Why is difficult to sustain Change?

Several companies fail in their attempts to achieve excellence. A common reason is that the so much needed change wasn’t planned or implemented properly, and it will be rejected by the organization, as the organizations are auto-regulated (autopoiesis, Maturana dixit). Often, companies (or consultants) use a packaged change program: “Whatever worked for X company is good enough for company Y.”  Additionally, everyone wants a quick fix that makes them look better in no time, and more often than not, structural changes are messy.

We often forget that things that developed or deteriorated for years, cannot change in a couple of weeks, with just a few meetings. We need to change people behavior and often, beliefs.  As this is frequently a very important and not always  evident obstacle for change: organizational defenses.

To achieve organizational excellence, organizations should focus on learning, competence and justice, instead of morale, satisfaction and loyalty which are the frequent concerns of HR, as Chris Argyris says. Learning will allow us to detect errors and correct them; competence will help us to solve problems definitely and justice will improve the organizational health. Regardless of the change agents’ efforts, if the organization doesn’t really focus on these three issues, change won’t be sustainable.



Argyris mentions seven worldwide errors that top management considers crucial, and that have been proved through research:

1. Actions intended to increase understanding and trust often produce misunderstanding and mistrust.  Think of all these meetings that large companies have between the head office and a local office.  Head office executives think that everything has been cleared out and local office executives wonder what is the head office really planning to do.

2. Blaming others or the system for poor decisions. No one likes to take the blame, and no one wants to admit they made a mistake.

3. Organizational inertia: the tried and proven ways of doing things dominate organizational life. We have all heard the typical comment: “it has always been done this way”, or “I don’t have the authority to change it”. People tend to stick with what they did yesterday, often forgetting that if there is a new competitor, new technology or new need, what worked yesterday won’t necessarily work today.

4. Upward communications for difficult issues are often lacking. No one wants to bring the bad news,  Upward communication from employees often disappears at management level.

5. Budget games are necessary evils. Everyone in a medium or large company knows the different applications of this defense.  People tend to undersell to make sure that they can deliver, conceal unattractive programs in a more attractive one, require authority from different parties to make difficult to come to an agreement, promise future results instead of being clear on what the program does, etc.

6. People don’t behave reasonably, even when it’s in their best interest. A lot of irrational responses can be found here: rejection, indecision, procrastination, sabotage, lack of follow-up, etc.  People think that just by being (or appearing busy) things will change or fade away.

7. The management team is often a myth.  



There is no magic pill to change our behavior in organizations, but we can start by understanding these errors and finding which ones apply to our organization. We need to process our fears and work as individuals and in groups, to understand what is happening to our organization and what do we need to do to change it. We need to get rid of the “fancy footwork” that protects this defensive routines.  We need to understand and challenge the assumption that is behind each defensive behavior.

When we talk about changes that impact the entire organization, there is never too much communication or training.  But both process should be a two way path. We need to listen and learn what is really happening in the organization.  Our Change  Management efforts cannot be superficial, otherwise we risk the trust the organization may have on it.

We need to unlearn and re-learn a new model of thinking. Analysis, reflection and humble inquiry are needed if we are to get to the bottom of these defenses.

Do you have any example of question? Please, share it in the comments section.

Managing Change vs. Leading Change

Some days ago, I attended a conference and realized Lewin’s change model is still in use. The simplicity of the model is useful to illustrate the process, but in my perspective, it could be misleading.  If we haven’t experienced a deep transformation process, we can think the change process is linear and looks like this:

Lewin change model

It consists in providing the conditions for people to see what needs to be changed and why, what resources do they have and which ones they need.  Then, during the change process it refers to planning and adopting new practices, and modifying behavior to adapt to change. Finally, coming back to the normal conditions, using and incorporating change.

In a strict sense and in retrospective, an organizational change may look like that. However, transforming human behavior is not so easy and for sure it’s not linear.

The ADKAR model developed by Prosci, is one of the most comprehensive models businesses use nowadays.


Regardless of the type of change your organization is going through, understanding the stages of change will reduce confusion, but having more clarity on what are the pitfalls and what is needed to move from one stage to another is relevant.  However, as John Kotter says,  it is important to remember that managing change is not the same as leading change. “Management” implies a system or process that can and should be constantly monitored, whereas “Leadership” suggests assembling and inspiring a group of people who will design and own a self sustaining program.

A lot of companies talk about Change managers (or even champions), when what they actually need are Change leaders that can instill the urgency to change and motivate the entire organization to go through an unpredictable, difficult and long process, that will end up changing the culture of the company. We need to remember that although the goal may be the same, the process is quite different and therefore, requires a different set of skills.

Organizational Stewardship

stewardshipIn 2006 I attended a reunion of  the Global Stewards of the World Cafe. I had the opportunity to meet amazing people, one of them the caretaker of the land at the Marconi Center where the event was held. Meeting him during the first session helped me to reflect on the differences among Stewardship, Leadership, Ownership, and other concepts that come into play when we think of responsibility. We tend to think that leadership implies stewardship, and ownership implies the others, too, but it’s not quite so. I believe that the three roles are different and absolutely needed to thrive.

Stewardship is to hold something in trust for another. Stewardship requires understanding the big picture, knowing that we are serving a cause larger than our own interest.  With so many scandals that we see daily when companies and cities are looking into their own values, at least to pretend that they care for citizens and communities, we need to really understand Stewardship and promote it within our organizations.

Peter Block says that “Stewardship encompasses concerns of the spirit, but it also must pass the test of the marketplace. It must be practical and economical. It must be low cost and good for customers and communities as well as employees. Our organizations constantly stand on this intersection of spirit, community, and the marketplace.”  We tend to think that Stewardship is for hippies or religious people and it isn’t. It’s part of our daily job if we’re to help organizations to thrive.

The awareness and the need for transparency is increasing, and it is changing the way we distribute the power in organizations. It also implies that the responsibilities we take are not so clearly defined and if they are, that there is nothing wrong with taking a look and lending a hand into another area.

I recall the confusion generated a couple of years ago, when the receptionist in our company quit. She was doing some tasks to support the Accounts Payable/Receivable coordinator who was absent, such as receiving invoices and checks and sending them to the head office to be payed or cashed. The receptionist quit in less than a week, and her manager wasn’t at the office.  I received all her things (keys, cards, taxi slips and other stuff) as I was the only manager present that day (and there is no HR people in Montreal in this company). Then, I started taking care of these tasks that I’m sure people considered menial, but that were really important if we wanted to continue drinking coffee and purified water, and keep our clients happy. To me those reasons were enough. I did it for almost six months.  People were confused and some questioned me why I would do that, and at some point my answer was: Why wouldn’t I do that? If the organization needs your help and you say you’re committed, why not?

Our role in HR is to help people understand that the organizational borders are disappearing, we need to be a reminder that accountability and service is part of any role in the organization. If I want to be part of the success of  an organization, I can no longer say “It’s not my job”, if a certain task needs to be done.

Also, it’s our role to facilitate perspective, transparency and responsibility in all the tasks.  The number of companies that are sharing compensation information, financial reports and all kind of indicators with the employees. Employees are no longer a pair of hands, we/they come with a brain, too, as Nordstrom and Ridderstrale reminded us.

So, how do we enhance the Organizational Stewardship culture?  There is no one-fits-all recipe, as each organization is in a different stage but the key of Stewardship is creating the conditions that allow transparency and involvement within the organization.

Evolutionary leadership

This year, I’m taking a course on Evolutionary Leadership for Sustainability. I believe we cannot continue living in the way we have done it until now, without consequences. Scientist Stephen Hawking believes humans will not survive another 1000 years on planet Earth, and he may know a couple of things about the topic.

According to Alex Lightman, we are getting 88% of our energy from carbon when we have more than 4,000 times as much energy available from the sun. Yes, we have all heard about the financial doom that will happen if we decide to do things in another way, but perhaps we should be a little bit more concerned about burning the planet and all humankind if we don’t change radically. It’s clear to me that the question is not: should we change? but how do we change? Here is where Evolutionary Leadership for Sustainability comes in.

Leaders are a reflection of the society, but in return, they change it by changing the status quo. Nowadays, the relationship between leaders and follower is more fluid than 15 years ago. The access to new technology and the influence of social media has radically changed the way that we interact with each other and has decreased the (almost) blind confidence that followers had in their leaders. The concept of leadership has to evolve, too. It has to integrate Sustainability into the core, to remind us that we actually LIVE here and that we are part of a living system.

The major problems that we’re suffering are systemic: poverty, hunger, violence, ecological disasters, just to name a few. Therefore, we need to act globally if we want to solve them. We also need to see the impact in the long term, understanding that these problems are permanent unless we decide to act. Short-sighted leaders are only concerned about power, their groups (followers) and their local and immediate needs. We need leaders that serve the humankind, concerned about the global issues and that understand the long-term implications of any actions. boat

Followers that are ready to change the way they perceive, react and act to our reality are quickly becoming leaders. This is the transformation of systems thinking, to systems feeling, to systems being. We all have the potential and more important, the moral obligation to become leaders and create a sustainable paradigm if we want our children to continue living on this planet. The first steps we need to take are:

-Get informed, know your facts. Share them with your friends.

-Demand greener products, greener companies.

-Act greener. Find your ecological footprint and reduce it.

We  need to understand that this crisis didn’t happen overnight and it certainly won’t be fixed in the short term, but as Peter Diamandis says:  A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

The Human side of the company


Some time ago, I worked in an implementation team of a company-wide project. The project was supposed to be a joint effort between HR and IT, but in reality, the process was driven by the IT team according to their needs, expertise and resources. The HR team found frustrating that the human factor was not fully considered when the plan was designed or executed. The project didn’t fail, in the sense that it was actually implemented, but the conflict and tension it generated within the implementation team and across the company,  were major. Recovering from the damage in employee morale came at a high cost. The remedies we had to apply were many and diverse, so it would hardly qualify it as a success.

One of the biggest issues was the communication with the people involved. Both teams were informed separately that the goal was to do “the best for the company”, without clarifying what does that mean and how to get there.  From an HR perspective, doing the best meant to consider every division’s current needs, future needs, resources and the global trends. For IT it meant to utilise the module they had already implemented in one of the larger divisions of the company and optimize the resources by just adapting the implementation plan they used about 3 years ago. The board of directors did not seem to have considered that the needs of the HR teams, the culture or their processes could be different in each division and that a successful plan should have considered the human factor.

Years later, I see that Change Management is mostly limited to IT project management, when a real change in an organization requires that people are convinced that the change is necessary, that their input is important and that the needs of all teams are considered. That doesn’t mean that everyone is leading the project, but it means that the value of the human capital goes beyond a poster in a meeting room, that we understand that along with the pair of hands there is a brain working for us and that each person will be able to bring unique points of view that should be considered.

Frequently, facilitators seem to believe that an invitation to participate is enough to engage people in major change processes, when in reality, a safe environment that welcomes all voices is what is needed. Sometimes there is a superficial sense of community, if people didn’t express openly their concerns or disagreements, inexperienced facilitators may believe that everything is going right, however, in a safe environment people would express their concerns and they may be able to be resolved.

Companies often forget that changes happen not only because they are announced, the need for change should be real and compelling, and people need to be (and feel) safe during it. If we add the factor of meeting people’s needs, we will have a group of people engaged, committed and interested in making the change happen for everyone’s benefit.


OD professionals

Notes of Joseph Bentley’s Conference at UDEM (Mexico) on March 2012.
joe bentley
1. We, OD professionals, know how to facilitate collaboration instead of
conflict. Organizational issues require collaboration, as the ones that
are at the top of the organization have the power but frequently don’t
know how to solve the issues, and the ones at the bottom have the
knowledge but not the power to solve them.
2. We know it’s important to give voice to everyone, in harmony. We know
that giving voice brings commitment, commitment brings energy and energy
brings progress.
3. We believe that conflict is not always bad. It generates possibilities. Conflict facilitates possibilities and when it’s appreciated, leads to consensus.
4. We know “how things change in a planned way”. An added value of OD is planning, as it allows a semi-organized change, instead of chaotic
5. We understand that it’s always about people. Technology and Finance could be strong but people are the system. They are the ones who solve
the issues.
6. We know how to teach. A lot in OD is to teach the ones with the power.  85% of the leaders hadn’t have any formal training on leadership. A coach
has a very important role in the organization.
7. We know that the most valuable learning is the one achieved through struggle. Problems open you up for learning.
8. We understand the pressure of time. We don’t know where we would be in the next 20 years, or what the conditions will be. We will be solving
problems that we don’t know yet, with people that are still studying elementary school, in situations that we cannot predict now, however, we
know that face to face conversation will be important. We will need to discuss desires, goals, achievements, failures.  We are comfortable with
9. We understand that OD starts always with a problem. It’s difficult to pay attention if everything is ok. All changes start with a need.
We understand that there is conflict between the organization and its needs and the individual and his/her needs. We know how to work with
people to solve the organizational problems.
10. We understand that change requires a lot of energy: at the beginning and also through the entire process. People are usually energized at the
beginning but have less energy after the initial stage. We are able to channel the energy for the bold stroke at the beginning,
as well as the needed for the long march.
An OD professional is the one:
 who is comfortable with ambiguity
 committed with collaboration
 who honors other people
 who involves others
 who is an expert in Human Relations
who learns fast
 who is eager to receive feedback.
We can see things that the rest cannot, understand them in a different way and tell the truth in a way that engage people, instead of losing

Leadership through the ages

We know that change is present in every aspect of our lives: our job changes constantly, we meet new people, we acquire more education or we reflect upon new experiences.

The leadership style that we exercise or observe in other people may also change in response to different challenges; although we may not notice these changes in the bigger picture. I was reflecting on the different theories that I learned some time decades (!)  ago and I found that the leadership styles have changed drastically through the ages. Then, I found this image that illustrates these changes clearly: http://visual.ly/leadership-through-ages

Needless to say that we constantly meet people who believe that the “Great Man” or the “Controller” are the only styles that work. For sure, we may feel more comfortable using a particular style, but that doesn’t mean that we’re effective. To have a real impact, we need to be at the intersection of the right style for us and our collaborators, the organizational culture and the environment. Why? because we’re not working in isolation.

The bigger our organization is, the more variables come in play. This new era is calling for Eco-leadership, a leader that can help the company to thrive in harmony with the environment. Are you ready for it?