Almost a decade ago I had the pleasure of meeting and first working with Olivier Serrat from the Asian Development Bank. We worked together on a range of initiatives for ADB including developing a series of courses on learning in organisations. During that time Olivier wrote nearly 100 short and readable papers on issues related to organisational learning, knowledge management and leadership. In 2010 he brought these together in a single volume and it has been a constant and valued companion to me in my work. More recently, Olivier has added to the already comprehensive list of topics he had covered in his original publication and has now published a new collection of 126 of his articles in e-book form. Knowledge Solutions comprises an encyclopaedic resource on learning in organisations and is a significant contribution to the field. In an extremely welcome gesture of generosity his publisher – Springer – has made all of this content available Open Access which means we can download all the chapters free. You can browse through this cornucopia of materials here.
Last week I was facilitating a course in Oxford entitled ‘Toolkit for Organisational Change’. It’s a new three-day course that I designed for INTRAC as a ‘follow up’ to the five day Organisational Development course I have run since 2001. Despite the ‘raw edges’, the Toolkit course got positive feedback from the small group of six participants who attended. It was really interesting to hear them share their case-studies many of which concerned ‘live’ change processes that are going on in their respective organisations.
One issue that came over very strongly from the cases is the complex nature of the changes that organisations are dealing with. Other important points to emerge from the discussions were the particular challenges involved in facilitating change in large decentralised organisations and organisational partnerships. Many of the more conventional approaches to managing change assume that managers have control over the change process. The reality faced by organisations in civil society is that they are more likely to have influence rather than control over the change process. The change agents who support (but do not manage) change have an even more difficult task.
The course discussions have prompted me to start my own research into complex change in decentralised organisations. I will post what emerges from this and include links to interesting articles and materials when I come across them.
I have recently been asked to design a course for change agents on expanding their toolkits for facilitating organisational change. I’m a bit wary when I receive requests for tools. I get concerned that people are looking for a quick fix when we all know that organisations are incredibly complex and organisational change is very unpredictable. However, I am always interested in developing my own ‘toolkit’ so I guess others are too.
The idea of facilitating a workshop started me thinking about what tools I use regularly in my own practice as a change agent. I quickly began to realise that most of the time I devise tools to fit the circumstances – but that’s not very helpful to people who are looking for practical ideas. However, there are some ‘tried and tested’ tools (or are they techniques?) that I use regularly such as organisational timelines, rich pictures (from Soft Systems Methodology), force field analysis, disaster charting, SWOT analysis, problem trees, portfolio analysis, talking walls, card sort prioritisation, life-cycle assessment, organisational mapping, ‘goldfish bowl’ discussions, and occasionally role play and sculpting.
Why these? Well, firstly I feel confident using them and I think its really important that using a tool shouldn’t be a source of anxiety for the change agent who introduces it – we have enough to be concerned about! Secondly, the tools have a real purpose and are not simply entertaining gimmicks. I’m not against entertainment or fun in organisational change but I’d rather pause the process and introduce an energiser than use an exercise that has little point. Some of the techniques (or maybe they are methods) that I use most are interviews, group discussions and questionnaires. With these, what matters most is choosing questions carefully and being able to facilitate in-depth (and sometimes sensitive) dialogue and discussion. In my work on organisational learning I sometimes use a tool I devised a few years ago called the ‘Learning NGO Questionnaire’ but more often I devise customised questionnaires after some in-depth discussions with people in the organisation. In organisational change, one size definitely does not fit all.
So where does that leave the idea of the toolkit workshop? I think it could be a really good opportunity for participants to share their own favourites by illustrating how and when they have used the tools. Maybe the real focus of the workshop will turn out to be the criteria we use for selecting (or devising) the right tool for the circumstances. Since this is something we do more and more intuitively as we become more experienced, it will be a challenging issue to examine. But no matter how experienced we think we are as change agents, its always a good idea to re-examine our practice. A workshop on tools could end up being more challenging than it first seems!
One of the wonders of YouTube is the availability of video clips of people who we might not ever get the opportunity to hear and see in person. One of my biggest disappointments this year (so far!) was being unable to attend a course run by Meg Wheatley (the writer on community development and change), at Schumacher College in Devon, England. However, thanks to the generosity of people all over the world, it is possible to become part of other audiences. The people at Grand Rapids Community College in the US have posted an inspiring presentation by Meg Wheatley. During her lengthy and wide-ranging presentation she raises some tough questions and inspiring ideas. For example, she talks about the conventional way that states learn from disaster – to create new regulations. She quotes a friend who works for the chemical company DuPont who describes the complex rules and regulations for the chemical industry as a “history of our tragedies”. The problem is that we tend to legislate before we fully understand the complexity of the problem. So what starts as a solution to one problem becomes the unintended cause of another. What struck me was how this also applies to complex social problems such as child protection legislation. So what can we learn from Meg Wheatley’s approach to communities solving complex social problems? She summarises this neatly in a series of ten ‘Principles for Creating Healthy Community Change’ and by ‘community’ she means any type of group where communities get together, including organisations. You can hear Meg Wheatley talking about these principles at YouTube:
- People support what they create
- People act responsibly when they care
- Through conversation we discover shared meaning
- To change the conversation, change who is in it
- Expect leadership to come from anywhere
- Focus on what’s working and it releases energy
- The wisdom resides within us
- Everything is a failure in the middle
- People can handle anything as long as we are together
- Generosity, forgiveness and love are the most important