Resourceful Change

February 10, 2015

By: Max Branson

Recall a time when you participated in an organizational change. Was it a success or failure? What contributed to this outcome?

These were the questions Scott Sonenshein wanted us to have in the back of our minds as he began his Positive Links Speaker Series session. He wanted us to know how our stories stacked up against the numbers—which say that most change initiatives fail to meet their stated objectives. A show of hands proved that even a room “predisposed to be really positive” did not stray from this negative norm.

So, then, how do we change this? How do we make sure our change initiatives succeed? First, we throw out the old methods. Forcing an employee to change from a blind follower of the status quo to a blind follower of a different status quo does not work. It breeds resentment.

Professor Sonenshein told the story of a particularly enlightening field research experience. He’d gone to observe the daily operations of a fashion boutique that had managed to thrive during the recession, a time when many retailers had no choice but to close their doors. Expecting to merely observe the store for a few days, Prof. Sonenshein was instead put to work setting up mannequins, folding scarves, and opening boxes. In one box, he discovered a bendable, metallic loop—moldable jewelry. It was a perfect metaphor for what he began to study in the organization.

Resources are not static; they’re dynamic. Or at least they should be. Dynamic resources can be stretched and changed into new things. That was how this particular boutique managed to not only survive, but thrive. Its team members were willing to adapt. Case in point: rather than hiring a new employee, they “repurposed” the researcher who had come to study their work into a productive staff member!

If you want to encourage this same kind of resourceful change in your organization, remember the four S’s:

  • Strengthen your resources
  • Spark positive prophecies
  • Shape improvisational capabilities
  • Shift to stories

To strengthen your resources, you need to look for the hidden gems. Find ways of repurposing existing resources and making them more valuable. A manager at the boutique repurposed inferior-quality dresses into hot-selling beach cover-ups.

Spark positive prophecies by refusing to set the expectation that employees will resist change. Negative expectations obstruct positive change.

To shape improvisational capabilities, resist the urge to over plan. How we implement plans can quickly render them irrelevant, and faulty assumptions in plans often get overlooked by focusing on outputs.

To shift to stories, be ready to constantly revise and update your strategies. Act as if you and your team are telling a story. Every time you tell a story, it changes a little bit—and everybody can contribute to the telling. Plans, on the hand, are usually unchanging and far less collaborative.

Watch the entirety of Professor Sonenshein’s presentation to learn even more about resourceful change.