Forty years ago the now iconic Spielberg movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” hit the circuit. The question of alien life was a popular topic and seemed to capture the mood of the times.
Years later I discovered the meaning of the title; the increasing levels of contact that humans could have with aliens described in terms of “three kinds”, sightings being the first, the second relating to hard evidence and the third kind indicating an actual physical meeting.
Organisation’s approach to change is, in my opinion, also multi-layered. The first level deals with the “what” of change. This domain is the territory of the corporate strategist and is all about scenario planning, BCG matrices, re-engineered business processes and the like. The second level is concerned with the “how” of change and is often delegated to the change management practitioner. This level includes culture audits, communication strategies, and stress levels, among other things.
Generally, these two layers define the limits of most change initiatives and unfortunately, this is where change work seems to stop. Without disparaging the considerable effort that has gone into the improving and refining these two levels, in my opinion, it has resulted in increasingly diminishing returns as far as desired outcomes is concerned.
In my view, organisational change has missed, avoided or neglected a vital third dimension; the “why” of change; how the individual makes sense of the change.
However, in order to help large numbers of people make sense of a change is difficult because of the wide divergence of individual worldviews. How then to overcome this obstacle? The answer can best be found in reflecting on the role of leadership in change – the responsibility to make sense of the change for everyone.
This perspective of change leadership provides the requirement for a distinct set of characteristics/skills for leadership – representing change of the third kind, namely allowing individuals to “meet the real change”.
In my opinion (based on my experience with a vast array of change and transformation initiatives), this layer is about leadership living out the change in a way that gives a “context” for the change that is real and easily assimilated by members of the organisation. Here it is not that the strategy behind the change is “right” but is “right for me” and not whether the change is “good” but is “good for me”. It is a key condition for people to make sense of the change beyond the rhetoric and rather be influenced by how the leaders live out the change in their lives.
Constructing a context or narrative for the change still represents layers one and two. Layer three is more about people being in tune with observable leadership attitude and behaviour that conforms to the change.
Preparing leaders for this role in change has long been a central theme of development. However, developing vital characteristics/skills such as authenticity in leaders that are “removed from the change” turns out to be ineffective. Self-awareness is an absolutely necessary first step (and yet is often dismissed or disregarded). Only when this state of awareness has been achieved can the change behaviour be developed and lived out by the leader.
Truly complete and successful change demands a multi-layered approach. Only change in which there is a “meeting with the real change” (third layer) can people be lifted out a state of ambiguity and uncertainty that impedes real change – achieved through “Change Encounters of the Third Kind”.