Nobody knows what change may come

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Changing how we manage is another way of saying change the conditions of the work system. Changing a complex system is an organic process, like healing a patient. You can’t directly change it, you must treat it with stimuli and observe the effect.

Nobody knows how an organisation will respond to change until they try. Anybody who tells you they have a surefire method to change how people work, or that they can tell you what that will look like in a year or three, is making it up. It doesn’t matter how much they are charging you, they’re speculating.

I’m always amused by those who say they can create or build or control or instill culture in an organisation. Culture is not an input. It is an emergent property of the work system, the operating system, of the organisation. You can’t build a culture. It grows (and withers) organically.

Build a work system that hopefully creates the culture you want. But as we learn about complexity, we realise systems are emergent too. Systems behave like living things. So build a management environment for the system you want. But management system is part of the organisational system. It’s emergent too! Management behaviours are as much driven by their inputs as work behaviour is.

The only first-order controls that we have are the governance inputs to the organisation: the vision values principles goals policy, bounds, and success criteria. And those in turn are influenced by the environment within which the organisation operates. Every change we make to the things that we *can* control is an unpredictable experiment that may succeed or fail. The result is entirely dependent on insanely complicated factors prevailing at that moment in time which are essentially random. That then cascades through the many layers of separation above. 

Culture is unpredictable. Every organisation follows a different path to a different place even if the stimuli are the same. Basic chaos theory. There are a thousand decisions along the way, and each one is subject to factors we can’t control or even see in advance. Every step we take exposes new information we didn’t have before it.

Big-bang attempts at change are crazy risks. Stop talking about “transformation”, as if a fairy godmother is going to wave a wand and we will all leap in a step change to a target state. That’s nonsense. It doesn’t matter how important you are or how hard you decree, it won’t happen as planned.

Every time we try to change a complex system – and every system with humans in it is complex – we are launching into the unknown. Nobody knows. We must iterate, increment, experiment, and explore. An agile approach to organisational change is the rational, low risk way.

In particular, for pity’s sake stop doing reorganisation and restructure. It’s an insane risk that, more often than not, does deep damage to the effectiveness and culture of the organisation. The structure and operating model should change in an agile way too: incrementally, as a result of experiments. (More here It should also be designed and conducted by those affected, who pull the change, but that’s another discussion.

It is the height of hubris and patronisation to think that a small cabal of managers and consultants (usually with no practical experience of the work and several tiers removed from it) can foresee what is going to work. Executives should have the humility to serve the organisation, facilitating it finding its own way forward. You can stimulate, nudge, shove even, but then observe and adjust, and try again – all the while nurturing the organism.