Failure - in fact, repeated failure - is a core characteristic of successful change. Its counterbalance is a continuous improvement mindset that values rapid iteration, safe sandboxes for experimentation, and responsive feedback loops.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about non-fragile systems being either robust (strong but ultimately breakable), resilient (rebuilds stronger when broken) or anti-fragile (thrives on volatility). Too often change is "managed" as a robust system in which a top-down machine of worksheets, charters and governance bodies presses the organization toward its stated goal. Taleb, among others, recognizes that systems are less fragile when designed bottom up than top down. This is similar to the law of requisite variety Dave Gray discusses in The Connected Company: "any control system must be capable of variety that’s greater than or equal to the variety in the system to be controlled." When the complexity of change exceeds the complexity of "change management", we are fragile.
Resilience and adaptation mechanics are designed into the best change programs. The answer is to deploy change less like a machine and more like an organism.
- Build your hive. The brain-center of your change initiative should be as close to the front lines as possible, diversely distributed among those who are experimenting with the new way. Like a hive of bees or a colony of ants, ensure your center of gravity is placed - physically, organizationally, and psychologically - at the nexus of their paths. This is the single best way to design responsive feedback loops into the fabric of the effort.
- Speed up Evolution. Think of your change initiative as a multi-generational evolution in which you experiment with a pool of traits that are passed on from generation to generation. Your job - and the market's - is to select the fittest traits to be carried forward and evolve new mutations to cope with changing environments. Rapid prototyping and iterative design are our primary tools in reducing the cycle time between generations.
- Experiment in Sandboxes. Sometimes we need to practice a change before it's ready for a "live fire" environment. The more a new change relies upon people to bring it to life (think service design and experience design), the more common it is to prototype the new experience in a safe environment. Ask yourself, what would a safe sandbox look like to get employees comfortable with this new idea? Perhaps it's a simulation or role playing workshop, perhaps it's empowering employees with a promise that mistakes won't damage their career, perhaps it's spinning off an experiment that will be assessed on the number of insights, rather than the profit.
By looking at organic forms of organizing for change, we can face the unpredictability and complexity of the future with resilience, rather than robustness that obscures underlying fragility.
Stephanie Gioia is the Director of Consulting at XPLANE.