Driving Organizational Change: Understanding The System
POSTED : November 19, 2014

Dave Gray’s recent book, The Connected Company, sets the bar for organizations in a social age, clearly outlining methods for driving flexibility and innovation, creating more agile organizations. This is all good at a theoretical level, but when it comes to actually engaging in organizational change, many people ask the question: “If I am not the CEO or a leader in one of these organizations, how can I as an individual bring any change at all?”

Hacking social systems

In his Delight 2014 keynote, Dave inspired and empowered organizational change agents to drive transformation from within. Focusing first on understanding factors at play, Dave’s talk outlined an approach for influencing change from any level in an organization. It starts with an understanding of core elements (groups, story, and motivation), and a shift in focus from objects to relationship interactions in a given culture.

Enter the trickster

The rabbit is a frequent character in mythology, taking the role of antagonist, provocateur or even harbinger of change—a trickster. The trickster is both inside and outside at the same time, allowing perspective, detachment and flexibility. Many consultants play this role, making use of the flexibility and ability to shape-shift when necessary. Any individual within an org can begin to create incremental change by following the lessons the trickster brings.

Choices and change

Tricksters are generally presented with two apparent choices: to play the game, or not. But it also turns out that a third option is available: to change the game from within.

In order to change the game, Dave outlines these three major modes:

  1. Study the System
  2. Tinker with the System
  3. Make the System Aware of Itself

Mode 1: study the system

In order to bring any kind of change, one must spend time observing the existing system, without any attempt at change in this early phase. One needs to resist the temptation to jump in, but build momentum for change over time.

Wander, look, and listen

Detach yourself from your own internal agenda (keep fuzzy goals), and observe for a while. Look for conflicts and complaints, as complaints indicate points where a person truly cares.

Move from storytelling to story-listening

We have heard a lot lately about storytelling, but the inverse is more useful for creating change; practice listening. Hear what people are telling you, and listen for nuances and opportunities. Sometimes the best solutions come from hearing details in the stories that people in-need relate. The act of listening to someone else is an engaging activity that builds collaboration and trust.

Look for opportunity in behavior

While observing the game, look for specific interactions that may reveal opportunities:

  • Avoidance: What are people explicitly NOT doing? What does that reveal about their mindset or fears?
  • Usage: What elements, tools, thoughts in the culture get used? What are people doing with them?
  • Conflict: What are the points of conflict and tension?
  • Positive Deviance: What areas or actions of deviation are sources of positive energy? (And whose job is it to reflect those?)
  • Complaints: What do people truly care about?
  • Oscillations: What natural behavior cycles are seen (such as policy tightening and loosening)?
  • Feedback Loops: Find the cause and effect within systems. If this happens, then what follows?

Understand the elements of story

Most games follow established structures that are also story components:

  • Goals: things people want, or perceive they want
  • Constraints: what people seek to avoid, or what gets in the way
  • Resources: official, or unofficial, things people use to get the job done
  • Actors: the players (who may have varying/conflicting agendas)

A critical point: it’s important to understand that constraints for one are resources for another. Using this concept to your advantage can often lead to revolutionary ideas for change. Also, many constraints are self-imposed. Ask yourself if the constraints you see are truly there, or are merely imagined.

Understand the sources of power within a game

In addition to story components, Dave explains that there are sources of power that might shape the outcome of change, or even restrict progress. Know where areas of expertise are centered, or monopolized; it’s key to understand that information is power when it comes to organizational change. Leveraging this knowledge and relationships can help progress in changing the game.

In the next post, I’ll share some tactics from Dave Gray around putting findings into action to change and improve the system from within.

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