The Six Ages of Change

Change in organisations - not just surviving it but making it work for you - seems to be a common thread in literature and online currently. Brian Marshall, Programme Director for the Ashridge Masters in Leadership, looks at the six ages of change in organizations today

You might believe that our ability to lead change well, and in a modern collaborative way, would have moved with these times. You might think that we have shifted, because with so much practice in change, we surely know how to do it well by now!

But in my experience of working with many organisations going through change, there are still some significant barriers to working more participatively and fluidly through times of change. Leaders tell me they understand that without a different approach to change, they see passive (or active) resistance, or long-term value reduction from a change implemented forcefully. Yet these same leaders cannot seem to prevent themselves from acting in ways which suggest that change must be forced through using power and expertise. To help us understand some of this thinking I have categorised these approaches into six “Ages of Change”.

In which Age of Change are you?

1) The Ice Age – employees don’t have feelings – I pay them to do what I want

Organisations are a relatively new phenomenon, and if we exclude religion and the military, a phenomenon that has only had serious thought applied to it for 100 years or so.

Perhaps 100 years ago, if anyone gave much thought to change as a concept, it would be to consider whether the owner was more or less inconvenienced by one change or another. “Workers” as opposed to “Managers” (if thought of at all) were seen as merely ingredients in a recipe, exchangeable and expendable items to be combined at will to make money for the business owner.

Although this kind of thinking has now largely been left behind, it is still surprising to see leaders at times act as though they have this kind of power. I have worked with one organisation where the Chief Executive assumed that he had no responsibility to engage his staff and could tell them not only what to do, but seemingly how to feel as well!

2) The Iron Age – we the leadership will make it happen

Perhaps if we had thought together about change 20 years ago, we might have immediately thought about a linear process of the kind offered originally by John Kotter (he has made the process much more iterative and consultative in later work). Here the thinking is very much that the leader knows best; in fact the leader must have a compelling vision of where he wants the organisation to go. Little thought is given as to whether employees will share this picture of a golden future – if they don’t they are seen as disruptive, off-message, and “resistant”.

In this model, change is driven from the top.

3) The Bronze Age – people should be consulted, but we don’t have time in this case

In this age there is a recognition that imposed change, or power-led change might have long term consequences, or might not be sustainable. But here, the leader hides behind the urgency of the change he wants, and protests that involving people takes too long. There is often an emphasis on communication but the communication is directed towards persuading people that the leaders are right and that resistance is useless (see the Iron Age).

4) The Age of Enlightenment – people really need to be involved

When this principle is really adopted, it signifies a significant shift in how we think about change. It means a reducing emphasis on Planning and Control and a shift towards thinking about different aspects of change.

Some of the techniques that are useful in this kind of approach already exist (techniques such as Appreciative Inquiry or Future Search) but there is increasing focus here on the psychological impact of change and the emotions it stirs up. Recognising that these emotions are a natural part of the process and need to be given due attention before any change can happen will be an essential part of greater people involvement.

5) The Golden Age? – people need to find the solutions for themselves

Authors such as Gervase Bushe have taken these thoughts one step further in considering the role of the leader in forms of participative change. Talking about the Generative Leader, he says that

“In generative change the leader acknowledges uncertainty about the complexity of the situation and his or her ability to analyze or direct effective actions” (Bushe & Nagaishi, 2018). Instead the leader sets the right question (i.e. defines what is to be examined and sets some boundaries) but does not pretend to have the solution.

They stimulate and encourage as many “probes” – experiments and suggestions owned by those affected by the change - as possible, without trying to pick the best ideas. Instead they create a culture of experimentation and learning. They then support the successful projects with processes that enable them to succeed and grow towards more of the change that they want.

6) The Digital Age – we need to change things quicker and on a bigger scale

Societal changes globally and the instant sharing of opinions and information across social media and the internet has highlighted the power of the many to make fundamental societal shifts. But no-one knows fully how to work with this yet. By its very nature, (and perhaps this is a good thing) this kind of change is fundamentally uncontrollable.

As an example consider the healthcare system in the UK – how to make a shift which will address workforce crises, increasing demand and at the same time increasing financial constraints? Or the global organisation that wants to be agile, and wants to know how to unleash the power of its staff to work with less hierarchy, but cannot find a way to harness that power.

Some organisations are already experimenting with “crowd-sourcing” ideas for change or using hackathons as a way of involving more staff in change initiatives. But these techniques can sometimes feel impersonal and may exclude some who are not excited by these kinds of initiatives.

Brain Marshall

Programme Director for the Ashridge Masters in Leadership

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