Slow Death Of Planned Change: Can We Play Together?

Post written by

Jaap Boonstra

Visiting Professor, Department of People Management and Organisation at ESADE.

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Planned change is a dominant approach to organizational change that was developed in the 20th century. At that time, the world was complex but still understandable, and planned change helped organizations put changes into effect. In this approach, leading change meant creating an urgency to change, building a winning coalition to manage the change, communicating the change, motivating and aligning people to reach the desired future, and making it stick. Change was like a well-planned trip with a clear destination and an itinerary set in advance.

Many organizations have successfully implemented planned changes, while others have failed. Studies show that 70% of planned-change programs in organizations either get bogged down prematurely or fail to achieve the intended result. This is especially true for changes that focus on reinventing business propositions, international collaboration, breakthrough innovation, and maximizing customer values. Goals are not achieved, policies are not implemented, customers do not experience improvement in service and quality, and employees, supervisory staff and middle management are confused by all the change efforts. Given these outcomes, why do many leaders stick with planned change as a dominant approach? Is it because we are used to it and do not explore alternatives? Or because shareholders force us to come up with clear plans, goals, and results? Or is it perhaps because the planned-change approach lets us feel like we are in control?

Disruptions in today’s world have transformed our businesses from complex and uncertain to ambiguous and paradoxical. In this dynamic world, developments continue to influence each other, although it is unclear what the outcome will be. It seems as if everything is changing constantly, with some patterns continuing and showing a certain predictability and others suddenly emerging and prompting innovation. In this situation, leading change as a rational and planned process is no longer useful. What we need now is a change approach based on interaction and a continual process of observation, adaptation, and learning. Change resembles a hiking trip through unknown terrain, where the players know and trust each other so that they can deal with uncertainty and the unexpected.

One reason for interactive change can be seen in situations where people create new realities together and learn to deal with uncertainty. This approach towards change requires the courage to confront ambiguous situations and acknowledge tensions. In-depth change and innovation then become possible through interaction. Language gives shape to our thoughts and thus influences our actions. To be successful in a dynamic environment, we need to shift from the language of rational and planned change towards a new language based on the metaphor of change as collaborative play.

The play metaphor helps to initiate changes in organizations and contributes to organizational development with the involvement of players both inside and outside the organization. Players in organizational change envisage the future, try to find their way in an uncertain world and make an effort to shape it. This play metaphor is not about planned change with predefined targets; it is about leading change in a collective search process in which players work together towards transformation and innovation in their own organization. It provides a positive outlook on changing and innovating organizations as a collective process of organizational learning. Are you ready to play together to prepare your organization for the future?

Play is different from a game where the rules are fixed and competition is dominant. The play metaphor invites players to see the informal life of an organization and understand its play patterns. It is not only about strategies, structures, and systems, but also about reading between the lines to identify the unwritten rules of the game and ingrained play patterns. The play metaphor brings out cultural practices, stubbornness, affects in interactions between players, political games and individual uncertainties. With actual in-depth change and innovation, these aspects are essential to the success of the changes. The play metaphor allows us to discuss how we play, who the real players are, and how much room there is for playing.

Embracing organizational change as collaborative play will lead to a fundamental choice: the path of certainty and planned change aimed at stability and control, or the path of tension and uncertainty, which contributes to transformational change and in-depth innovation in our organizations and the world around us. Which is the best choice to prepare an organization for the future?

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