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The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

anchoring organisational restructuring

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A little while back a colleague shared the proceedings of a conference held in Germany on mindful change in times of permanent reorganisation in October  2012. It’s quite a dense read but worthwhile and, given the change communications work we’re doing just now, it feels like a good time to share a few notes. This, even though we’re all rather so-so about mindfulness as the latest feng shui, and feeling a bit hesitant after Lucy Kellaway’s mindfulness skewering in this weekend’s FT. But sifting through to the pieces about trust, anchoring and stability there are some sound ideas here for managing transition.image

photo | flickr Plbmak

Here are the kernels of some of the ideas that struck us.

What are the unintended side-effects of a restructuring? Four are pinpointed:

  • Trust is eroded when people are let go –  to the point of traumatic break down in established organisational culture.
  • A communications vacuum makes for a swirl of rumours that take on a life of their own  – change communication is an Achilles heel, compounded by obscure management goals, lack of transparency and the reluctance at the top to address vague decision- making.
  • Employees don’t often get to play a continuous role in change initiatives, and are often blocked by managers even when they try to.
  • It often feels like an unfair deal – cutting out layers and letting people go increase work stress and destabilise but gains for the workforce are often ‘scarcely visible’ after the restructuring and this imbalance is seen as a violation of the psychological contract at work, further eroding trust.

The conference from which these papers come probed the concept of ‘Mindful Change’ drawing heavily from the work of Karl Weick in the early 2000’s on managing the unexpected and on work on trust of the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. It took as its working definition

organisations’ capacity..  to develop and regenerate dynamic stability ..[and]…anticipate and constructively deal with unintended effects of permanent reorganisation regarding environmental adaptability, social integration and ‘decent work’

We like the way it then suggests that the leaders of change consciously facilitate what they call a ‘mindful infrastructure’ that involves making a difference both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the work processes and actions of the change. Two key suggestions are:

  • Interactive routines ‘inside’ the action – active reflection which allows employees and managers at team level to anticipate and deal with unintended consequences then and there, and so contain damage.  For this to be effective mutual recognition is vital.
  • ‘Spaces of dialogue’ ‘outside’ work processes – for example  steering committees of reorganisation involving all the players, giving plenty of time and space over to collective reflection on (unnoticed) innovation potential and un-anticipated effects of reorganisation.  The language of the conference describes this as a way to  facilitate ‘the development and regeneration of organisations’ social-resources base by creating spaces of dialogue which make room for reflection outside action.

The conference proceedings promote six key principles of mindful change:

  1. Organising perspective diversity
  2. Promoting negotiation and conflict resolution
  3. Developing and establishing trust anchors
  4. Promoting sustainable work systems
  5. Facilitating experimental change
  6. Developing and regenerating organisational stability anchors

We like this attention to trust and stability and the idea that key activities, role and networks can sharpen the focus on both at times of upheaval, by making the organisation constantly pay more attention to what is going on now in the present, and place it in the history (‘the long shadows of change history’) and future of change in a  more thoughtful way. That fits nicely with our narrative for a change model.

In particular the proceedings are illuminating about the importance of preserving professional identities as a ‘core stability anchor’ in a reorganisation. They offer the example of social service providers who object to centralisation, which they feel contradicts their own professional understanding of social work and so leads to resistance to change. Once the change was rebalanced to give them more autonomy, and clients a voice, they were able to adapt to the change while holding on to their sense of their own professional identities.

The role of the social institutions and spaces in the workplace are of great significance in anchoring change. Organisations with well established work council and an open approach to dialogue embedded into their culture and practices are far more likely to take change on board than those where the organisational routines are ‘rejected as sources of inertia’ by the top management. Building a mindfulness infrastructure is a fragile project if top managers see dialogue as a threat to power and authority but without social trust, there is no mindfulness and the room to adapt is seriously compromised.

Finally, here are some of the recommendations about creating a ‘mindfulness infrastructure’

  • There needs to be a steering committee with all groups involved and all members of that committee need to be on an equal footing.
  • It must be authorised.
  • It must be visible.
  • It must be firmly established in the communication systems of the organisation.
  • The different communications tools that mutually build on each other.
  • Communication loops should be set up in such a way that “sender” and “recipient” regularly change positions.

In a follow-up blog we’ll look a bit more at some of the other things Niklas Luhmann has to say about trust.

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