“An organisation going through change is like an elastic band; if you let the tension go, it’ll spring back to where it started” – David Hawkins, Chairman and Managing Director, BASF Australia and New Zealand

It is hard to find an organisation at the moment that is not working through some form of change or transformation.  We see with many of our clients that this can be hard work. It takes up a lot of organisational energy and sometimes wears them down. Often this leads to the people involved starting to long for the return to normal. The phrase ‘Are we there yet?’ is not only used on the backseat of my family car during road trips.  You can also hear it in organisations that go through change.

‘Are we there yet?’ Organisational change is a cycle rather than a destination. Click To Tweet

The reality is however that with the amount and pace of change, going back to normal is probably no longer on the cards. And the more people yearn for ‘being there yet’, the harder it will be to keep them engaged. So what can leaders do help their people to stay engaged through change, without letting the tension go that David Hawkins from BASF refers to?

Talk Change - not Grief

For decades, leaders have been taught in business schools to look at organisational change as a step process which causes shock and then anger, followed by depression and ultimately acceptance in people. This is based on a model originally developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, intended for the counselling of personal trauma and grief, associated with death and dying.

The unintended consequence of the popularity of this way of looking at change is that by now there is a general expectation that everyone must ‘work through the change curve’. And that for everyone -after some turmoil- this will result in getting back to ‘normal’.

Organisational change is an ongoing loop of different stages. Click To Tweet

Of course there are evident benefits in being sensitive to the emotional responses people have to change.  However, it is time for leaders to stop and primarily see and discuss change as the well-known grief process.  This is because the implicit promise of the eventual return to normal can often not be met, and is therefore not helpful.

Request Learning - not Perfection

Another -and more helpful- way to look at change, is to see it as a learning process. Significant organisational change or transformation requires letting go of what is known. It is essentially about venturing into unfamiliar territory.  This plays out on an organisational level, as well as for the individuals involved.  Leaders can maintain engagement by talking about it in these terms. Change and transformation requires people to learn new ways of working. As a result, mistakes will have to be made for a change to really to stick and necessary lessons to be learned.

This does not equate to diminished expectations. Leaders should create positive pressure; challenge people to perform in new ways. Without the requirement that people will consistently get it right, straight from the start. In the world of change ‘failure is an option’, even a requirement for real learning to take place.

Talk Loop - not Line

Many leaders talk about change and transformation as a linear step process, or even a project.  This follows from a global business culture that is comfortable with concepts such as milestones, deadlines and deliverables.  By presenting change in these terms, leaders inadvertently create the expectation that the change will conclude at some point, followed by a more or less static end state.

Organisational change goes beyond milestones, deadlines and deliverables. Click To Tweet

The reality in our current world is that change and transformation are better represented as a cycle. Change and transformation are fundamentally an ongoing loop of different stages. Each stage allows the leader to help people to see and celebrate their progress to date, without them having to hold out for that magical endpoint. Since reaching such a return to status quo will prove to be a fata morgana, as John Borghetti from Virgin Australia points out.

“The most dangerous thing is you get to the end point where you’ve made all the changes and you say, ‘Well we’ve done it now, so that we don’t have to worry too much’ And that’s where companies fail.” – John Borghetti, CEO Virgin Australia

Interested in more? Download our Engaging Through Change report and read about:

  • 11 organisations that have successfully driven change through their people
  • 10 ways you can mimic their success
  • 4 things you can do to get started today


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About the contributor

Gautam is a Senior Principal in Korn Ferry’s Organisational Strategy practice. He is based in Melbourne, Australia. Gautam’s passion is helping clients achieve their strategic business objectives and performance improvement through a more effective organisation. This includes engagements covering organisational design, operating model development, workforce capability & career architecture, strategic workforce planning, performance management & rewards and organisational capability uplift.

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