Change is a Double-Edged Sword

One of my favorite change quotes comes from a book by Michael Fullan, a Canadian expert on educational change, who wrote in Leading in a Culture of Change [2001]:

“Change is a double-edged sword. Its relentless pace these days runs us off our feet. Yet, when things are unsettled, we can find new ways to move ahead and to create breakthroughs not possible in stagnant societies.”

Fullan describes a positivity towards change that resonates deeply within me. While many of us know change is typically rapid and non-linear, less often is depicted its exciting potential for creative, innovative solutions. So, I regularly employ hisFullan’s thinking in my everyday practice.

Applying Fullan’s thinking

As one significant example, in 2008, while personally leading substantial organizational change that ultimately resulted in 14 staff redundancies, my practice of Fullan’s approach enabled a breakthrough in service delivery configuration way different to any previous models. That, coupled with changes to internal systems and processes, delivered a range of services much better focused on responding to the needs of our local community. The process was painful, and at times very messy, but it eventually delivered a creative and innovative solution.

Of course, we all know that change is messy. However, often the paradox is that transformation is unlikely without some messiness. That is because, in my experience, change plans rarely survive intact from their initial interaction with people. However much you might have researched and consulted upon those ideas, other factors will impact.

Leading change well requires managing arational factors

  • Fullan describes these as ‘arational’ factors  and provides several examples, such as:
  • Strategy and operations are not always fully integrated.
  • Individuals within every organization have different idiosyncrasies, approaches, and issues.
  • Cliques, friendship groups, or conversely animosities affect the functioning of sub-systems in the company – group dynamics play a massive role in whether your change plan is successful or not.
  • Political factors can subvert agendas and actions through the application of power and authority in ‘turf wars’ and competition for scarce resources.

Employ this diagram to help others see the bigger picture

I am entirely familiar with the interplay of many of these factors and more, and for years I have used an excellent pictorial explanation of how arational factors impact change plans, by using Roger Plant’s organizational iceberg diagram. It first appeared in his book, “Managing Change … and making it stick!”. Moreover, you can view it on my Slideshare account. The short-handed lesson in Plant’s model for the less cautious change leader - ignore all that goes on below the waterline of your oorganizationat your peril.

You will be familiar, I am sure, with many of those things that typically happen below any organisation’s metaphorical waterline, and which significantly impact on how the company functions. In particular, I would highlight things like cultural norms, habits, motivation and commitment, local preferences, informal links, beliefs and values. However, the two which I have often found have the most potent impact on change plans – feelings and moods, and hopes and fears.

Change arouses emotions

Why is that so? It is to do with human emotions. They surface most particularly when change is in the air or mooted. So much so that Fullan has another brilliant quote that I refer back to repeatedly:

“Change arouses emotions, and when emotions intensify, leadership is key.”

That is why I believe change is a double-edged sword, and why I believe excellent leadership is needed to deal with it effectively. Michael Fullan offers what I think to be a simple, yet useful framework for ensuring that exceptional leadership occurs in change scenarios, and I will explore that more fully in next month’s blog post, drawing on my use of it as a model.

So, how are you handling that double-edged sword? Are you taking adequate account of below the waterline activity? In particular, how active are you in managing people’s emotions when change impacts them? What further help might you need to be more efficient as a transformational leader?

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