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Transformation Is a Messy Business

Issue 58: June 2, 2022

When it comes to digital transformation, some thought leaders correlate it to chaos theory. We’ve all heard about chaos theory, even if we don’t understand it. Dumbed down, it’s the mathematical theory that explains what seems random and chaotic but that in actuality has underlying patterns, an interconnectedness and self-organization that can give order and logic to what seems chaotic on the surface. As we have continued to share in our newsletters, what we perceive is our version of reality and how we see the world around us — and we often fail to see true reality. Patterns exist everywhere in everything and every action or non-action influences other parts of the pattern, which ultimately find a higher level of order and organization. The concept of chaos theory can certainly be applied to the market disruptions we have experienced lately.

And then there’s what other experts cite as messy theory. The business of change is perceived as chaotic and complicated when our own perceptions struggle to see the entirety of the pattern. We are more comfortable when we are focused on one part of the organizational system and seek to fix that first instead of understanding the macro view. We further struggle to see how the inter-dependencies of action or non-action affect all the parts. We also don’t recognize the influences that impact other aspects of the system.

Therefore, we fundamentally perceive change as messy, which of course it is in many regards. Messy and chaos theories are especially relevant to digital transformation. In the mess and chaos, the most often overlooked aspects of change and transformation are the interactions workers have, and the need for their buy-in, understanding and commitment to internalize change and transformation to be successful. Traditionally, tons of effort go downstream like tech and even creating lakes of data from the upstream. Organizations focus on building infrastructure, implementing some technological platform, customizing that platform, and believing the problems and issues will be solved and voila, the transformation will occur. Better data will result…processes will improve…and the organization will become more efficient and knowledgeable.

In this silver-bullet-focused technology mindset, technology is viewed through the lens of a solution, exercise and experiment; but if workers don’t buy in, everything crashes. The workers who interact with technology are the source of data input into a system. They manage the data and must commit to maintaining quality. If the source of input and commitment — aka the workers — is overlooked, any change or transformation can become a major mess and an utter failure.

Organizational Mess

Organizations that are neat and tidy veer to manufacturing and assembling. There are strict regulations, protocols, processes, and rules for their transformation, digital and otherwise. These organizations depend on order and structure. Then there are the organizations in the creative, service and information sectors. They are not built on inflexible structure and precision. This type of workplace culture is more freeform than the assembly line and often exacerbates messiness. Typically, messiness flows upstream from managers and workers who have a more personally informed understanding of digital transformation, innovation, and new products and services.

Consider where agile or similar iterative work/project methods originate. Where there is unleashed creativity, a reluctance to see the future or where the path forward cannot be discerned through the perceived chaos, work cultures seek to stay in the moment and take a singular focus, completing a task before conceptualizing the next task. These methods and practices create comfort and decrease stress. When we complete the task, of course, we feel satisfied and accomplished. The influences and dependencies, particularly in seeking to change or transform an entire organizational system take a back seat.

Does it have to be this way? Is it a lack of discipline? An accepted way of doing business? The nature of the knowledge economy beast? Or more fundamentally, is the messiness the result of a lack of consensus, misaligned enthusiasm, fear, or reluctance to contend with the chaos of change and transformation?

Are You Prepared to Handle a Mess?

Business authors Ian Mitroff, Can Alpaslan and Richard Mason state that “Today’s executives and tomorrow’s business leaders need the ability to address complex, messy problems, think critically and question their own assumptions.” They maintain that in a transformative time of “rapid technological and business change, successful executives need the ability to think critically — and to be aware that some of their most cherished assumptions may at any point be challenged or invalidated by changing events.” That is truly the challenge of managing a mess, which is how many would describe our current business environment: war, inflation, global disease, and civic unrest. Interestingly, we all may believe change and transformation in response to a dynamically changing market environment resulting from technological advancement is something new and immediate, Mitroff and his fellow authors beget their advice in 2012. Just to be clear, that was a decade ago. And in 1994 Mitroff and his fellow authors, Richard Mason and Christine Pearson wrote that the environment of societal pessimism, unease and political challenges were triggering radical changes in business and a necessity to transform to maintain competitiveness. Messiness and chaos are nothing new. Nor is the need to continuously change and transform.

Organizational scholar Russell Ackoff states, “Managers don’t solve simple, isolated problems; they manage messes.” He defined a mess as “a system of constantly changing, highly interconnected problems, none of which is independent of the other problems that constitute the entire mess. As a result, no problem that is part of a mess can be defined and solved independently of the other problems.” Remember, influences and consequences across a system affect its inter-dependent parts. Ackoff adds, “Accordingly, the ability to manage messes requires the ability to think and to manage systemically; this, in turn, requires that one understand systems thinking.”

We have found in working with clients in all types of organizations that systems thinking is one of the most critical skills that is rarely utilized to solve problems – of any size. Change is generally driven by top-down mandates, often oblivious to the fact that the rest of the organization is clueless about what transformation or change is being activated and what was included in the process of defining and setting the transformation plan. Therefore, there is no buy-in from the bottom to the top.

Managing transformational messes requires confidence, open-mindedness and letting go of assumptions that don’t work. And we’re not talking about top-down management. We’re talking about upstream flows where the workforce is brought in and is empowered to contribute, be heard and encouraged to face conflict constructively with fair debate to test their own assumptions and beliefs. At all points in a spectrum, leaders and managers must recognize the criticality of those the upstream — those who must interact with the transformed processes, systems, or platforms and those who input into the processes, systems, or platforms.

Managing transformation in the context of upstream recognition also demands that collectively there is a high level of confidence that you are not solving the wrong problem, which is transformation gone off the rails. Over the years, we have experienced and collected evidence across our work to demonstrate that critical thinking and a systems-thinking approach at every level, recognizing the upstream, can help everyone succeed in a messy and uncertain world.

Back to the Future

Often the most cogent wisdom comes from the past. Pia Lauritzen writes that Aristotle “had a lot to say about knowledge that is not only relatable but useful for companies undergoing great change.” One of the biggest hurdles in change management is using a shared language that everyone can understand and relate to. Lauritzen believes that “The messy middle of transformation is the unknown, uncertain space between past and future, between theory and practice, that characterizes organizations in the process of becoming something new. To navigate the messy middle of a transformation, everyone must understand how different knowledge domains contribute to the transformation—and how everyone can find a way to be part of the same conversation.”
It all begins with knowledge (and the ability to communicate it), which brings us back to ancient Greece. Not to get all academic, but an Aristotelian approach finds a balance among four “domains” of knowledge, paraphrased here:

  • Science: Fact-based objective understanding of things
  • Wisdom: The cause or principle of things
  • Expertise: Knowing things, but not the reason why
  • Prudence: Taking action on things

In the context of organizational change and transformation, we start with expertise informed by wisdom, science, and prudence to drive the initiative forward. Let’s take a deeper dive, updating ancient philosophical concepts with practical action.

  • Expertise (the starting point) according to Lauritzen is how “people base their understanding of transformation on practical insight into the history and culture of the company.” Change is difficult for organizations stuck in legacy thinking. So, in this case, when an organization knows it needs to embrace agility, it has neither the insight nor interest to know why. Eik Thyrsted Brandsgård, Group Business Agility of LEGO cautions “The strength of legacy companies is that their culture is defined by conversations and behaviors that have been evolving for decades. But the flip side is that the culture doesn’t always do what you want it to. It can resist an idea or just reject it.” At 2040 we have found what often happens in organizations is that unless the message is aligned to an organizational shared purpose and correlated to market orientation and then communicated to how employees can think and talk about the transformation, they will ignore it or even try to undermine it. It is key to recognize that where understanding and knowledge are lacking, the individual and group transitions required to achieve change or transformation will flounder. Workers simply do not know what they are losing, what they are gaining and how to redefine their own internal conception of their professional selves and how they contribute value.
  • Science when it comes to transformation is when data and analytics provide insights that are objective and fact-based. Its vulnerability is when science is used as a silver bullet and its language dominates the conversation and the workforce may not have any idea what is being communicated. Science, as valuable as it is, can become a barrier and alienates others. It is vital that the theory of science is bridged to practical applications and an understanding that the workforce can relate to and get behind. It may seem overly simple, but it is important to communicate real-world practical examples of work, processes or systems and how they correlate to science. This approach aids in communicating simplistically, but impactfully, by helping individuals make the connection between the two.
  • Wisdom: One could argue that our organizations lack wisdom. Management can often be short-termed focused, chasing the quick wins without considering the long-term implications, influences, and consequences. So, many organizations fall back on the wisdom of thought leaders and business experts who are well ahead of the curve on the road to transformation. The content of transformation communications needs a common vocabulary in order to maintain understanding and clarity. The trap is that the language of wisdom can be esoteric and laced with jargon that alienates the workforce that has just been introduced to the transformation journey. Individuals then struggle to understand, become overly frustrated or feel inadequate or inept and ultimately confused as to what is about to happen and what it means to them.
  • Prudence is taking action to activate change and transformation with good judgment. This requires learning how change or transformation will benefit the organization and how it will impact the workforce. What will employees lose and what will they gain? Prudence is modulated, moving forward as informed and empowered. Good judgment ensures the upstream workforce is knowledgeable, comfortable, and supportive and that they understand how they can or will transition.

Lauritzen concludes that “Transformations often fail because people with different ways of thinking and talking about transformation are not joined in a common conversation.” She adds none of the four Aristotelian knowledge domains can exist without the others, and the balance of all four helps navigate the messy middle of change and transformation. She cites Aristotle, “All learning comes about from already existing knowledge.” In this context, making change or transformation successful is when “employees share their already existing knowledge and collaborate on turning it into new ways of working.”

Messiness 101

James Weekley, head of Internal Communications at RELX writes, “In the most glorious and positive ways, people are driven by emotion, which makes them unpredictable. And with all the systems and processes in the world to control how things are supposed to happen at work, they rarely go the way we think they will because we fail to factor in the human impulse.” The human factor is the single most influential wild card in any organizational transformation model or theory. Technology is not a silver bullet to solve all problems; technology enables opportunities to create solutions that respect the human factor. It is our people that are the most vital source of productivity and progress as a society.

So, effective change and transformation start with employees embracing and practicing critical thinking. It focuses on the upstream influence individuals have on the effectiveness and efficiency of processes, the quality and quantity of data collected, how it is managed, and how the aspirations of change and transformation become reality. It comes with the recognition that infrastructure and a foundation are important and necessary, but they are enablers and exist downstream in support of the upstream.

It also requires that managers are well equipped to lead and manage in a messy marketplace. Many individuals are put into leadership positions who are not prepared to manage the human factor. Navigating transformation and change is an art that requires talent and tools shared by the entire workforce and majorly embodied by those asked to manage and lead:

  • Self-awareness
  • Empathy
  • Humility
  • Active listening
  • Genuine interest
  • Non-judgment
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Appreciation of others’ thinking

What to Do to Avoid a Mess

Employees at every level need to acknowledge that the way they see things may not be shared by others. Consensus is difficult, especially when clouded by lack of clarity. The impact of conscious and subconscious bias can cripple a team’s performance. It requires courage to entertain ideas and opinions that may be in conflict with your own. As we know, our perceptions of a solution are just that: perceptions. Arriving at a collective decision prevents the mess of mutiny at any level.

  • Typically, nothing works the way you expect it to. Flexibility and resilience, meaning the aptitude and ability to reconsider and reroute, are key to effective and successful change and transformation. Flexibility and resilience also help avoid making a mess worse.
  • Change and transformation can feel like chaos, but remember within chaos there is a pattern, which when ultimately revealed can inform how change and transformation is dependent on all the parts across the organizational system.
  • Recognizing the upstream ensures technology enables change or transformation and does not become the perceptual silver bullet that solves all problems or challenges.
  • Applying critical thinking and systems thinking ensures the human factor is addressed and the right problems are being solved.
  • Expertise, Science, Wisdom, and Prudence can become the new SWOT analysis to create a highly engaged and involved workforce that relishes change and transformation.
  • Consensus isn’t always possible, but a commitment to ensure individuals can transition, knowing what they have lost, what they have gained and how they can redefine themselves contribute to high levels of support and positions each individual for contributing to the organization’s success.

Messy Is the New Normal

At 2040 we advise our clients that messiness and chaos are ongoing conditions in a disruptive marketplace. Yes, change makes us anxious. And yes, transformation makes us nervous. So, we help organizations of all sizes embrace the fact that neat and tidy is not going to be the norm for the service/knowledge economy. We can help make the process more frictionless and provide a playbook to align upstream with downstream so that both benefit each other and contribute to admirable and measurable high performance.

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