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Thought Thursdays
Change is changing


We live in exciting times! As individuals, we are constantly surprised by phenomena we do not anticipate: Brexit, Trump, reshuffling of the cabinet, junk status. We are confronted with the realities of the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world we live in, and the 4th Industrial Revolution is on our doorstep (see Table 1). In addition, within our organisations we are challenged by the relentless pounding of ongoing and ever-changing change. Indeed, it has been said that even change is changing!  


Table 1: The Industrial Revolution

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Amid it all, we question how relevant our thinking regarding leadership and change still is. Are models created in the last century really still relevant? How do we make sense of it all?

For years traditional leadership models have been hailed as the answer to all our questions relating to leadership: the 'great man' theory, the trait theory, situational leadership theory, Collin's and Porras' level 5 leadership theory, as well as transactional and transformational leadership. In change management, John Kotter's change management model has been our saving grace for decades. PLOC (plan, lead, organise and control) gave us a wonderful framework to tackle issues when the need was for control, stability, order, predictability and simplicity. These models and theories all served us well while we lived in the era of planned change during the 2nd and 3rd Industrial Revolutions.

But if, as organisations, we want to remain successful in the 4th Industrial Revolution, we will have to ensure that the rate of internal innovation exceeds the rate of external innovation. In other words, we can't simply embrace change; we have to be the ones who create and drive the change. Successful organisations will have to out-think, out-innovate and out-execute everyone they compete against. As pointed out by John Spence in 2015 , we, as organisations and as individuals, only have two choices: drive the change or be run over.

At the recent Fourth International Responsible Leadership Conference, Dr Mary Uhl-Bien delivered a paper introducing the concept of complexity leadership theory (CLT). This more modern model caused me to rethink the way I understand leadership and change. Ulh-Bien contends that leadership models developed for the 2nd and 3rd Industrial Revolutions dealt with linear, non-disruptive thinking and are no longer valid. Rapid technological and global changes create new pressures on organisations to perform and to stay ahead of their competitors. But bureaucracy and silos stifle creativity and create obstacles to interconnectivity, as stated by Arena and Uh-Bien in 2009. So how can leaders allow for creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to flourish while operating within the bureaucratic structures? The answer lies in creating adaptive systems (see Table 2).

Table 2: Creating adaptive systems

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Uhl-Bien believes two primary systems exist. The first is the bureaucratic/operational/administrative system, i.e. the traditional hierarchy that drives formality, standardisation and business performance. The second more entrepreneurial system drives innovation, learning and growth. These two systems are in conflict. Our tendency is to want to minimise this conflict.


Figure 1 below illustrates the two primary systems and the tension between these systems. The adaptive system bridges the divide, allowing the ideas coming from the entrepreneurial system to be accepted by the more formal administrative system. In organisations, it is often the mavericks and the intrepreneurs who want to shake things up, innovate, bring in new ideas and transform the organisation. The bureaucratic, formal system often sees these mavericks as disruptive, and, while change processes are frequently embarked upon, implementation is often slow and many processes eventually die a slow death.


Figure 1: Complexity leadership model

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In CLT, leaders are encouraged to embrace the conflict between the two primary systems and engage the tension, as it is in this space that innovation and adaptability are enabled. Leaders and followers are taught skills on how to engage with complexity and ambiguity, and explore how to accept uncertainty with intuition as a valid contributor to clarity. Leaders enable emergence of solutions and innovations despite bureaucracy. According to Arena and Ulh-Bien, leaders create adaptive spaces and practise adaptive principles: they start small, find like-minded friends, follow the energy, set boundaries, embrace conflict and create network closure. Under CLT, the role of leaders shifts from a focus on driving and managing outcomes to a focus on enabling adaptive space – and leveraging pressures is essential to this role. Enabling leaders thus facilitate interactions and are catalysts for change.


Table 3: Adaptive principles


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Yes indeed, it does seem as if change is changing. Dave Gray uses the graphic below to explain how change management is changing. Whereas in the past change could be described as using two sigmoid curves, it now seems as if it is more a matter of 'pruning branches'. Many innovations need to be experimented with. The term 'burn and learn' encourages leaders to allow followers  to move to prototypes rapidly. Failure is not frowned upon, as long as learning is shared and applied.


Figure 2: Change management is changing 

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Source: Dave Gray

In addition, change is now presented as an adaptation to John Kotter's eight steps to illustrate the quicker, more cyclical nature of change processes.

Figure 3: Adaptive Change

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Although the need for change and vision are still both critical starting points to any change process, the next step is to foster collective intelligence and then launch multiple experiments and pilot programmes, of which many may be failures. Ongoing assessment and learning then allows assessment, fine-tuning and up-scaling. The speed of managing the change process is also significantly faster. According to Plowman and co-authors of a paper written in 2007, CLT can assist greatly in implementing such cyclical change processes by giving meaning to what is happening in the organisation, disrupting existing patterns by creating conflict, acknowledging uncertainty, establishing simple rules, encouraging 'swarm-like' behaviours, promoting non-linear interactions, and acting as sense-makers.

Thinking differently about leadership and change is practising what we preach. If the very nature of leadership is to bring about change, it will remain an ever-transforming field.

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Sonja Swart (MPhil) is a USB-ED Faculty member. As a human resources, leadership and change consultant with more than 25 years’ experience, Ms Sonja Swart has served a wide variety of businesses and industries. In both the public and private sectors, she has successfully managed change and organisational development projects. These include business turnaround projects, business re-engineering, culture change and quality improvement.

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