We all know that change is  central to successful leadership and it’s now part of every training and development programme. Why then, are we so inexpert at it?
Why does some change seem to happen almost spontaneously –  and other efforts seem to fail no matter how hard we try?

Everything is connected

One of the most important social scientists of the last 50 years was Gregory Bateson. A brilliant, multi disciplinary scholar and practitioner, he brought together ideas from many areas to help him understand the relationships he observed in societies and communities.

At the heart of his work were his observations about the circular effect of behaviour in the relationships between people. He coined the term ‘vicious circle’ and he was one of the first to study and explain how the way we behave can be amplified (sometimes exponentially) or dampened by the behaviour of someone we are interacting with.

He extended these ideas from pairs to groups of people and then to the interaction of people within the natural environment.

Some (now) familiar ideas…

Bateson’s thinking was deep and wide ranging but the things that most apply in organisations include:-

  • Behaviour between two people can be self-reinforcing – leading to accelerating positive or negative spirals of outcomes and change.
  • Alternatively, some behaviour in one person can negate change in the behaviour of the other.
  • These patterns multiply in complexity when groups of people are involved (e.g. teams or organisations).
  • The complexity multiplies exponentially when interactions with other groups (e.g. stakeholders) are involved.
  • When you add in the connections with the external and natural environment, the complexity becomes just too difficult to fully comprehend.

So how does that help?

Bateson’s thinking challenges us to reconsider our thinking about change.

Organisations are not like machines in which each part only interacts with a few others and can, therefore be considered (or repaired) in isolation. The interconnectedness of all of their parts make it impossible to separate and act on one thing.

Traditional approaches to change – ‘Where are we now, where do we want to be, let’s make a plan to get there’ are, in reality, too simplistic for the level of complexity in even a small organisation.

Whilst clarity of purpose and direction is important (more on this when we discuss some other thinkers), you can never know when you create a plan for change what will happen when you start to implement it.

Every plan is out of date the moment it meets the real world. As an ex military friend of mine says:-
“Planning is priceless – but the plan is useless. No plan survives contact with the enemy”

It’s comforting to think otherwise but a plan is, in reality, no more than a theory about how an organisation might respond to specific efforts to change it. The most successful change is, therefore, created when the plan is approached as a series of experiments which will create learning about how the organisation works. This in turn helps us understand what might be required to change it further (a new theory requiring new action).

How to be a successful change agent.

Bateson’s focus was much wider than organisations but, translated into that context, his advice for leaders might be:-

  • Be more experimental. Change emerges – so keep trying different things and see what response it creates.
  • Pay more attention to what’s working (however small or brief). This is evidence of self-reinforcing loops of positive change in your system – which can be nurtured and magnified.
  • Conversations are the basic unit of change. Your 1:1 conversations, and those in small groups, are the place where change is born and nurtured. They are also the easiest and most immediate places to observe the responses to what you are doing – so that you can adapt it to get the results you need.
  • Get out of your own way. If what you’re trying to do isn’t working, examine what negative responses to your behaviour are being generated. How could you approach things differently to avoid creating the resistance?
  • Review, review, review. Deliberately, consistently and systematically keep looking – both by yourself and with those around you – at the responses to what you’ve tried and what you can learn from that. What’s working, what isn’t and what adjustments do you need to make?

Learn more about Gregory Bateson

If you’d like to read more you could look at:-
Wikipedia, as ever, provides a good brief summary of his work.

His most influential work is ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology’ Pub: Chicago University Press; ISBN: 978-0226039053. This is, however, famously difficult to read.

A more accessible way into his ideas can be found in Noel Charlton’s ‘Understanding Gregory Bateson’  Pub: State University of New York Press (8 May 2008) ISBN: 978-0791474525