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Change the Person or the System

Change the Person or the System

A fundamental question about the way to approach change in an organization is to decide whether you’re going to change the person themselves or whether you’re going to change the environment the person finds themselves in.  While people tend to take up arms and defend their position, it may turn out that the answer lies in the murky ground between these two extremes.

Changing Other People

In self-help and recovery circles, trying to change or “fix” other people is a huge red flag.  The idea is that if you can’t cope with life with others being who they are, then it’s probably you, rather than them, who must be wrong.  However, this obscures a very accurate message that the only person you can change is yourself.  There are jokes about changing others such as, “How many counselors does it take to change a lightbulb?”  The answer is “One, but the lightbulb really has to want to change.”

People come to counselors, therapists, and psychologists because they want to change – or at least they want to feign desire to change to support someone else’s hopes, whether that be a family, a friend, a fiancé, or a judge.  However, the rate of personal change, even with professional assistance, is astonishingly low.  (See The Heart and Soul of Change, Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, and Change or Die for background and stories.)  The truth is personal change is difficult and trying to change others is harder.

However, the kinds of fundamental changes that people are trying to make, with help and on their own, aren’t exactly the kinds of behavior changes we’re looking for in an organization.  Rarely are their deep-seated childhood issues about whether to use a fax machine or email.  So, while changing other people can be very difficult, some changes are easier.

In the middle are the kinds of changes that most organizational change efforts are targeting.  Abstract concepts like concern for the organization and engagement are the sorts of things that change efforts typically seek, but because these are amorphous concepts that have no real specific behaviors, they’re often difficult to accomplish directly.

While it’s true that an organization can only change by individuals changing their behaviors, it’s also true that often we’re not sure what behaviors we’d want people to change to accomplish the organizational change.

Changing the System

Changing the system is difficult but for different reasons.  The rise of agile methodologies has elevated the awareness that you can’t plan for everything.  (See Agile Change Management for more on agile.)  Eisenhower said that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”  Plans can never be good enough.  Despite that, we still approach changing the results by changing the system.

There are reasons to consider the system impacts of change, including the kinds of results you see as the system iterates.  (See Model: Systems Thinking for more.)  However, it’s equally frightening to recognize that organizational changes are often wicked problems.  (See Model: Wicked Problems for more.) Systemic changes often cause unintended consequences that can’t be foreseen.  (See Diffusion of Innovations for more.)

However, we’ve learned that sometimes changing the system can powerfully change the individual.  (See The Behavior Function.)  We can change the expectations and metrics of the system, and this can change the way that people behave and therefore the results the organization sees.  (See The Tyranny of Metrics for more on the impacts of metrics.)

Not Either but Both

The best chances for change success are neither to focus exclusively on the person nor exclusively on the system.  By investing in improving the functioning of individuals, you create more organizational resilience.  (See Emotional Intelligence, Resilient, and Grit for the impact of personal growth on organizational resilience.)  However, because individuals are so notoriously difficult to change, it’s necessary to leverage systemic levers to encourage – rather than discourage – the right behaviors.

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