I began this course by writing a personal change credo where I asserted that all of humanity was created to be perfect, but is currently, but not permanently, broken. We are all therefore striving to improve, but must recognize both the brokenness in ourselves and others, as well as the original perfection in ourselves and others, in order to come together as one united body in order to help one another, individually and collectively, change and grow. After a semester of learning about the theoretical, historical, and practical aspects of organizational change, I am more committed to my credo than ever before, and believe that each of us is being called to be agents of change in any organization we encounter, but must approach our task with humility and respect for others. So many of the articles we read and major change strategies we studied support this approach, and have encouraged me to try to find that balance between having the courage to speak up and humility to shut up that has been a running theme throughout the entire Adult Learning program.
The first thing I learned this semester is that organizational development will not happen without intention, planning, management, and total system involvement (Beckhard, 2006). It also must be done with a goal of improving the health, sustainability, and effectiveness of the entire organization. This cannot take place without having multiple perspectives and whole-system thinking, for our own biases, silos, and subcultures can cause us to advocate for changes, or resist changes, based on inaccurate meaning schemes and incomplete data. While Beckhard (2006) outlined many conditions that call for organization development, I would posit that there is no time in which an organization does not need development, as there is a constant need to adapt to a new environment, if nothing else.
The concept of organizational development is nothing new, and its theoretical roots lie in many of the adult learning theorists we have encountered in our program, including Lewin, Maslow, Skinner, Argyris, and McGregor. While I had already learned of T-Groups, Need Theory, positive reinforcement, force field analysis, Type A and B behavior, and Theory X and Y, and I had not thought about them in the context of how to collectively help organizations examine the meaning schemes and underlying assumptions different subcultures, individuals, or even macrocultures may have that can impede learning and make change initiatives difficult to futile. This is where taking this course in conjunction with my independent study on organizational learning was so beneficial – by recognizing that change cannot take place without learning, and creating opportunities to have “hallways of learning” (Dixon, 1999) where people share their meaning schemes can be invaluable.
I believe these “ hallways of learning” were best exemplified in the three large group change strategies we learned in class this semester. Open Space Technology (Owen, 2008), with its very decentralized approach through loose time frames, voluntary involvement, and grassroots leadership, allows people to literally create their own classrooms and take leadership on what matters most to them. Based in humanist theory, I love the premise that people are deeply emotionally invested in issues and are capable of self-organization. While Open Space Technology is not appropriate for all circumstances, and I believe should usually be combined with a other strategies that ultimately involve more management from the top to ensure intentionality and alignment to company goals, I believe it sets a wonderful example of giving people freedom to run with ideas, think outside the box, and capture real solutions in a short period of time.
I particularly liked Future Search (Weisbord & Janoff, 2010) for its focus on finding commonality and its timeline approach, which helps give issues more context than perhaps Open Space Technology would. As we’ve learned in this class, we all bring baggage and different perspectives into every issue, and by taking the time to address what has happened in the past without dwelling on it, I believe we build empathy. Appreciative Inquiry (Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2010) taught me the power of focusing on possibilities, which can be energizing and even fun, rather than problems, which is almost always draining. I can see using this approach in almost any problem-solving environment, even if it’s only between two people.
While I thoroughly enjoyed every single article we read in the Gallos reader and Blackboard assignments, a few stood out to me as almost life-changing. Bolman and Deal’s article on reframing change (2006) put almost everything I’ve learned in this program into a model that I could easily digest and act upon. Taking into consideration the people, the structure, the politics and, most surprisingly, the symbolism of each organization when attempting any change initiative is so incredibly powerful. As we learned in our reading from Choi and Ruona (2011), we cannot expect organizations to change until we determine that individual people are ready to change, and all of us exist on all four of these levels. As I wrote in a blog post, unpacking each of these frames can involve pulling in theory and best practices from our entire program.
The most practical model most of us in the class gravitated toward seemed to be Kotter’s change management framework (Kotter, 2006) consisting of eight overlapping steps. This model should be taped the wall of any change agent’s desk, as imbedded in each step are so many (now) obvious reasons most change efforts fail. Step 1 – creating a sense of urgency – should be coupled with the practice of making sure that a change is necessary to begin with. If our first step in initiating change is to have to articulate to others why change is needed, and why it is needed now, that may stop some of us before we embark on a change initiative that may not be necessary or prudent at the time. The one vital step that I believe is missing from Kotter’s model, however, is assessing an organization’s readiness to change, or the readiness of the individuals within the organization to change. This is where Choi and Ruona’s article was so helpful (2011), and where knowledge of organizational learning, knowledge transfer, and learner assessments is necessary. Bolman and Deal’s chapter on reframing change also addresses this by insisting that all change efforts must first involve training, for if the change happens first, it can make veteran employees feel like novices and cause people to lack confidence and therefore resist change.
Had I taken change strategies at the very beginning of my adult learning master’s program, I know that the information I learned this semester would have been revolutionary to my thinking about change. Before I began this program, I never would have taken into consideration the fact that change needed to involve total system involvement, take into account learner readiness, address and respect resistance as healthy and informative, and address the complex layers of culture and group dynamics within an organization. I still cringe when I think of a disastrous change initiative I attempted at an organization in 2012, before beginning this program, and how much pain and embarrassment I could have saved myself and others. Because I am taking this class at the end of my program, however, these concepts were less revolutionary to my thinking than they were empowering.
While the concepts and principles were familiar, I most appreciated the models of change that I can use like tools. Kotter’s eight steps to change can serve as a timeline of sorts for me whenever I embark on a change strategy. Bolman and Deal’s four frames of change (people, structure, politics, and symbols) and Sales’ four fundamental activities of an organization (tops, bottoms, middles, and environmental), and Schein’s operator, engineer, and executive subcultures I learned from organizational learning will serve as frameworks for all of the layers of culture I should consider before, during, and after a change initiative. Open Space Technology, Future Search, and Appreciative Inquiry will serve as actionable models that I can use in part, in full, or in combination, depending on the circumstances.
This class has been one of the most practical of the entire adult learning program, and one I believe anyone should take, as we are all change agents working within complex, open systems. I am very appreciative of this course, and know I will use the information regularly in both my professional and personal life.
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