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What happens if no-one is right?


Post industrial Cornwall

Dogma:  “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.”

This is part of my exploration of my own theory of change and perhaps a bit of backstory for my team when I am banging on about how we could approach things……

I have no time for dogma. My curiosity is deeply ingrained and I don’t want to know what you believe as much as I want to know why you believe it. One of the reasons I started writing about the 9 tribes of digital was my dislike of dogma and also a need to poke fun at people who were taking a semi-religious attitude to a methodology or set of technical tenets.

Dogma – or method when followed without deeper knowledge – is a distilled version of a particular worldview or frame of reference. Frames of reference are much richer and contain the reasoning behind the method. Your frame of reference is shaped by your experiences; your background, your education and your interpretation of the world. Your frame is effected by your privilege but also by your sense of self-efficacy and your confidence in your ability to change the future. It is shaped by a deep underlying belief in ‘how the world is’. As the world undergoes rapid and viral change we can see competing frames of reference trying to create a new narrative of what normal now looks like.

Methods like agile or the test and learn approaches that we have championed at CRUK are powerful when they combine a change in method with a change in the frame of reference – that light bulb moment when people see the world as different. To deliver dogma without that lightbulb moment creates a dissonance and also a space for that method to be badly or inappropriately applied.

Change programmes are often instigated because leadership teams either through strategy or though external pressure (the burning platform) have undergone a change in their frame of reference – their understanding of the world – and then want to reflect that change through the organisation. They see the world differently and they want their organisation to respond. This is where the danger of dogma arises: Change programmes rolling out dogma without the supporting knowledge of the frame of reference because someone thinks its ‘the answer’. I particularly think of this when I think about lean six sigma – I have seen remnants of wide scale rollout of this method on most of the big organisations I have worked with over the last few years but none have supported to corresponding shift in the organisational frame of reference that was clearly intended by whoever instigated these programmes.

In doing that kind of wide scale rollout we are once again treating people like units of effort in a machine and we are diluting ‘the why’ of powerful new methods or approaches. Simply teaching everyone a method neuters people’s ability to refresh their own frame of reference – their own lightbulb moments – and their understanding of the changes that are happening around them. We can’t just tell people to follow steps to become agile first – we have to give them that lightbulb moment that shows them how being more agile helps them be more effective in a constantly changing world. You need to pursue the lightbulb moment by whatever means possible and if that means being less precious about your method then so be it.

If we give people new methods without helping them explore and change their frame of reference to enable them to unlock the power of that methods then we really are just teaching them to be well behaved units of resource and perpetuating the myth of the industrial paradigm as an organisational form. But perhaps that is just how I frame things.

There is also a risk that we are losing the opportunity to learn from the frame they currently hold and understand what we want to take forward from that. If a leadership team is feeling a need to change there is a really good chance that the organisation has a collective sense of that need as well – what I am advocating here is that we use that collective sense making to create system change rather than top down driven change because change can often feel like a battle – one group of people imposing their beliefs on another. The fevered narratives of digital change have not helped this; digital disruption, internet revolution, the way in which we talk about automation taking people’s jobs and the ‘battle’ for net neutrality. Its not helped that the enemy here is often anonymous and to many people black boxed technology which is imposing its own frame of reference and underlying design affordances and assumptions on the world. Coproduced change feels more sustainable and also more powerful. We know this is true in communities – why wouldn’t it be true in organisations?

Perhaps the central characteristic of the 21st Century will be that the explosion of knowledge, information and connection that we are living through means that we have the accept the fact that we will never again be able to convince ourselves – however erroneously – that there is just one defined or defining frame of reference. Seeing the world as a complex system – a network of networks – removes our certainty. In this complex and constantly changing world our fundamental tool for progress is an ability to see things from someone else’s point of view; to accept a multiplicity of frames and be ok with that. To be able to build spaces of collective sense making.

My theory of change is working towards the idea that we need to stop seeing change as a separate activity and start to see it as an organic process which is an internal dialogue as much as it is a strategic initiative. I recently wrote about the fact I believe that all change is system change and that we should be looking to replace the analogue change trope of people/process/technology with networks/purpose and infrastructure. If we do want to make purpose central to the idea of change then it adds weight to the idea that we have to consider how we help people to reshape their frame of reference – their way of seeing the world – as a way of making sure that change feels meaningful rather than dogmatic.

Change in an organisational context needs to feel purposeful and intentional – because if its not you lose the narrative that is so important to taking other people in the system with you as you change. There is a danger to holding all these other points of view and that is the loss of your own focus or intent. This is where the system changer makes a choice – do you feel confident that your understanding of other people’s frames is good enough to make your change reasonable, desirable and achievable?

So far, so polemic. How does this change anything about…change?

– This multiplicity of frames will be reflected in a multiplicity of methods and they is one of the reasons why multidisciplinary working is such a key skill for the 21st workforce. We need to develop and value this skill.
– We need to give people time to explore the ‘why’ of the change we want to happen and not just the ‘what’ and create spaces for collective sense making
– We need to make sure we are supporting people to have the resilience needed both to deal with the fact that change is and will be a constant but also to support them to deal with the greater degree of debate and tension that comes with an acceptance that different frames are being held at the same time

One final pragmatic reflection here. Purpose and phrases like sense making might seem like a luxury to anyone with a workforce with an average age of over 35. To anyone with a significant population of millennial or Gen Z employees it feels like an essential. Much of our workforce has already changed its frame of reference and we need to change our approach if we want to be able to harness that.

PS. The image at the top is from the mining coast of Cornwall – I am fascinated by the marks which former era’s leave on the landscape – what will we be leaving behind?

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