Seven reasons for change literacy

It’s often not a lack of skills that lead to change failing, but a fundamental lack of understanding of how others will be affected by change and an inability to successfully communicate the reasons for change, Patrick Mayfield says

While many of those who lead change usually have developed a certain set of skills, merely being aware of how to make good change can take you a long way, whether we have those skills or not.

It’s often not a lack of skills that lead to change failing, but a fundamental lack of understanding of how others will be affected by change and an inability to successfully communicate the reasons for change. In other words, a lack of change literacy.

Change management has been recognised as a valid and relevant management topic for some time. However, in recent years there has been a heightened the interest in this subject. There are at least seven principal reasons why we all need to consider becoming more literate in the ways of change.

Technology is rarely the problem

Consistently it appears that the so-called ‘soft’ issues are invariably the root cause of waste and failure. Sub-optimal results or even outright failure are almost always traced to human factors. Try as they might, analysts, accountants, engineers, methodologists and technologists have failed to hard-wire out of existence failure in transformational change.

If anything, we all appear to have in-built instincts that make us tend to resist change and we become very powerful at achieving this. A pervasive myth in business is that we all behave rationally. All too often, senior leaders make the blunder of assuming compliance because of authority or force of reasonable argument.

We are more predictable than we care to admit

 Human behaviour tends to follow some fairly predictable patterns. Some non-rational patterns are well known and fairly reliable. So much so, sales and marketing people, for example, build these into their planning and training. Research bears out some fascinating and predictably irrational patterns of human behaviour, whether at the individual or group level. This consistent irrationality in all of us gives change leaders hope.

Change literacy makes us more effective

When we study these patterns of human behaviour, we find it increases our own emotional intelligence. Our experience in workshops where we take clients through change management material is that it invariably leads to some profound self-reflection and reassessment of people’s approaches in their organisation, families and friendships.

Studying change management is studying oneself. It’s as if we are holding up a mirror to our own responses and reactions. It appears that as we learn these patterns, we recognise them in ourselves and in those around us. So we seek to improve our ability to influence others.

The single ‘hero’ manager is an attractive but dangerous myth

Much of management literature focuses on the individual manager. This isn’t wrong, but it can lead to a dangerous deception. In major enterprises, in large-scale change, there is a finite limit to what one person can achieve.

In reality, the hero soon runs out of bandwidth and energy. The common expectation of effective leadership is one person, and that one person must be at the top of the line of command. The informed change leader realises that they need to leverage relationships around them more effectively for the challenges ahead.

Change literacy means we work on the links between groups, teams and organisations

Leading on from the realisation that we need to mobilise others in change brings us to the challenge of organisational silos. Too many organisations, designed and built as hierarchies to optimise the successful processes of the past, arrive at a culture of pockets of silos, of different tribes within the same organisation that may have little affinity with each other. The change literate leader will seek to break these down.

Change literacy defends us from silo thinking

A number of disciplines converge on change management – HR/ organisational development, strategy, business analysis, leadership, user interface design, psychology, management accounting, performance management and project management, to name but a few.

While a little confusing initially, this convergence of interest is very healthy. These different professions begin to converse around change management frameworks, resulting in less partial and more fully rounded approaches. Change literacy means we enter the landscape of change with our eyes wide open.

We need to think of our organisations and the changes they go through more as interconnected systems. Initially this all can seem too daunting. But the reality is that there are some very simple models that can serve us well, some of which have stood the test of time for over 50 years. A simple recent model, the Value Ladder, provides a simple framework for project managers, business case managers, change agents and operatives to discuss their mutual contributions and map where they are on this ladder.

In times of endemic, disruptive change, change literacy is critical

The 21st century has made the need for intelligent change leadership more critical. Disruptive innovation is a term frequently used now, where traditional competitors are left stranded.

Some have taken to using the military acronym VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity – to describe the world in which they operate.  This acronym was coined in the 1990s by the American military colleges facing a post-cold war enemy, an enemy that fights asymmetrically.

From my limited experience, VUCA is a reality not reserved to the military world but also to governments, retailers, banks, higher education and even to utilities. I cannot now identify a single sector where the external drivers of an organisation are not rampantly VUCA. The more we try to cling on to the changeless, the more we find change. It’s as if we are in an earthquake where we fail to find anything stable; it is all very disorientating – except if we are change literate.

Increasingly, wise leaders have established cultures of changeless values. These operating values – more than mere plaques on boardroom walls – are lived in such a way that they act as the fulcrum of change, something against which leaders can leverage to their advantage: ‘Everything is subject to change except our values.’

 So, the paradox of change literacy, in these times of rabid and rapid change, is to identify that which is changeless, and act from that. 


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