Change, like culture, is created through people and how they operate in the workplace. Relational Agility is a view of organisational change that places our relationship with ourselves, with others and with our environment at the heart of our ability to successfully deliver sustainable change.
To say that we are in an era of constant disruption and change is to understate the obvious. Our daily lives, from educating our children, managing our health, and working from home to simple social rituals like dinner with friends, have all undergone a rapid multi-dimensional change.
Previous trends — virtualisation of the workspace, online learning, virtual health, and e-commerce — accelerated exponentially. Changes anticipated to take years now occur in months and, in some cases, weeks and even days.
Understandably, it can be hard to assess the impact of this, both for yourself and those you lead. Simultaneously handling overlapping crises (potentially both in and out of work) that unfold at top speed for yourself and others is hard.
Understanding how to achieve this for yourself is vital. Knowing how to support others through the same transition is a key skill that will rapidly come to define future leaders. Much as we might like to think that this period will pass and things will return to the way they were, this is increasingly unlikely to happen.
The conditions for accelerated change like this have been building for years. Rapid changes in technology, increases in automation, the digitisation of the workplace that came about with home working and the combined effects of all these happening at once have impacted our world to the point where change is much more rapid, continual, and pervasive.
Against this backdrop, the global pandemic in 2020 and the knock-on effects caused by that gave us a new normal for change with three consistent dimensions:
- Change is constantly happening
- Change is everywhere
- Change is constantly accelerating
These three dimensions of change will define our future and, as a result, the ability to lead effectively within this type of environment. To bring others along at pace is now a core requirement for success.
Change is fast and can be done to us. Transitioning along with the change can, however, be much slower and needs to be done with us. Understanding how to work with this is central to using Relational Agility in maintaining engagement and buy-in throughout the process.
Views on organisational change come from many disciplines, from psychology through behavioural science and on to Systems and Complexity theory.
One thing that many of these have in common is their acknowledgement that change does not happen in isolation – it impacts the entire system or environment it occurs in.
This level of complexity and intrinsic involvement of every person impacted by change means that effective change management alone is not enough.
As well as considering the practical impacts of change, you’ll also need to consider the personal implications for those affected and how to support their individual transitions.
Many people deal with this complexity by sticking to a Gantt Chart approach or more formal change management methodologies to reduce the variables to manageable pieces. These provide toolkits, checklists and outline plans of what you need to do to manage change successfully. This approach is an essential part of many change efforts but, where the goal is behaviour change, a good plan alone is not enough.
At its heart, successful change focuses on people and is about ensuring change is thoroughly, smoothly and lastingly implemented. But, depending on the level of behavioural change required, this can be a difficult thing to achieve.
Because of this, leading change is complex, and approaches differ from organisation to organisation and project to project. There are, however, certain areas of focus that should always be maintained.
Self, Others & System
People as individuals are complicated enough. Put a group of us together and give us the same stimulus, and you’ll get a whole range of different responses. Building an understanding of how to work with this complexity is an essential component to the success of anyone in a leadership or management-focused role seeking to deliver change.
In my work, I spend a lot of time talking to people about changes they are looking to achieve. Change and transitions for them as individuals, for the teams they lead or the organisations they’re part of.
Over the years doing this, I have come to appreciate that the ability to create and deliver change is a leadership skill that can set people apart. And to do that well, we need to pay attention not just to change management but also to how we support the people involved to transition from one state to the next.
Change is something that happens to people, even if they don’t agree with it. Transition, on the other hand, is internal: it’s what happens in people’s minds as they go through change. Change can happen very quickly, while transition usually occurs more slowly, and the pace of evolution will vary from person to person.
In a world that can feel awash with change and transitions, how do we retain our Relational Agility and allow ourselves and others the time needed to transition when we’re changing fast in several directions at once?
We each get to decide for ourselves how we behave, leading to the often-quoted line: “organisations don’t change, people do”. The core of the matter then is always about asking people to adapt what they do in line with a change that is coming. And to create the conditions where they are most likely to choose to do so.
In order for that to happen, we first need to start with ourselves. When it comes to bringing people along with a change in direction, we can really only take them as far down the path as we have gone. Change starts within and so step one is taking time to build awareness of what is going on for you and reaching acceptance of the transition you need to make yourself.
After that, your ability to bring others along with you is governed by how well you understand them, your degree of empathy for what they are going through, and your ability to create the conditions they need to support their individual transitions. All of this needs to be done with your wider system or environment in mind.
Organisations don’t change, people do. So, in order to successfully achieve a change in the workplace, at some point you’re going to have to deal with the feelings that the change you are looking to deliver creates in those it impacts.
For more on this topic and to read more about Relational Agility, why not download my e-book here.