Review by Radhakrishnan Chettour
On my MBA guide’s suggestion, I decided to read Daryl Conner's Managing at the Speed of Change. While it is yet another book I have read on change management this year, its focus is more on the foundations of why changes work (or fail), based on his research and experiences. I enjoyed the model he developed in the book. I believe this model can be very well applied in K-12 Schools which are either struggling or hoping to leap in this tough competitive world.
The central theme of the book has to do with the subtitle: "How resilient managers succeed and prosper where others fail." Resilience. The idea he develops is that people (and groups) have a reserve capacity for change. There are many factors that affect this reserve, and that winning leaders manage to implement changes in such a way that this reserved is never depleted. There are even some discussions for growing the capacity for change - changes themselves are certainly not going to come any slower in this world. Similarly, in discussing plans for change the idea of preparation arose: pay for it now, or pay later; but you will pay.
Several times throughout the book, Conner talked about "surprise." Resilience is tested not when people are surprised, but when they are surprised that they are surprised. In other words: when people's expectations aren't met and they are thrown off balance, they react in ways that look like resistance to change. This is when change is most difficult and resistance is the highest. The solution from this viewpoint is to prepare people (and oneself) for change; create urgency for change; describe a new state that people will want to achieve; monitor as the change develops.
The idea of "speed of change" also arises here. While changes are happening more and more, people still have (and want) a rhythm to their world, and if changes come too fast (or too slow?) that they cannot survive them. One of the big challenges for leaders anywhere is that we cannot push change onto organisations faster than they can absorb them. Yes, the organisational capacity for change can be managed, but at some point it has to work with the flow in the organisation. A quote from the beginning of the book does this more justice:
Our lives are the most effective and efficient when we are moving at a speed that allows us to appropriately assimilate the changes we face. (page 13)
Going deeper, Conner discusses the core elements of (personal) resilience and the supporting elements of resilience within an organisation or society - all as they have to do with dealing with change.
For individuals, resilience has five characteristics that can be monitored and developed. The personal characteristics are
- Positive: Display a sense of security and self-assurance that is based on their view of life as complex but filled with opportunity.
- Focused: Have a clear vision of what they want to achieve.
- Flexible: Demonstrate a special flexibility when responding to uncertainty.
- Organised: Develop structured approaches to managing ambiguity.
- Proactive: Engage change rather than defend against it.
And then there are seven supporting patterns that connect to resilience. Combining these with knowledge of the personal characteristics above is a key to ever-improving the ability and capacity for people and organisations to handle change. Here I list each of these supporting patterns and some comments from different chapters.
- Nature. What is the nature of the change? Is it micro (personal), organisational, or macro (larger than the organisation)? Change is perceived as "negative" when it has negative ramifications (of course), but also if people feel they have no ability to predict or control the change. And I love this quote from p. 72: "We are more comfortable with change when our ability & willingness to change can help determine the outcome."
- Process. The familiar process for change: create pain, transition, end up in the desired state. But it's not quite so simple, of course. I liked the chemistry analogy of a transition process and "energy levels." The desired state had better be a "lower energy" position from the current state - that's the only way you are going to get through the transition state, which often requires more energy (temporarily). I also liked Conner's discussions of timing and perceptions here.
- Roles. There are four roles in change: Sponsor, Agent, Target and Advocate. The sponsor must stay involved throughout the change - sponsor abandonment is one of the things that kills change initiatives (and any other business initiative for that matter). I liked the comment that sponsors can really only manage a few change initiatives at a given time: they require active involvement. Aspects of perception come in here too, as each role has a different view of what needs to be done and what the impact is going to be on their work life.
- Resistance. Resistance happens any time the change causes a disruption or a loss of equilibrium. A big aspect of resistance is the frame of reference of people: some will see the change as an obvious extension of the current direction, and others will see it coming out of left field as a total disruption of their work. Winning change leaders understand that these perspectives exist and adjust their approach for each of these audiences. There was another interesting aspect in this chapter: that while some resistance arises from negatively perceived changes, other resistance will appear from people who (initially) had a positive perception of the change. For the negative people, the process they go through looks something like the grief cycle: Immobilisation (shock, surprise), Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Testing, Acceptance. For the people who have the positive initial perception, the cycle reminds me of Blanchard's Situational Leadership model: Uninformed optimism, Informed pessimism, Hopeful realism, Informed optimism, Completion. I also liked his idea of "sober selling" of a change: essentially, don't over-hype things because it can come crashing down on you. And if people back out of an idea after hearing a more realistic ("sober") description, they were probably going to back out anyway.
- Commitment. This was an interesting description of the stages of commitment and how change efforts progress through each stage, including what happens if change efforts are cancelled at a given stage. He breaks the stages into three main phases: Preparation (with stages of Contact and Awareness), Acceptance (with stages of Understanding and Positive Perception), and Commitment (with stages of Installation, Adoption, Institutionalisation and Internalisation). In comparison to Kotter's 8 Steps, which is a process, this was much more about what happens as you flow through any kind of change process. You get deeper and deeper commitment. I like the explicit acknowledgement and discussion of the checking-out process when changes are cancelled or stopped.
- Culture. Of course culture impacts a change effort, but what is culture anyway? In Conner's view (and I tend to agree), culture reflects the interrelationships of shared behaviour, beliefs, and assumptions in an organization that have developed over time. Culture always acts in self-preservation, so that changes which affect culture will always see exhaustion, as this uses up reserves of resilience. Unfortunately for change efforts, many aspects of culture are buried deep in the psyche of the organization and are difficult to uncover - uncovering them makes it easier to change them. The implications of the discussion were that change leaders have three options: change the change; change the culture; or prepare to fail.
- Synergy. This last pattern is all about how people work together and relationships. Conner highlights three types of relationships that he sees: self-destructive, static, and synergistic. It is only the synergistic relationships that can thrive under change situations. And the discussion here and in the Culture section reminded me of the ideas of Tribal Leadership: that the more successful organisations tap into a Tribal level of connection and culture that help the organization weather any kind of storm. One thought I had about the discussion been whether anyone has done network analysis with a mind to looking for synergistic (and destructive and static) relationships.
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