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Thought Thursdays
How to turn change victims into change agents

TT48.pngIt has been said that the only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper! The rest of us are inherently resistant to change, in varying degrees. An organisation neglects to examine its dominant leadership and company culture and the overt or subtle resistance to change at its own peril. But, overreliance on forced compliance with changing company strategies and structures stifles innovation, resilience and agility, and may easily create a passive-aggressive organisation. The adage rings true: “People support what they co-create.”  

We recently facilitated change management processes in the very interesting context of male student residences at two less transformed South African universities. Both the residences where we consulted independently accommodated male and mainly white, Afrikaans-speaking students. Evidence confirming an exclusive paradigm and a lack of sensitivity for gender and transformation issues necessitated a closer look at the residence cultures and the initiation of a change management strategy. The difficulty was to get the buy-in of the residents, given the possibility that our intervention may have been perceived as a punitive measure imposed by the very university management structures which appointed us. Our approach to circumvent this possible debilitating perception was simple and based on two tenets: 1. Everyone should be listened to, and 2. Without a sense of urgency change will not be sustainable.  

Our facilitation technique was also not rocket science. We facilitated courageous conversations around the questions: “What would be [residence name] heaven?” (inviting discussions on the vision and values that the residents wish to strive towards) and “What would be [residence name] hell?” (inviting discussions on the risks, or the perceived long-term worst-case scenario). The first follow-up question created the sense of urgency: “How do we get to [residence name] hell?” to which the answers in essence were “We do nothing and we change nothing, because we realise now that the current trajectory is leading us straight into that hell”. The next question led to the first outlines of a change management strategy: “How do we get to [residence name] heaven?” to which the answers included the mention of a value system that should be the real authority in the residence culture, and new practices showcasing and reinforcing those values. This addressed our conviction that change would not be sustainable if it did not originate from a sense of urgency for that change. 
The need to hear everyone’s voice, and thus creating a critical mass of early adopters of the change management strategy, was addressed, firstly, by identifying the different ‘tribes’ or segments in the residence and following the exact same process around the questions above with each segment (we identified first year students, second year students, senior students, previous and current house committees, as well as a mixed group of wider stakeholders – alumni, university management and SRC). Secondly, we found the shared mindset among all those inputs. A final house meeting was used as a feedback and decision-making session, where a change management task group was formed and mandated to take the process further. In one residence this entire process took place over the course of a month, while in the other it was done over a full weekend when the residence had its ‘stay-in’ weekend.  

The way this process was approached can easily be related to the well-known ADKAR model of change management, emphasising i) Awareness of the need for change; ii) Desire to participate and support the change; iii) Knowledge of how to change (and what the change looks like); iv) Ability to implement the change on a day-to-day basis; and v) Reinforcement to keep the change in place. The awareness of what ‘hell’ would look like created the sense of urgency. The desire was created by envisioning a different future. The knowledge was transferred by facilitating a structured plan during a process of creative brainstorming. The ability and the reinforcement phases were addressed by assigning the change management processes to a change management task team, who also had a mentoring role and the task to celebrate small successes, leveraging the power of demonstrable, advantageous change. 
As soon as we experienced that change was possible we also found that change was contagious and that change begat change. The mentality of being victims of change (reflected in phrases such as “the university management opposes us; doesn’t understand our culture; doesn’t respect our traditions”) previously created a culture where residences grudgingly complied with new rules, but kept old habits alive under the radar. The new mindset was that of becoming agents of change, creating and innovating their own future. They gradually came to be known as pioneers and leaders among their peers and in the university community, while previously regarded as destructive, exclusive and transformation-resistant.  

Bridging the execution gap remains a challenging question in all organisations. Why do we struggle to execute our well-designed strategies and plans? Resistance to change is the often-discovered culprit. Change management is a crucial building block to bridge this gap. In any organisation this entails answering the following two questions:  

1) Did we ‘listen everyone into existence’ (were all voices heard, even the voices of dissent); and 
2) Were we able to create conditions that are conducive to the unforced discovery of a sense of urgency?
This buy-in process unleashes the power of co-creation of a preferred future and the rediscovery of agency versus the passive victim mentality.

Dr Johan van der Merwe is a business developer, researcher, executive coach and workshop presenter, and has joined USB-ED as course facilitator. His areas of interest and expertise include operational efficiency, organisational design, business model design, business strategy, market and industry research, data strategy, internationalisation, change management and leadership culture.

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