Transformational Change: Make Possible Incremental Change
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 # 4 – enlisting others to co-create the future. This blog expands on idea #5 – making possible incremental change
Sometimes leaders get hung up on the word “transformation”, assuming it implies big, grand sweeping changes. Well yes, it does, but major changes only happen as a result of small, incremental, and daily shifts. When there isn’t an immediate crisis on your doorstep driving rapid, significant changes, incremental change can be your best friend in helping people adapt over time in a way that is supportive and energising. And for many who are affected by multiple changes across the organisation, incremental change is arguably the only way to create sustainable change (unless you are facing imminent collapse).
What does incremental change look like?
One of my mentors once said, “change is built on a firm foundation of the past.” Sometimes in times of change, we can get caught up with the newness, as if the ground beneath us is collapsing and we have to create an entirely new ground. It doesn’t have to be this way. When we recognise that change is more an evolution rather than a new creation, it can feel much more accessible and natural.
To truly understand this, let’s take a living systems perspectives. A living system is any network of processes in which every process contributes to all other processes. With this definition, it’s easy to see that most organisations today operate as living systems. So if organisations are networks of processes, how do they survive and thrive? Through a process of self-reference.
When an environment changes, the system will notice that it needs to change. This can be said in organisations when external factors are shifting (e.g. technology disruption, increasing customer expectation, scarcer resources, etc.) But how does it understand how to change? Through the study of living systems, we see that systems change in a way that seek to preserve and remain consistent with itself. It doesn’t want to give up its identity.
It changes precisely to preserve its identity.
This is self-reference in action. Therefore, choosing the path towards change that is congruent with who it has been is the key to facilitating its transformation. Organisations decide to change when the change is meaningful to who they are as an organisation.
Let’s take the example we have been using – around a public sector organisation seeking to be more customer centric. All public sector agencies are by nature formed to be customer or community centric. It is core to their identity. Somewhere along the way, the need for processes, policies, or structures became necessary and proliferated as the organisation grew. Eventually, the complexity of the system was too great to handle, and this complexity began to get in the way of a positive customer experience. At the same time, from an external perspective, customer expectations began to increase – digital tools, transparency and accessibility of information, and societal expectations on customer service all began to collide.
Thus, organisational transformation needed to occur to re-connect the organisation’s identity of customer centricity congruently to its actual practices and customer experience and expectation.
So what are the foundations to your organisation’s identity, and how will you leverage them to evolve to meet external environmental demands? And what incremental steps do you need to take to evolve given your new environment? These are the questions, and thus steps 1 and 2 in this blog series focus on helping you get clear on your organisational identity in order to build on the firm foundation of your organisation’s past. In this way, change need not be radical, merely incremental (and still transformative).
Where organisations get stuck
Leaders get impatient. Leaders want change to happen, yesterday. Leaders’ bias for action and immediacy reduces their ability to see the change that is already happening around them. Every day, change is happening. We must sharpen our eyes to look for the evidence. After all, perception often lags reality, and changes are hard to detect if we perceive nothing major to be happening. Thus, leaders tend to invest in large scale, radical changes, when an incremental change approach could be much more beneficial.
Ambitious goals seem sexier than incremental goals. We tend to invest in what could be called “the shiny object syndrome”. Leaders are often high achievers, which makes setting ambitious goals natural to them and setting incremental goals counter-intuitive. However, any goal setting expert will tell you that in order to achieve big goals, we must chunk them down to small, incremental goals. This helps to create a momentum of confidence that we can actually change without it being overwhelming. It’s the difference between saying you want to lose 10 kgs vs. you want to walk for 10 minutes everyday. Introducing incremental “habits” (i.e. start small, do it everyday, make it easy) is what makes the difference.
Ideas on where to start
The good news is, if you’ve been putting into practice what you’re reading in this blog series, you’ve already started!
Go back to the outcomes of Step 1 to understand what positive cultural attributes form the foundation of your organisational identity. Then move to step 2 to identify what in the internal or external environment is driving the need for the evolution of your identity. Then, create focus. Remember that your organisation likely became too complex, which is why it needs to transform and reconnect with its identity. What can you do to focus and simplify? Usually this means cutting initiatives and saying no to projects that don’t support your transformation.
Once you have focus (which gives you space and time) then you can enlist others to help you identify what few incremental changes will help you preserve your identity amidst external changes.
Examples of incremental changes that support customer centricity could include:
- Asking yourself “what would my customer think?” before making a decision
- Starting your team meetings with a customer centric story and the impact it had on the customer
- Doing customer research or going out into the “field” to observe customer needs/behaviours
- Asking your customers for feedback
On the flipside, here are some examples of non-incremental changes that hinder transformation that I’ve seen:
- Spending time creating a customer strategy that results in numerous initiatives launched
- Implementing a CRM tool to track customer relationships
- Holding workshops with internal employees to speculate what customer needs are (without actually involving the customers themselves)
Incremental changes not only honour organisations as living systems, they also take a lot less time and resources to experiment with. They give individuals the autonomy and agency to go and make change happen without waiting for large scale initiatives to launch that are often too complex, confusing, and time intensive. By focusing on incremental change, over time, a system can naturally evolve into what it needs to in order to preserve itself.
Taking a more modern and relevant approach to transformational change is your best chance at making the changes stick and energising people around topics that should matter dearly to them – how they and others treat each other and behave at work.
Let us make change accessible and fun.