You Can Make Change Happen. Just Drop Everything You Know About It First

If you google “organisational change“, you get 45.300.000 results. You’ll drown if you dig for some practical information you can apply now.

Google no more. This blog post will give you all the information you need on organisational change and resources to look into for more. As a bonus, the centrepiece of the blog post will look at one concept that is perfectly fit for agile transformations.

I will start by digging into why individuals are hard to change, using Shelle Rose Charvet‘s Words that Change Minds. Mastering the Language of Influence (a true masterpiece). Then I will write about why organisations fail to change with John Kotter’s famous 8-step process for leading change.

The centrepiece looks into the continuous participatory change concept from Aaron Dignan’s Brave New Work.I will close with a few more examples of change frameworks (organisational and individual) inspired by HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Change Management.

Individual change: why people don’t change?

How do people change? What drives some people to adopt and embrace change, but most prefer consistency and predictability?

To answer these questions, I dug into Shelle Rose Charvet’s research into Neuro-linguistic Programming. Charvet speaks about Meta Programs, the filters through which we see the world that represent how our brains process and determine how to react to it. 

When you speak to someone using their Meta Programs, you create a much deeper and faster connection, speak the same language, and build rapport. Meta Programs are presented in NLP as a spectrum, with very few people falling to the extremes.

There are sixty Meta Programs, but we will only focus on one: Sameness-Difference, which is essentially about how people tolerate change. It answers the question: are you motivated by revolution, evolution, or stability?There are four patterns in this Meta Program: Sameness, Sameness with Exception, Difference, Sameness with Exception and Difference (the double pattern). Let’s first look at the characteristics of the extremes of the spectrum:

Adapted from Smart Tribes. How Teams Become Brilliant Together, by Christine Comaford

As mentioned, most people are not situated in the spectrum’s extremes. The majority is actually in the middle:

Sameness with Exception

The Sameness with Exception people like a given context to stay mainly the same but will accept change once a year if the change is not too drastic. They prefer to change to evolve slowly over time, so they will resist significant changes, except if they are perceived to be progressive. They will need substantial changes once every 5-7 years.

Influencing language: more, better, less, the same except, upgrade, advanced, moving up, growth, and improvement.

Sameness with Exception and Difference

People with this pattern like change and revolutionary shifts but are also comfortable when things evolve (slower). They are happy with both revolution and evolution. They need a significant difference every 3-4 years, on average.

Influencing language: they use both Sameness with Exception and Difference vocabulary.By far, most people fit in Sameness with Exception (65%), followed by Difference (20%), Sameness with Exception and Difference (10%), and finally, Sameness (5%):

Let’s look at one example given by Charvet in Words that Change Minds: how would a person answer the question “What is the relationship between this job and your last one?” according to her spectrum on this Meta Program:

Sameness: “It is the same. I’m still crunching numbers.”

Sameness with Exception: “It’s the same, but I have more responsibility and less time.”

Difference: “It’s totally different. Now I do outside sales.

Sameness with Exception and Difference:There have been big changes this year, and my performance has improved greatly.

So how is this connected to organisational change?

With the majority of people (65%) in Sameness with Exception, it becomes clear why extensive, radical change programs are deemed to fail. Instead, a slower, gradual pace is meant to push for a more successful transformation, longer, but with long-lasting effects. That’s why a continuous improvement is a handy tool for implementing and managing change.

When you plan your organisational change, (1) get to know your teams (where they stand on the spectrum) and make sure you (2) use the correct language. For example, words like revolution and new scare people away. Your language is a big part of the success of the change.Consider also that the people that will lead change programs have a high personal need for change (Difference), so there’s the possibility they speak a different language than the rest of the organisation.

Restructuring, reengineering, cultural change, and total quality management all have one goal: changing the business to become more competitive. Unfortunately, Kotter has seen over 100 companies struggling with change and failing (from Ford to General Motors and British Airways to smaller companies).

Following these transformations, Kotter observed 8 phases that the change process goes through (known now as 8 Accelerators) for the successful companies and 8 mistakes that the companies that fail in their transformation make. I’ve summarised them here for easier understanding through visualisation.

From (here)

The process can be split into two steps: build new muscles, new behaviours and new ways of working (Accelerators 1-7), and sustain it long into the future (Accelerator 8Institute Change). The image might be too small. Either click on it and expand it or go straight to the Google sheet here:

Well over 50% of companies fail at the first step. According to Kotter, they fail to establish a strong sense of urgency. Urgency is high enough when about 75% of the company’s management is honestly convinced that business as usual is unacceptable.

Kotter’s process is a classic model of change management, but its linearity and top-down, big-change approach don’t categorise it as agile. Moreover, it relies on establishing urgency. So what happens when there is no urgency? To figure that out and to find a process that best fits the Agile values and principles, I had to look further. This is where Brave New Work comes in.

The future of organisational and individual change: continuous participatory change

Kotter’s change process has become the change dogma within the business world. The problem is how the process is applied – linearly and top-down, says Aaron Dignan in Brave New Work. Thus companies still struggle with change but get no results with the process. Even Kotter adjusted it in 2014, mentioning that the process needs to be applied continuously and concurrently.

Dignan considers that the failures in changing companies come from how we see organisations as ordered systems versus the complex adaptive, evolutionary systems they are. The best analogy comes from living systems.

The idea of organisations as complex adaptive systems has gained popularity among new authors, especially in the agile space. Jurgen Appelo makes the same point in Management 3.0. Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders, the book of leadership in the Agile community.

So how do you change a complex adaptive system? You live in the now“, Dignan says. And you start by accepting that you can’t control whole communities of people. The most you can do is nudge them in the direction they are disposed to go. This is where continuous participatory change occurs, where everyone in the organisation is engaged and empowered to shape and reshape it.

Continuous participatory change is a living process on its own. The process changes with the organisation based on the feedback received from actions taken. It also empowers the employees to take charge of the change and be creators of the new organisation, increasing innovation and participation. It is not a 12-month process. It is continuous and has no end in sight.

The process is Agile and easy to use with Agile frameworks and practices.The downside is that you won’t have clear steps to follow and “best practices” or instructions, but when you stop looking for processes and instructions, you notice “patterns” that help change be an everyday occurrence. These are the 6 patterns, to be held lightly but worth encouraging:

1. Commitment

Those with the power of influence commit to moving beyond bureaucracy.

Change can only succeed if the leaders commit to a basic set of principles, or simple rules, to dance through continuous participatory change. Dignon suggests that the principles he proposed to be used as beacons to navigate towards if you’re not ready to adopt them:

  • Autonomy: teams and members should be self-managing and self-organising, and they can use their judgement to make decisions and steer the organisation’s purpose
  • Consent: policies and conclusions should be made with the permission of the people they will affect.
  • Transparency: all information should be made available and accessible to all members.

At the same time, once the leadership is committed, you need to move on to create a passionate group to learn alongside you. The people that join in first are usually the most passionate ones, the seed of future communities of practice (similar to Kotter’s volunteer army).

2. Boundaries

A liminal space is created and protected.

When you start your organisational change, you need to decide in what area of the company to start and how big of a push you can make. You can start with a meeting, process, team, or department. Either way, you need to set boundaries and a liminal space where you can start experimenting and iterating on your findings.

The space has to be safe to try new things, allow the freedom to do new things, and be protected from the rest of the organisation, as there will be resistance and interference from the outside world. As Dignon says, “Anti-bodies and muscle memory will emerge and try to maintain the status quo“. 

3. Priming

The invitation to think and work differently is offered.

Now you have your team of catalysts, you set your boundaries, and in a standard change process, you would follow with a diagnostic assessment, which is flawed, to say the least, according to Dignan. Assessments are subjective and biased, work with the assumption that the organisation is a complicated, autocratic system that can be analysed and fixed from above, and are bureaucratic and slow.

Dignan proposes priming instead: a process of experiential learning and dialogue. The process is meant to pull people out of their patterns and onto a new way of thinking. The tools of choice for that are play, reflection, and debate. You create new behaviours and ideas using creativity, stirring games and pushing for unlearning current ones.

Dignan’s topics include complexity, emergence, self-organisation, organisational debt, agility, leanness, motivation, self-awareness, mastery, trust, generative difference, psychological safety, etc. “The final goal is to prime all teams inside the liminal space“.

4. Looping

Change is decentralized and self-management begins.

Looping is a technique borrowed from the lean practices. The loop consist of three phases: Sensing Tensions, Propose Practices, and Conducting Experiments.

From Brave New Work, by Aaron Dignan

At the heart of the looping process is continuous improvement and learning. Looping focused on experimenting, learning, and continuously adapting.

Let’s look at each stage of the process and what it implies:

1. Sensing Tensions

Tensions (talked about by Peter Senge in his The Fifth Discipline) guide the organisation into what to do next; they show the gap between what is and what could be the ideal situation. But, despite their negative connotation, they are real treasures, clearly pointing at problematic areas that can be worked on, pushing for system growth.

A few examples of tensions are these: lack of trust, too many meetings, bottlenecks in decision making, not enough transparency, lack of honesty and candour, too much email, waste of time on the wrong things, gender balance is off, etc.

For teams to start looping, they need to notice tension and run experiments on it. Remember that the organisation is not an ordered system that is broken and must be fixed, so tensions represent your organisation’s potential. Take full advantage of them.

2. Proposing Practices

This is the hardest part of the looping process. So how do you come up with practices to try to correct tensions? Dignon offers a few ideas:

  • Look at what other companies are doing and how they solve problems similar to yours. Then, see for yourself what they do and get inspired about what you can do.
  • Build on internal collective intelligence, help the teams share ideas, get connected and discuss or highlight novel practices.

As figuring out solutions and practices is not an easy task, Dignon and his team come up with their proposals, bringing some options to start the conversation, for example: crafting a clear and compelling purpose for the organisation, developing and defining the roles and accountabilities inside every team, invite teams to create and edit their roles, trade fixed performance targets for relative performance targets, etc.

The main problem with this loop stage is the team’s commitment to the practices. Consequently, the practices should represent what the teams are willing to try while keeping intrinsic motivation and stakes high.

3. Conducting Experiments

The purpose of the experiments is not to solve a problem, to create something new, but to learn what’s possible and what emerges. Then, building on what arises, you run new experiments and continue the loop. You don’t stop, as this becomes the organisation’s status quo (continuous participatory change).

Shorter, smaller practices that improved in weekly iterations are preferred to long or more complex ones (that require resource and budget allocation, onboarding, and more time to complete and support).

5. Criticality

The system has tipped, and there’s no going back.

The critical point of an organisational change or the tipping point (according to Malcolm Gladwell) is the point of no return; the organisation is so different that going back to old ways is impractical (or extremely costly). The organisation is something else entirely.

There are two signs of reaching criticality: language (people start using a different vocabulary that expresses the changes performed) and spread (the practices you introduce are adapted by other teams and departments and extend beyond the boundaries you set).

6. Continuity

Continuous participatory change is a way of life, and the organisation contributes to the broader community of practice.

The organisation, previously a black box, is now owned, managed and maintained by everyone, like a form of commons. It is self-sufficient, but it still needs support. Dignon highly recommends coaches that support teams and individuals to maintain the new practices and continue learning and experimenting with new ones, a key to continuity. The coaches ensure that the continuous participatory change keeps on living.

Consequently, communities of practice emerge among self-managed or agile organisations; they share more about what they are doing and learning and are curious about what others are doing simultaneously.

These patterns repeat themselves continuously in organisations. Of course, one can not predict the full scale of change in evolutionary organisations. However, one can continuously guide and support the transformation so that the process can take a life and form of its own.

More on change

In the end, I would like to summarise a few more change frameworks and provide you with more information to dig into (if you are passionate about the topic and the above frameworks don’t work for you):

  1. Radical Change, the Quiet Way: Debra Meyerson writes about the change dilemma: if you push your agenda too hard, resentment builds against you. If you are too quiet, resentment builds inside of you. What’s the solution to this? Become a tempered radical: “an informal leader who quietly challenges prevailing wisdom and provokes cultural transformation.” These radicals bring changes drop by drop, bringing rapid change with patience.
  2. The Real Reason Why People Won’t Change: Kegan and Lahey give a new perspective on why employees resist change: they may be caught in a competing commitment, “a subconscious, hidden goal that conflicts with their stated commitments“. So you should be helping them uncover their competing commitments and move to pass them.
  3. Why Change Programs Don’t Produce Change: Beer, Eisenstadt, and Spector challenge top-down change programs that focus on creating a new culture or mission statement that the employees need to follow. They argue that change happens at the periphery of the organisations, led by managers that solve concrete problems with ad hoc solutions or practices. These managers focus the teams’ energy on work, not abstractions like “empowerment” or “culture“, by aligning tasks and directing employees’ responsibilities and relationships toward the company’s central competitive mission. The Senior management should specify the desired general direction without giving solutions.


In the end, we can quickly identify some patterns for managing change in organisations:

  1. First, big, top-down changes are not very successful, no matter how well communicated or how much time is spent in “training” and “implementation“. Starting small, in one area or with one team, builds change from the bottom up and creates commitment and long-lived results.
  2. Change is not a linear process with a clear beginning and end. It has to be done continuously, and your actions need to adjust based on the feedback from your experimentations. So, any change plan for 1-2 years, with clear steps and results, is fiction. Instead, change is continuous improvement with a specific objective (even though continuous improvement also focuses on growing businesses, performance, effectiveness, etc., similar goals to those of change programs).
  3. For change to be successful, you need to find a team of enthusiasts to push it forward. According to Accelerate, The Science of Lean Software and DevOps (Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble and Gene Kim), this team should be distinct from a Change Management team that delays change. Instead, the team consists of early adopters willing to experiment and iterate on their findings and create communities of practice to share their learning with others.
  4. Leadership’s role is to set the company’s direction without giving solutions on how to get there, which is different from controlling, tracking progress, or selling the change. As the complex system it is, the organisation will figure it out if you follow a continuous improvement/change process.


  1. Kotter’s 8-steps process to leading change; ebook downloadable here
  2. HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Change Management (including featured article “Leading Change,” by John P. Kotter)
  3. Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail, by John P. Kotter on HBR
  4. Words That Change Minds: Mastering the Language of Influence 2nd edition, by Charvet Shelle Rose
  5. Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan
  6. Radical Change, the Quiet Way, by Debra Meyerson on HBR
  7. The Real Reason Why People Won’t Change, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey
  8. Why Change Programs Don’t Produce Change, by Russell Eisenstat, Bert Spector and Michael Beer

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