Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Knowing What to Leave Alone

I adapted this blog post from my new eBook, Becoming a Change Artist This little case example followed a number of other examples, as a kind of corrective to some peoples' ideas about how a change artist operates.

I don't want to give the impression that change artists are rushing around an organization inflicting help on everyone. Perhaps the toughest skill for a change artist to learn is the skill of knowing what people and what situations to leave alone.

For instance, there's a Vietnamese proverb that says, "While it is notable to assist a stricken elephant in rising, it is foolhardy to catch one that is falling down." Change artists need to learn how to recognize whether a person or department is willing to help themselves rise.
For instance, change artists should have lots of potentially transforming ideas on hand. Most of these ideas are on the process level—that is, processes for finding ideas. Such processes might include
  • reaching out to other organizations, departments, professional societies, libraries, consultants, or classes
  • facilitating brainstorming processes
  • keeping an inventory of sample problems, toy exercises, and simulations for right-brain exploration and left-brain investigations
  • conducting focus groups, and knowing how to recognize when the group lacks the necessary knowledge (A lens doesn't focus anything if there's no ray of light.)
  • changing the mixture of people to obtain more diversity and knowledge
  • combining ideas from several sources to produce new ideas
A good example of combining of ideas is the process of connecting what the individuals want with what the organization or the change artist wants. If the change artist thinks the elephant might be falling down, she might make her presence (what they want) conditional on their participation (what she wants). Or if management wants the group to take a risk, the change artist might negotiate some kind of insurance to give the group safety, such as extra time in the schedule, relaxed specifications, suspension of the usual measurements, or a guarantee of their old jobs back if the project flops.

Here's an example of this kind of negotiation. In an organization producing electronic equipment with embedded software, top management threw in a foreign element by mandating certain process improvements. Some of the more traditional managers were highly technical engineers, and claimed that the other managers, being service engineers, weren't sufficiently technical to do process improvement. Thelma, a change artist, was supposed to facilitate the entire group of managers working on the improvements, but she faced a problem: Who should have the job, given that the technical managers weren't doing it, and the service managers wanted to do it?

Thelma applied several change artist principles:

  • Always find the energy for change and go with it. In this case, the service managers wanted to work on change, and the technical managers didn't.
  •  Don't get hooked into negative energy. The technical managers knew dozens of reasons why these changes could not be made.
  • Talk in their terms and find out what the issues really are. It turned out that the technical managers were overloaded with assignments just getting products out the door. The service managers were overloaded, too, but they felt that their overload was due to service requests arising from faulty technical processes. They were willing to invest their time to reduce their future load.
  • Once you're prepared, go to the source. Having assembled all these facts, Thelma made a recommendation to upper management that the service managers be given the process improvement responsibility, and that the technical managers no longer be required to attend process improvement meetings. In return, the technical managers promised their full cooperation on an as-needed basis. Upper management was happy to accept her solidly-based recommendation.
  • It's perfectly all right to do nothing for a time. Dormancy periods in seeds and hibernation in animals are adaptive strategies in an environment with fluctuating opportunities for growth. In human organizations, the Zone Theory says that it sometimes makes good sense just to lie low during periods of rapid change. Knowing that Chaos is contagious, Thelma wisely decided to leave the technical managers alone. Their time would come.
In other words, just like in artistry with a canvas, paint, and a brush, sometimes the empty spaces are the most important part of the work of art.

To perfect your change artistry, you might want to participate in this year's AYE Conference.

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