How can you help an organisation transform to be better adjusted to the 21st century?

Last week after a lively guest lecture at the Reinwardt Academy about transformations in technology, society and the role of culture, a student asked me this enticing question, one that will likely trigger a set of blogposts. How do we turn ideas about the future into successful day-to-day action?

Change has been a constant in most of my life, studies and work. As far as humanly possible, I like change, which means I hate losing my wallet or moving houses, but love tinkering and improving systems, processes and products until they are – well – better. At Inspired by Coffee we deal in change, especially in its most exiting form: innovation. Innovation is change for the better.

Building on our professional experience and the work we do for clients, centuries of books and the conversations I’ve had with many innovators, change agents, project managers and others, I’m going to do something many have done before: answer the student’s question. In doing so over a series of blog posts, I hope to empower you to successfully change as well as start a discussion about the do’s and don’ts of change. Feel free to comment and ask questions as we go along. This is not a predefined story, but something we can do together.

To kick off, some introductory thoughts:

Two ways of looking at change

We like to look at change as a desired new situation. A new website, a new and highly engaged community, better skilled and enthusiastic coworkers, more money. This new situation, however, is the very end point of process and only one way of looking at change.

Development and change go through continuous processes of situation, problem, solution, new situation [1]. The situation is an old website, or a wall dividing Berlin, which because of changes in the surroundings of the world (IE 10, fall of communism) turns into a problem, which needs a solution and leads to a new situation (new website, unified Germany). If you look at change as a process, the new situation is only a by-product of a process that solves the problem at hand.

In a perfect world, the process of change leads to the desired new situation and everybody is happy. In a slightly less-perfect world everything becomes infinitely more complicated. The process of change and the new situation influence each other, are influenced by things around them and everybody involved and then turn into ‘challenging projects’.

To successfully transform an organisation, I feel it might be more important to look at the process of change, than at the desired new situation, as is exemplified in the great book Adapt by Tim Harford and summarised in his TED talk below.

When considering change in real organisations with real people, it’s not the future that is interesting, it’s getting there.

Change management and project management

The preferred way to go from an existing situation to a new situation seems to be through project management. Regardless of the incredible benefits a talented project manager brings to any project, the management of a change process is not project management. Change is not something you can control with excel sheets, planning and predictions; a good change process tends to control you.

Managing a change process involves dealing with teams, organisational culture, resistance, sudden developments, moving targets, wide varieties of external and internal partners, hurrying one day and waiting the next… Project management tools will not always suffice to reach the desired new situation without upsetting all the complexities of the change process.

Changing organisations and you

An interesting question is whether everybody can lead an organisation through a process of change towards a desired new situation. What’s the role of the senior executives? Should change be managed by external consultants? Can a regular Joe play any role in transforming an organisation?

I strongly feel that although some positions make it easier to enforce your ideas and some personalities are better suited for leading complex processes, most people at most positions in most organisations can contribute positively to a process of change. You can change your working place for the better, for sure! It might not be easy or straightforward, but you can.

Hopefully these posts will empower you to lead any kind of change process. In the next episodes I’ll discuss topics such as creating a common language, capacity building, leadership and the like. Please feel free to ask questions or leave your thoughts in the comments. Thanks in advance!

[1] I don’t know who coined this, but I was introduced to this cycle of development by Philip Zelikow in the first lecture of his magnificent course ‘The Modern World: History since 1760’ on Coursera.

Photo by jordi.martorell on Flickr.

Other posts in the series

Introduction – A Shared Language for Ideas – Living the future – Capacity and team building

  • Anneke

    Good to read that our meeting at Reinwardt has triggered you to write about the process of change. I like your observation that most people at most positions in most organisations can contribute positively to a process of change.
    Very important, in my opinion, is that the process of change is supported by the entire organisation and by people in all positions.
    And that means that employees have to realise that change is for the good. If change is felt like something that is imposed by the senior management it is my experience that it can met with a lot of internal resistance. Therefore, I would be interested in a discussion about how to attain a situation where the process of change is widely supported at all levels within the company and seen as something positive by the whole workforce. Or is this utopia?

    • Jasper Visser

      Hi Anneke, This is definitely _not_ a utopia and we’ll look into that extensively in multiple future posts. Stay tuned!:-)