In this article, I want to present a number of ideas that help to look at organizational change from a different perspective. The perspective that organizations can prepare themselves for constant change from within, by incorporating the process of change into everything they do on a daily basis. By stopping intrusive change management and making change management as invisible as possible to people. Invisible change.
A sunny Friday morning at the end of July.
Bruce drags the last table to a room of sixty square meters in the Solvay office in Paris. Only a month before he received the final go for building this brand new internal Design Studio. Together with his partner in crime from IT, Frederick, he had worked hard to make this happen. The budget was limited, but Bruce’s conviction that this was what Solvay needed, was exponentially bigger.
When he started working at Solvay two years before, building a design studio was not part of his job description. It was not what he had in mind from the start either. It was an idea that emerged from one of the projects he was hired for: finding a good tool for Solvay’s HRIS (Human Resources Information System). The old system was… well … old.
Something had to change for Solvay’s employees. Previous attempts to change the system were blocked by the Management Committee because of the size of the investments and the time needed to see results. Bruce knew he had to do things differently. Before exploring possible solutions, he paused and took a step back.
If you want to change, you have to come to a standstill first.
Bruce started organizing workshops with employees to better understand their needs and wishes. It soon became clear that employees had a number of pain points and that it was first of all necessary to address them. The bottom line was that Solvay employees wanted more feedback, more job mobility and more personalized learning. Shortly after, Bruce organized a “demo day”, a full day of demonstrations by major HRIS suppliers, during which twenty Solvay employees could evaluate the different solutions. Bruce also invited a number of HR-tech start-ups, that had answers to specific pain points and generally offer more user-oriented solutions. It was immediately clear that the start-ups’ solutions appealed much more to the employees than the large systems. Those big providers could offer everything but are mostly set up from an HR process perspective rather than from a more attractive user or employee perspective.
From process-centric to employee-centric
At that time Bruce realized that HR had to change from a process-oriented to an employee-focused way of thinking. And that employees had to be central to building a new system and finding answers to their problems and needs. That’s why a group of employees tested solutions, gave feedback, tested again and decided each time whether they wanted to continue a solution or stop it alltogether. This series of pilots ended in the idea of organizing a hackathon by and for employees. Good ideas emerged from the hackathon. But then what? Searching for a partner to bring the ideas into reality was not a problem in itself, but legal restrictions made it difficult to achieve results in the short term. That is why they decided to create the solution internally.
At the same time, Bruce was thinking about how a large oil tanker like Solvay could become more agile. According to him, the key to this is people. The power of people. How can we use employees’ ideas to create Solvay’s future together? Bruce felt that greater co-creation might be the answer. He had already become acquainted with it when he worked for McKinsey and decided to organize something similar within Solvay. Fifteen people from across the business (business, IT, legal, not too much HR) were invited to the newly established Design Studio in Paris with the aim of developing a new prototype in twelve weeks. Another hundred employees were part of a newly created feedback panel and were consulted weekly by the team to give feedback on their work and to help decide on the name of the solution (“You”) and which functions to add. This is how the first prototype of “You” was developed.
Change from within the organization
Bruce initiated this change from within the organization. Not because he was instructed to do it this way, but because he listened to what people were saying. From the start, he was looking for a solution for everyone in the organization. The decision to implement an HRIS came top-down, the solution didn’t. Bruce got and took that freedom.
He could have followed the classic route: searching for and choosing a new software and then run a company-wide implementation consisting of a number of waves of communication, migrations and training. Bruce soon felt that that wouldn’t be the right method. He manifested elements of what I like to call invisible change.
What is invisible change?
The idea is to make the way you make a change as invisible as possible. Think of it as a principle that you apply every time you think about creating change in your organization.
- How do we make sure that this change happens without people seeing it as change?
- Can we make sure that the change doesn’t bother people?
- How do we create solutions that add value for people?
- Can we integrate change into everything we do, including in the solution itself?
- How do we build a constant adaptive capacity in our organization and culture?
- In other words, how do we ensure that change becomes business-as-usual?
Five strategies for invisible change management
Invisible change consists of five strategies that you can use in your relentless pursuit of making change an inherent part of your business. It is my firm conviction that much-needed changes in organizations have a much greater chance of success if everyone who is engaged in change can cover the change management approach with an invisibility coat, Harry Potter-wise. The five materials such a coat of invisibility is made of are:
INSPIRATION: Create energy, direction and align
COCREATION: Involve people in defining the challenge up to the solution & implementation
ITERATION: Adjust quickly based on feedback
REDUCTION: Reduce change to the essence
PERSONALISATION: laser focus on people and give them choice
Those elements didn’t fall out of the sky. I have distilled them on the one hand from the management approaches that are emerging today in organizations that want to become more agile: design thinking, lean startup, agile and on the other hand from a number of philosophies that have been around for a long time, such as systems thinking, the learning organization and creative leadership. I have searched for the essence of these approaches through the glasses of change management. In my opinion, these five elements form the essence of renewal and change.
The story of Solvay illustrates some of these elements beautifully.
First Bruce got inspired. He got that inspiration from his previous employer where he founded the People Insights department using methods that Google, among others, already applied (design thinking, scrum, sprints). Bruce also found inspiration in his conversations with employees, by looking for their concrete wishes and needs in this story. Although he didn’t define them by himself, he discovered them through various workshops. He did not yet have the solution in mind, which enabled him to have an open dialogue. He was sincerely interested in the personal pain points of employees and wanted to get to work on designing a new solution.
Based on these discussions the concrete needs were reduced to getting feedback, increasing job mobility and more personalized learning. Based on these insights, Bruce was able to invite a number of parties to a demo day, where employees were inspired by the solutions that already existed in the market on the one hand, and on the other hand, were able to test those solutions immediately. After several iterations of testing the software, feedback from the testers, adaptation of the software, the need arose to organize a hackathon with a large group of employees.
Solvay went into an initial co-creation phase. A hackathon is a co-creative workshop with a diverse group of participants (software developers, designers, employees) whose assignment is to come up with a creative solution to a certain problem in a short period of time (1 to 2 days). This usually results in a fake app or website (prototype) that is pitched to a jury at the end of the hackathon. This gave Solvay good ideas about what the new HRIS should look like, but then the question was how to get started with those ideas. Develop it internally or work with a software developer who could tailor it for them? The systems thinker in Bruce decided to opt for co-creation within the organization in order to work on making the organization more agile at the same time.
He integrated culture change into a concrete project, reducing a big idea (becoming agile as an organization) to the essence (agile project work) through this first project. But he kept in mind that multiple projects could be tackled in this way, and in the long run also lead to a broader change. The design studio was created, a space of inspiration and co-creation, where a cross-functional team worked for twelve weeks on designing the solution. A panel of staff members provided personalized feedback that the team used to work on improving the design, in successive iterations. It lead to a flexible solution that can be tailored to individual needs and that uses data to come with proper suggestions.
Not a linear plan
In Bruce’s story, you soon notice that the five elements do not form a step-by-step plan. Inspiration can come before the action, but equally often comes from the action itself. Co-creation can sometimes only come into play late in the process. There is no such thing as a single success formula. The trick is to understand the elements and to estimate what is a good next step at what moment. You base yourself on what happens, the feedback you get from the employees and the goal you have in mind. Nor is it a plea to throw all forms of Change Management overboard. The ultimate goal may well be that a separate Change Management is no longer needed by building an organization that can continuously adapt itself to changing circumstances. But in order to build it, you should not throw the child out with the bathwater. Some principles of classic change management can still prove their usefulness.
Make change management invisible
Good organizational change is invisible, non-intrusive, and should de facto require little effort for the people involved. It’s like WIFI, you’re only aware of it when it’s not working or when it’s too slow. The best way to make an organization change is to make the change as invisible as possible to the people who are part of it.
Invisible change is “sprezzatura”, Italian for achieving something incredibly difficult and making it look simple. It requires tremendous creativity and a lot of experimentation, but if it works, it leads to effortless change.
With these five strategies you have the ingredients to throw a cloak of invisibility over the path of change. Whether you want to facilitate new systems, processes, ways of working, work environments or a new culture, you achieve it by constantly working on these five elements. You inspire, you co-create, you iterate, you reduce and you personalize.