Change Thinking

Despite all the business change knowledge uncovered during the last 50 years, many seasoned change management professionals still aren’t adequately prepared to serve those trying to navigate their way through today’s turbulence. Change Thinking is an effort to have an exchange with, and be part of, a community of practitioners committed to raising the level of their game and that of the field of change execution.

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Patterns Aren't Created, They Are Revealed

Categories: Patterns

We don’t own patterns, yet we are all responsible for them.

Some of us might be fortunate enough to be the first to observe and document a pattern, but we didn’t invent it, we uncovered it. Adjusting to the unfamiliar has been part of the human experience since the beginning of time. Any change-related pattern we use was in play long before any of us started practicing this craft. And even though some of us have fashioned our own particular way of articulating transition dynamics (nomenclature, principles, guidelines, axioms) the basic patterns can’t be commandeered by any of us.

So, we can’t take credit for conceiving the patterns of change, but because we did discover them, we have a responsibility—we’ve been entrusted, if you will, with their care.

As practitioners of this craft, our function is to pay attention to what people do and say when they implement change so we can continue the search for new insights to existing patterns, as well as stay alert to new ones. We must record what we learn about winning and losing at change and pass these lessons on to our clients as well as other practitioners.

Sharing our learnings is the only way we can build on each other’s work and in the process find even more patterns and/or deepen our understanding of the patterns already identified.

At a minimum, we need to dispense our pattern learning (i.e., tell each other what we are seeing as far as influential dynamics) and to the degree possible, we should also pass on the actual lenses we use to work with the patterns. For example, in previous postings, I made lenses (tools) available to share what we had learned about the patterns associated with degrees of difficulty of change and resilience, and what could be done with them.

Do we pool—or protect—what we are capable of?

Helping organizations successfully execute change does more than accomplish the initiatives at hand—it teaches people that they can architect their future more than many think is possible.

Managing change isn’t only about accomplishing specific desired outcomes for an enterprise, it’s also about de-victimizing people’s lives. Nothing strips away the bondage of victimization like the freedom to actually realize the future you intend for yourself.

None of us has the definitive answer that will address the change challenges we and those we serve will face in the coming years. Given that we are blessed with opportunities to have this kind of impact on people’s lives, how can we fail to open up with each other about what we are learning?

It is imperative that we have access to reliable change patterns we can use in our practice. This means we must either adopt the patterns others identify or search for them ourselves. When I began work in this field, definitive and dependable patterns were only beginning to emerge, so exploring for them has always been part of my professional experience.

After nearly four decades, we’re still uncovering patterns.

Because of the budding nature of change facilitation when I started, I had no choice but to build my own set of lenses. In the early 70s, when I began to pursue change professionally, people still speculated as to whether patterns of organizational change even existed. Many of us experimenting with the then-emerging field of work called “change management” assumed patterns were in play, but verification was mostly anecdotal and documentation was scant.

I had the good fortune of some early exposure to Alvin Toffler and became convinced that his prediction of “future shock” (the inability to absorb all the changes life thrust upon us) was likely to come true. It was also obvious that few lenses were available for addressing this phenomenon. Within organizations, clearly articulated change patterns were only beginning to surface, and a comprehensive implementation methodology was nowhere in sight.

The thought of future shock without a viable mechanism for addressing the challenges of change was a scenario too dangerous to accept, so in 1974, I embarked on what I thought would be a six-month research effort. I intended to identify as many patterns as possible, and then formulate a set of lenses that could be applied to determining when the various patterns were in play. I hoped to eventually formulate a replicable methodology for executing major organizational initiatives.

I couldn’t have been more wrong about the time involved in such a search. Conner Partners is now in its 36th year of operation and we’re still uncovering new patterns and deepening our understanding of patterns already identified. In 1992, I published the initial findings from our research with the release of Managing at the Speed of Change. The premise was that there are reliable, predictable patterns of decisions and actions that distinguish the leaders who successfully accomplish the changes they embark on from those who fail outright or end up with far less than they expected. We called these leaders “winners” and “losers”; the book was about what we had learned concerning how these two types of leaders differ, and what enables one to succeed at achieving the desired outcomes while the other fails.

The second installment came in 1998 with the release of Leading at the Edge of Chaos. In that book, the focus shifted to “nimble patterns”—what we had learned from leaders about creating exceptionally agile organizations. Here we described the characteristics of companies with a predisposition for ongoing change, and how leaders instill change DNA into their organizations.

As you can tell by the gap between the first and second books, we don’t publish our findings on any set schedule. Because of the client engagements we’re involved in, however, uncovering new relationships and insights take place on an ongoing basis. As a result, we’re constantly refining the set of lenses we use. It has now been 12 years since we published our latest findings…and it’s time to do so again. We’ve hit another juncture where we feel we should release what we’ve uncovered.

This time, however, instead of relying only on publishing another book, I started the blog you are reading as part of our “release” strategy for this round of sharing our perspective with other practitioner colleagues. With these postings, I hope to pass on all I can of what we have uncovered through our continued exploration.

The road ahead calls for a joint effort.

If we don’t build on each other’s work and advance together, what we can develop separately will be insufficient for the demands faced by our clients. It is vital that we share everything we can about the hard-fought lessons being acquired in our separate change-related pursuits. I believe we need to engage in far more professional exchanges than we typically do if we are going to significantly advance our understanding of the patterns so fundamental to our work. In doing so, we won’t just exploit the opportunities that come with collective learning, we will also have the chance to live up to the accountability that comes with this knowledge.

We all carry a responsibility to advance the professional field that we’re a part of. If facilitating change is as important to the well-being of the organizations we serve and the people in them as we say it is, I think we have an obligation to open up with other practitioners and pass on what is being learned.

I urge you to offer as much of what you are learning as you will. The way forward is about pooling what we are collectively capable of, not protecting what individual practitioners (or groups of practitioners) can accomplish in isolation.

Posted on: June 24, 2010 09:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Five Lenses for Viewing Patterns of Change (cont'd)

Categories: Patterns

In my last post, I shared three of the lenses I use to observe the patterns (mindset and behaviors) that I pay attention to:

  • The importance placed on matching change challenges with the appropriate commitment
  • The importance placed on the intent of the change
  • The importance placed on sponsors

Now, I’ll continue with the last two lenses:

  • The importance leaders place on agents
  • Leaders’ understanding of the nature of change success

At the end of this post, you can click on a link to download a complete explanation of the mindset patterns, along with examples of what success and failure behavior patterns look like for each.

Lens: The Importance Placed on Agents

Mindset Pattern: Sponsors need support from skilled agents.

Even leaders with plenty of change experience—who have all the right instincts and the courage and discipline needed to orchestrate difficult transitions—remain vulnerable. They need the support of skilled agents who understand how to provide the proper guidance.

Mindset Pattern: Agents should avoid bad business.

Sometimes, sponsors want to make and engage significant changes, but aren’t prepared to follow through with all the political, logistical, and economic requirements to succeed. For the agent, this is bad business because not only will the projects likely fail, the agent will probably be blamed for the problem. Leaders who consistently succeed with major change look for agents who will honestly tell them if they lack sufficient capability or commitment to properly sponsor the initiative.

Mindset Pattern: Agents should avoid working harder than their sponsors do.

It’s easy for an agent to become more dedicated to change success than his or her sponsor is. When this happens, he or she often takes on “pseudo-sponsor” roles. Targets recognize this and respond to the lack of true sponsor commitment by disregarding the behaviors and mindsets needed for the new way of operating.

Lens: The Nature of Organizational Change Success

Mindset Pattern: Certain aspects of accommodating major change are uncomfortable.

The job of sponsors and agents isn’t to keep people happy—it’s to help them successfully make the transition despite inherent discomfort.

Mindset Pattern: Everyone struggles with the implications of significant change.

When faced with dramatic shifts, people always have some degree of reservation about the content of the change, the implementation approach being used, and/or their ability to perform their role(s) in the change. We assume that targets will resist certain aspects of major change initiatives, but even the sponsors and agents who promote change fall prey to wavering determination and skepticism.

Mindset Pattern: There is always risk in realizing transformational change.

The nature of major transitions inevitably includes surprises, challenges, and missed expectations, as well as mistakes. Often, however, leaders try to hide from—or put a “spin” on—anything that deviates from the planned path. In fact, many leaders have spent their entire careers diluting or covering up risks that unfolded as they executed major change initiatives.

Leaders who consistently succeed with major organizational changes promote a red is good attitude toward status reporting. They encourage people to honestly portray the true condition of projects, and to express their actual concerns early so the risk can be mitigated quickly and effectively.

Mindset Pattern: Expect to do some emotional work to break through engrained patterns.

Most efforts to execute large-scale strategic initiatives are heavily weighted toward the intellectual components (e.g., data reviews, logical analysis, and rational decision-making); they fail to adequately address the degree of emotional investment necessary for success. Although both perspectives should be largely equal throughout the implementation process, a disproportionate weight needs to be placed on catharsis at times to break through some of the more entrenched mental blocks and resistance patterns.

Click here to download “Achieving Change Success: Mindset and Behaviors,” which includes examples of success and failure patterns.

Next: Patterns Aren't Created, They Are Revealed

Posted on: June 16, 2010 04:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Five Lenses for Viewing Patterns of Change

Categories: Patterns

We’ve been talking about lenses that practitioners can use to identify patterns, and to help sponsors deal with change. I’m sure there are lenses you pay most attention to, and I encourage you to share them here. I’ll tell you about five I often rely on:

  • The importance placed on matching challenge and commitment to change
  • The importance placed on the intent of the change
  • The importance placed on sponsors
  • The importance leaders place on agents
  • Leaders’ understanding of the nature of organizational change success

Each of these lenses reveals a series of mindset and behavior patterns.

Here are a few representative examples of the success mindset patterns that these lenses reveal. At the end of my next post, you will be able to download a complete explanation of the mindset patterns, along with examples of what success and failure behavior patterns look like for each.

Lens: The Importance of Matching Challenge and Commitment to Change

Mindset Pattern: Attention and resource allocation is dictated by a change’s “degree of difficulty” to execute.

A change is difficult when it is neither easy nor impossible. In this context, difficulty reflects the degree of challenge inherent in realizing the intended outcomes of the change. It is a measure of the realization risk that exists for both the initiative and the leader.

The degree of difficulty of a change is determined by answering three questions:

  • How much change does the initiative represent? (Will the change result in incremental shifts, or will it or transform certain fundamental aspects of the way things operate?)
  • What kind of fulfillment must be achieved to deliver on the promises made? (Will the change be merely installed, or must it be realized?)
  • How critical is the success of this initiative to the health of the overall business? (Is it just a “good idea” or should it be considered a business imperative?)

Mindset Pattern: Don’t leave commitment to chance.

Succeeding at major organizational change requires that people believe the price for the status quo significantly exceeds the cost of transition. Commitment can and should be orchestrated to support achievement of the desired outcome.

Lens: The Importance Placed on Intent

Mindset Pattern: Intent is not strategy.

Important changes are typically defined at a level too high to guide execution, or even to determine if the change is, in fact, feasible. Ultimately, the leadership team must move beyond just talking about the strategy to understanding exactly what the outcome should be. Once that is established, they must do four things:

  • Believe in the possibility the change creates
  • Align as a team
  • Allocate resources and fund the change
  • Stake their reputation on delivering the true intent

Mindset Pattern: Intent comes after struggle.

The leadership team must share an understanding of and have a commitment to the true intent of major change before they can effectively enroll others, but this kind of alignment is never easy. They must ensure that all of their perspectives are heard and valued, and that they understand the tradeoffs and choices associated with the final view of the desired future.

Mindset Pattern: Intent integrity is imperative.

As the new change initiative begins to unfold, persistent attention must be directed toward ensuring decisions and actions are consistent with and support the new direction.

Lens: The Importance Placed on Sponsors

Mindset Pattern: Significant transformations can only succeed if led by deeply committed sponsors.

Leaders must provide sustained guidance, resources, support, consequences, and unrelenting tenacity. They have to understand their role and be willing and able to apply it toward any obstacles that appear. Most risks to success can be addressed when the sponsors’ motivation and skills keep pace with challenges as they unfold.

Although a high resolve for change at senior leadership levels is necessary for success, that same sense of urgency and criticality must be cascaded down throughout the organization and demonstrated among the sustaining sponsors as well.

Mindset Pattern: Paradigms[1] are not replaced by consensus.

True transformative change is not the result of a democratic vote, negotiated settlements, or the application of consensus management techniques. Sponsors of successful organizational change demonstrate strong, definitive leadership that seeks out, values, and is influenced by various viewpoints. However, those sponsors are ultimately the key decision makers.

Paradigms are transformed by a balance of power—leaders who have the unquestioned authority to make the critical decisions, and followers who have the unquestioned capability to help the sponsor use her or his authority wisely and effectively.

Mindset Pattern: Methodology is not a substitute for courage and discipline.

While implementation tools, procedures, and skilled agents are important facilitating mechanisms, they are only enablers in support of change success. The real secret to fundamental transformation is the degree of courage and discipline sponsors display.

  • Can sponsors acknowledge to themselves and others the resources and tough decisions required to achieve success?
  • Can they take the appropriate actions to pursue success despite any fears, obstacles, and adversity they encounter?
  • Do sponsors have the discipline to do what must be done each and every time they need to be courageous? (Courageous, disciplined sponsors allow “no time-outs and no substitutions” from themselves and others.)

Next, we’ll talk about the fourth and fifth lenses I often use.


[1] “Paradigm” used here means the perceptions shared by people concerning what their organization‘s purpose is and how it is to be achieved (i.e., what the key goals are and how work is to be accomplished).

Posted on: June 10, 2010 02:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Use Mindset and Behavior Patterns to Your Advantage

Categories: Patterns

Once you understand that a specific mindset and its associated behaviors can either facilitate or impede success, you have a level of insight that can be truly invaluable to a sponsor who is less familiar with these kinds of change dynamics.

Mindsets are made up of frames of reference (the ways individuals make sense of situations) that lead to the formation of priorities (the relative importance of various options). Shared mindsets within an organization serve as the foundations of culture and ultimately lead to common patterns of behavior.

Successful change requires a specific mindset that is shared among key players as they perform their respective roles. This “success mindset” reflects the insights and lessons learned from people who have confronted the tough realities of what it really takes to deliver on organizational transitions. It refers to a particular frame of reference and set of priorities that support the accomplishment of important initiatives.

Mindset patterns are translated into actions through behavior patterns. Organizational change, like many things in life that appear to be random or unfathomable, actually has a structure. At the level of observable actions, the structure consists of discernible behavior patterns that reflect how people tend to react during transitions. While most people are unaware of these patterns, they are essential for the practitioner to see because they reveal the likely sequence of events that will transpire. Here are some of the more common behavior patterns that lenses can detect:

  • How transformational vs. incremental change unfolds
  • How business-imperative changes perform compared to those with less urgency
  • How clarity and alignment around an initiative’s intent affects outcomes
  • How maintaining the integrity of intent throughout implementation affects success
  • How sponsors, agents, targets, and advocates play their roles, and the impact this has on success
  • How commitment is created
  • How resistance forms and is turned into an asset
  • How culture impacts desired outcomes
  • How an individual’s or organization’s capacity to absorb change affects success
  • How governance and allocation of resources affects outcomes
  • How an organization’s record of change implementation affects success
  • How courage and frank communications impact change outcomes
  • How tolerance for ambiguity, making tough decisions with insufficient data, and learning from failure all play a role in successful change

There are many more, but these are representative of the kind of inherent behavior patterns identified by the various lenses practitioners use.

How to use mindset and behavior patterns

When executing large-scale initiatives, sponsors often feel victimized by what they don’t understand. The more we can demystify the dynamics of change for them by offering relatively simple ways to understand what is happening, the more likely they will feel they can affect the outcome. Practitioners, therefore, should be able to do four things:

  • Be familiar with the mindset and behavior patterns that usually play out during significant organizational transformations
  • Recognize these patterns when they surface
  • Be able to describe their impact in easy-to-understand language
  • Know what guidance to offer for each one or any combination that forms

As an example, if your client knows that success requires a commitment is not left to chance mindset, you can work more effectively with the sponsors and change team to plan ways of building strong resolve toward initiative success. As the initiative moves forward, that mindset will lead them to take the actions (behaviors) necessary to foster momentum and a critical mass of commitment throughout the organization.

When you know that certain events will likely occur at predictable points in a transition, you can provide guidance in both the planning and execution of initiatives. For example, if you can predict the emotional reaction people will likely have to a major change, you can recommend specific actions to either encourage or inhibit that response. If you can anticipate why and how strongly a particular group will resist an initiative before it is announced, you may suggest a modification to the communications to avoid or minimize some of their concerns. For those concerns that can’t be mitigated, you can at least help the sponsor anticipate the reaction and prepare a response.

Both mindset and behavior patterns exist and are influential to outcomes, whether clients see them or not. As practitioners, it is our responsibility to adopt a set of reliable lenses through which we can determine the patterns that influence a change initiative at any given time. You may decide to become proficient in one set of lenses (a specific methodology), combine aspects from several different frameworks, augment one with some of your own lens creations, or start from scratch and develop an entire implementation approach on your own. However you get there, it’s imperative that you ground your practice on a reliable set of lenses.

Supporting clients in the development of a successful mindset is a key part of our role as professional change agents. Helping to ensure that behaviors align with that mindset is equally important. While there is a direct relationship between mindset and behaviors, we don’t always act—without fail—in accordance with our mindset. Thus, demonstrating a success mindset pattern is not enough. We must also be able to recognize both success and failure patterns of behavior.

Next, we’ll explore some lenses and patterns associated with change success.

Posted on: June 01, 2010 02:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Patterns: Order Beneath the Confusion

Categories: Patterns

“What we call chaos is just patterns we haven't recognized. What we call random is just patterns we can’t decipher. What we can't understand we call nonsense. What we can't read we call gibberish.” ~Chuck Palahniuk

How do we make sense out of the often extremely complicated and confusing dynamics that influence the outcomes of our change initiatives? And once we understand what’s going on, how do we help our sponsors (and, of course, agents and targets) grasp what is unfolding and choose the best course of action, given the present circumstances?

We could use simplistic explanations, but those don’t describe the depth of the situation. Too often, we get lost in the convoluted intricacies of the change and offer help that is more baffling than enlightening. Instead, what we must find, as Matthew Mays says, is “elegance on the other side of complexity.” [1]

We need a set of lenses through which we can view the most perplexing implementation dynamics to find some level of clarity. (We’ll never have all the answers, but if we don’t have more than our clients do, we are baggage, and not a guide on their journey). Practicing our craft without using lenses to expose the issues, pitfalls, and opportunities hidden below the surface would leave us with only good intentions, hope, and luck in our tool kit.

With the proper lenses, we will be able to observe both the mindset that is being applied to an initiative, and the behaviors that are driven by that mindset. These patterns (mindset and behaviors) help us understand the order beneath the confusion.

There are patterns of success as well as patterns of failure. They all are invisible to the untrained eye, and so typically go unnoticed by most people. Lenses function much like a pair of prescription glasses: They allow the correct patterns to come into focus and open up a completely different range of possible interpretations and actions.

The influence of these patterns is powerful, and requires that we understand them to provide value to our clients. If we were to deny the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, we would still suffer the consequences. In the same way, if we ignore the patterns of change, a sound business solution may be ravaged by the predictable implications of resistance.

The right lenses reveal all kinds of concealed patterns about the way people function. A relationship has its ebb and flow of intimacy; the stock market fluctuates according to cyclical economic and psychological forces, a corporation’s culture has a rhythm at which it moves through its work. The importance of lenses and patterns is not unique to the implementation of change. In fact, one way to find successful people in any endeavor is to look for the ones who see the forces in play that others don’t.

We “own” lenses, but not patterns

There are many lens “frameworks” available but they all describe the same mindset and behavior patterns that emerge during transformational shifts. Conner Partners has developed a change methodology filled with lenses and related guidance, as has John Kotter, David Nadler, Bill Bridges, Linda and Dean Anderson, Prosci, most of the larger consulting firms (Accenture, KPMG, IBM, etc.), numerous graduate schools, and countless others. In addition, many organizations have developed methodologies for their exclusive use. These are typically comprised of a combination of other frameworks along with some original thinking that has been forged into an implementation approach unique to a particular enterprise. Although many of us lay claim to a proprietary set of lenses, none of us can assert that we own the patterns our lenses reveal.

Lenses are to professional change facilitators what a stethoscope, thermometer, and sphygmomanometer (blood pressure gauge) are to a physician—foundational tools for practicing our craft. With a proper set of lenses, we can see the hidden patterns that channel the flow of change. Copyrighted lenses (approaches, techniques, nomenclature, etc.) are important, but we need to keep them in perspective. They are nothing more than a set of conceptual tools used to see and interpret what is happening within the patterns, where the real work of change implementation is accomplished.  

Patterns are the underlying, meta-level dynamics of change. As such, they are indigenous to our species, evolving through the ages as humans struggled to adjust to unfamiliar circumstances. Our ancestors, by trial and error, gradually formed what are now engrained neuron pathways and deep intuitive tendencies associated with how we respond to significant changes in our lives. Through years of research and careful observation, various practitioners uncovered these patterns. However, the patterns themselves don’t belong to any one person or group any more than someone can hold the rights to how we breathe. A consulting firm or a group of internal practitioners can develop a unique way of recognizing a pattern and even possess proprietary language for how to describe it, but the pattern itself is inherent to the human experience.

Next: Use Mindset and Behavior Patterns to Your Advantage

[1] Matthew E. May,In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing (New York: Broadway Books, 2009)


Posted on: June 01, 2010 10:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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