The Complete Human Resource Publication

WINNING OUTLOOK

Mastering the art of anticipating change

By Drs. Marianne J. Franzen (Supported by team The Change Express)

The challenge for HR

Many organisations learned to anticipate change. They learned to listen to all kinds of ‘wake-up calls’ and to analyze the story behind existing behavioural patterns within the organisation. They learned to master the art of changing the ‘dominant logic’ and breaking through old paradigms. Each day there are many organisations about to start their own journey in change or are right in the middle of it. HR professionals play a major role in these kinds of transformation processes. Be prepared is the mantra of every organisation nowadays. Often there are multiple goals for transformations. For instance a goal to make an organisation healthy to face a tsunami of change or a goal to always deliver both in good times and bad times (Anil K. Khandelwal, HRD, OD and Institution Building 2016, p.143). The editor of this book continues by stating: transformation is not a one-shot affair. It essentially aims at changing the DNA of an organisation (page 137). Leaders and HR need to focus more and more on the ‘intangibles’ enabling the ‘tangibles’ to move smoothly.

Let me take you through some ‘intangible’ aspects of various journeys of change and share with you some remarkable findings of the following sectors: government, healthcare, art and oil & gas in the Netherlands, Italy and in India. One remarkable finding was the variety in behavioural patterns occurring during the initial stage of the transformation processes. Once you have explored and analyzed these patterns you will be able to breakthrough those deeply rooted interactions between people. However, the challenge for HR is to decide whether to break through the pattern or to leave it as it is. As masters in anticipating change, they know the effect of their decision.

Journey on water

One of my favourite organisations in the Netherlands is the Department of Waterways and Public Works of the Dutch government called Rijkswaterstaat. The knowledge present in this organisation about water management and all nautic aspects on a local and global level is simply amazing, profound, unique and known worldwide.

Rijkswaterstaat’s mission statement is to provide dry feet, sufficient and clean water and a quick and safe flow of traffic. It is obvious that this organisation is known for its outstanding expertise in the world as history taught the Netherlands, a country surviving below sea level, that without managing its water systems there wouldn’t be any dry feet, no clean water and nobody would receive reliable information about ways how to survive.

In order to successfully share its knowledge, the professionals of this organisation set up a ‘shared knowledge centre’ in collaboration with their European counterparts. As ‘partners in crime’ they are able to manage rather immense flows of water somewhere on our planet after unpredictable moves of Mother Nature.

As Rijkswaterstaat is ambitious to maintain its high level of knowledge and professionalism according to international standards, there are always organisational challenges to be overcome. Challenges such as becoming a more lean and mean organisation, reducing the lead times of organisational processes, increasing employee satisfaction and maintaining high standards of leadership quality while constantly implementing the latest technologies. Till date Rijkswaterstaat is ambitious to keep the organisational mindset up-to-date to serve the citizens in the best possible way. Throughout the years they learned how to anticipate and manage change by looking beyond their profession and day-to-day business as they perceive water management as a global responsibility.

Anticipating change

Global trends, climate change, all kinds of ‘inclusive’ policies and feelings of responsibility to society forced the organisation to frequently introspect to see which areas would require change. Naturally managing change became an integrated part of the services of Rijkswaterstaat to (global) society.

The organisation learned that only reacting or adapting to change is no longer the remedy to survive. Anticipating change is the new mantra nowadays in order to understand and respond to certain ‘wake-up calls’ from the environment adequately. Rijkswaterstaat’s drive is to initiate change and has made it an integral part of its core activities in order to prevent a decline in the service quality to the citizens. Guess what? Rijkswaterstaat’s ambition is to always initiate change and has therefore made it an integral part of its core activities in order to prevent a decline in its service quality to citizens. Guess what? Rijkswaterstaat started receiving higher scores from the Dutch citizens for the quality of its services.

As Khandelwal already mentioned, investing in the organisational ‘intangibles’ is always worthwhile. Rijkswaterstaat was not the only organisation I was privileged to work with. Many organisations with a high level of professional knowledge in both the public and private sector have to face learning processes beyond their core activities. Think of the innumerable learning processes in global R&D departments, IT environments and in boardrooms to name a few.

Wake-up calls

We receive ‘wake-up calls’ every day as an organisation and not only in times of change. Sometimes leaders are able to listen to it, to take decisive actions and to prevent serious damage. But sometimes they ignore the signals, or do not perceive them, or deny their validity. Listening seriously to a wake-up call is a matter of being able to ‘see’ through multiple lenses. However not everyone is equipped with multiple lenses, or even aware they’re wearing lenses. They aren’t able to anticipate yet, still struggle with resistance and are often paralyzed by the change process itself. Questions like where is the light at the end of the tunnel are frequently posed.

Dominant logic

Finding solutions for challenges coming from a disruptive environment may require an investment to change the dominant logic of an organisation. What we mean with the dominant logic is the common way of thinking across the organisation with its multiple activities. But it is not only thinking; it is acting as well where behaviour comes in. Is the present dominant logic a strong pillar to rely on in times of change? Sometimes the existing organisational mindset needs some refreshment. Leaders can change the dominant logic and existing ‘mental maps’ in their organisation. By conducting intense dialogues they will be able to recalibrate the values, beliefs and convictions of their people. But is that solely the responsibility of a leader? No, it is not. HR as well as senior employees are equally equipped with a sufficient amount of experiences to guide the organisation in creating awareness around the present dominant logic. Basis the dialogue results and the organisational goals, leaders and HR can decide how to create new logics, when and with whom.

Behavioural patterns

An effective method to observe and analyze the dominant logic of an organisation is to reflect on behavioural patterns across various layers of the organisation. A well written business plan and a long term vision is not enough to understand the way people work, think, feel and act.

As we all know a common reaction to change is resistance which in my experience is an ultimate cry for help. Being blind for the light at the end of the change tunnel may trigger feelings of helplessness, fear, lack of confidence and confusion causing a disruption in work-life balance. Typical behavioural elements of resistance are often hidden, unique and very creative making it hard for leaders and HR to recognize the pattern. We have to immerse ourselves in the DNA of an organisation and observe the non-verbal behavioural signals closely to understand the present logic. HR, part of the dominant logic just like everybody else, possesses the ability to reflect on behavioural patterns. However this can only be done when HR steps out of the pattern thus out of the dominant logic. This is an extremely difficult task which entails dilemmas, doubts and uncertainty for the professional. The challenge lies in developing a clear picture of the organisational dominant logic. Once an HR professional told me “I have to step out of myself to see beyond the present to understand what is really going on”.

Journey through healthcare

One of my former clients, a psychiatric health care institute in Amsterdam, started a merging process with another psychiatric clinic. The philosophy behind the merger consisted of increasing the quality of products and services for the benefit of their clients which required optimizing the level of professionalism. Reducing management layers within the organisation was one of the most painful goals of the merger. The professional teams, consisting of psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists, didn’t agree with the proposed merging process. Everybody was completely involved and could express their views, opinions and feelings of confusion however they were forced to implement the change as per the board’s directions at the same time. Obeying the board was a thorn in their side delaying the start of the merger. The behavioural pattern of resistance of the medical teams was predictable as well as the board’s stubbornness; two patterns reinforcing each other.

While joining various team sessions and the so-called ‘town-hall meetings’ I observed that people were asking for more and more detailed information frequently. Interestingly, however, these people didn’t really need the information. While the implementation activities were delegated top-down, everybody came up with many reasonable excuses to be not too much involved. Not sticking to agreements was one of the most common behavioural elements. The teams concentrated more on the problems of the merger rather than the opportunities for their clients. Subsequently they did not take any responsibilities and started blaming failures on the circumstances. They started gossiping in a negative manner about the main players in the merging process while spreading predictions of doom. Everybody showed non-verbal behavioural signs of resistance resulting in a negative undercurrent. This clearly held the medical teams in the prison of their ‘old dominant logic’. An expensive delay of the merger implementation and an extremely inward-looking board were additional negative outcomes. As you can imagine the downward spiral was a challenge to tackle. The HR team, fully supported by a new board with fresh members, tackled these issues within six months making way for the implementation of a successful merger.

Journey through art

I came across a similar behavioural pattern in a Management Team of an Italian Museum. The story behind their behaviour consisted of a badly managed reorganisation resulting in unprocessed emotions of more than five years ago. The first thing I did was unlocking the past via storytelling which was successful. The Management Team was completely paralysed in their old pattern and no one had the awareness or courage to step out of it. A strong team cohesiveness including a group of informal leaders made it tough to break through the old paradigm. A paradigm which could best be described by ‘we are the victims’. You can imagine that nobody was really happy within the team and its negative effect on other employees in the organisation. They started copying the behaviour of the Management Team which eventually became common behaviour throughout the organisation.

Groupthink

Another consequence of the Management Team’s behavioural pattern was a low quality of decision-making due to the phenomenon of groupthink. Groupthink means that members of a group tend to evolve informal norms to preserve friendly intra-group relations and these became part of the hidden agenda (Groupthink, Irving L. Janis,1982, page 7). Groupthink is conducive to errors in decision making, and such errors increase the likelihood of a poor outcome (page 11). Critical thinking in the Management Team or somehow stepping out of the box became almost impossible. ‘We are the victim and will remain the victim’ was their motto.

Non-verbal behaviour is a strong element in sustaining the existing dominant logic. Albert Bandura, a social psychologist, proposes that a fundamental way of humans acquiring skills and certain behaviour is by observing other people’s behaviour. ‘We are most likely to pay attention to behaviours that are salient, simple and promise to have some functional value’ (Theories of Personalities, Bandura, 2010, p. 597). More than 80% of the Italian Management Team observed and copied each other’s behaviour subconsciously resulting in a dysfunctional pattern. They weren’t able to change their mindsets. Unfortunately HR was one of them and wasn’t able to see and act beyond the existing pattern. After a change in leadership the Management Team and senior professionals including HR became fully aware of their present dominant logic and had the guts to start a learning process to become a more flexible and service-oriented organisation. During the learning process they were able to break through existing patterns enabling them to perceive wake-up calls from outside.

To conclude: to learn the ability to anticipate change requires an awareness of organisational behavioural patterns because they are strong indicators for any kind of dominant logic present in the organisation.

Journey through Oil & Gas

When I walked through an excellent and professional organisation in the Oil & Gas sector in India, I stumbled again across another interesting behavioural pattern. Just before we started working with this organisation, the company was taken over by a European multinational. The take-over process included many intercultural challenges. While we discussed the company’s future during one of the training modules an existing behavioural pattern became very clear: respecting hierarchical levels to the extent that bottom-up feedback was almost impossible. The moment we invited middle managers to perform a role play on feedback, they refused to provide feedback to their senior managers. After several tea breaks and time-outs a discussion arose about cultural habits, behavioural patterns and the dos and don’ts about giving feedback to seniors. Finally one of the senior managers asked junior managers to provide feedback about his behaviour. The invitation from the senior was a breakthrough of a subconscious present behavioural pattern. It felt like a relief for the participants. I thanked the senior manager for his intervention and he said to me: I appreciate receiving feedback face-to-face and not via the corridor or behind the coffee machine. The role play has given us the insight how to change our habits!

HR in the lead

During these journeys my HR colleagues were able to explain various behavioural patterns within their organisations. They were also able to judge whether patterns were functional or dysfunctional for the organisational development processes. Subsequently they found creative ways to develop and execute programs to guide their organisations to learn to anticipate change step-by-step. Listening to wakeup calls, breaking through behavioural patterns, changing dominant logics, and intervening when groupthink occurred were lessons learned by these organisations. There was light at the end of the change tunnel!

As an external consultant, I don’t share the same strong connection with the culture, habits and behavioural patterns as an HR professional from within the organisation. That’s my advantage when guiding people through tough transformation processes. I don’t need to step out of present logics to be able to intervene when it comes to groupthink or inefficient decision-making. The internal HR professional, part of the organisational human system, is fully aware of all kinds of wakeup calls, organisational logics and patterns. HR, being a master in anticipating change, can anticipate the entire transformation process as well as the effect of breaking through existing patterns (whether good or bad). He or she can imagine how people will respond to broken patterns. The HR professional will need to have a lot of guts to be break through existing dominant logics in favour of the people and business involving the risk of becoming a bogeyman for a certain period of time. HR may also choose to remain part of the old dominant logic to avoid any risks. That’s the choice for HR being the master in anticipating change.

 

Drs. Marianne J. Franzen
Co-Founder and Director
The Change Express®

References
• Charan, R., Know How, Random House Business Books, London (2007)
• Eisenhardt, K.M., Building theories from case study research, Academy of management review, 1989 volume 14 (4) 532-500
• Hall, Calvin S., Lindzey Gardner, Campbell John B., Theories of personalities (2010).
• Janis, I.L., Groupthink, Houhgton Mifflin Company, Boston (1972).
• Edited by Rao, T.V. and Khandelwal, Anil K., HRD, OD and Institution Building (2016).

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