I was lucky enough to be invited last week to a meeting of the Scottish Institute for Business Leaders (SIBL). Over the past 15 years, Drew Pryde has built this organisation into an extremely valuable mix of leadership development, combining learning from others (using outside speakers) with a flow of action learning and peer group reflection. (Anyone who joined one of our EDGe groups or SFCT chapter meetings will be familiar with the general idea!)
The speaker on this occasion was Lance Ramsay (pictured with me above), until very recently General Manager of the Bakerloo line on London Underground, who spoke about “Key Insights in Transformation and Leadership”. Lance has been at the sharp end of a number of transformation programmes with London Transport and TfL, and he was keen to explore the distinctions between ‘change’ and ‘transformation’.
There were various views in the room about this (of course). Lance came up with a very interesting possibility – that change is motivated by the past, whereas transformation happens from the future, using the energy of a new possibility to create something not just ‘better’ but in some way fresh. Lance put up this statement:
“Transformation – the business of reinventing an organisation from the perspective of a future point with an aim to change culture, values, beliefs and behaviours, and discover (rather than create) a new way of working.”
My eye was very much caught by the last piece of this definition – ‘discover rather than create’ a new way of working. I think this is worth a closer look.
In some philosophies of change the future can be ‘created’. This phrase crops up all over the place – I think I might have first seen it in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline in the early 1990s. It seems to me to come from a re-engineering perspective, where the future is ours to create in whatever image we wish. It’s a bold idea, of course, and at least invites us to a position where we have some role in building a future for ourselves rather than it just happening to us. (This was a dominant view in previous ages – we’re just watching series two of The Crown on Netflix, which is all about ‘doing your duty and making the best of it’ in the 1950s.)
What’s wrong with the idea of ‘creating the future’ – at least from an emergent systems perspective – is that there are so many unknowables and uncertainties along the way. We can set off with hope in our hearts (very important) and then so many things can happen, out of our control or influence, that set us off track. Or perhaps they set us onto a different track? Henry Mintzberg wrote about the difference between ‘designed’ and emergent’ strategy decades ago, and it seems that this distinction is still an important learning point for the new leaders emerging today.
What’s even more interesting here is the use of the alternative verb ‘discover’ the future way of working. Discovery implies that we don’t know about it beforehand… that there will surprises and unexpectedness, that there may be novel delights and newly significant differences. This seems to me to be much more in the spirit of emergent change processes in general, and of solution-focused (SF) processes in particular. In fact, many of our SF conversations are about how might you notice that things are transformed, rather than what will you DO to transform them. The whole process is one of discovery and iteration – Lance Ramsay was very keen to stress the importance of iterating and keeping going.
Some uses of the word ‘discover’ imply that something was there all the time – we say that Alexander Fleming ‘discovered’ penicillin, which is to say that he was able to find it, notice its properties and make use of them. Presumably the penicillin mouldy fungus was already around – but not known, seen or identified for what it was. In the case of organisational transformation, I don’t think it works like this. The new ways of working we discover were always possibilities – albeit outside our mainstream awareness. In this case, the possibilities emerge into some kind of actuality over time and with iteration, rather like a sculpture emerges from a block of granite or a painting onto a canvas.
The kind of noticing in which I like to engage my clients is a very creative noticing. It’s hard to notice something before we are aware of the possibility of a distinction, and so having language around possible distinctions is a key part of helping this process along. French scientist Louis Pasteur said ‘In the field of observation, change favours only the prepared mind’, and the twin elements of preparation and observation seem to go hand in hand. So when we set out to discover the future, knowing which clues to look for is an important component.
It’s well worth thinking more about the possibilities inherent in the ‘discover the future’ paradigm. What might you discover at work tomorrow? And who might you invite to help you?
Mark McKergow PhD MBA is an international speaker, author, and consultant. He is director of SFWork, the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His latest book is Host: Six new rules roles of engagement for teams, organisations, communities and movements (Solutions Books, 2014).