Seeing system dynamics in organizational change: 1) from change resistance to limits to growth

I have written a series of blogs focusing on seeing system dynamics in organizational design. Now, i'd like to start a new series, focusing on organizational change.

In this first one, let's understand three common problems in organizational changes:

  1. change stalls after it is initiated, due to change resistance;
  2. change stalls after it is "done", due to goal seeking behavior;
  3. change stalls after it grows for a while, due to limits to growth.

Change resistance

Why is change resisted? A basic balancing loop is at work.

Seeing system dynamics in organizational change - 1.1.jpg

B1-loop: Change is resisted to keep status quo

Once we increase change effort, the actual increases, moving away from the goal. This increases the gap, thus, another "change" effort starts, which brings the actual back to the goal (as shown in the small arrow line at the right hand), then gap is reduced.

The goal is the status quo, and the "change" effort is change resistance. What is called change resistance is simply a force to bring the system into the stable state. Notice that there are two change efforts in the diagram. Change effort moves the actual away from the goal, while "Change" effort moves the actual back to the goal. From system perspective, they are both change forces, and neither good nor bad.

Instead of exerting more change effort, which invokes more "change" effort (i.e. change resistance), one leverage is to elevate the goal. As will be discussed in next sections, the change resistance disappears when the goal is kept above the actual continuously. This explains why many change attempts failed due to change resistance. Without the common change goal, people in the organization would naturally try to keep the status quo.

Change done

Once the goal we seek is higher than our status quo, the dynamic changes.

Seeing system dynamics in organizational change - 1.2.jpg

B2-loop: Change is done to achieve the goal

The goal increases the gap. Change effort starts to increase the actual, which brings it towards the goal (as shown in the small arrow line at the right hand), then gap is reduced.

This balancing loop actually is no different than the B1-loop, and they both seek goal. However, as the goal in B1-loop is the status quo, thus, we see the resistance to change; while as the goal in B2-loop is the higher state than the status quo, thus, we see the support to change, till the point that the goal is achieved.

After the goal is achieved, the change is done. The goal state becomes the new status quo. How could we continue the change towards even better state? One leverage is again to elevate the goal.

Grow the change

After the original goal is achieved, we elevate the goal again to grow the change.

Seeing system dynamics in organizational change - 1.3.jpg

R1-loop: Elevate the goal to grow the change

Once the actual increases to reach the goal through B2-loop (as shown in the first small arrow line at the right hand); we elevate the goal. Now, the B2-loop is at work again, until the new goal is reached (as shown in the second small arrow line at the right hand), we elevate the goal again. This is the essential continuous improvement.

Ideally, we would grow the change indefinitely. However, the change still stalls after a while, as there are limits to growth.

Limits to growth

In order to change the actual, it requires not only the effort, but also the capability. Capability here refers to all kinds such as organizational, technical, collaboration, and etc.

Seeing system dynamics in organizational change - 1.4.jpg

B3-loop: Capability shortage to limit the change growth

Once the goal is elevated, the required capability increases. While the available capability is the constraint, it leads to the increasing capability shortage, which decreases the actual.

R1-loop and B3-loop create the typical "limits to growth" system archetype. In order to keep growing the change, one leverage is to build the capability earlier, as it will take time. Various constraints will be exposed along the way, but in the context of product development organizational change, some are well known. One of them is the technical weakness unfortunately seen in many development organizations. This is why for example in LeSS, it is recommended to start technical coaching for a few months before doing organizational redesign. This is to remove the constraint before we hit it.

In summary, in order to grow the change forever (i.e. continuous improvement), the main leverages are as following:

  • create the common goal to be higher than status quo, in order to avoid the change resistance
  • elevate the goal to grow the change, in order to avoid the change being stalled after it is "done"
  • remove the constraints earlier, in order to avoid the change being stalled when hitting the limits

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