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Change Made Simple

In 2022, Ilse van Ravenstein and Michiel van Delden published “Change Made Simple”. One of the many fascinating topics in the book is “How to engage employees in organizational changes so they start ‘owning’ them? Michiel van Delden talks about the topic here.

‘Change Made Simple’ includes a ‘do we really have to change?-check with the purpose of preventing changes being stacked on top of each other. The same question may apply to the book itself: with numerous management books around, why the need to add this one?

“Many books are written by and for change managents, stipulating that ‘change is complex’, ‘we know how tough it can be’, ‘but following our methodology will do the trick.’ To be fair, we at Involve tend to embrace complexity too. However, usually our clients are not keen to be confronted with complexity. Our thinking is that they prefer compact guidance and crucial questions that trigger critical consideration of the change at hand. Changing is no rocket science, it does not have to be a complex process.”

Aren’t you dumbing down things too much?

“I don’t think so, as we do not suggest to follow a set of simples. Our aim is have leaders gain insight into the four aspects of change that can be taken into consideration to see whether you are on the right track: direction, room, the day-to day and enablers. Do my team members all share the same change objectives? Is our change process designed such that colleagues involved can take on an active role in it? Does our change process link to our people’s day to day work practice and environment? Are we doing what is needed to support and facilitate the change as well as embed it in our organisation? What we see is that only partly or not at all achieving change is usually related to lack of attention to one of the four aspects.”

Your plea is to organise change in actual daily work as well as make change happen together with the people carrying out the work. Why do you feel so strongly about it?

“We are convinced that organisatonal change is primarly about people. Always. It’s about people who tomorrow need to do their work differently from today. Changes in organisational structures or in IT-systems are mainly about changing the conditions for other ways of working. Another firm conviction is that people cannot be changed by other people. Of course, people can learn to adjust to new situations, but not because managers say so. Because we are strongly convinced of these beliefs we make the logical deduction that true change – as an active verb – happens in regular, everyday work by the people carrying it out. And therefore it is absolutely vital that all managers and employees have a shared image of what it is that has to be achieved and what needs changing for that. Consequently, leaders need to set out a clear course, or rather, develop that course together with their staff, so all want to take that course together.

This sounds contradictory: on the one hand leaders want to go a specific route, they set the course and try to take people along the route. On the other, people have to want to go that route themselves. How does that happen?

“Indeed, it may seem a contradiction. And it is perhaps the most challenging aspect of change. As a snek preview, we are working on a publication that talks about exactly this: leading change. We talked with over 60 leaders about the workings of change processes. From the talks, one clear conclusion can be drawn: dialogue is vital. Change demands freeing up time for and putting in a lot of energy in talks with managers and employees in which as leaders you share your personal beliefs and the route you want to take your team or organisation along. Talks in which you have to convince and inspire people, while also being able to draw the line when needed. And in which you are sincerely curious about the beliefs, knowledge and experience of your people at the same time. Such talks enable mutual influencing and a shared language and image emerging from them as well as more trust, which in turn is conditional to being able to openly disagree with each other. What you will see happen is that various ideas about the desired direction will merge. You as leaders will still set the course, as people expect of you. But it will feel as if it is everyone’s course. There is a magical element to this process, the more so as leaders find it hard to explain what it is they are doing exactly. Our experience is that most leaders can learn to make the merging process happen.

Dialogue in a single team with a single manager is pretty difficult as it is, so how can leaders make it happen throughout an entire organisation?

“Dialogue across the organisation is quite well feasible. It does demand, however, that all leaders are well-aligned and stay the course. Again, that requires investing time and energy. It is fascinating to see that management teams often consist of individual managers having fairly specific responsibilities. Organisational changes cannot be cut up in line with remits, it needs to be led collectively. It does happen that, during our support process, teams find that they actually never operate on the basis of a shared vision. And consequently, that the teams needs to be more open, mutually trusting and committed to be able to be succesful. They discover what fun that way of working is as well as inspirational and how it strengthens their impact.”

In your book, the concept of ‘room’ is about much more than dialogue. Change Made Simple talks about methods for teams to design the targeted change in their everyday work practice. But most organisations are under a lot of pressure, do they have time for allowing this kind of room in change?

“That is indeed an issue. The usual reflex is to say: let’s first have project teams design and implement the new processes and structures for instance. And let’s hope people will just tag along with us to our new direction. We know from experience that people do not walk along just like that. And that inevitably means – usually after a long and often difficult implementation process – having to invest time and effort in discussing the change with people. With the disadvantage of people already being frustrated and leaders’ credibility being at a low. I am sure that many leaders have been in situations where the only thing that they are trying to do is overcoming cynicism – a sentiment that will seep through in results, employee engagement and turnover percentages. Yes, it does take time to engage people right from the start. But just muddling through in a change process that is not progressing as it should, will take up much more time.

Last questions: to what extent is designing and preparing changes still an expert job if it can be left up to managers and their teams to implement change?

“Our view is that traditional change models with change managers designing the change process in a team and then implementing it in day to day work are debatable. How often do they succeed? Asking a team of external experts to come up with more efficient work processes is bound to result in ways of working that do not appear to match everyday practice when their implementation starts. While managers then have to explain why the new wasy of working are non-negotiable. And so we return to employees feeling frustrated. The alternative is to design more efficient processes with the relevant people right from the start and experiment together with novel ways of working, and thus generate commitment to achieving and sticking to improved processes. Of course, change experts can support in many good ways here. Especially when they work together with the people from the shopfloor instead of in isolation.”


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