intuition for wholeness and integration. Steps 8-10 bring this new wholeness back into the realm of thought by creating restorative practices, step 11 ensures that intuition remains active, and step 12 declares a new way of being that is consistent with the new whole. (If you have a different interpretation of the 12 steps, add a comment and we’ll discuss it.)

So it is possible. We just don’t do it. In our organizational change initiatives we are far more interested in walking through a “best practice” methodology or demonstrating the value of our own previous experiences than we are in “making a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.” But we won’t change until we first face what is. When we’re unwilling to face what is, the result is that we simply reenact the past, albeit with a new org chart and a new set of performance metrics.

Does your organization really want to change? Are you really sick and tired of being overwhelmed by the chaos you are co-creating in your world? Are you willing to admit that you are powerless over the complexity all around you and that your lives as an organization and as individuals have become unmanageable?