Building Organizational Change Capacity

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2Over the past two months, we have started conversation into four major postures involved in leading organizational change. Last month, we talked about identifying the different types of change involved in an organization: technical and adaptive. This month, we're looking at a topic people often think of at year-end: how to build capacity to handle change your organization.


As we discussed in the introductory article to this series,


"Building change capacity means that the organization's ability to manage and integrate changes increases and improves over time. Instead of just having the capacity to manage this current change, the organization is empowered to manage the change after that, and the one after that, and so on. Given the complexity facing most organizations, change capacity is essential to both long-term stability and overall return on investment."


There are six general aspects to building change capacity. Each interacts with the others to help an organization grow as it experiences change. 

  • Process Capacity
  • People Capacity
  • Leadership Capacity
  • Clear Measurement
  • Feedback Loops
  • Productive Disequilibrium

Let's unpack each one of these and see how it impacts change capacity. In each, we will highlight the impact on change capacity in bold italic.


Process Capacity measures the degree to which organizational processes clearly connect to why-who-what-when-how, and how the different processes connect to one another. Increased process capacity improves change capacity not only because processes become more efficient: as change builds through an organization, process capacity also improves people's ability to make decisions about changing processes, since the purpose and goals are more explicitly stated. This helps people move from rote action and disorganization to putting process into its proper perspective.


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People Capacity measures the major human components involved in individuals and teams getting things done well. These measurements all are founded on trust - which must be in place for people to interact positively with one another. Change is inherently risky, so trust is a strong prerequisite to any change process. Of course, People Capacity has other components as well - such as competencies, accountability, relationships, availability, alignment, and incentive. These are all built on trust, and that trust can grow as change takes place and people continue to feel valued and successful. People capacity builds change capacity by helping people feel secure in the midst of change, and making sure an organization has the right people in the right place at the right time doing the right things for the right reasons and being rewarded for them.


Leadership Capacity measures the ability of members of an organization to lean in beyond authority and inspire others to follow. Leadership capacity is assumed as a major component of successful change, but the emphasis is often only on a few people in positions of authority. Leadership capacity builds true change capacity when the leadership capacity of people in non-authority positions (and unrecognized authority positions) is present and growing.


Local to Champaign-Urbana?    Illinois?    For local offers click here!Clear Measurement means tracking what matters (not just what might be easy to count), that will help people make decisions, build relationships, make wise choices, and deepen knowledge. When measurement is clear, consistent, and connected to purpose, it helps people track progress - which can often seem elusive in large-scale or pervasive change scenarios. Clear Measurement builds change capacity because it gives orientation when people are in uncharted territory. Without this orientation, alignment tends to break down as change takes hold.


Using Feedback loops measures what balance there is between talking and listening in key organizational relationships. Organizational change means moving from pure authority ("I'm your boss, so you're going to do it") to leadership ("Let's do this! You coming?"). The more feedback loops exist, the greater the change capacity. Feedback loops make the impact of change (small and large) more immediately apparent and can give leaders the ability to respond sooner and more constructively.


Productive Disequilibrium measures how much change is putting people off-balance, but in ways that drive positive direction. The human body requires productive disequilibrium to walk or run. If a human body isn't off-balance even a little, it will not move forward. Same with organizations. How much is an organization's sense of being off-balance creating flailing about trying to regain stability, and how much of it is helping to create forward motion? The more disequilibrium can be focused on forward motion, and less on flailing around, the greater change capacity the organization has. Productive disequilibrium improves change capacity by sustaining the energy needed to keep things enough off-balance to change, but not so off-balance as to make things fall over.


Building these six things into any organization will help with its change capacity. Which of these impacts do you need to see in your change processes? What areas are you strong in? What areas would you like to grow in? How have you seen these at work?


Let's start a conversation.


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Topics: leading organizational change, change capacity, process capacity, clear measurement, people capacity, productive disequilibrium, feedback loops

Why is identifying adaptive change important?

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2-1Last month, I wrote about four leadership postures for organizational change. These postures shape our leadership stance, increasing the likelihood that our change process will achieve healthy results.


The first posture of those four was change identification - knowing what type of change we were dealing with: adaptive or technical. To recap the difference between the two:


"Adaptive changes deal with habits, mindsets, and behaviors, and require organizations and their leaders to learn something new to resolve the challenges at hand. Adaptive changes often have open-ended problem definitions and solutions. Technical changes, by contrast, require application of specific skills to bring a closed-ended issue to resolution."


Putting this posture first hints at its importance. So why is identifying adaptive change important for organizational leaders?


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To understand its importance, we have to look at our usual starting point. For a summary of the reasons why, skip to the end - otherwise, read on!


Where we (tend to) start


As leaders, we are trained to attack most problems as technical issues, which our expertise or an outside product will be able to resolve. Perhaps our challenge fits squarely in the middle of our deep, core expertise, something we trained for, we have degrees and certifications in, and have practiced over time. Alternatively, we may perceive the current challenge to be adjacent to our core expertise, and so we tend to apply our expertise there as well - to the degree we can.


This is how most of us were taught to solve problems: see problem, find solution. This works very well when we are working our way up through our core expertise - whether deepening it, broadening it, or both. This works particularly well in fields where the same problems come up over and over again, and the application of technique, product, or knowledge is tried and proven suitable.


Local to Champaign-Urbana?    Illinois?    For local offers click here!The problem comes when we find ourselves in our first leadership position where our core expertise is only a part of what we do. All of a sudden, the "Hello, Problem; meet Solution" approach doesn't work in all those other areas.


Our first instinct is, then, to see the fact that the solution didn't work as a matter of degree. We go back and check our work, and then increase the intensity of what we are doing, one way or another. And when that still doesn't work, we start troubleshooting: fiddle with this over here, adjust that over there, and see if that finally solves it.


In cases where intensity and troubleshooting don't work, we often find ourselves - and those who work for us and with us - frustrated, upset, and demoralized. We realize that the application of expertise hasn't worked, that increasing or decreasing the degree, intensity, or volume hasn't worked, and now we are stuck - having spent resources toward something that didn't get us where we wanted to go.


Our habits, our training, our expertise: all of these point us toward solving problems as technical ones. So we tend to apply technical expertise to leadership challenges and organizational situations. The problem is clear, the solution is clear, and, based on our authority as leaders, experts, or owners, we bring the problem to resolution.


When technical doesn't work


The problem is, as we well know, that's not always the case. We all deal with adaptive change more than we may even realize. In fact, the more leadership we experience, the less we see of technical issues and the more we deal with the adaptive. So being able to identify adaptive changes on the front end will help us apply a different approach to them, saving us time, money, and relational capital along the way.


Adaptive challenges begin with unclear problem definitions, and their solutions require the leader and the organization to learn something new. By virtue of that, the application of our expertise won't work. Therefore, in most cases, the authority we have that derives from that expertise does not give us the leverage to make something happen that it otherwise would. Therefore, the bulk of the work doesn't come from the expert applying expertise, but from all involved (the stakeholders - which could include staff, vendors, and clients/customers/members/beneficiaries) finding ways to engage with and wrestle through the challenges.


Significant organizational change is almost always adaptive; adaptive change does not always show up as significant organizational change. In other words, if an organization needs to change its culture, its way of operating, or has experienced a major stuck point, it is likely that these are adaptive changes. On the other hand, adaptive challenges can appear in small ways on a daily basis. The cumulative effect of these may be significant organizational change, but that's not how they first appear. So many of us do, in fact, deal with adaptive change more than we think we do.


So why is identifying what type of change we are experiencing so important?


We have seen several reasons why identifying what type of change we are in is important.


  1. Adaptive change shows up a lot more than we might expect, and not usually in dramatic ways.
  2. Adaptive challenges require a significantly different approach to resolve them than technical challenges do.
  3. We are primed to solve things technically by our training and expertise - even when our training and expertise do not apply.
  4. Taking a technical approach when the challenge is really adaptive can waste time, energy, and money, and hurt relationships. In fact, it can make the challenge worse.


Where have you seen the importance of identifying what type of change you are in?


Let me know. E-mail me.

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Topics: adaptive change, adaptive leadership, identifying adaptive change, leading organizational change