Change Leadership versus Change Management - An interview with Phillida Fleming

It is about letting go and re-formulation versus what we call “change”

Mandela Mirror

The following conversation with Phillida Fleming is extracted from our recent SLP café on Change Leadership

Q: “Earlier you mentioned that the reason you’ve seen that ‘change projects’ don’t work is because change is something that you can’t actually manage. Can you tell me a bit more about that?”

A: “Sure. Well let me start with a couple of observations about us humans and the world we inhabit.

Firstly, things are always changing. You could say that we are in a state of permanent change. Everything is constantly changing. Things naturally change all on their own!

Secondly I think our desire to try and manage change is often driven by our compulsion to do things rather than wonder or inquire into. I think this desire to change things or run change projects is often a case of “what we think there is to do…” and masks a lack of real thinking. I think it really helps to try and observe the way we view things and discover what is in the background of our thinking that has us desire to pull the “change” lever.”

Q: “My experience though, is that one of the reasons change projects are kicked off it because there is a pressing need to ‘do something’. How might you enquire in a situation like that?”

A: “Let me give you an example: One of our client’s business was in a highly regulated business environment. They felt that the output from the current regulation and the regulator wasn’t productive. Something had to change.

Rather than rushing into action trying to fix the regulation and the regulator, we initiated an enquiry. They quickly started to notice that the outputs shaped by the regulation was entirely dictated by the relationship of the business to the regulators. The relationship had become a parent – child relationship where they were in compliance mode with whatever the regulator said. Seeing that, they realised that there was no regulation or regulator to change. They had to stop being the child. From then on they had to make the decision of what was the best way forward, put the case to the regulator and prove the case that their proposal would fulfil on the regulation.

Once this new context was created and they took on that new responsibility it became a partnership with regulator. We drive and they check – that entirely new context caused an entirely new outcome for the business and for the regulator itself.

What it took was simply getting the regulator into a room with the senior business leaders and to look, explore and create a new partnership together and explore how they best work together going forward. The critical thing was not to invalidate anything that had been done by business itself or the regulator in the past, but to freely enquire and explore what they were committed to going forward."

Q: “Look that all sounds very useful. But most people don’t really have the time and space to do this. Couldn’t you have just pushed through?”

A: “But that’s the point. Ultimately this speeds things up and gets far better results. Any condition I was trying to change was happening on top of the very condition that was in the way. Not realising this was only ever going to compound the unsatisfactory condition, so I would never have performed well, I would have never got the results I wanted. The recognition alone released the grip and allowed for my movement forward.

“How many of the change projects we take on are really not profoundly altering anything? Rather they are a re-organisation of a set of parts, which is not change. Each part is not being explored in a new way at all as it is unwittingly kept in place and re-affirmed by the change programme itself. What is it that we are wanting to achieve by changing structure, process, models, people etc.? Maybe we can emerge into a new dimension via another path? More impactful, profound, fruitful and value adding?”

Q: “So what you seem to be suggesting is that rather than trying to manage the process of change, changing the way that people see and perceive things is what actually gets you different results?”

A: “Exactly. If you consider that the job of leadership is actually to alter how people see things so that they take different actions and get different results, then looking behind the current actions to find out what is causing them, gives access to choosing new future actions now. If we are honest about what is actually happening and seeing it for what it is then we can make new choices. It is about letting go and re-formulation versus what we call “change”. From this perspective, there is nothing to change and everything to own and step into entirely new sets of behaviours, an expansion and build from what has gone before. Without this inquiry, then we tend to build upon habitualised behaviours and compound the unsatisfactory results that are leading to our pull to “change”.

Nature has us already in a state of constant change. This is what we need to tap into. We are always changing – no person or thing remains the same. No change programme can ever hope to be anywhere dynamic enough to keep up with the change that is happening moment to moment. It may be helpful if we woke up to this realization and look elsewhere for new openings for our actions."

We run SLP café’s on a number of issues that we see as important, pressing and emerging. As well as our café on Change Leadership we are facilitating conversations on cultural transformation, divesity, building high performing joint ventures, the emerging disciplines of HSEQ, and the leadership capabilities required for the new and emerging challenges of the 21st Century. We are also developing a technology symposium looking at how new technologies and techniques can be used to foster collaboration, inclusion and innovation.

No change programme can ever hope to be anywhere dynamic enough to keep up with the change that is happening moment to moment. It may be helpful if we woke up to this realization and look elsewhere for new openings for our actions.