I have sought to change organisations, with some success and not a few acknowledged failures. Personal reflection on this experience has been useful and has allowed me to form something that amounts to 'a theory of change'. This is a grand claim, and I understand that this theory is, of course, weakly supported by the sort of evidence that I would demand of others making similar claims.
Before an organisation can change there must be a broadly shared perception that 'things could be better'. Organisations that are hubristic, that display excessive self-confidence, or conversely are hopeless, will be unable to change. It does not matter that there is no consensus on what exactly could be better or the route to better, it simply matters that there is a shared existential dissatisfaction with the status-quo.
The individuals within an organisation must believe they possess 'agency' that is the capacity to act and they must feel that they 'own' the problem that is to be addressed by change. In other words they must feel that it is for them individually and collectively to do something.
Agency and ownership must be accompanied by a sense that the resources to accomplish the change are within reach. Not necessarily within easy reach. A common pattern for comfortable avoidance of change is to form unreasonable expectations about the resources required for change and how they are to be secured.
Critical to the question of resources is the capacity to create the organisational bandwidth for change. Very few organisations believe this bandwidth exists at the start of a change journey, and indeed it may not. It will have to be built, a process that in itself can be quite disruptive.
There must be a compelling vision of the future beyond the change. It is best, naturally, that the vision is created by the organisation as a whole, and broadly subscribed to. This may not always be possible and a key function of change leadership is to shape and convey that vision.
I recall a senior colleague setting out his approach: "Organisations are made of memory-metal ... you can, with the application of a small amount of force, bend them into a new shape ... but once a small amount of heat is applied they will snap back to their previous conformation. Only if you superheat them will they assume a new shape permanently." This is a powerful analogy, it is important to move an organisation to a new equilibrium otherwise a change will not stick. Durable change entails applying significant energy to the system.
It is to be accepted that not everybody will subscribe to the vision, dissent or discomfort are acceptable, but there will need to be an early and visible limit placed on negative or obstructive behaviours. Similarly 'consent and evade' will need to be addressed openly, it can sap organisational will more certainly than outright opposition.
Change often entails loss and universally entails uncertainty. Early on, the losses must be confronted, and the period of uncertainty, possibly extended needs to be acknowledged. Losses of organisational narratives and losses of individual self-esteem and position are the hardest to bear and will require the most attention.
It is important that what is lost or set aside is recognised and memorialised. It will often have been constructed and preserved with pain and effort. The moment needs to be suitably marked perhaps even celebrated. A positive orientation to the future need not be accompanied by a wholesale rejection of what has gone before.
Finally, organisational change is not, contrary to what my prior observations might have suggested, an abstract 'thing', it is highly contingent and contextual, the place and the moment matter and have to be accounted for.
In summary we need “… a bespoke combination of Lenin and Burke, with the 18th Brumaire as the bridging mechanism”. Thanks ‘Anonymous’!