In this article, Aiden deals with the complex issue of change management, convincingly showing why many of today’s interventions fail. He provides a new starting point, using Organisational Narrative Mapping as a mechanism for profound change.

I was recently sitting in a meeting with some fairly experienced engineers, Greybeards as they are affectionately known, discussing some of the challenges facing their industry. At one point in the meeting, a fairly important and senior person suggested that a change management intervention be instituted to deal with the problem. Being curious, I asked the esteemed gentleman what he meant by the term change management. After some panicked blinks, that reminded me of a deer in the headlights of oncoming traffic, he said, “Um…I don’t know…but it should be done.
Could this be an isolated response? I think not. I suspect that Mr. Greybeard is not alone in believing that whenever there is a change, be it structural, procedural, strategic, functional, planned or unplanned in nature, the discipline of change management should be utilized and implemented. Not fully understanding the why and how of the discipline, there is a trend awash in business discourse that assumes Change Management is a necessary part of our business landscape. It has become the de facto solution to any shift that affects the people space of business.
It is amazing how a particular practice and discipline, introduced in a particular time and place, for a particular need and outcome turns into a blanket solution for years to come. Examples of such trends are the history of the total quality management standard of Six Sigma and how the standard gained airtime since Welch’s successful implementation at GE. Just the other day I was sitting in an airport lounge and overheard a guy having a conversation about their business and improving quality. “So, how do we begin? Um, yes, yep, okay let’s get the Six Sigma experts in�.
This trend can be seen as the dominance of a discourse generated after success is achieved with an intervention. This success is then publicized in various narrative forms, be it in academic journal, news publication or renowned autobiographies. Once the story is told, people buy into the potential success this intervention may have in their business. This process is really no different from how stories are propagated through history. When one hears a good story it is then retold and applied in multiple contexts for varying reasons.
Now, while I have my own reservations about the validity of change management in today’s age of discontinuous change, my criticism here is more applied to our tendency to turn a contextual intervention, that has a specific temporal application, into a discipline that can be applied beyond its value. In such instances the idiom “When you’re a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail” rings true.
What I mean by this is that the practice and process of change management emerged from a time in business history in which the discipline was apt and relevant. Since then, however, the world has changed and the nature of change has, well, changed. This is true of many factors that make up the commercial environment in which our businesses operate. We are now in a place where we have a multitude of change management processes and approaches at our disposal.
What I am not saying is that an intentional effort in trying to minimize the negative impact of a change should not be attempted. No. I am asserting that intentionality around change is critical. It is however the form of the intentionality that I am concerned with. I question the validity of best practice solutions that are implemented for the sake of them being the easiest and cheapest solution to the pain we’re experiencing without making a concerted effort to understand the problem.
The problem with adopting a change management strategy, and its associated tools, without really understanding the complexities of the issue at hand is the presupposition that change is necessary in these situations. And so, before we’ve even got to grips with the unique complexities of the problem, we have the change managers knocking at the door. I suspect that the majority of change management interventions serve merely as a tick on a check list providing a sense of achievement in the vain of “Ah, at least we have done something.�
A new way of dealing with organizational issues is required that is based on intentionality. While some prepackaged solutions may be just what is needed in addressing the problem, a leader cannot trust that every best practice solution, like change management, is the right solution. The new way of addressing organizational issues takes into account the unique nuances of the problems we face, grounded in the realities of the world we work in today.
In this spirit we can take a feather out of the cap of knowledge management specialists. In general there have been 3 generations of knowledge management in the last few decades. As the discipline emerged, it aimed to get the right information to the decision makers as quickly as possible. As such, it was largely a technology solution. Soon, however, people began to realize that the unique tacit knowledge that employees had was not being harnessed by such solutions. And so, the second generation of knowledge management focused on making tacit knowledge explicit. Today however, there is an increasing awareness of the roles of context and narrative in knowledge capture and transfer in the third generation of knowledge management.
It is this awareness that is so desperately needed when considering how to address a problem. Tapping into the unique context and narrative surrounding the supposed problem is vital in formulating a response. Today, the problem is that business tries desperately to apply a change management process without fully understanding the problem.
The first step in addressing organizational issues is to approach it with a sense of curiosity, asking curious questions of the problem. Traditionally, this step is characterized by interviews and questionnaires that presuppose what the problem may be and categorize the problem for a best practice solution. The problem here is that researchers engage in a researcher bias that gives you what you’re looking for. It does not take into account the possible unique nature of the problem you’re facing. Business leaders need to become aware of how it is the nature of the issue that prescribes how you deal with it. An understanding of complexity theory is valuable in this arena. Typically, there are four types of problems: simple, complicated, complex and chaotic.
Simple problems are such that they typically require a change in policy to resolve. A complicated problem is one that can be resolved by using best-practice solutions generated by experts who have dealt with the problem of this nature before. Complex problems, by their very nature, are not resolved by either of the solutions for simple or complicated problems. As such, you need to explore the issue with pre-hypothesis testing techniques so that a solution will emerge. Chaotic problems require that you act immediately to curb the hemorrhaging it creates in organizations.
And so, the first step in engaging problems in organizations, which are typically complex in nature, is to explore the problem, or more aptly, to probe it. The result of this probing are emergent themes, values and characteristics that lead to and inform solutions relative to the problem. It is at this stage that a best practice solution might be the most appropriate response. In this case, you now know that this solution is matched to the problem and that you are not metaphorically just throwing money at it in a haphazard manner.
The probing of problems mentioned above is best achieved in a process that takes into account the context and narrative surrounding a problem. In a way, organisation’s need to begin mapping their narratives. Organisational Narrative Mapping, as a process, represents the new way in which organisations should begin addressing problems.
As we see more of the Connection Economy become a reality, we are learning that we are entering an era in which who you are is more important than what you sell. At the same time, getting to grips with who you are, what you do and what your purpose is will be defining characteristics of organisation’s that succeed in the days to come. Exploring your narrative and context is emerging as a fresh way to address problems and the ever present problem of motivating and engaging employees in corporate strategic goals.
Aiden Choles is a strategy consultant, with formal studies in the concepts and applications of narrative techniques. He is part of the team, and can be contacted at .

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