Leader.co.za - Management, Training and Career Advice for Business Leaders







29 JUNE 2017
5 principles to roll out real change in your organisation

by Lesedi Makhurane: Member of USB-ED's faculty, a qualified executive coach, supervisor and teacher, and an experienced consultant in Strategy and Organisational Design.

Many organisations pursue change or transformation programmes that fail to meet expectations. One reason for this is that the critical change moment is often missed. Why does this happen, and how can change be steered more effectively?

To create deep awareness of the change process, I frequently invoke Portia Nelson’s simple, yet powerfully insightful poem, or, as she calls it, “an autobiography in five short chapters”. Try to identify the ‘chapter’ in which change starts to germinate.

“There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk” by Portia Nelson:

Chapter One
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost . . . I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault . . .
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter Two
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter Three
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall . . . it’s a habit . . . but,
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter Four
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter Five
I walk down another street.

If you are like most people, you probably said chapter 3 is the point where change begins to manifest itself. Look again. In truth, the real transition begins with the words “I pretend I don’t see it”. These words are subtle, but communicate a vital point about change, namely the conflict between what I believe and what I am actually experiencing. Friedman explains that this conflict between seeing (actual experience) and pretending not to see (holding on to existing beliefs) is called cognitive dissonance. When a person or group holds two conflicting views at the same time, they experience this phenomenon. Since dissonance is uncomfortable – even painful – people generally seek to remove the dissonance by denying the new experience or information in favour of the old frame of reference. Notice that the subject of the autobiography “falls in again” and “can’t believe it”. A progression of strategies are employed to do this, including rationalising; blaming others; defending one’s previous stance; and sanitising one’s role in the event – in an attempt to preserve one’s self-concept. These defensive strategies mount a substantial resistance to the change effort. But there is more. At this point in the autobiography, the subject is tentatively beginning to recognise herself, although at this point denial still prevails: “but it isn’t my fault”. People naturally seek to avoid dissonance, especially in charged contexts, such as ours in South Africa. And yet addressing dissonance is the biggest opportunity for transformation, as the autobiography illustrates. It is also pernicious. Witness chapter 3 with its higher levels of cognitive recognition, but where the subject still falls into the hole.

Successfully confronting cognitive dissonance is a critical moment of truth. Failure to confront it is a ‘silent killer’ of any change programme, while negotiating dissonance successfully lays the basis for a successful effort.

The following principles can assist you to roll out a successful change process:

  • Ensure that the process is a safe learning journey: Change is about the journey where people change from within, in order to change without. A number of factors have to be present for this to happen: a safe process; the pursuit of searching questions; travelling to new places; opening up new relational spaces; exploring one’s own narrative and that of others for meaning; a process of reflection; and the opportunity to try new ways of engaging. A critical glue is the quality of conversation that elicits the ‘chemical cocktail’ that broadens one’s perspective, according to Glaser. This would typically include generative listening; inquiry; suspension of judgement; and unearthing prevailing patterns and assumptions and replacing these with more inclusive ones. Together, these qualities create a context for being open enough to reconstruct oneself – in the light of new information.
  • Ensure that your change process has diverse participants and a divergence of views to stimulate change: If you are running a change process with people who look the same and think similarly, it is likely that you won’t ask sufficiently divergent questions to catalyse new perspectives that ignite transformation. The best way to do this is to convene diverse groups around a shared concern and to ensure that every voice gets heard. This lack of diversity and diverse input is a major Achilles’ heel in South Africa. Surprisingly, this takes much less effort to overcome than conventional wisdom would suggest.
  • Ensure your change process ‘walks’ through and not around cognitive dissonance: When diverse groups assemble and can safely confront dissonance – the actual challenge – genuine transformation becomes a viable possibility. It is important to name the challenge and walk through it. Whatever you do, don’t take a different street too soon. The temptation to ‘leap into action’ waters down the change effort to a pretence and going through the motions, while building resistance for the next ‘phase’. This is the critical change moment and the single biggest missing piece in the South African and post 2008 financial crisis transitions.
  • Ensure that you pay careful attention to both lived experience and tangible milestones: As the autobiography illustrates, the journey of change is an emergent one and it is often complex. It appreciates rigour, but at the same time desires to be embraced lightly – a true dance of polarities. Equal attention must be paid to lived experience and measurable milestones. This requires that change facilitators and participants adjust the apertures of their lenses regularly in order to notice what is developing at every moment, and to test assumptions with stakeholders.
  • Ensure that you deploy quality facilitation skills: Ultimately, steering change effectively comes down to the quality of the facilitation process. The facilitator needs to have the agility to anticipate; regulate; assure; and be the custodian of the whole process from the start. The facilitator also needs to be a crafter of strategy, a learning coach who facilitates learning and a guide for the development of new behaviours – that will deliver early wins, and later integration. Most important, the facilitator needs to have confronted their own cognitive dissonance.

Confronting cognitive dissonance with skill holds major promise for dramatically improving the quality of our change efforts. Change does not require force: when cast as a learning journey, it can be a liberating and life-changing experience.

Useful resources:

USB Executive Development (USB-ED)
USB Executive Development (Pty) Ltd, USB-ED, is the private executive development company of Stellenbosch University. We develop and connect leaders through innovative and transformational learning experiences because we believe that empowered leaders can bring about change. Our leadership and management executive development (short course) programmes are suitable for the private and public sectors and for individuals’ intent on carving their own future in business. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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