KISS: Many of us have heard of ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’. This article is about leading with simplicity in complex organizational change.

In the last article on corporate transformation I introduced the idea of complexity. When I am first asked to consider working with a large business, I make a point of getting to understand the business. I conduct interviews with its leadership, as well as key specialists and employees who work within. I usually also speak with outside stakeholders, like customers. I attempt to understand their challenges and competencies, their expectations and possible outcomes. But behind the scenes I am also mapping the complex workings of the organization: the network of connections, relationships, capabilities and what has been tried, rules (implicit and explicit), thinking, mindset, assumptions and what is said or spoken about (and what is not said), leader behaviours and management systems, and of course their sense of purpose, all of which could be circumscribed as ‘culture’. Why invest this time, before I agree to work with a client?

I do want to see whether we can get along, and whether we have a good fit between the coach(es), the leadership, the Lean experts and the organization. But more importantly, I want to get a sense of complexity. What I look for is a combination of top-down intent and commitment, coupled with organizational complexity – then I have an important role to play. Allow me to explain.

The essential tenet driving lean thinking, at least from my enterprise transformation perspective, is to focus on the customer and to simplify operations and systems, cutting out waste, and then to build in the ability to self-learn or self-improve. Why the focus on simplification? Well, because operations and systems (processes) are inhabited by people. And people come with a biological need to simplify. Although each of our brains is probably more complex than the most complex of supercomputers ever built, they come with a funnel, which limits the application of this vast intellect in any given moment. For example, whilst in any average waking second in our human lives, our five senses alone produce many thousands separate inputs to the brain (some estimates are in the order of 50,000 input signals!), our funnel of awareness only allows us to actively be aware of and work with a handful of these. The rest are toned down, and not perceived, at least not consciously. This process also goes by names such as ‘neurological filtering’ or ‘sense-making’. So what?

A challenge and an opportunity arise: The challenge is resistance to change. If I, as an average human, have spent time understanding and learning and feeling in control of my processes, my domain, the work I do, the life I live, then I will naturally resist changing, because that will introduce more complexity. It is easier to stay with what I know well. And, the opportunity arises from my inherent drive to KISS. This, in my experience, is the opportunity in successful human and organizational change – Keep It Simple. This is not easy, but it is a leadership competency, which can be learned and practiced. Perhaps now the advice of starting with a clear sense of purpose, a ‘Why’, and allowing such purpose to focus our collective attention, makes more sense?

Many change management or transformation processes start off the opposite way. They start off with a comprehensive, complicated and detailed change management plan. This may result from a need for management to control or understand risks and costs, it may stem from a consultant or project manager needing to show upfront that they know what they are doing, or are worth their fees. I have even seen enterprise change situations where complex plans are intentionally used to distract or confuse key stakeholders. And there are many more reasons, no doubt mostly well-meaning. I have made these plans myself, in my career as HR Practitioner. The message is ‘We need to transform, and this is how and when we will do it….’. The bottom line is that we introduce complexity. Biologically we are wired, as normal humans, to resist change, which is complex. And so the very same people, who need to engage with and drive the change within an organization into its future, start out from a mindset of resistance, because the change management plan is complex and (often personally) threatening. I also have yet to see a management plan, which represents the reality of what actually happens, but that is another story…

What if instead, transformation processes start out, and are driven, from simple questions such as:

  • Why are we doing this? And for whom?
  • What exactly do they (the customers) want?
  • What does “not changing” look like?
  • What is in it for me and you?
  • How can we keep this really simple, or at least focus on digestible chunks?
  • How would you like to contribute? How would you do this?
  • and many more….

This may also invite a different perspective on organizational transformation. Instead of a major (usually many months or years), once-off, project-managed intervention, transformation could be much more simply driven by spending time to paint (and regularly re-paint) the purpose, as a collective. This involves time spent, initially, and then regularly, in Conversations for Understanding. These conversations could be led by questions such as those listed above, and tap into the creativity and need to create meaning, inherent in all the people within the organization. This is far more likely to engage staff and leaders, and to create a sense of partnership, ownership and accountability. It builds trust.

It is, however, naïve to suggest that organizational transformation should not be strongly led and managed. The truth is large legacy organizations are complex, and therefore leadership through these challenges is absolutely key. On the contrary: the leaders will need to actively and purposefully allow and create the space and time for exploration, creativity, ultimately leading to common understanding, because this process does not occur or sustain on its own, particularly in well-established organizations with a strong culture of command and control, silos and short-term strategic thinking. And then, the leadership must switch gears to guide and inspire their followers to take action. Conversation is nice, but change requires action – ideally sustained, self-driven and flexible action in a repeated pattern of ‘idea-try it out-perhaps fail-learn from failure-adjust’, before trying again. This is where classic lean or entrepreneurial venturing thinking and operations play their pivotal role.

I believe the order described above is key:

  • first build trust through conversation, allowing for the inherently messy process of people working towards common understanding and appreciation of their diversity. This prepares the people, who inhabit the processes, for change, by building trust, creativity and courage, and
  • second, unleash and inspire people to apply lean thinking, through rapid and iterative ‘failing to learn’, each within their respective sphere of work or influence as well as collectively within the organization, as the change process

The first part is what our coaching programs at RealWisdom achieve. It builds change leadership competence and resilience. The second part is achieved through lean operational methodologies.This is why we can and do work closely with Lean Experts.

How does this resonate with your experience?

So far we have explored challenges around corporate transformation programs, such as

  • The need for different thinking in transformation for the digital age
  • Why change is humanly difficult, and can generate resistance
  • The possibility of limiting complexity, to lead powerfully through change
  • Prioritizing the preparation of people to cope with, and indeed thrive on change, before applying entrepreneurial venturing and lean process management

In the next article, I will have a go at making sense of it all, and putting forward the approach we use at Real Wisdom.

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