Blog Series #3: Transformational Change: Sense-making as a Key to Success
In my first blog, I introduced the idea that if organisations are seeking transformational change, they must address organisational culture in order to enable this transformation. Change, despite many of the horror stories we hear, can be more energising, humane, and fun. I introduced 7 key attributes that must be part of your transformational change agenda in order to thrive. My last blog expanded on idea # 1, and in this blog, I address the second key attribute – the importance of sense-making.
Sense-making is a key part of defining and enabling change.
I said it last time, and I’ll reiterate it here – sense-making is, in my humble opinion, the only way to help people move through the change. Most change programs waste precious time and brainpower on defining a case for change. Sure, this is valuable, but in a world where time and attention is limited, a very basic business case will suffice given that what it most likely contains are all the intellectual reasons why the organisation should change. This approach is incomplete. It ignores the very way change can be successful – the need to make it personal.
“Why should I change?”
This is the most important question you have to help the workforce answer. And you must accept that everyone will have to come up with their own answer. Reading about or hearing someone else’s answer will never be as powerful as coming up with your own.
‘Translation: all those talking points and presentations you’re giving to support your transformation are a waste of time. “
The way people come up with their own answers is through sense-making. Sense-making at its most basic level involves engaging with people to have conversations that reflect on past, present, and future. Plainly stated, we need to understand how we got here. There’s a logical way to do this. As one of my mentors once said, “change is built on a firm foundation of the past,” and we need to understand and appreciate the past in order to take stock of the present and influence the future. (read my previous blog).
Keep in mind, the questions I pose below need to be asked and responded to in the context of the transformation you are seeking (e.g. are you trying to become more digital? are you trying to be more innovative? are you trying to instill a more customer-driven mindset?)
Let’s take an example to make it real. I’ve been working with many public sector agencies recently who have all been talking about creating more customer centricity in their workforce’s mindset. Talking through the process below, be prepared for responses that range from process, policy, structure, technology, and culture elements. Capture them all, and really pay attention to the culture. They are the most embedded, most easily ignored, and are the elements that undermine your change success in the long term.
Firstly, start with asking “Who have we been as an organisation up until now and why?” Are there highlights and lowlights to people’s responses? Invite both. The organisational culture that has been shaped up to the present time most likely has aspects of both.
In the example, many people could likely respond with, sentiments around, we are a stable service provider of government services. We serve the community. The highlights? We care deeply about our community. Our people are experienced and long-tenured. Many are local residents themselves or customers of the services we offer. The lowlights? We are slow to respond to our customers’ changing needs. Our people rely on paper based processes and care a lot about the process, sometimes more than the outcome. Our culture is compliance driven, and following the rules impacts our customer experience. We want to do better, but sometimes we are limited by too many experts having always done it this way before.
Next, ask “Why do we feel now is the time to change to become more customer centric?” By addressing this, you will create the context for change.
In the last blog I talked about how humans are wired to solve problems. Well, now is the time to define (but not solve) the problem. Most organisations want to focus on what the future opportunities are (the pull factors) rather than addressing current challenges and issues (the push factors). While I am a realistic optimist, I know from experience that only focusing on future opportunities doesn’t create an impetus for change. After all, our own lived human experience dictates that we only change when the pain of staying the same becomes unsustainable. The Beckhard -Harris Change Equation below supports this, noting that “dissatisfaction” is a key ingredient to change.
Using the same example, perhaps a response could be: Now is the time to change to really focus on customer centricity. Our demographics are changing. We need to provide services in a larger range of ways, especially digital services. We also realise that we used to take it for granted that the community could only rely on us for our public services, however more and more private enterprises are springing up to compete with the services we offer. For the first time in our sector, we risk becoming irrelevant.
We need to surface the dissatisfaction to inform our vision of the future, to create a vision of hope. Don’t be shy to mine for this gold! Give people permission to really bring their dissatisfaction with the status quo to life. The more personal the stories and experiences of this dissatisfaction, the better. Avoid letting people simply state loaded words or statements such as “we need a more customer centric mindset” or “our customers demand more from us” or “we need to keep pace with technology”. Ask them to tell you more. When was a time you experienced not having a more customer centric mindset, what happened, how did it make you feel, what was the impact to the outcome or customer? Again, push people to make it personal.
This will set you up well for the final step – the Future.
“If we decide to take action now, what do we hope to influence for the future?” This is your vision for the future. Most organisations start with a vision, however, they miss the key narrative elements that inform a vision and enable it to have colour, context, and personal impact. Without this, vision statements become cliche and impersonal.
As an example, the vision could simply be “we want to become more customer centric to enable our community to seamlessly live their lives”. A big promise? Yes, it absolutely should be a stretch, which gives you plenty to work with in terms of defining the first steps towards this direction.
Where organisations get stuck
Too much formality – most organisations rely heavily on formal communication methods and channels such as presentations, emails, and polished talking points. To really make sense of why change is happening, we need to shift towards more informal ways of communication – mainly dialogue. There is a misconception that there is not enough time to have meaningful dialogues in the workplace. However, the inordinate amount of time we spend on writing communications is inefficient and doesn’t get us any closer to the goal of transformation. Rather, relying on informal dialogic structures such as fishbowls, roundtables, world cafes, etc. are a huge value add to building a strong foundation for change.
We are tempted to answer “why do we feel now is the time to change” with too many reasons – I was recently in a workshop where we were answering this question. There were 7 answers in the room, all compelling. The leader in the room asked “why can’t we have them all?” and I responded, “for the same reasons you told me change in the past hasn’t worked here – it’s too complicated and people can’t connect to it, let alone remember it”.
We need to simplify our message. We need to focus on the heart of the reason for change, even if there are many benefits to this change . I typically coach teams to align to 1 thing and 1 thing alone. It is the 1 thing everyone can relate to and has probably felt some sort of pain around. This is the only way we can get away from complicated and loaded vision statements.
So now with what you know, what can you start to do?
Simple: get clear on what the change is you are seeking (e.g. more customer driven mindset). Keep it as simple as possible. Then initiate the process by following the first step to ask ““Who have we been as an organisation up until now and why?” Be open to listening and being patient with what you hear. This will establish authentic curiosity and begin to build trust with your stakeholders.
Going through this process will set you up well to create focus to start address “what” you want or need to change. Stay tuned for my next blog to learn about creating focus, because as I alluded to above, it’s unrealistic and too complicated to have it all.