Changing how we change

What do you do when you want something to change in your company or on your team? When your team tries to change, does it stick to new things or are you back to the old ways after a few weeks? 

How to make meaningful change that actually lasts is a challenge all teams and companies face. For the past two years, I have studied different ways to approach this challenge as part of my coursework for a Masters degree in Management Sciences. My elective course is change management, a topic that really captures my interest. 

Here, I’ll share not only an approach to change that originates from a different paradigm, but also new terms we can use to talk about change. These new terms can help us have more nuanced, meaningful discussions by freeing us from associations with the old system. The goal is to change how we change into a more organic, bottom up process. 


Managers Know Best

First, let’s revisit the most common approach to change – a modernist view. Hierarchy is a big part of this paradigm. With this dynamic, the manager’s “helicopter” view of the organization is the most important perspective. The manager knows what is going on, recognizes when change is necessary, and guides the change. 

Essentially, managers are the change agents and employees are the change recipients. Employees are not very motivated in this dynamic because they have no agency. So, to motivate them, the modernist view is that employees either need “carrots” (more money or incentives) or “sticks” (consequences for underperforming). While “carrots” and “sticks” may lead to results, they do not foster a very positive work environment.

Onstage Versus Offstage Behavior

Research consistently suggests that this formal approach to change management does not work. This failure is partly due to a discrepancy between what people say and what people do. During meetings, or “onstage,” employees agree with what their boss or peers say. But, as soon as they walk out of the conference room and are “offstage,” they vocalize their true feelings and opinions to trusted colleagues. 

In order to achieve change, we need to eliminate the gap between onstage and offstage behavior. Often, this difference is the reason attempts at organizational change are unsuccessful. Over the years, I have observed this situation many times while working with clients but was never able to articulate it well.  

So, how do you avoid this dynamic? How can managers get authentic feedback from their teams?


A Collective Effort

To create lasting change, people need to feel included and invested in the decision to change. A postmodern approach believes that hierarchy is irrelevant to change management. Everyone has a unique view of what the organization needs and only through finding commonalities among people’s perspectives will change stick. 

Let me introduce some more of the new terms I mentioned to better explain: petri dishes and meaningclouds. Petri dishes are used as an apt analogy for small groups within an organization. These groups might mirror people’s roles – accounting, HR, sales, etc – or could be informal, reflecting friendships and other social connections. Just like a petri dish used in a science lab, these small groups are a prime place for cultivating beliefs. 

Within each petri dish are shared meaningclouds or ideas and opinions about a certain topic. In order to get people to change, you need to get different meaningclouds to interact. These interactions potentially lead to the rise of new meaningclouds, or a merging of perspectives. It’s these new groups that enhance the ability to change. Here, a manager’s role is really to create a safe space for these conversations to happen.

Finding the Balance 

A bottom up approach means that change is more organic and unpredictable. Only when different meaningclouds connect solutions will start to be identified. Part of the challenge for managers is navigating the uncertainty of this process. 

One way they do so is by finding the balance between formal interventions and this postmodern approach. The broad planning strokes can be done using more formal methods but the substance is derived through these bottom up conversations. 

Additionally, companies need to be patient. If a top down approach was previously the default and then suddenly employees are at the steering wheel they will need some time to adjust. It will take a while for employees to trust that their opinions will be heard. 

Changing Perspective

How do you get started with this different approach? Instead of thinking “things need to change”, simply try to get an understanding of what’s going on. You do this by getting different meaningclouds together and being open to what comes out of these. It is important that the manager does not dictate what is discussed.  Instead, managers can use practical tools like Liberating Structures and EventStorming to help the group agree on what issues need to be addressed.

It is often said people are resistant to change. However, ‘resistant’ is a label we apply without understanding what’s really going on. If someone is not participating, we need to have a conversation with them to know if it’s a misunderstanding, fear, they are simply too busy, or something else. By understanding the cause of their behavior, together you can find solutions that lead to progress.

This small example illustrates how a postmodernist approach humanizes employees. Rather than being treated as a change recipients expected to do what they are told, this approach sees everyone as equal contributors.