Navigating Change Management in a Complex Organisational Landscape

In the ever-evolving business world, organisations are increasingly embarking on digital and agile transformations to stay competitive and deliver greater value. These transformations are often driven by the need for speed and efficiency. However, amidst the technological advancements and process improvements, the crucial aspect of human nature is frequently overlooked.
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In today’s blog post, we will delve into the intricate world of change management in complex organisational environments. We will explore the significance of organisational culture, the dynamics of human interactions, and how they relate to the challenges of implementing change. Additionally, we will discuss the critical need to align change initiatives with culture and present a practical approach to achieving successful change.

Understanding Organisational Dynamics

To comprehend how people within an organisation behave, we can draw parallels with the mesmerising phenomenon of starlings flocking, also known as murmuration. When starlings flock, it’s typically in response to the presence of a predator, and the intricate patterns they form serve as a defence mechanism.

What’s fascinating is that individual starlings do not receive explicit instructions or follow a central authority’s commands. Instead, they make independent decisions, likely driven by intuition honed over millions of years of evolution. Simulations of this behaviour reveal that starlings’ flight patterns can be distilled into three simple rules: maintaining a certain distance from others, flying at a consistent speed relative to nearby birds, and gravitating towards the flock’s centre.

This concept aligns with the theory of Complex Responsive Processes (Stacey), which suggests that people in organisations behave similarly. Organisations are more than mere hierarchies and structures; they function as ecosystems that require nurturing and adaptation for optimal results.

In essence, what occurs within an organisation is not solely a product of leadership strategy but a result of the interplay of intentions among its members. This makes organisations inherently political and challenging to navigate. Leaders may influence outcomes, but true control remains elusive.

Much like observing starlings’ unpredictable flocking patterns, human interactions within organisations exhibit non-linearity. People do not react consistently every day; variation is inherent. Factors such as daily commutes, personal circumstances, and external influences contribute to this non-linearity.

This unpredictability underscores the need for experimentation in organisational change. However, a common misconception is that once a successful experiment is conducted, the cause-and-effect relationship can be replicated and amplified. In reality, due to the inherent non-linearity of human interactions, the success of an experiment is context-specific and cannot be blindly applied elsewhere.

The Role of Organisational Culture

Organisational change is fundamentally about cultural change. To delve deeper into this, let’s examine the concept of organisational culture. Organisational culture encompasses how individuals think and act in the workplace, influencing decision-making, task organisation, and more.

Edgar Schein’s cultural model likens organisational culture to an iceberg, with visible artefacts above the waterline, values just below, and fundamental assumptions submerged beneath. Artefacts include visible elements like company logos, office layouts, dress codes, rituals, and communication patterns. These artefacts provide insights into the culture but often differ from initial expectations.

Values, located beneath artefacts, are formed through interactions and are a reflection of individuals’ beliefs about what works best. These values, while personal, are influenced by socialisation and guide behaviour.

At the deepest level, we find basic assumptions, representing the core beliefs held by employees and leaders. These assumptions shape thoughts and actions, including knee-jerk reactions.

A critical challenge arises when there is a disconnect between stated values and actual behaviours. If an organisation claims to promote transparency but operates in secrecy, or if it advocates employee decision-making while subtly manipulating outcomes, it creates a mismatch. Such discrepancies lead to confusion and demotivation, often resulting in employee turnover.

Mapping Organisational Culture

To gain a snapshot of an organisation’s culture, one effective approach is using the Competing Values Framework. This model simplifies the cultural landscape into four quadrants: Create, Collaborate, Control, and Compete.

The horizontal axis represents the organisation’s market focus, ranging from an internal focus on the present (left) to an external focus on future possibilities (right). The vertical axis indicates the approach to work within the organisation, with the top focusing on flexibility and people, and the bottom emphasising systems and processes.

Each quadrant has distinct characteristics:

  • Create: Innovation thrives here, with a focus on visionary goals and breakthroughs.
  • Collaborate: Emphasis on people, consensus, and personal growth.
  • Control: Prioritises safety, predictability, and quality.
  • Compete: A relentless drive to win and outperform competitors.

    Tensions arise between these quadrants. Control favours incremental change, while Create seeks breakthroughs. Collaborate values a steady pace of change, while Compete pursues rapid progress. There is no singular “right” quadrant; a balanced mix is essential, as an organisation is only as strong as its weakest aspect.

    Changing Culture through Change

    Executing change in an organisation is a formidable challenge, riddled with pitfalls. As previously mentioned, predicting how employees will respond to a change strategy is unpredictable. Additionally, transitioning from old habits to new practices is often more critical than merely implementing change.

    John P. Kotter highlights eight reasons transitions fail, including complacency, lack of responsibility, absence of vision, insufficient communication, failure to address blockers, absence of short-term wins, premature assumptions of success, and disregard for culture.

    To succeed, one must take leadership for the change. Leaders play a pivotal role in influencing an organisation’s culture, as leadership and culture are intertwined. Leaders must lead by example, embodying the desired behaviours and values. Conners and Smith’s Pyramid of Results reinforces the idea that managing actions alone leads to compliance, not true responsibility.

    To effect change, we must delve deeper into individuals’ beliefs, as people act in accordance with their beliefs, shaped by their experiences. Change initiatives must provide experiences that align with the desired change, gradually shaping beliefs that drive actions. Leadership and role-modeling become central components of this process.

    Leveraging Organisational Culture for Change

    Organisational culture can either facilitate or obstruct change. The typical approach to change management is the outside-in method, driven by processes and frameworks like Scrum or SAFe. However, these approaches often clash with existing organisational layers of processes, structures, and culture, resulting in resistance and limited success.

    Shaping Culture

    An alternative approach is the inside-out method, starting with culture as the foundation. Instead of attempting to change culture (which is notoriously challenging), this approach involves shaping culture in a way that aligns with desired outcomes.

    To initiate this change, one must align the change initiative with the existing culture to reduce resistance. Leaders, as key influencers, should undergo self-awareness development to ensure their behaviours align with the desired cultural shift. The middle layer, including structures, policies, and metrics, must be adapted to enable change rather than hinder it.

    Strategies for Cultivating Change

    To initiate the desired cultural shift, a deep understanding of the current organisational culture is necessary. Identifying the desired shift, such as moving from a Control-centric culture towards a balance of Create, Collaborate, and Compete, is crucial.

    Structural changes can support this shift. For instance, reorganising for flow optimisation, rather than utilisation, can foster a culture of innovation and competitiveness. This involves forming cross-functional teams with diverse skill sets, working together towards common goals. Although individual utilisation may decrease, the overall flow and quality of work improve.

    Additionally, policies like T-shaped team members, where employees possess expertise but also contribute to areas outside their specialisation, promote knowledge sharing and resilience.

    Metrics play a significant role in driving change. Measuring aspects such as time to market aligns with the desired outcomes and reinforces the cultural shift.

    The Transition and Continuous Improvement

    Implementing change requires a focus not just on its implementation but also on the transition from old habits to new practices. This transition involves role modelling aligned behaviours, strengthening employee experiences, and assessing the effectiveness of initiatives.

    Applying the Deming Cycle of Plan, Do, Study, and Act, within a framework of transparency, inspection, and adaptation, ensures that change initiatives remain dynamic and responsive to feedback.


    Navigating change management in a complex organisational environment is a multifaceted challenge. It involves understanding the intricacies of organisational culture, human dynamics, and the delicate balance between desired change and existing habits.

    Leaders must take a proactive role in shaping culture, aligning change with the existing context, and continually adapting to unpredictable circumstances. Successful change is not about managing uncertainty but about thriving within unpredictability. By acknowledging the complexities of change management and embracing the dynamic nature of organisational culture, leaders can steer their organisations towards a future defined by innovation, competitiveness, and sustainable growth.

    Note: If you want to know more about nurturing an Agile culture, you can sign up for our Agile leadership programs: Agile Leadership Journey or Authentic Leadership.


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