Tuesday, May 08, 2012
The Art of Change
I have been intimately involved in a 'project' to change an organisation - a complex one in a highly regulated space - and I speak of the mechanics of change usually referring back to this experience. While it lasts, this has been the most demanding, frustrating yet exhilarating work I have done so far: Progress as in one step forward, two steps back was all very common, and often, we seemed to have taken forever to resolve even the most straightforward issues. Indeed, by writing about it, I am not trying to claim any breakthrough success or mastery of the art of change management. On the contrary, this is more like the dispatches from the fault lines of an organisation in transition.
I learnt to hate organisational politics for no particular reason other than because people said so. In today's cynical democracies, people in politics are typically sleazy ones, those who try to be everything to everyone, with the sole objective of making themselves rich. Statesmen are all dead and buried, and politics is no longer about public service. In that spirit, organisational politics is castigated as the art of the idle - how often did I hear the claim that people should be working and not politicking - and usually politics is seen as self-serving, value-destroying, and regressive. However, political skills, of making people work towards desired ends with the power of words and ideas, are almost the only tool anyone has to make things work in this post-bureaucratic world. The power of the position, somewhat the Weberian idyll, does not work anymore in today's complex organisations. And, in persuading people to change, the political skills are of paramount importance.
This, in a way, is the secret sauce of the leadership. However, the difference between the politics which can transform people and organisations, and the evil variety that we all love to hate, is the element, and nature, of self-interest. Indeed, changing an organisation may start with self-interest of certain kind; in my case, it was the idea of a global school which I wanted to build on the platform of the transformed institution. However, this self-interest is different in nature from the usual power, perks and position variety that make people play games, which gives organisational politics a bad name of sorts. Whatever it is though, words are often the only levers a lone individual has in mending the course of a complex organisation; once combined with ideas, and enabled by a certain disinterestedness, they can perform magic in changing the game.
The other key lesson I learnt is that one can't do it alone. It is almost always about forming coalitions of interest. This, indeed, lies at the heart of the art of politics, that of finding the believers. But, in this context, it is more than that: It is not just about finding people who believe in your dreams, but also those whose dreams you can believe in. This, in essence, defines the fine line between manipulation and empowerment, the sleazy and the noble varieties of politics that often pass as management. However, at the fault line of change, particularly when the outside world is complex and survival-threatening, such common interests and shared goals are the only things which can make a difference. One of the greatest lessons I learnt in my pursuit of change is the power of these connections; what started as a forced accommodation of others' points of views turned out to be a transformational experience, of discovering a shared plain of ideas enriched with varieties of individual imaginations and possibilities.
So, in summary, the art of change lies in the possibilities of making connections. In my mind, it is all but obvious. It is like the brain firing new connections of neurons when it has to deal with things in a new way. For me, it was often about finding those individuals on the margins of the organisation and enabling them to play, and making connections with others with ideas. For me, at least in this particular experience, change came from outside the leader's pulpit: It came, if we must use a metaphor, from conversations, connections and ultimately, from common ideas that things can be better and different.
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How To Live
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T S Eliot
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