The five myths of organisational change

We are constantly told that, in today’s world, change is a permanent feature of organisational life. Given this is it surprising how many myths abound, and the extent to which organisations struggle with the concept of change!

Sarah Lewis, chartered psychologist and author of ‘Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management’ believes that part of the problem is that our ideas in this area are outdated. The organisation is not a machine and our leaders are not all seeing and all knowing.

In Sarah’s experience, working within both large and small organisations, there are five erroneous beliefs that mean that ‘change management’ can actually hinder change within an organisation:

1) You can’t implement the change until you have thought through every step and have every possible question answered

Not True. In many situations it is sufficient to have a sense of the end goal along with some shared guiding principles about how the change will unfold.

With these in place leaders can call on the collective intelligence of the organisation as it embarks on learning by doing: taking the first steps, reviewing progress, learning from experience and involving those who know the detail in their areas.

This ‘all-seeing’ belief leads to exhaustive energy going into detailed forecasting and analysis of every possible impact – and this slows the whole process down.

2) You can control communication within the organisation about change

Impossible! People are sense-making creatures who constantly work to make sense of what is happening around them. This means it is not possible to control communication in this way.

By withholding information we convey something, usually distrust or secrecy. But more than this, in this day and age there is no chance of being aware of everything that is being said about the change.

Instead leaders need to focus on making sure they get to hear what sense is being made of what is going on so that they can contribute a different or corrective perspective.

3) To communicate about change is to engage people with the change

Not necessarily. People start to engage with the change when they start working out what it means for them. They find out through exploration and discovery. They become more engaged when they are asked ‘how and what’ questions. People then have to use their imaginations and creativity to start visualizing what their bit of the world will be like when ‘the change’ has happened.

The belief that communication alone equals engagement leads to an over-emphasis on communicating about ‘the change’. Staff hear managers talking endlessly about how important this change is, yet no one seems to know what the change actually means for people.

4) Planning makes things happen

Sadly no! Creating plans can be an extremely helpful activity but until people translate the plans into activity on the ground, the plans are just plans.

This belief in ‘plan as action’ fuels a plethora of projects and roadmaps and spreadsheets of interconnection, key milestones, tasks, measures and so on. A much more energising alternative is to bring people together to start exploring ‘the change’ and generating ideas for action, and then to write documents that create a coherent account of the actions people are taking.

5) Change is always disliked and resisted

No. If this were true none of us would emerge from babyhood. Our life is a story of change and growth, of expansion and adaptation, of discovery and adjustment.

What is true is that change takes energy, and people don’t necessarily always have the energy or inclination to engage with change. It is not change itself that is the issue, it is the effect imposed change can have on things that are important to us: autonomy, choice, power, desire, satisfaction, self-management, sense of competency, group status, sense of identity and so on. If we attend to enhancing these within the change process then there is a much greater chance that it will be experienced as life-enhancing growth like so many other changes in our lives.

So, what is the alternative? Many new approaches that focus on achieving collaborative transformation are emerging such as Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space and World Café. These approaches recognise organisational change as a collective effort, as a social process that can be inspiring and dynamic with leaps of understanding as well as being messy and confusing at times. They work with the best of the human condition – the importance to us of our relationships, our imagination, our ability to care and to feel and to create meaning in life. In this way they release managers and leaders from the impossible responsibility of foreseeing all possibilities and instead liberate the organisation to find productive ways forward in an ever-changing organisation landscape, together.