Tapping into the ability to change

Everyone generally agrees that agreement (‘buy-in’), focus and available capacity are most relevant factors to make any change endeavor successful. In one of our previous blogs we concluded, based on recent scientific research, that it is precisely these factors that lead to frictions and often stand in the way of change and success.

In conversations with managers, it is noticeable that they often find their employees difficult to change. “People are creatures of habit”, “Change is apparently scary for people”, are examples of beliefs I hear regularly. The fact that so few change initiatives are successful seems to endorse this … but is this a correct assumption?

Allow growth and change to emerge
Several years ago I interviewed the founder of Art of Living, one of the largest voluntary organizations in the world: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The mission of this organization is to promote world peace, among others by teaching people how to reduce stress. In addition to the interview, I was allowed to spend a day with the organization. What was immediately noticeable was that everything went in great harmony and almost flawlessly. When I – a business economist with an interest in organization and management – asked my host how it was “managed”, his answer was: “Nothing is managed here, it all emerges.” Further inquiries into the matter showed that there were no job descriptions: everyone found his or her role in the organization, based on a shared vision and mission and personal motivation. “How can I help?” was the simple question with which everyone found his or her place. The result is a strong responsive organization with millions of followers worldwide and countless successful initiatives.

There are many similar examples in business. Take Buurtzorg. This Dutch organization has brought a lot of innovation to home care in the Netherlands, partly by abolishing management. Teams of nurses organize the work themselves, determine the goals and divide the tasks. This way of working has led to innovation in services, higher customer satisfaction, low employee turnover and a strong growth of the organization. Buurtzorg sets the tone in home care and their way of working is now being taught to other (home care) organizations, even outside the Netherlands.

Such cases show that employees are perfectly capable of helping to shape change and growth.

Organize for success
Could it be that most change initiatives fail or fall short of their goals because of the way people organize and manage them? The conventional view is that it is the job of management to make decisions, direct people and control the results. A top-down activity. That went well for a long time, right? But perhaps that would explain (part of) the aforementioned lack of agreement, focus and capacity?

What do we learn from these examples? When teams decide for themselves how they achieve their goals, people are motivated to take responsibility together. People become more creative in solving problems. Agreement is found and their focus becomes sharp.

Creativity and problem solving power
And there is more that argues for a reassessment of the distribution of autonomy in an organization. Especially in these (Corona) times: agility and resilience cannot arise in a boardroom. Central management is at odds with creativity and problem-solving skills. Not because management could not be creative, but because there is simply too much distance from the problems in the workplace. When a sales team encounters a problem, it needs a certain amount of autonomy to solve it on the spot. In many cases it does not work to go higher up the organization, to catch up with management and to go back with adapted instructions. If only because no one knows the situation on the ground as well as that team. Of course, clear agreements are needed about decision-making and objectives. But here too there are more and more cases showing that autonomy and self-management lead to better results more often.

The human perspective
People like autonomy. They want to decide for themselves on matters that concern their responsibility. And they can do that perfectly in a group, taking into account the goals of the organization and the team in question. When they feel that (too much) decisions are being made for them, such as when change is being managed, this creates a feeling of inability and resistance.

Inspiration is more fun than instruction
Employees are not against change and growth. The trick is to address people’s motivation so that they are part of it. And there is still plenty to do for managers. After all, isn’t it much more fun to inspire a team than to instruct it?