Organizational change is always personal first

Change at work is always personal: How to start with yourself

Successfully navigating disruption requires taking a good, hard look at your values—first and foremost.

Ship sails in the sky
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Photo by Jen Wike Huger

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For generations, conventional organizations could approach change like a sailor approached the sea: though sailors could not control the elements, they could predict the elements within reason and grow skilled in channeling them. Consequently almost all change could still be managed and controlled.

But times have changed.

Navigating change has become messier than ever. In every sector, organizations that could previously control and predict outcomes are struggling to get their bearings. Change is more frequent, more intense, less predictable, and less controllable than ever before.

Disruption-dependent, typically digitally native organizations have flooded the global economy with the intensity of a speedboat grand prix, and they're confronting conventional organizations head-on. In other words: Speedboats and sailboats now share the waters, and the high seas of change will never be the same.

If the most significant changes we now encounter are likely not planned, predicted, or perhaps even desired, then we need to shift our focus from change management (which assumes control and predictability), to change readiness, so we can adapt whether the change is planned or not. The change readiness process brings organizational change down to the granular level: resolving who we are and how we contribute "readies" each member to recalibrate to new surroundings.

It's personal

Let's begin by admitting that change is personal. Karl Weick spent years studying how groups and organizations attempt to make sense in times of chaos. He concluded that "the basic questions, 'who am I,' 'who are they,' and 'who are 'we' dominate attempts at sensemaking." Let's look at how these basic questions impact our ability to navigate the changes ahead.

Who am I?

Being change-ready begins with knowing how to adapt while staying true to your core self. Brené Brown has found that when we are confident in our own identity, we are able to adapt without fear of losing ourselves. How well do you know your story and mission? How well can you re-calibrate who you are when the environment changes?

Who are we?

The "we" is the shared identity of your team and organization. How clear is your shared story and mission among the leaders, and with every department and team in your organization? Would you all have the same answer if asked who you are and where you are all going? How well can you connect each member's contribution to the shared story and goals? How well can people articulate the shared destination? How sure is everyone about the nature of the vessel and the goals of the team?

Being change-ready begins with knowing how to adapt while staying true to your core self.

Who are they?

"They" are the forces and people who are fundamentally different from you. They do not share your organization's goals or approach, and they stand to conflict with your boat's navigation.

Casting off

Are you currently in a speedboat (disruption dependent) or a sailboat (disruption affected) organization? Your expected role will vary greatly based on your answer. Are your expectations for your contribution and personal development consistent with what you can expect on this kind of vessel?

If you're on a sailboat

The speedboats are here to stay. Many of them (environmental disruptors, trade laws, new/superior technology of competitors) were unplanned, but they are here, and their presence changes the rules on the water. Chances are, the people you hire to help you find necessary solutions are also riding in on speedboats. So consider:

  • How skilled are you and your team at seeing the disruptors coming, and adjusting?
  • How developed is your approach with disruptors—are you using change management techniques when change readiness is more appropriate?
  • Does your team differentiate between the unplanned environmental disruptors, and the ones you hire to help you develop change solutions?

And of all the major "speedboats" you've dealt with in the past five years:

  • How have they impacted your team's rules of engagement on the water?
  • How have they changed your role and contribution?
  • How have they changed the way people respond to your efforts?
  • Where does lack of control and predictability incline you to shift from "change management" to "change readiness"?

If you're on a speedboat

The sailboats may not be racing you, but they are impacting you. In fact, they're likely your clients. So consider:

  • When you engage with them, how mindful are you of their inherent differences?
  • Do your solutions require clients to function like you in order to work? (Even if they have a motor and are classified as "powerboats" when that motor is running, they are still fundamentally sailboats.)

Maneuverability is key. If they're in your path, you'll need to swerve to keep from crashing into them; they can't turn quickly enough to avoid collision. Are you expecting them to be the ones to adapt to you, when organizationally they lack the structural maneuverability that defines who you are?

And avoid getting flipped. Yes, you can move quickly—but higher velocities also mean higher vulnerabilities to crashes and flips. If you're going top speeds, you're the one who will need to make sure you steer far enough away from the slower vessels so their wake won't flip you. If sailboats are your clients, your engagement will require sensitivity to the way they have to navigate. Are clients pulling out because of the radical and rapid nature of your solution implementations? Are your solutions requiring sailboats to make points of turn too narrow and swift for their structural design? If they see this level of disruption coming and steer away from you, their wake could flip your boat in a race. How skilled are you and your team at seeing the environmental impact of the sailboats in your path—and the impact of your speed on theirs?

Bottom line? While leaders in organizations still need to develop and refine their skill in predicting and channeling the forces of change whenever possible, change readiness in chaotic times can no longer rely on change management strategy alone. Readiness requires mindfulness on a very human level—personal and interpersonal awareness, and constant engagement to determine how to recalibrate to the current surroundings.

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About the author

sorry, Jo's mug shot is shy today.
MaryJo Burchard - MaryJo Burchard (Concord Solutions) helps leaders in nonprofits, education, business, and public sector to develop open behaviors and interactions to measurably raise the bar of humane engagement in the workplace. MaryJo has a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Regent University and conducts training and internal organizational development consulting for the City of Virginia Beach, where she lives with her husband Kenny, their son Victor, and their chihuahua-pug, Stanley.