Let go of what you think needs to happen, and instead embrace what emerges organically.
The process is about responding to change in a way that is productive and enables learning. Holding too tightly to your priorities will prevent you from recognising the real needs and opportunities as they emerge, which will stifle the very change you are trying to make.
When we started this journey, we had a reasonably clear idea of how we expected our progress to look.
One of the first things we did was to set up a plan for organisational change, as we would with any of our clients. We knew our business and we knew what needed to change, so our challenges were easy to identify. Our priorities were focussed on finding solutions to these challenges, and that seemed a good place to start.
And so we immediately fell into one of the biggest traps we constantly address with our clients and partners: we began treating the symptoms of dysfunction, rather than the causes. Consequently, we saw the same issues come up again and again, arising from the same root causes. We weren’t learning what we needed to, and we were missing too many of our milestones. It became clear that without a significant shift in the underlying conditions of working at TACSI, these same problems would continue to arise.
But what were these underlying conditions? Why were they causing problems? And how had we not identified them from the outset?
It was a difficult step (and a big ego blow) to admit that we did not, as it turned out, know ourselves and our business as well as we thought. We had assumed our expertise and experience in this field would allow us to bypass a whole lot of our own process. This was not the case. To approach the change authentically and holistically, we needed first to establish the right priorities, rather than the obvious ones. We couldn’t see the root causes – the cultural conditions and mindsets we really needed to change – because we hadn’t done the work to find them. We needed to do the hard work of self-discovery; the work which begins not with planning, but with listening.
So, we went back to the beginning of our entire process. We asked some difficult questions, and received some very difficult answers. We listened to each other. We observed ourselves, our colleagues and our interactions. Slowly we began to piece together a picture of what our organisation and our people actually needed. From there, we allowed (much better) priorities to emerge.
It became clear that we weren’t ready for the pace of change we had set ourselves. We weren’t learning the right things at the right time because we hadn’t even begun creating the right conditions for this learning to occur. We also realised that, on this journey, there’s no real way to control what you learn and when. Instead, deep listening and observing emergent behaviours and events can be the most important ways to identify needs and opportunities for change – they will show you the priorities you need to follow. Experimenting with how you respond will help you to see what actually works, and will also show you any of your own unhelpful assumptions. This responsive ‘prototyping’ principle continues to serve us well, in both our own journey and in our work with our clients. They are in fact vital to the process; the ability to notice these opportunities and make the most of them is one of the most important skills for people working in a networked organisation.
If you’re decentralising your organisation, our advice would be to direct your energy not towards enforcing priorities, but instead towards building capacity in your people. This means involving them actively in shaping the desired outcomes, throughout the process. An effective learning organisation requires a team who can trust and support each other – once you’ve got the right cultural conditions in place, systems will begin to work much more smoothly.
Part of the difficulty with putting this into practice is that it can seem very risky. By letting go of a strict set of priorities, you are deliberately placing your business into a position of relative ambiguity and uncertainty. It’s not always going to be stable or predictable, especially while you’re all still learning how it works. But it will get easier.
This is one of the most valuable lessons we’ve learned. If you are taking this journey yourself, we encourage you to embrace the chaos a little bit and let go of your expectations. Listen. Experiment. Innovate. Allow disruptions and emergent situations to become an integral part of the work, pointing you to what really needs to change. You’ll develop the ability to pivot and reprioritise much more rapidly and effectively. You’ll learn to trust each other and support each other to grow, both personally and professionally. Expectations of ‘what we do at work’ will change, and your organisation will be the better for it.
Interviews with Carolyn Curtis, CEO and Euan Black, Organisational Development Lead. Writing and editing by Cam Sullivan.