You know that when change is upon you, you will be letting go of ideas, behavior, perhaps functions, structures, roles, authority, and even titles. Poised on the brink of change we are overcome by loss and the uncertainty of what we might be asked to give up. At this moment leaders need to focus the organization on what must be conserved. Without getting trapped on our history: What preserves who we are and must come with us into the future?
Unit of Work
When we plan transactional change we assume the unit of work is the task, or the set of tasks, performed by individuals, teams, or functions. A focus that conserves tasks is past orientated and only able to incrementally improve the system and its performance. In this case there is little room for imagination which generates innovation and, potentially, transformation.
Shifting to a systems perspective, the unit of work becomes the relationship – interdependencies between the parts of the system, whether people, functions, processes, tasks, or groups. When relationships are managed during change, i.e. managing the red line, everything else becomes available for change and/or re-organization. For leaders this means trusting the organization (i.e. people you don’t know) to be imaginative, creative, and to conserve those relationships and parts that define the company and culture at its best. This puts leaders in a VUCA Prime position, where things are unknown (complex) and perhaps even a bit unknowable (chaotic). It also unleashes the greatest potential of the organization.
Unleashing Organizational Potential
Put yourself in this newly promoted team leader’s situation. The original team leader has just been fired. He was disliked, not trusted, and had created a culture of fear within the team. Across the organization he was seen as building a kingdom and protecting his turf, arrogant, and unwilling to collaborate or compromise. You have spent your time in this team as a director, focused on your work and busy creating diverse relationships across internal functions and with external partners – interdependencies that are foundational to the success of your projects.
Knock, knock…we want you to take over the team leadership role.
After much hand wringing you say yes. Your first move is to have a one day team meeting to address the HUGE change that everyone is expecting to take place with internal and external partners, and to manage the GIGANTIC red line that everyone is experiencing (including yourself). All 25 team members are ready for an emotional download so you set up a “burning box” to collect all their issues, fears, and frustrations. But do you start with that? This leader began the meeting with a conversation about what the team wanted to conserve: Who are we at our best? How do we move forward from that position?
When the “burning box” was finally opened and the questions pulled out and answered, one by one, the emotional energy in the room was intense, and the team was ready to confront what they now saw as the past and move toward what they had just identified as their future. Coming out of the meeting the new team leader confessed to being “a wreck” but also recognized that without having identified what was good in the system, in particular acknowledging how people had been helping each other, the “burning box” could have been far worse.
Appreciating the Past
When a whole organization sits on the brink of change, leaders can (dare I say should) look to Appreciative Inquiry to begin the journey. This process identifies strengths and positive aspects of the company and culture that need to be conserved to achieve their future Vision. The participatory nature of this process brings out unseen potential, unknown change agents, and generates alignment and cohesion as the red line pulls transactional plans into a VUCA cauldron.
“…adaptation is a process of conservation as well as loss. The question is not only, “Of all that we care about, what must be given up to survive and thrive going forward? but also, “Of all that we care about, what elements are essential and must be preserved into the future, or we will lose precious values, core competencies, and lose who we are?” As in nature, a successful adaptation enables an organization or community to take the best from its traditions, identity, and history into the future.”
Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky, in Adaptive Leadership