The dance of change

I was reflecting on the nature of organisational change recently and thinking about the relatively short half-life of behaviour change stimulated from development programmes.  Participants return from the programme with great enthusiasm to put their learning into practice in the workplace and are met with resistance and, indeed looks of incredulity from their colleagues.  If we listen carefully we can hear work colleagues asking, “What’s happened to John?” and hearing various forms of the typical reply, namely, “Oh he’s been on a course – he’ll be back to normal in a couple of days.”

Of course, what typically happens is that the norms and conventions of the team and the business, both explicit and tacit, exert conscious and subconscious pressure on our programme participants and they, inevitably, return to their pre-existing patterns of behaviour and the half-life of knowledge and efficacy of change is once again reduced.

The reality is that we are each of us engaged in habitually conditioned patterns of behaviour with others and any unilateral change is likely to be met with resistance as we are, in effect, changing the pattern.  This is akin to a dance. There are specific steps and patterns which each partner knows and understands and, from that level of understanding, flows an expectation of behaviours from themselves and their dance partner.  If, in a dance, I suddenly start to change the steps then any partner is highly likely to be confused and try even harder to pull me back into the established dance.  In essence, they will seek to exert pressure on me to help me to conform to the dance.  In this way, my new and innovative dance steps are likely to be a short-lived change and I will quickly revert to ‘being back to normal’.

If I truly want to change the dance, I need to be clear and explicit about my intentions.  I need to ensure that my dance partner understands my intentions, sees a clear value to themselves in changing with me, and works with me to establish a new pattern, a new dance.  If, during the period of changing the dance, I revert back the previous dance steps then we will probably both feel comfortable and dance the old dance.  Establishing the new dance takes perseverance, fortitude and commitment from both parties.

Changing a dance involving people is relatively straightforward and the process to achieve the change is clear.  I would suggest that the same process of change applies in our organisational lives where we also engage in a series of dances.  When we join a team or organisation we quickly understand the dance and learn to follow the rules and thereby lies the route to the status-quo that change agents always want to change.  The status-quo is, very often, a comfortable and comforting dance within the organisation and one which leaders need to recognise and value if they are to change it in any meaningful and sustainable way.  Similar to changing the dance, leaders need to make their intentions clear and we suggest they always do the following:

  • Expressly recognise the value of the current dance – people are accustomed to this and to bluntly seek to change it without understanding and valuing it is, in effect, showing a lack of value and respect for their work in the past.  Not the best foundation for taking a team with you.
  • Expressly recognise the changing business context and the fact that the old dance is not as effective in the new context as it was in the old, and therefore create a compelling case for change
  • Clearly state the new dance – the purpose, the principles and the behaviours that you want and, be equally clear in the outcome that you wish to achieve.
  • Ensure that this positive outcome focus addresses the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) factors at all levels so that you have the leverage to engage people in the changes
  • Engage people in the change – don’t impose it upon them.  Set the direction and outcomes and then work with people to create the journey.
  • Recognise and value contributions as and when they arise, from all parties
  • Be insistent, persistent and consistent in driving the new dance steps.

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