Being a Change Agent

Where organizational change begins.

Traditional organizational development is based on the theory that organizations are systems. Therefore, to change an organization, you analyze what’s going wrong in the system and recommend appropriate changes to restore the system to health and balance. Edgar Schein and Peter Senge love this approach.

I’ve always thought that the theory was bogus. In one sense, organizations are systems—or at least you can choose to look it them that way. Sometimes that’s helpful, like when you’re process mapping or trying to figure out why your compensation system is accidentally rewarding the wrong things. As a temporary problem-solving tool, looking at an organization as a system is useful when applied to processes.

In traditional systems-thinking OD, the role of change agent is fix-it person. That approach may change the system but it never changes the people. I’ve never had an experience with a fix-it person that I found personally transformational, whether it’s with the car repair tech or a plumber. They change the oil or they fix the leaky pipes, and while that removes a source of anxiety for me, it doesn’t change me in the least. So why would we think that a fix-it person approach could transform an organization?

The problem with the systems approach is that organizations are full of those inconveniences we call human beings, and you can’t really change a culture by simply perfecting its systems, practices, processes and procedures. You have to change the human beings—or, more accurately, you have to get the human beings in the organization to want to change themselves.

Alternative OD takes a completely different view that I have found to be far more effective because it allows the change agent to appeal to the higher level needs in people rather than the lower level needs associated with organizational processes. Most people go into an organization with the need to be effective, to demonstrate competence, to feel like their work matters. Focusing on organizational process and bureaucracy may be superficially helpful but it doesn’t come close to satisfying the needs of most, so the change agent winds up fixing things and wondering why the people are still the same. The reason is that by looking at an organization through a systems lens, you essentially devalue the people: they’re just system components.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel my destiny is to be a component.

Alternative OD starts from a completely different perspective: it believes that all organizational change starts with the self, not the system:

We can never forget that in trying to change an organization, we are acting from the self. We therefore need to be willing to engage the self in self-exploration because it is fundamental to acquiring the self-reflexive insight that is a prerequisite to the development of a more viable organization.

Organizations are human creations. We lose sight of that by focusing on structures, on job descriptions, on process, on rules. You can change all of those aspects of an organization and nothing really changes at the core. That is why transformational change begins with self: it is the only authentic source for change.

It is therefore important that we not only understand the social order but the person, and we cannot understand the person without self-understanding. Only through these understandings can we hope to make changes to organizations and improve collective effectiveness. We need to call into question our understanding of organizations and provide a reflexive critique of meaning of the relationship between the person and the social reality from which our experience of organizations emerges.

Even if you’re a traditional systems-thinking OD practitioner, this approach elevates your role to something far more important than handyman or handy-woman. If you’re authentic, you’re honest; if you’re honest with self and others, you have no hidden agenda; and you can begin to engage people in meaningful dialogue that just might get them to talk about the thing they’re trying to protect—the thing that serves as their primary reason for resisting change.

It also helps you avoid the ethical trap that ensnares most change agents: working on something you know isn’t really going to change things but might make things a little better and allow you to pay your bills. If you truly work on self-awareness and authenticity, you’ll be much more likely to make an honest assessment of the desire of the people in the organization to engage in a real change effort, and rather than waste your time, energy and spirit with people who don’t want to change, you’ll have the confidence to move on to something more fulfilling and meaningful.

Quote source: Notes for upcoming book on organizational development.