Who’s afraid of Emergent Change?

by John Hunter

Well the answer appears to be just about everyone.

Having lived through the rough and tumble years of Waterfall v Agile, and the management consulting methodology monoliths which grew up around Prince II, ISO, and even in recent years the dash and verve of the smaller boutique bespoke solutions, ‘for an individual company’, I think I can safely assume that the belief in a, ‘right way’, remains very much at the heart of most transformation programmes.

While the consultancy market has been creating ever more complex structures which incidentally are now being adapted to cope with the new Digital agenda, many organisations have retreated away from monolithic transformation events with their perceived scale and bureaucratic expense in favour of what some have taken to be emergent change. Words like ‘nimble’, ‘opportunistic’, ‘responsive’, and of course ‘agile’, are thrown around senior leadership teams with a quasi-religious belief that if these words are spoken aloud and applied to their inaction then the organisation is ok to await the revelation. This has been misunderstood as playing the emerging change game.

Now I ought to put my cards on the table here and say, while I have always liked to have a flexible and adaptive framework to support the transformation, I have never particularly felt the burning need to slavishly follow a proscribed methodological approach. I do believe firmly that no organisation can sit back and wait for something to happen when they have identified the need for change.

I have seen Emergent change defined as multi-level, cross organisational, continual, adaptive and innovative, inefficient, unpredictable and messy. I would suggest that in reality it is un- or under-planned, bottom up and usually specific. No wonder many CEO’s look at it with trepidation.

Back in 2004 Burnes* suggested that there might be a way to marry planned and emergent change and derive the best results, which begs the question why aren’t we seeing that approach everywhere?

The general view is that we appear to have moved from the era of Lewin** and his three-step change model, unfreezing – changing – refreezing, to the state of permanent change in which all bets are off. But have we really? A small voice within me wonders if that is entirely correct. Almost all larger organisations that decide to ‘transform’ produce plans, adopt programme controls, set up teams to develop the solution and see it implemented. Most of my clients wouldn’t want to be standing in-front of a Shareholder meeting explaining that they were spending $M on a bottom up change idea that may be a bit inefficient and unpredictable. What we have here then is a small but perfectly formed inconsistency at the heart of our understanding of what organisations are about. The fast-moving innovative, nimble, agile etc. world of economics v’s the practical reality of running an organisation.

What we need then is a way to bridge the practicality gap. Leaders within organisations need to enable emergent change ideas and allow them a voice without creating a cacophony of confusion. They need to be able to identify emergent change ideas and behaviours, without the workforce feeling threatened or undermined by them. The need to be brutally efficient at selecting the change ideas which will deliver benefit and focus energy and activity on those and not fall into the illusion that all change is good. They finally need to steer the organisational ship and not simply drift along waiting for revelation. No small task then.

Rowland and Higgs in their book Sustaining change – leadership that works, ask the pertinent question:

‘could we create a practical yet theoretically robust framework that gave leaders choices and options for leading change and which would free them from the burden of carrying the entire load?’***

This is where I think the benefit of having experienced change enablers in your organisation really pays dividends. If we are to believe the ever-quoted trope that 60% of transformations fail we need to accept that there are certain aspects that inhibit successful transformations, and a hands on practical change management approach is a tool which will help leaders to prepare organisations for and successfully deliver change, be it planned or emergent.

Why do I believe that? In my experience people rarely change their embedded behaviours instantly. People need time to learn new approaches and skills, they also need time to process and unlearn previously rewarded behaviours. We seek instinctively to not be in a state of constant uncertainty and when there is a choice we would rather stick with something we understand well and have learned to operate within rather than adopt something which we don’t understand and may lead even more uncertainty. (If you have ever looked at your spreadsheet software and wondered why on earth they updated it and introduced all this stuff you really don’t need you’ll know what I’m getting at). All these aspects are seen as failure, and have encouraged the organisation behaviours I outlined above, particularly the drive for programme control, governance, reporting, measurement, and a myriad of methodologies to deliver on one side and the inaction of reaction strategies on the other.

So back to emergent change. Is it real? I believe so. Can it be harnessed? Yes. Will it happen all by itself? Maybe? Will it be good for the organisation? I think that very much depends upon the organisation and its leaders.

In a previous post, I outlined my view on the importance of clarity of purpose from the top. In this one I have suggested that methodology and doctrine won’t enable or disable emergent change, but a policy of waiting and hoping is equally ineffective too. Practical and hands on leadership which enables, facilitates, selects and then promotes the right change is the best way to achieve the ability to be able to cope with a fast-moving business environment. As Steve Jobs said

“It’s not the tools that you have faith in – tools are just tools. They work, or they don’t work. It’s people you have faith in or not.” Steve Jobs

John Hunter

John is a strategic consultant and Business Transformation & Change specialist and HRCubed’s Head of Change Delivery.