• Ken Leung

The importance of context

We were discussing our approach to transformation with a client last week. We talked about the need to understand the organisational context [1], and the need to prepare the organisation for transformation, by creating the environment that draws on this context to create an approach that will work with it rather than against it.

River as a metaphor for transformation

We agreed that mechanistic and systematic change approaches rarely work, if at all. Mechanistic approaches to change, strive for consistency through a ‘one-size-fits-all’ methodology which ignores context, stifles the expression of different perspectives and ignores the ‘collective intelligence’ that exists throughout the organisation. These approaches stem from ideas that were formed a 100 years ago when the world was a very different place. Back then, organisations were viewed as machines and transformation was achieved through industrial machinery that unlocked massive strides in standardisation and efficiency [2] where people augmented machines as human cogs. In today’s competitive landscape, change is complex and unpredictable, yet mechanistic and systematic approaches continue to treat organisational change as though we can control all the variables and predict all the consequences of our actions. Accordingly, such approaches advocate a systematic one-size-fits-all methodology, that preaches success if you follow the prescribed steps. With these approaches, if people are considered part of the change at all, they are merely the modern version of the ‘emotionless’ human cogs of the past that can be moved about to predictable effect; rather than embrace a more expansive view that organisations are human systems where people are the driving force.

It was during this conversation that my client shared her metaphor for transformation. She likened transformation to a river, meandering the terrain, on its journey to the sea. It’s a great metaphor and a great example of a ‘generative image’ [3]. The latter being a simple phrase, pairing of words, an image or a combination of these that stimulates a paradigm shift. Let me elaborate on why I think the river is such a great generative image or, if you prefer, a metaphor for transformation.

River as a metaphor for transformation

Firstly, the journey of the river to the sea has a starting point. The starting point for a river is usually a natural event, for example the melting of snow or the pooling of water after heavy rain on a mountain top. However, for that journey to start, there must be a significant head of water to flow down the mountain with such force as to feed a river. If insufficient water is formed by the melting of snow or from the rain then the river won’t get the chance to form. In a similar way, the starting point for a transformation requires a compelling business need, significant leadership focus and resources. Otherwise the initiative will not take off or simply dry up.

Secondly, a river has a clear destination, ultimately the sea. In a similar way, a transformation needs a destination with tangible and meaningful structural and cultural outcomes that pulls the organisation towards it.

Thirdly, the river must traverse its terrain, adjusting and adapting its route as it flows towards the sea. Every river will take a different route, influenced by its terrain. In a similar way, each organisation must find its own path to transformation influenced by its context (it’s ‘terrain’).

With this metaphor in mind, when I think about the mechanistic and systematic approaches that ignore context, it’s a bit like treating all rivers the same and completely ignoring terrain. If we were to create rivers (hypothetically) in this way, it would mean trying to make them flow the same way to the sea, ignoring the terrain and digging trenches, tunneling through mountains, and God knows what, instead of recognising the terrain and allow each river to find its natural path to the sea. In transformation, like anything else, context is important. It’s rarely the case that one-size-fits-all approaches provide an optimum path to the desired outcomes. Sometimes, the approach adopted is so blind to the context, and so alienating, that the transformation just stalls.

So, what does context mean in the organisational sense? For me, the context is the organisation’s prevailing structural and cultural reality. It includes the organisational and social norms (what’s acceptable and what’s not), the way people in the organisation talk about things and how this shapes the way they think and behave. It’s about how safe people feel to speak out and make their views heard, how the leaders of the organisation behave and treat staff, the level of motivation, engagement and stress felt by the workforce. It’s about how people are organised, how they work and the technology they use. It’s about what makes the organisation different, what drives its people on an emotional level. It’s also about its history and the times where it had successfully transformed and those times where it failed miserably.

In my mind, organisations that attempt to transform with systematic context-agnostic approaches are in danger of ramming change into the organisation that not only goes against the grain but could leave lasting damage. Instead, they need to recognise that organisations are not machines, but rather human systems powered by human brains and driven by emotions. Therefore, transformation needs to take a context-sensitive, whole-system approach that places emphasis on both structural and cultural aspects to shift mindsets and behaviours and enable the organisation to do this through structural and cultural change. The approach also needs to be co-creative to leverage the wealth of knowledge and experience that exists at all levels of the organisation; and it needs to be systemic (i.e. one thing unfolds in the context of another) and responsive to the system it is working with.

If you are embarking on, or in the midst of, a transformation, I urge you to think through the implications of your organisational context (that is, uncover your organisational truth {1]), create the environment to enable your transformation to flow [4] and not try to dig unnecessary, costly and potentially damaging ‘trenches’ to direct your transformation in a direction that it doesn’t want to go.

[1] We call the context, the ‘Organisational Truth’. You may want to take a look at the article : ‘There are three sides to story : yours, theirs and the truth’ which you can find on this site.

[2] Humanity-led Transformation - video on this site

[3] Dialogic Organisation Development. Gervase Bushe and Robert Marshak (2015)

[4] I’m stretching Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow

Ken Leung is a co-founder of Outvie Consulting.

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