In an organization explicitly shifting to a more appreciative and collaborative culture, a meeting participant positively interpreted challenging events. Let’s look at the upside and From an appreciative perspective were met with joshing incredulity from colleagues. Wait, you’re being positive?
Groups and organizations, like organisms, recognize foreign bodies or behaviors, and deploy antibodies that swarm the unfamiliar to co-opt it, cordon it off, or extrude it. Even if, as here, the new behavior is (theoretically) desired. Folk wisdom knows “old habits die hard” yet leaders often want fast change without discomfort or decreased productivity.
Anyone who has tried to create personal change—more fitness, more spontaneity, less anger—knows the path is long and programs that offer six weeks to a six pack benefit sellers more than buyers. Yet leaders want analogous quick programs for culture change, DEI, and more.
It’s understandable, if misinformed. One early management and leadership learning is planning, usually the linear kind. Identify an outcome and plot the steps backwards—not wrong, but incomplete. It doesn’t distinguish the straightforward problem from what Ronald Heifetz calls adaptive problems and David Snowden calls complexity. It assumes a constant context with linear and knowable causality. That is, A always causes B, even as unseen or discounted factors exert powerful influence, like the comfort of the members in the meeting above. Further, it ignores downstream effects and feedback loops, e.g., unfamiliarity with new ways cause people to confuse temporary inefficiency with ultimate ineffectiveness and then clamor for the old ways. What did you master in your first or 10th or 100th attempt? Why expect different with organizational change?
Organizational change, like personal change, can start small. A single meaningful practice consistently applied can accomplish more than a flashy program. You could start meetings on time, clarify purpose, ask whose voice is missing, or integrate learning and reflection. Not all at once. An overwhelmed system will revert to the known. Better to enact one key behavior, e.g., start with appreciation, to the point that it feels like a habit.
Staff know how challenging it was to remember to truly appreciate and not just criticize. They had to train themselves to see possibility, to acknowledge effort and effectiveness. They began to see the corrosive effects of constant critique, even as they worked to overcome it. They notice their increased creativity. A single meaningful change will have multiple ripples. Once accounted for, what comes next? Success with the first change breeds confidence for subsequent action rather than overwhelm.
It’s not that change can’t happen all at once. It often does. It’s called trauma. See earthquakes, floods, and some organizational restructuring, when people learn to feel beleaguered. Recall the tortoise beat the hare in Aesop’s fable and, it turns out, in organizational change, too.