June 5th, 2017 3 Comments

A world of hope, a collective leap of faith.

Transformation of any type invites us to an imagined future. It asks us to lay down our tired assumptions and well-worn methods to embrace new ideas and almost unimagined possibilities. It begs us to see incremental change as an imposter. It asks us to suspend disbelief and take a leap of faith.

Organization transformation is no different.

To hold a vision of a fundamentally transformed organization is simultaneously an act of charity and an act of hope. The charity should be applied to ourselves, for we are the defenders and perpetrators of every entanglement in the current state we dislike. The hope we carry must be for those who follow in our footsteps, those who will benefit from the transformation we can picture just over that horizon. We hope that they will judge the transformation to have been beneficial in the long term, worth far more than the effort and resources we invest in it now.

But these things – vision, charity, hope, belief – are compromised by an illusion we keep close to us. This is the illusion of our separateness.

The missing 3rd level.

The predominant narrative in contemporary organizations is that transformation happens at two fundamental levels: the Individual and the Organizational. After all, it’s the individual who must participate in the change. Whether or not the individual chooses to lead, “go with the flow”, lag behind, or even resist, we still choose to focus on an action of a single person. As change management supports ramp up, the focus often remains on the individual and what she or he thinks, feels, and does about this invitation to profound change.

At the Organization level, transformation is often broadly and urgently needed (if not, then why are we using the word “transformation”?). Outside factors force organizations to adapt more quickly than ever. The organization’s viability is often at stake.

In this simplified portrait of individuals within organizations, people appear distinct and separate. The picture seems complete. Measures of progress might tell us, “46% of employees in Operations support the transformation initiative.” Our focus then turns to the remaining 54% and what we’ll do about “those people.”

But we’re missing something. The picture is only two dimensional. It’s missing the messy bits we don’t investigate, measure, or support well. Absent from our worldview are the actual small social ecosystems people spend their time in: the Team.

Teams play three key roles in transformation.

First, Teams help people connect during times of change. The changes associated with transformation create gaps. Where previously we were bound by understood structures, processes, and networks, we find ourselves disconnected and adrift in instability.

The Team plays a key role for individuals by helping to fill social and psychological needs for grounding and connection. The Team is small bit of gravity in a transforming work world that seems to be floating.

Second, Teams help people make meaning. Individuals seek to incorporate not only basic information about what’s changing but the meaning to infer from all of those changes. In Teams, we ask: “What does this mean for me? And for us?” “What does this say about our company?”

Together in our Teams, we test concepts, ask questions, seek clarification, and determine relevance. We learn. Even the best-intentioned change management programs fail to deliver all the needed information at just the right time and in just the right way. So, we assemble our collective intelligence to sift for the relevant parts. Even if the transformation doesn’t seem to make complete sense, we’ll connect dots until we find some meaning.

Finally, Teams help individuals mobilize for action. Ecosystems thrive, adapt, or die together. As individuals, it can be completely rational to choose not to change. Each of us weighs the costs and benefits of actually committing to the requested change. When there is no social support or accountability, I can simply shrug my shoulders and carry on with what I was doing.

Teams, however, create a vessel for exploring the newness of the transformed organization. They are a crucible for testing different ways of working. When my Teammates say, “Hey, we’re all in this together. Let’s give it a try”, it’s more difficult to turn our backs on the learning we will acquire through experimentation.

The Path

It’s expensive to persist in our illusion of separateness. It’s costly to our organizations when transformations stall or fail to deliver the needed outcomes. Frankly, we should be using every lever at our disposal.

To enable the fullest organizational transformation, we must embrace the Team as a powerful unit of analysis. We must SEE our Teams as not only important to the change process but embrace them as one of our few key leverage points. In our interdependence, our best attempts at transformation become rich and colored in 3-dimensional complexity. Yes, it may be a bit messier that way, but it’s a fine trade-off.

If you’re in transformation, give some thought to how best to focus and engage your Teams on the journey. Ask them: “How are the 10 of us doing with this whole “transformation” thing? Who’s stuck? Who has doubts? How can we move forward together?”

Once engaged, consider how best to equip them for the journey. Ideally, people have the tools, supports, and materials to responsibly bring to life their piece of the overall transformation. Without those key enablers, the Team will pick up the signal that this transformation is no great priority.

Finally, knowing your Team the way you do, brainstorm how to best reward them for their dedicated effort and accomplishments. Teams that drive together thrive together. Make it clear that their extra attention to the transformation was well worth their time and effort.

Engaged in this way, your Team will be preservers and defenders of your most important assets in a transformation process: vision, charity, hope, and belief.

Cross-posted from Whirling Chief: http://whirlingchief.com/teams-at-the-heart-of-transformation/