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 start digging for some really practical information, that you can apply now.

Google no more. This blogpost will give you all the information you need on organisational change, and resources to look into for more. As a bonus, the centerpiece of the blogpost is going to 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-steps process for leading change.

The centerpiece is looking 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, yet the majority of individuals prefer consistency and predictability?

To answer these questions, I digged 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 the ways our brains process the world and determine how to react to it.

When you speak to someone using their Meta Programs you create a much deeper and faster connection, you “speak the same language“, you build rapport. Meta Programs are presented in NLP as 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, both 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 though, most people are not be situated in the extremes of the spectrum. 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 change to evolve slowly, over time, so they will resist major changes, except if they are perceived to be progressive. They will need major changes once every 5-7 years.

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

Sameness with Exception and Difference

People with this pattern like change and revolutionary shifts but are also comfortable when things are evolving (slower). They are happy with both revolution and evolution. They need major change 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 exactly 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 starts to become clear why big, radical change programs are deemed to fail. A slower, gradual pace is meant to push for a more successful transformation, longer, but with long-lasting effects. That’s why continuous improvement is an incredible useful tool to implement and use to manage 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 right language. Considering the above distribution, forget words like “revolution” or “new“, they are meant to 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 don’t speak the same language as the rest of the organisation.

Organisational change: Kotter’s 8-step process

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

Following these transformation, 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 into 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 or go straight to the Google sheet here:

Well over 50% of the 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 of change management, but its linearity and top-down, big-change approach doesn’t categorise it as agile in my view. At the same time its underlying premise is to establish urgency. What happens when there is no urgency? To figure that out and and to find a process that fits best 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 and they 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 comes from how we see organisations: as ordered systems, versus the complex adaptive, evolutionary systems that 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 his popular book, Management 3.0. Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. Management 3.0 has become 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 directions they are disposed to go. This is where continuous participatory change comes in, a process 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 itself is changing 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 themselves, increasing innovation and participation. It is not a “12-months” process, it is continuous and has no end in sight. I consider the process Agile (the process itself) and a great fit for any Agile transformation (used alongside 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 do notice “patterns” that help to make change an everyday occurrence. These are the 6 patterns, to be held lightly, but worth encouraging:

1. Commitment

Those with power of influence commit to moving beyond bureaucracy.

Change can’t succeed if the leaders don’t commit to a basic set of principles, or simple rules, to dance through the continuous participatory change. Dignon suggests that the principles he proposed 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 own judgement to make decisions and steer the organisation’s purpose
  • Consent: policies and decisions should be made with the consent 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 (quite similar with Kotter’s volunteer army).

2. Boundaries

A liminal space is created and protected.

When you start your organisational change, you need to decide where to start, what area of the company, but also how big of a push you can do to begin with. You can start with a meeting, or process, a team, or a department. Either way, you need to set your boundaries, set on 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 protected from the rest of organisation, as there will be resistance and interference from the outside world. As Dignon says, the “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, in a regular change process you would follow with a diagnosis assessment, which is flawed to say the least, according to Dignan. Assessments are subjective and biased, are working 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, debate. Through using creativity stirring games, you create new behaviours and ideas, and push for unlearning current ones.

Topics that Dignan primes 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. The one focus of looping is to experiment and finally learn and continuously adapt.

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) are signals that guide the organisation into what to do next; they show the gap between what is and what could be, the ideal situation. 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, we waste time on the wrong things, gender balance is off, etc.

For teams to start looping, all they need is to notice a tension and run experiments on it. Keep in mind 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. How do you come up with practices to try to correct tensions? Dignon offers a few ideas:

  • Look at what other companies are doing, how they solve problems similar to yours. Go 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 own proposals, bringing some options to start the conversation, for example: craft a clear and compelling purpose for the organisation, develop and define the roles and accountabilities inside every team, invite teams to create and edit their own roles, trade fixed performance targets for relative performance targets, etc.

The main problem with this stage of the loop is the commitment of the teams to the practices. This is why the practices should represent what the teams are willing to try, while keeping motivation intrinsic 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, what emerges. Then you build on that with new experiments, and you continue the loop. You don’t really stop, as this becomes the status quo of the organisation (continuous participatory change).

Shorter, smaller practices that can be iterated over in one week are preferred to long or more complex ones (that require resource and budget allocation, on-boarding, 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 Malcom 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 categories of signs of reaching criticality: language (people start using a different vocabulary, that expresses the changes performed), and spread (the practices you introduces are adapted by other teams, department, they spread beyond the boundaries you set).

6. Continuity

Continuous participatory change is a way of life, and the organisation is contributing 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. This is quite a key for continuity. The coaches ensure that the continuous participatory change keeps on living.

This is the reason why communities of practice are emerging among self-managed or agile organisations; they share more what they are doing, learning, and they are curious about what others are doing at the same time.

These patterns repeat themselves continuously in organisations. The full scale of change can not really be predicted in evolutionary organisations, but by continuously guiding and supporting the transformation, the process takes 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 spending some time helping them uncover their competing commitments and move pass them.
  3. Why Change Programs Don’t Produce Change: Beer, Eisenstat, and Spector challenge top-down change programs that focus on creating a new culture, or mission statements that the employees need to follow. The argue that change happens at the periphery of the organisations, lead by managers that solve concrete problems with ad hoc solutions or practices. These managers focus the energy of the teams on work, not abstractions like “empowerment” or “culture“, by aligning tasks, directing employees responsibilities and relationships toward the company’s central competitive task. The Senior management should specify the desired general direction, without giving solutions.


In the end, we can easily 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 bottom up, creates commitment and long-lived results.
  2. Change is not a linear process, with a clear beginning and a clear 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 pretty much fiction. Change is continuous improvement, with a specific objective (even though I would argue that CI is also focusing on growing businesses, performance, effectiveness, etc, objectives quite similar with those of change programs).
  3. In order for change to be successful, you need to find a team of enthusiasts to push it forward. Note that this should not be confused with a Change Management team (as those are actually delaying change, according to Accelerate, The Science of Lean Software and DevOps (by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble and Gene Kim), but the team represents early adopters, that are willing to experiment and iterate on their findings, and create communities of practice to share their learning with the others.
  4. The role of Leadership in a change process is not to control and follow-up on it, or to “sell” it, but to set a direction for the company, without giving solutions on how to get there. The organisations, as the complex system that it is, will figure it out if you follow a continuous improvement / continuous 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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