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Become the Master of Change – Part two


Publication date:

18 May 2020

Last updated:

18 May 2020


Jon Dear

You will need to have read the first of these articles, about how change affects individuals, to understand some of the things we are going to talk about here - we’ll use the same terms, and refer to the same process.

Read Becoming the Master of Change – Part one

This article explores how change affects organisations. Organisations come is various shapes and sizes - from small charities, to very small and medium-sized businesses, sports teams, large businesses, councils, governments, families or whatever you can think of that meets certain criteria.  Organisations are, more or less, groups of individuals who come together to achieve a (common) goal. They typically have some systems and procedures (which need not be computerised or even written down), some staff or members (typically more than one), customers, suppliers and they operate within a set of rules - e.g. health and safety. In our neck of the woods, typically we see large insurance companies and small to medium-sized distributors (brokerages). However, we are all probably a member of several organisations, such as our family group, our golf club, our workplace and so on. Trying to achieve a common goal is important, too - goals don’t have to be financial, although lots are - for example, your family probably values goals such as health and happiness more highly; Government places the safety and security of the “people” over and above everything else (or at least should).

Change occurs to organisations just like it happens to people - an organisation may be threatened with a take-over, or it may take over another organisation, it may be subject to new rules (like the changes to Data Protection that have occurred in the recent past), it may start to lose market share, miss targets unexpectedly and so on. The current, and ongoing, pandemic is an example of change that is occurring to organisations (as well as individuals). Obviously, because there are more things than just people that make up organisations, such as systems, products, customers etc. the stages of the change process are more difficult to unravel and explain. However, we’re going to give it a go, covering off the main points - there will be others, but these are the big ones.


Stage one – people inside the organisation become aware of the threat to their survival or to the achievement of their objectives. They become concerned about themselves, rather than the whole organisation, and withdraw into their silos - sales, admin, or whatever. They communicate with each other less frequently and less usefully. Those in charge find making decisions more difficult, and their focus becomes much more short-term, losing their appreciation of the longer game. Looked at from outside, it might appear a bit chaotic. If you reflect back to March, before the lock-down, you will probably recall examples of panic (panic-buying of toilet rolls?), confused messaging (e.g. from the Government, “there’s no need to panic - there are plenty of toilet rolls to go round”, when there clearly weren’t).

'Defensive retreat'

Stage two – this is where the organisation’s leaders impose additional controls to contain the threat, but not to resolve it. The current lock-down is a great example. Drones over Derbyshire is another one. They try to maintain present systems to ensure survival. Focus everywhere is very short-term. People’s loyalty is valued more than any critical appreciation of the problem, which would be considered disloyal rather than helpful. Focus becomes internal and towards the past, and people look for scapegoats on whom to blame the situation. (Think of President Trump blaming China). Communications become something to control, rather than to use productively. Decision-making becomes mechanical - disposing of problems, not solving them (e.g. sending ill patients to Care Homes to prevent having too many people in hospital).


Stage three  eventually, the defensive routines employed break down, and the organisation’s members start to come to terms with the new reality and examine processes and procedures. They may still lack mutual support and blame one another (which can push the organisation back into defensive retreat). However, once they take responsibility for their situation, start to work with one another (rather than operating in silos), see each other as resources not threats, then they can explore problems and find better solutions (From “Stay home” to “Stay alert”). This is a period of tentative exploration - nothing is set - it can still all go wrong, but it’s a time when the “old” culture gets challenged fruitfully. The “old” (one might say “current”) culture, where problems are dealt with adversarially, keeps popping up - safety (lack of, or inappropriately used, PPE? Which is it?)


Stage four  the organisation’s members can let go of their past, dysfunctional behaviours (dysfunctional, that is,  in the changed world), start to work with each other in a more collaborative fashion, with better co-ordination, communications, planning and organisation. Their adaptation enables them to see the crisis as having been useful (if not welcomed), and they are stronger for having survived. The organisation begins to prosper again. We are not here yet in the current process, but it will come with both successes and failures - we should expect this and not blame those in power for trying something.

It’s difficult imagine that organisations, rather than just the individuals within them, have confidence. But they do - organisations in change do suffer a lack of confidence, finding it harder to make decisions and lacking long-term direction. Their communications do become chaotic. Controls are unhelpful. Inter-departmental blame - scapegoating - is rife. Change makes organisational life unpleasant, and the more life-threatening the change the worse it is.

In your workplace organisation, you may remember the introduction of compliance, or the imposition of higher qualification standards, or the introduction of a new IT system (especially point of sale), or even the appointment of a new sales director - all changes that would have affected normal working and called for adaptation and change on your part - remember then how you felt, how your own confidence would have suffered, along with your sales performance and how long it took for you to recover. In these situations, some organisations do not recover - they are locked into shock and/or defensive retreat, and never escape - doomed. Change is an ever-present of personal and organisational life. The more we understand it, the better we’ll be able to deal with it.

This document is believed to be accurate but is not intended as a basis of knowledge upon which advice can be given. Neither the author (personal or corporate), the CII group, local institute or Society, or any of the officers or employees of those organisations accept any responsibility for any loss occasioned to any person acting or refraining from action as a result of the data or opinions included in this material. Opinions expressed are those of the author or authors and not necessarily those of the CII group, local institutes, or Societies.