Six insights about change

Change in organizations today often runs aground on a sandbank of old mental models. These are the lenses through which we see the world. They are the ideas, beliefs, images and words that we consciously or unconsciously form from our experiences. Past successes are often the biggest cause of defensive thinking, stuck mindsets and complacency. And because ingrained ideas and old mental models hold so strongly and put a clear brake on change, we are fortunate to see initiatives arise that aim to remedy that shortcoming.


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Six insights about change

At the end of 2019, the Free University of Brussels (VUB) launched the new English-language course "School of Thinking." Organized by the Centre Leo Apostel (CLEA), this one-year postgraduate course aims to train students in various thinking methods that can help them find solutions to today's complex problems.

The CLEA was founded in 1995 as a transdisciplinary and interfaculty research center under the impetus of the well-known Belgian philosopher Leo Apostel. With the postgraduate course “School of Thinking”, the CLEA is now adding a practical course to its activities for the first time. The classes and workshops, taught by VUB professors Francis Heylighen and Jean-Paul Van Bendeghem among others, train students in methods for learning to think creatively, critically, collaboratively and systemically.

“We like to talk about “thinking outside the box,” but those “boxes” persist in our heads and hinder free thinking without us actually being aware of it. We want to teach trainees different thinking methods that will make their stuck ideas collide again and get them moving. In order to find creative solutions to complex problems, we must dare to transcend the boundaries of thinking frames and disciplines, while remaining sufficiently critical to distinguish good ideas from bad ones,” says Prof. Francis Heylighen.

The new course of study can be of added value to professionals such as entrepreneurs, business leaders, politicians, consultants and coaches who, within their jobs, are confronted with complex problems that require innovative thought processes.

Mental models guide our thoughts and actions and in organizations they thus determine the prevailing culture. Mental models provide stability in a world of change on the one hand, but on the other hand they blind us to facts and ideas that challenge our beliefs. ‘People work better in the office than at home,’ for example, is a belief that provides stability, because then there is no need to change anything. People by nature like to maintain the status quo. This is why provoking beliefs that confirm the status quo is so difficult. Something as seemingly simple as holding an upright meeting instead of the traditional sit-down meeting will not succeed in the long run if the majority of participants do not believe that the new is better than the old and thus modify their beliefs.

Why companies often stick to old models

Many companies build their entire organization and their operations around what made them successful in the first place. This makes sense, too. They strive for excellence, and based on previous successes, their activities become routine. To some extent, this has enormous advantages in efficiency, but it also maintains the status quo. In fact, inertia, reduced vigor and unwillingness to change often arise when change is forced upon them. Signals that things need to change are then ignored, misinterpreted or swept under the carpet. Just look at our Belgian retailers who jumped on the digital train too late. A lack of future vision and sticking to classic business models has caused Belgian retailers to lose 5.5 billion euros to foreign countries (De Tijd, November 17, 2018). Money is flowing out of the local economy and the only thing that associations of retailers and politicians can say is that we, as consumers, should buy locally on a massive scale. But this is still done in staggered order with the Flemish government’s “I buy local” campaign and Unizo’s “Shophere” campaign.

“We consumers are ruthless serial killers. Our behavior is constantly changing. We are always looking for cheaper, easier, faster, simpler and more satisfying.’ (Rik Vera)

It is quite a challenge as a consumer to buy all your products locally in a simple, fast and affordable way. There is an intrusive desire to change the behavior of consumers instead of doing what is necessary to respond to their changing buying behavior. Rik Vera of Nexxworks puts it clearly: “We consumers are ruthless serial killers. Our behavior is constantly changing. We are always looking for cheaper, easier, faster, simpler and more satisfying.’

So instead of wringing their hands and pointing a reproachful finger at the consumer, government and retailers would do better to put energy into building a clear vision of the future and working vigorously towards it, hoping that this way there will be a chance to catch up with the digital train.

Dealing with change also often starts from ingrained mental models

Change management is aimed at helping organizations to change, but thinking about change management itself is often still stuck in classic mental models. The discipline of change management has grown up in an era when control, top-down management and linear thinking reigned and people were reasonably convinced that those models worked. So it is in the same bed of sickness as the system it is supposed to change. It is therefore abundantly clear to me that a number of mental models around change management are themselves in need of change. To help bring about that change, let’s list the aspects that get in the way of change.

Thesis 1. Certainty is the greatest enemy of change

Fear of telling the truth…

In the powerful article ‘Who killed Nokia? Nokia did.’ by Insead Professor Quy Huy, the author says that it was not smugness, blindness to the world around them, or self-importance about Nokia’s technical superiority that caused the once strong Finnish brand to falter, but rather fear among middle management and employees to tell the truth. The board consisted of extremely temperamental people who believed that making threats and putting extreme pressure on performance were necessary to sustain their success.  The focus was so strong that everything else had to give way. Out of fear of this board, the managers either kept quiet, while seeing what was going on, or presented things in a rosier light than they were, so that the company reacted too late to the arrival of the iphone, with all the familiar consequences. In this case, there was a clear case of organizational perfectionism, where making mistakes is avoided as much as possible. ‘First time right’ is the slogan. As a result, an enormous learning potential is lost. Organizations that dare to make mistakes and learn from them are more innovative. Perfection is the antithesis of innovation. An extreme command and control culture, based on fear and uncertainty, causes people to fear taking initiative. A few individuals at the top make all the decisions, but it is obvious that they cannot have all the knowledge. In times of great change, it is dangerous to manage in this way. Not to mention the impact on the employees, who accept this type of management less and less.

Negative view of people…

Another consequence of organizational perfectionism is that management assumes that all processes are controllable and will therefore produce predictable results. Efficiency and control are the key words here. Work is broken down into small, routine activities, which are measured separately and where people often do not see or know the impact of what they are doing. And such a thing obviously has consequences. In an environment with a lot of control mechanisms, and without any room for creativity, there is a de facto silent belief among employees that top managers assume they are lazy and unmotivated.

Managers are then focused primarily on achieving productivity standards, with the goal of doing more with the same or fewer resources. Companies reorganize and the employees who are allowed to stay are assigned more and more tasks. This inevitably leads to problems among employees, which manifests itself in frustration, cynicism, increasing uninvolvement and loss of energy. We still see productivity too much as the number of hours performed, or worse, the number of hours present in the office. It still gives a false sense of control.

Lack of oxygen

Too much control takes away all the oxygen necessary for creativity and change. When you put a candle in a jar and put a lid on it, it doesn’t take long for the candle to go out. People and teams who can tap into their creative potential to the fullest are much more productive. They contribute more value to their organization and are constantly learning, which increases the appreciation for them and also decreases the likelihood that they will lose their job. People want to be emotionally involved and help make a difference. So a turnaround is needed, with the emphasis first and foremost on developing creative potential rather than just on productivity. Because precisely to increase that productivity, more creativity is vital.

Thesis 2. Push causes resistance

‘This has to happen and this is good for you’

This is often the underlying message in many change programs. The message is put in a nice wrapper and the “selling” of it can begin. Then we have to work very hard on new standards, which we do not always understand, and two years later, with a bit of luck, we are drinking champagne together because some result or certification has been achieved. There was little attention for creating involvement and letting people think along in the process, because there was simply no time for it. Organizations still too often approach change in this way. There is too much change going on at once and too little focus within the change itself. People don’t like change’, is often said, but perhaps it is the way in which change is carried out that they don’t like.

‘We know best what is good for you’

Ideas for change are often a unique privilege or competency of top management. Leadership defines the ‘burning platforms’ or ‘burning desires’ and spreads the message throughout the organization with a big bang. New technology is decided upon from an economic perspective, without involving the end-user, as a result of which the new technology often does not meet the real needs and encounters resistance when implemented. Change teams and employees are there to implement those ideas. This reduces individual initiative and autonomy. A side effect of the rapid change we are experiencing today is that no CEO or management team can be an expert in everything, nor see all the challenges of the dynamic external environment. Top managers certainly can’t handle it all at once, so they must find ways to harness the knowledge and imagination of many employees and stakeholders. It will still be possible to initiate or inspire change from the top down, but it is my belief that it will increasingly come from the bottom up and from outside the organization. The people in the frontline understand best what the needs of customers and employees are and also need the space to respond to these needs.

Push causes resistance

Top-down change is a push strategy and often creates resistance. The link to the real problem or to the opportunity being addressed is often unclear, so people fail to see why a change is needed. In their eyes, it is change for change’s sake and there will be little motivation to act. Most people do not like to be told what and how to do something. Understanding how people’s internal motivation works will be a key input to accelerating change, and that doesn’t just have to do with explaining the famous WIIFM (What’s In It For Me), but goes a level deeper, into the fertile ground of human motivations.

Thesis 3. Change does not behave linearly

‘We know what steps need to be taken’

Many organizations view change as an activity with a beginning and an end and some milestones in between. Change plans with clear goals and strategies are defined, including stakeholder management and guidelines on dealing with resistance. All these preparations are aimed at reaching the goal as quickly as possible and deviating as little as possible from the proposed path. Feedback along the way about the change is usually seen as criticism and resistance and is not used to improve the approach or solution. A step-by-step linear approach offers limited flexibility. When you need to move quickly, you need feedback loops and flexibility to adapt based on what you see, hear and feel around you.

Organizational change is unpredictable, yet we tend to manage change like a project: we give it a scope, budget and timeline and then are shocked when it turns out not to work! The change project is then adjusted, an extra round of communication follows and where we used to work with incentives, we now switch to punishing people who do not go along with the change. Change is a continuous fact, it never stops. Change Management is now primarily about creating a new type of organization that is built for constant change and has the ability to respond quickly.

‘We are proactive’

The problem with many Change Management processes is that they are linear in nature or proposed to be linear. It just so happens that if you want to explain to someone how something works, you usually start at a and end at z, like a manual used to do with a new television. Many of the explanations in it you don’t need right away or maybe even never, but still you had to go through it to start up your television. In my opinion, this is how a change program is still too often approached. The result is that a lot is thought out in advance, a lot of things that may never be needed, and those predetermined steps get too much attention. On the one hand, this creates an approach to change that is always the same, so you get uniformity that promotes change fatigue. On the other hand, it reduces the chance of learning by simply getting started and dealing with obstacles along the way. By seeing hypothetical obstacles in advance and proactively working out solutions for them, you get a lot of interventions and communication that may not have been necessary at all. We must be able to deal with this in a smarter way. Not linearly, but iteratively, learning along the way.

‘We must also do change management now’

We see change too much as something separate from daily operations. Something that appears when you come up with a new project or a new solution. Usually an idea that originates at the top is further developed into a project. Then a project manager starts preparing the implementation. How are we going to communicate it? What training do people need? How will we deal with resistance? Organizations are increasingly asking themselves these questions. That is certainly better than only thinking about change when the first resistance arises after implementation. But it does not alter the fact that it is problematic to consider change management too much as something separate.

Thesis 4. One-size-fits-all fits nobody

‘They need to understand why we are changing…’

Every (major) change is approached with the same model: top-down sharing the vision and strategy so that the why is clear, organizing the cascade through the organization and monitoring progress. The question of whether there are alternatives is barely addressed. Every employee receives the same information at exactly the same time. Posters and screens cover the walls and the positive slogans fade into words that have lost all meaning. They scream for attention from the employees, but they don’t see the wood for the trees anymore because of all the shouting for attention for the change. Too much information shuts down our brains. To get people’s attention at the right time, today we can use new technologies, but above all we have to get the dialogue back into the organization, not only about the content and reasons that make change necessary, but also about the concrete way in which we can implement a change. Not through checklists or through training, but through creative dialogue.

‘We need to communicate a lot and then it will come’

Communication is an important part of any change program, but it cannot be the only way to create change. It is a trigger, a starting point, but much more is needed to achieve real engagement of people and thus change. Creating change in organizations, especially in large organizations, should not be left to chance. It is appropriate to carefully design change from the employee’s perspective. Communication is important in this, but it is even more important to look together at what the current pain points of employees are and what is preventing them from changing. It’s about giving employees a voice in the change and getting them to think about and participate in that change.

‘Let’s have a big event’

Taking on change too big is a huge pitfall. I often see organizations trying to force change. Everyone and everything has to change at once, but that is not how it works. The story you tell may be very inspiring, but if the organization really wants to force the change, most employees will continue to do exactly what they have always done. The reason is, on the one hand, fear of change. After all, big stories and transformations create threats to people’s jobs, freedom or status. On the other hand, communication often remains too general. Aspirational sessions are good to inspire people, but to really change their behavior people need very clear information and direction. It is not enough to ask people to be more creative. That’s too broad, open to too much interpretation, and then little or nothing ultimately happens. Make it concrete. Say, for example, “Next time you meet, use the creative meeting room.” And make sure that all obstacles to using it are removed.
Only a small group of people are willing to change right away and can quickly flesh it out on their own, however, most people will only change when the path is paved for them. And not through uniformity, because the path can be different for each employee, but through an approach that is tailored as much as possible to the employee. In this context, digitization gives us opportunities for personalization that did not exist before.

People are usually not opposed to the change itself, but they do feel a natural resistance to the choices made to achieve that change and to the way organizations manage and communicate about the change. Most employees receive hundreds of messages every day, all of which are equally important and urgent in the eyes of the sender. If, on top of that, every change that the organization has to undergo goes through the merry-go-round of the mail circuit, the chance that the message is really understood and that something happens with it is very small.

Thesis 5. It takes a village to create change

‘Our change manager will solve it’

As I mentioned above, I think quite a few organizations see change too much as something separate from the day-to-day operations. As something for which a few people within the organization are responsible: the change managers, or change agents, sometimes as a full-time job, sometimes next to their main job. And sometimes as something that the project managers just have to take on board. The intention is usually that the change manager paves the way and coaches the managers in the organization to manage the change in their team. However, it often comes down to the change manager having to prepare and implement the entire change. He is always the one who has to answer questions about the change. That makes sense, because everyone sees him or her as the expert, who, partly because he or she has followed a number of courses, knows best what needs to be done.

In my opinion, however, in this way you can never get sustainable change in your organization, but it remains something marginal. A change manager often does not have the time, space and power to get the whole organization on board in this way.

‘We are sponsors of the change program anyway’

Change managers alone are not able to bring about successful change. Therefore, it is appropriate that they can facilitate and coach, but that is no longer enough. General management must also master the change competencies. And this must go beyond the classic role of the manager who has to remove obstacles as a sponsor, the CEO who must learn to use storytelling, or the middle manager who must learn to deal with resistance. Managers have to actually realize that management now and in the future will be nothing more than change management.

This certainly does not mean that you have to pull all the people in your organization through an intensive three-day change management training of which only 10% is then remembered and after which everyone just continues to work as before. Again, the “Invisible” idea applies, which means that change should be a continuous and integral part of business operations, without being visible separately. It means that technology and digital tools can help people learn change competencies in an invisible way: by learning by doing and by getting integrated feedback.

‘Everyone needs to see that we are working on change’

By focusing on emphasizing change, I think organizations will find that it is counterproductive. Invisible change, on the other hand, means looking for ways to integrate change into your daily operations by baking it into your organization, getting your people to understand it, and making them part of the solutions. That means change has to be a priority in the design of your organization and your solutions, rather than something that gets some attention later in the process, when all you can do at that point is sell and push. With “selling” you will reach a number of interested people, but equally many employees will not feel addressed. And that is exactly where it often goes wrong with the current change management.

Thesis 6. The worse the solution, the more change management you need

Maybe we should start thinking about change management’

In some organizations, thinking about managing or guiding change is totally non-existent. There is a lot of resistance, people are disgruntled, but change is not thought about. In other organizations, change management only comes into play when initiatives threaten to go wrong or the first signs of serious resistance to the imposing change or after the implementation of the change begin to appear. This is when the acceptance of the solution turns out not to be very high and people start looking for ways to increase that adoption. Increasingly today, organizations are including change management as part of project management, when a project is all prepared and implementation is planned. What do we need to do to generate attention among employees, how can we train them in new habits and skills, what resistance can we expect and how do we deal with it? In my opinion, however, change management is much more efficient if it is included much earlier in the chain, even before there is a solution or concrete project.

The worse your solution, the more change management is needed

When a solution has not been well thought out, or has been chosen purely for economic reasons, such as a global integration of a system, where existing functionalities are lost and no account has been taken of the wishes and needs of the users, you have a problem. Then it will take months and sometimes years before the solution is fully used or the plug is pulled earlier and the same mistake is repeated with the next system.

It is what it is

We have no choice but to note this. In any case, the practice remains difficult.

And yet this change is necessary, even in the realm of change management. What worked well, doesn’t do so well now. Somewhere along the way to this century, the world has changed. In the creative economy in which we live today, radical rethinking of our top-down management principles and change processes is needed to ensure that organizations can operate innovatively and efficiently. As the amount and speed of change increases, so does the risk of apathy to change. Doing more of the same will not work. We need to approach change differently if we want to implement our vision and strategic plans properly. By building change into everything we do.

Top-down change is intrusive

Especially when a lot of change is needed at once. Then change quickly sounds like: ‘you have to do this and you have to do that and preferably all at once’. This causes people to give up. Not changing is not an option, because change has become a necessity. Continuing with the same one-size-fits-all is also not an option, because then little real change will take place. The best option is to look for methods of making change happen more discreetly, less intrusively, less conspicuously, but still very much focused on the goal you want to achieve. To build this invisible change into your approach, deep understanding of employees and human nature will be crucial. How are people influenced, how does intrinsic motivation work, what are deep human drives that fuel the fire and change in people?

Imagine that change is no longer visible

That it is no longer named as such when it occurs. Just the announcement that change is imminent now creates fear and resistance in many people. Imagine that change is just business-as-usual, because your way of working becomes future-oriented instead of managing the status quo. Change is no longer something that happens “on top” of ordinary work, but is an integral and inherent part of it. To get to that situation, it will be necessary to get to the essence of change and get rid of all the trappings and red tape that don’t add value.

In the six insights around change we’ve just described, you’ve already glimpsed the framework we use, which contains the strategies you can use in your relentless pursuit to ensure that change is inherently part of your business, that it is ingrained in the culture and that all employees are imbued with it, without it being explicitly visible. It is my firm belief that much-needed change in organizations has a much greater chance of success if top management manages to hang an invisibility cloak, Harry Potter-style, over the path to that change. The five ingredients to craft such an invisibility cloak are inspiration, co-creation, iteration, reduction and personalization.

Five ingredients for invisible change

◆ INSPIRATION : Give energy, direction and explain clearly
◆ CO-CREATION: Involve people in defining the challenge to the solution and implementation
◆ ITERATION: Adjust quickly based on feedback
◆ REDUCTION: Reduce change to its essence
◆ PERSONALIZATION: Give personal choices and respect what is already there
These elements did not come out of the blue. We have distilled them on the one hand from the management movements that are currently in full swing in organizations that want to become more agile: design thinking, lean startup, agile and on the other hand from a number of movements that have been around for a long time, such as systems thinking, the learning organization and creative leadership. We have looked through the glasses of change management to find the essence of these movements. These five elements form the essence of renewal and change.  We will spare you a theoretical explanation of all these philosophies here. The most important thing to remember is that deploying a good mix of these approaches can help you inject change into the lifeblood of your organism and thus become an organization that changes continuously without having to think about it.

Take away resistance through better design

People don’t usually go into resistance to change, but to the design choices we make to bring that change. We are not talking about reorganizations and layoffs, where resistance is caused by fear, but about new ways of working, digitalization or cultural change.  If organizations manage to hang an invisibility cloak over that, it is our firm belief that the chances of success will increase exponentially.
You can use the framework for invisible change as a set of design principles, which you apply when thinking about change in your organization. It is certainly not a panacea. You won’t be able to make every change invisible, or at least not always in the time frame you have in mind. Some changes will require the involvement of employees through co-creation, others will not. Some changes will still be started from the top, others more from employees themselves. Some changes will be tackled with agile and design methods, others more traditionally. Sometimes there will be a waterfall of classic communication, at other times more modern and personalized forms of communication. Our goal is therefore certainly not to have a solution for every change, but to offer a framework with which we can work and discuss together to make change less intrusive and to strive for an integration of the change process into our daily way of working. It is possible to apply this in any change method.
To create invisible change you will provide direction and engage in dialogue. You will let people help create solutions and integrate their feedback. You will think deeply about what you want to achieve essentially and not impose unnecessary things. You will finally build in choices for people, because not everyone has the same values or changes in the same way. When you can integrate these five elements into your management, you will fuel very strong change where employees are not even aware that they are changing. At the same time, they learn to change and gradually notice that change is actually normal and beautiful and that change brings new perspectives and can improve the work.