The right to define the challenges that a change is meant to address is often reserved by the management. The American management professor J. Kevin Barge believes that implementing successful organisational changes should be a task involving shared dialogue. It is not enough to involve and include employees; they must be made part of the change if it is to become a reality. Keep reading below for an insight into a process consultant's role in organisational changes.
"Thank you for your input and incredible commitment today." Like a spring equinox, the process consultant's words mark both an end and a new beginning for everyone in the organisation. The winter has passed, and the organisation can look forward to brighter days ahead. The day's well-organised process work on the implementation of the organisation's new strategy, combined with the employees' seemingly enthusiastic participation in the exercises, has given both the management and the process consultant confidence that the implementation of the latest organisational change will be a success.
The employees' discussions have filled the room, where the walls have been plastered with colour-coordinated blue, yellow and pink Post-it notes that even match the colours of the table cloths. The cards with the laminated interview guides lie gleaming on the tables, enticing one or two employees to grab a few copies for the colleagues who unfortunately were unable to attend today. The process consultant has diligently made use of his tools; no doubt about that.
If one were able to make out the fragmented murmurs of the employees to one another as they leave the room, however, it would have been possible to also detect a hint of doubt in their conversations. The investigation into this doubt - which would also be an investigation into why the organisation may once again have implemented a change with limited success - should not begin by looking at the day's process exercises or the process consultant's ability to engage the employees. According to management professor J. Kevin Barge, the investigation should instead start by going back to the moment where the management started the initiatives for the organisational change.
Constant organisational changes
Organisations must always adapt to a continually changing environment, which is in and of itself a rather Sisyphean task, as the contexts will inevitably change again and again. Organisational changes are therefore often seen as a managerial necessity, as organisations must develop and adapt in order to retain their competitiveness and ensure their own survival. The right to set a course and dictate which organisational changes are necessary is often reserved by the management, and even though it may sound both tiring and contradictory, organisational changes have become a constantly recurring phenomenon. That is also why there are only very few employees who do not see changes coming. In fact, one might even argue that most modern knowledge workers are entirely on board with change and development.
Nevertheless, management-run initiatives for organisational changes often have a half-life so short that they frequently leave even the most committed employees indifferent. The reasons for this can be many, but according to Barge, it is a process consultant's primary task to lead the process as a co-mission between managers and employees if organisational changes are to be successfully implemented.
"A process consultant's primary task is to lead a process as a co-mission between
managers and employees if the organisational change is to be successful."
When the management and employees have to embark on a change process, it typically entails the management establishing the predetermined direction and framework, after which the employees are invited to provide input on the more practical implications of the organisational change. And, if they are lucky (and/or capable workers), their perspectives may end up being included in the actual implementation of the change project.
Essentially, it's a bit like inviting your closest colleagues to a dinner where you have already decided in advance to serve a beef pot roast that has been simmering away for hours. You then casually ask during the welcome drinks if they feel like having a beef pot roast for dinner. If you are lucky, it will turn out that most of your colleagues like beef. If you're not, you find out that most of them are vegetarians, others are on a diet and some aren't hungry at all. Either way, you'll probably end up serving the beef pot roast. In both these examples, both the management and host gamble with not only their own resources, time and commitment, but also those of their employees/colleagues.
You are essentially inviting people to formulate an answer, whereas the employees may have preferred formulating the question, challenges and possibilities very differently - or perhaps they believe that the management has overlooked a crucial aspect. The possibilities for adjusting the scope of the change have been limited by the preceding decisions which have already been signed off on by the management. Who would accept such an invitation to participate? Once you have gotten to that point, what do you typically end up doing if the employees are more concerned about something else that matters more to them? Do you start again and accept the loss of time and resources?
”The route to achieving successful organisational changes is via co-creation and a
According to Barge's ideas on change management, the route to achieving successful organisational changes is via co-creation and a shared mission. The management should first and foremost acknowledge that at best, they are only marginally cleverer than their employees. It should thereby be considered an organisational necessity to incorporate the perspectives of the employees regarding how to view challenges and opportunities and formulate them as investigative questions that can guide and lead a shared exploration and development of the change.
Put differently, the shared mission must be established and co-created in a dialogue with those who are affected by and involved in the change rather than being a result of the management's diagnosis. Barge's theory on Collaborative Co-inquiry is therefore in line with the emerging international trend in organisational theory and change management which is known as Dialogic Organization Development. The origins of the theory are rooted in a critique of many of the existing approaches that focus on diagnosis and defining the scope of change, based on monolothic expertise rather than an acknowledgement of the fact that many issues are of a multifaceted and complex character. Diagnoses that come about as a result of managerial meetings or external consultant systems are often based on normative assumptions or rational and financial projections which vary immensely in their predictive power and ignore a great many other factors that are relevant to the change.
Reciprocity in the management-staff relationship
The members that make up an organisation all have widely varying perspectives on what is important and what is not. Parts of the organisation view invitations to change processes differently, which one could argue makes the creation of co-missions more difficult. The initiator - and thereby most often the management - often likes to tie change processes to a business case; for instance, a desire to perform better in the company's market/business context, fulfil internal or external requirements, enhance the company's profile and image and increase productivity. External or internal HR consultants, on the other hand, often regard change processes as a way to create more democratic and considerate workplaces, while employees often view change processes as something that either improves or restricts their ability to do their work well.
The challenge, of course, is to coordinate these divergent purposes and objectives in such a way that a shared mission can be created - a co-mission. The procedural challenge lies in creating a situation in which all parties acknowledge the need for a holistic view of the change, and the fact that while they may be primarily concerned with their own interests, they also understand and acknowledge the interests of other stakeholders. What may arise in extension thereof is a reciprocity in the relationships, characterised by a broad acknowledgement that everyone needs to work together in order to succeed.
A process consultant's work should be seen as an evaluation of the processes that
are being considered. This places high demands on the process consultant's
integrity as well as his/her attentiveness to managerial "show trials".
Rethinking the clarification meeting
In extension of the above, it becomes the process consultant's role to insist on creating a dialogue about the co-mission in organisational changes. According to Barge, a process consultant's work should be seen as an evaluation of the processes that are being considered. This places high demands on the process consultant's integrity as well as his/her attentiveness to managerial "show trials".
Managerial show trials can be characterised as cases where the framework has already been very rigidly defined so that neither the process consultant nor the employees can move outside or expand on the framework that has already been decided upon. For instance, this could be in connection with organisational changes with a view to developing a new strategy, a particular kind of teamwork culture or some other organisational measure that a process consultant has been asked to assist with. Whether the process consultant is internal or external is unimportant as the first step towards creating a co-mission will typically be a reprise or new variant of the clarification meeting.
If a co-mission is to be established, and if it is the process consultant's task to initiate this mission, then this must necessarily entail adopting a more strategic approach to clarification meetings. The systematic virtues such as curiosity and attentiveness to multiverses is therefore rarely sufficient. As a process consultant, one must also ask what has been decided prior to the clarification meeting, which assumptions lie at the heart of the change idea and how to invite more perspectives and thereby the employees into the initial (diagnostic) stage of the process.
A common mission can only be common if the process consultant insists on the participation of the parties who are affected by the organisational change. This insistence is not about undermining the management's mandate; rather, it is about coordinating the management's perspective (which cannot be ignored) with various other perspectives that can provide an alternative view and contribute to the organisational change in different way. The outcome of such a meeting should be that the employees and management find a common starting point for the new mission and coordinated mode of cooperation in the development of the organisational change. In other words, for the process consultant it is about co-creating the co-mission through dialogue, which is why the "clarification meeting" can perhaps better be renamed or replaced with "coordination meetings" that are held continuously throughout the process. This allows the process consultant to continually evaluate and redefine the entire organisational change as it takes shape through the input of its members.
"When you encounter resistance in the process, it is often an expression of
an absence of a shared perception of the change."
The initial question
Every process manager knows the feeling of uncertainty in processes, and this uncertainty is often linked to the notion that they may encounter resistance. Being more open about your processes and kicking them off with a dialogic exploration of the issue means, for example, that you will have to start by taking the initiator by the horns and asking "Do we have the right group of people here if we want to make this a shared success?". As a process manager, you must therefore insist on including all the different perspectives before commencing the actual contracting and clarification of the process with the initator. This initial question also helps counter that potential resistance that can instill doubt in even the most experienced process manager. The risk of meeting resistance or inertia in the process is likely more often a symptom of an absence of a shared perception of the change rather than a consequence of the process manager's actions in the situation.
At a time where there is great uncertainty about the future, it should be a core competence among managers and the process managers with whom they work to have the courage to acknowledge what they do not know and invite people to engage in dialogue about it. Once you acknowledge that knowledge lies in different parts of the organisation, the necessary consequence is to create participation at an early stage in the change process. By putting Barge's thoughts on co-missioning into practice, the final remark "Thank you for your input and incredible commitment today!" can in the future become a statement with far greater credibility and which is based on the joint work with the change that has already been underway for a long time.
In this article, we have primarily discussed organisational changes and change management, but Barge's thoughts can also provide inspiration in relation to more specific processes and workshops. If you look back, try to recall how many of the processes you have been involved in started with an invited manager talking about why the change was needed and the rationale it was based on, after which the scope was set by the initiator and the task of implementing it was put in the hands of the process manager. In other words, the possibilities were determined from the top, and involvement was limited.
A lot of processes could be started without a fuss by taking a look at the context together. "What do you see, and do you see the same thing we do?" This could contribute to fewer show trials, greater transparency and a more genuine involvement that could lead to dialogue that enhances the potential for change and leads to more robust results not only within the group/department, but also in the numerous regular workshops and co-operative situations.
This article is particularly inspired by J. Kevin Barge's article “Consulting as Collaborative Co-Inquiry” from the book “Dialogic Organization Development – The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change”, edited by Gervase R. Bushe and Robert J. Marshak.