How to bring about change

One of the more fascinating courses I’ve been doing at college has been about organizational culture. While this hasn’t been strictly Christian stuff, it’s another of those areas that applies nicely to community organizing for open source. Part of the work, and the essay that I’m doing at the moment, is about planning a cultural or structural change in an organization. I’ve started by developing a change model that (I hope) works for my mission agency, and I think will probably work well for open source movements too because they share the same voluntary associative nature - in other words, you can’t force people to come on board with the change. You have to win them. Here’s how I plan to do it.

One of the key resources has been a book by Kotter called Leading Change. He sets up an eight-step plan for bringing about change, which looks like this:

  • Establishing a sense of urgency
  • Creating the guiding coalition
  • Developing a vision and strategy
  • Communicating the change vision
  • Empowering others to act
  • Creating short-term wins
  • Consolidating gains and producing even more change
  • Institutionalizing new approaches in the future

Kotter’s good stuff but it is very much set in the enterprise world, where you can assign little committees to come up with a change vision and then get everyone else on board. To use it in the mission/open source world, you have to contextualize it a bit, which is what I’ve done, but let’s take note of some of the things he says.

First he says that most change programs don’t happen because people don’t see the point. If people are comfortable and happy without the change, they’re going to resist it, not because they’re miserable stuck-in-the-mud Luddites, but because they don’t have any need to change and very few people like change for the sake of it. Change takes effort and stress and unfamiliarity and insecurity. People are only going to do that if being where they are is uncomfortable. So Kotter says, turn up the heat. Make it uncomfortable. People have to know that life sucks before they’ll try something else. Somewhere he says that losing a billion dollars is a good way to get noticed. So your first task is to communicate to people, in terms that they understand, that they have a problem. This doesn’t mean “tell them that they have a problem that they didn’t know about.” It means “find ways to get them to realise that they have a problem.”

I don’t necessarily agree with Kotter that this is the only way to bring about change, because I believe that you can motivate people with a vision that change is better. But one thing is true: Where you have complacency, you won’t get change. The case for the status quo needs to be demolished, whether by painting a much better future or undermining the present.

Second he says that change programs often don’t work out because the people who are for change are not the people who can bring about change. You need to have a change team that includes the people with the real power, not just the people who ought to have the power. I think in a voluntary sector organization, actually everyone is a stakeholder in the change and you have to build a coalition big enough to include everyone, whether they come on board initially or not.

Third, he says that people are not naturally willing to commit to change for the long term unless they can see the benefits straight away. So he says, create some quick wins. Make the change worthwhile in ways that people can see it immediately. “I changed one program to use XYZ module and now it’s a lot cleaner and more maintainable” is not a quick win. It’s not going to inspire people to put in the pain of rearchitecture just for some perceived gain in the future. “I changed the program to use XYZ module and now it’s 80% faster” is a quick win. It affects people right now in ways that are indisputablely good. It allows change to inspire more change.

Starting with Kotter’s change plan and adapting it for the voluntary sector, I came up with my own:

Preparing the ground

The aim of this stage is to bring the team to a realisation of a need, to align them around a problem and to begin to engage with a solution. You’re not actually proposing a solution at this point, but you want the team to begin looking ahead to ways in which things can change. You can do this via Kotter’s method of making people uncomfortable with the present, if you’re happy with that ethically and you’ve got the billion dollars to spare, or you can do it by presenting possibilities of a future. You can point the team to other people who have made a similar change and reaped the benefits. However you do it, you need to get people out of a sense of complacency and begin to sow the seeds of expectation.

Bringing the people on board

Once people are looking around for a solution, you want them to be looking for you to bring one. That’s not the main aim, though, because change needs to be their change, not their change. Start with a small “skunkworks” team who are on the leading edge of change and can experiment with the new way of doing things. If that works well, and you have a good change vision that’s attractive to others, people are going to want to be involved in the new way - not least because your skunkworks team will be enthusiastically communicating how well things are going. Jealousy is a tremendously powerful factor in bringing about change - if part of your team are doing something well, rewarding and enjoyable, the rest will want to be part of it.

Letting the vision permeate

Kotter says that change requires a vision which is:

  • Imaginable: Conveys a picture of what the future will look like.
  • Desirable: Appeals to the long-term interests of employees, customers, stockholders, and others who have a stake in the enterprise.
  • Feasible: Comprises realistic, attainable goals.
  • Focused: Is clear enough to provide guidance in decision making.
  • Flexible: Is general enough to allow individual initiative and alternative responses in light of changing conditions.
  • Communicable: Is easy to communicate; can be successfully explained within five minutes.

He also says that such a vision must be communicated again and again and again until other people start to communicate it for you. I’m working on a change plan right now called “Location and Vocation”. It’s about giving people a role where they are but also challenging them to do a different role as part of another team elsewhere. The vision fits into three sentences, and it has those key words: location and vocation. Very easy for people to grasp. People know they have to think about two things: their location and their vocation. By bringing up the vision again and again, by explaining everything that people do in these two categories, the change leader will be encouraging the rest of the team to start to think for themselves in these categories. Eventually, when someone says “I’m serving the church in this area”, other members of the team will say something like “that’s your locational ministry, but what are you doing in your vocational ministry?”

The job isn’t done until everyone is thinking in the new categories, so your categories have to be simple, easy to explain and you’ve got to keep talking about them until they sink in.

Keeping up momentum

Quick wins are part of this, but your skunkworks team should already be showing quick wins by this point. You want to start seeing other members of the team produce their own quick wins. You might need to be actively helping them to do this: whether it’s in terms of encouraging more people to experiment with the new changed model, or helping deal with any problems they’re having, or giving people the resources they need to make the change work.

Then celebrate the wins publically, so everyone can see that (a) the change works, and (b) if they’re the ones making the change work, they get peer acclaim and free pizza from the boss. Like jealousy, free pizza from the boss is a great change motivator.

You also, in this stage, want to be sweeping away any obstacles to change. Check with your skunkworks teams about any course corrections that need to be made. Start spending time with your hold-outs; there’ll always be some people behind the curve, but this is when you really need to be hearing them more than ever because this is the time they’re most likely to derail things. “That worked,” they’ll say, “can we get back to normal now?” Find out why they’re not playing by the new rules - and let them know that they’re not playing by the new rules.

Preparing for the future

Change is never over. For one thing, and this is where I deviate from Kotter again, you won’t get it right first time. There’ll be problems with the new regime that you want to improve. As well as making the current change the new norm (Kotter talks about change being done when the new process is “the way we do things around here”) you want to prepare the team for going around the cycle again, and part of the way to do this is to draw out some of the frustrations and failures of the change and see how you could improve them. This will form another mini change process.

Keep changing things until change itself becomes the new norm - and you’ll have a much more flexible and change-aware (and, if you’re not careful, very tired) team to deal with!