Rethinking Change in Organizations

A new and radical way to approach change.


A colleague just shared with me a terrific piece on change.  

The author, Leandro Herrero, offers an intriguing synthesis of many of the ideas I’m making increasing use of in my work: generative conversations, networks, complex adaptive systems, to name a few.

The key premise is the following: “Under certain conditions, a small set of behaviors has the power to create significant change.”  Referred to elsewhere as the butterfly effect, we operate in organizations as if this basic tenet in the natural world has no relevance.

Despite our pledged allegiance to teams and collaboration, we still refuse to give up on our top-down, command-and-control approach to orchestrating change, as if declaring that we are moving from A to B is enough to make it so.

Life, in organizations or anywhere else, is not linear.  However, we do things that create the illusion it is so.  We make plans, develop timelines, act as if cause and effect are proximate, and so on.  That’s not to say that plans and timelines have no value, it’s just that we usually put all our eggs in this basket of linearity.  It’s a question of emphasis.

Organizations are relationships.  These relationships are fueled by conversation.  And conversation creates the connections between people and determines the quality of their results.

We are finally coming around to thinking about the relationships that compose an organization as networks rather than the lines and boxes of an org chart.  And, of course, networks are not linear.

We are only just beginning to understand the power and influence of networks.  Few of us have learned how to exploit these networks in service of making changes.  Herrero shows us how.

The way to create sustainable change is by working at the level of individual behavior, starting with the people who reside at the key nodes of the networks in the organization.  The question to ask is, “Imagine if everybody engaged in the desired behavior, what kind of organization would we be building?

Engage the network nodes to lead the way in the behaviors you want to instill.  These will be the behaviors that will create the change you are seeking.  They will spread these new behaviors through role modeling.  This is distributed leadership in action.  Because the influence of these important individuals is not hierarchically defined, they will spawn imitation and social copying.  Stories will spread. 

“Stories flow every day and can be spread at any time producing a constant stream of ‘things that are now happening and that weren’t there before’.” 

I expect to write much more about this as I continue to play around with these ideas and practices.  How are you seeing this where you are?