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2.3.4 Anticipating Change Management Wildfires

Updated: May 29, 2021

This article is about the 2.3.4 of Anticipatory Awareness, an opportunity for change leaders to limit the potential for adverse outcomes from their change initiatives. Will you focus on building defensible spaces that lead you to become engulfed in wildfires, or will you anticipate the danger below the inversion layer?

anticipatory awareness and Change Management

The biggest fear for any change leader is unknown-knowns - think of a resistor to change that is known to others, but not known to you or your change team. A reactionary change team will fail to anticipate these risks, focusing on linear, recipe-based change methods that leave them engulfed in a wildfire of resistance or customer dissatisfaction. Let me explain.


Every year we read about wildfires, such as those in California, that wreak havoc and cause hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.

Emergency services teach people in fire-zones to create "defensible spaces" around their homes (e.g. move flammable vegetation from within 15 feet of any structure). However, this information is merely base-level knowledge - much like a primary change method (e.g. ADKAR) - where survival is reliant on your ability to listen to and act on the expertise of others (see our blog on ADKAR and the vulnerability of base-level change knowledge).

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Imagine you have a house in California. You are not a fire expert, and the local news informs you that fires are "under control" within fifteen miles of your home. You live on a mountain; you can see the fires way off in the distance and a morning mist hanging over the forest that leads up to your home.

This scenario is you, the change manager or leader, being aware of behavioural resistors related to the adoption of your change initiative - "I don't have time" or "I don't get why we are doing this when what we have works perfectly well" - but not predicting the impact of such resistors. Still, your change teams believe that they have it under control because they are in love with their change 'solution', where they need to be in love with the challenge.

Back to your house and the fires, what knowledge skills and experience would you need, or have access to, to predict the following event?

Ten miles away, downslope from you, a fire is smouldering under cover of a natural phenomenon called an inversion layer. This layer occurs when an invisible band of cool night air settles over a canyon or valley. As the day breaks, the band of cool air remains sunken, creating a lid over any warm air rising below. This inversion layer is the blindness created by change teams that fail to recognise that organisational change, regardless of its objective, involves people and, therefore, requires an understanding of human behaviour and behavioural change.

The inversion layer begins to lift about midday, and, as it lifts, it pulls more fresh air into the canyon, feeding the unseen flames. The rising heat begins an upward march and soon creates a fireline that devours 100-foot-tall pine trees in its path as it speeds north toward your home. This is a real scenario, and fire-crews would later say it covered two miles in four minutes. By the time you understand what is happening, you are stranded, cut off from your escape route.

What level of knowledge, skills and experience would you need, or have access to, to have predicted this event, considering that even the fire crews in this event failed to pick up on the inversion layer and anticipate the threat.

This wildfire scenario is you, the change leader, dealing with mass resistance to your change initiative because, ultimately, your change initiative is about changing people's behaviours - the fire smouldering under the inversion layer. However, the change team lacks the knowledge, skills and experience to register and amplify the danger signals because they are too focused on their 'solution'.

Ultimately, high-performance change teams anticipate and look for these signals from the outset of their initiative. Lower-performing teams follow the instructions provided in the change recipes, often unwittingly finding themselves engulfed in wildfires.


Anticipatory Awareness by the numbers: 2-3-4

So, how can you address the challenge because the ability to anticipate adverse change outcomes will accelerate your change initiatives?

2.3.4 Anticipatory Awareness AND Change Management

My work has led me to explore neuroscience and neuro-rehabilitation. Here, I found the building blocks for "anticipatory awareness" experiments in organisations.

I have taken a blended approach, synthesising the work of Crosson et al.'s Pyramid of Awareness (1989) and Toglia & Kirk's Dynamic Comprehensive Model of Awareness (2002) – the former being hierarchical and the latter being more about an interconnected understanding of dynamic variables.

Anticipatory Awareness by the numbers: 2

Two essential ingredients are required to achieve an anticipatory state. On the one hand, beliefs, attitudes, skills, knowledge, experience and talent (BASKET) that embrace the tension between linear change recipes and the complexity of behavioural change. And on the other, the competence, competency and capability to acquire/share/deploy/develop credible data/information/knowledge, underpinned by "anticipatory awareness."

Anticipatory Awareness by the numbers: 3

Next, consider three levels of organisational anticipation:

  • Intellectual Awareness - the ability of the change team to understand problems. Intellectual Awareness is a space where beliefs, attitudes, skills, knowledge, experience and talent related to the links between organisational change and behavioural change increases understanding of change accelerators and resistors.

  • Emergent Awarenessrequires "intellectual awareness": the ability of the change team to recognise a problem as it is happening (useful in complex environments). Emergent Awareness is a space where people have to trust the opinions others as opposed to relying on their perception of the world (links complex risk assessment and IRGC the risk governance framework).

  • Anticipatory Awareness – requires "emergent awareness" and "intellectual awareness": the ability of the change team to infer and predict possible futures – a space where people link actions with consequences (requiring abstract reasoning).

Anticipatory Awareness by the numbers: 4

To improve anticipation, change managers and leaders need to work across all three areas. The hierarchical approach, above, is a useful tool for progressing understanding of what anticipation requires.

However, the approach is also problematic for those of us engaged in complex change initiatives, as the approach doesn't convey the dynamics of the capability we are looking to develop.

To overcome this challenge, you need to consider the dynamic interplay of a further four characteristics:

  • Limiting beliefs, attitudes, skills, knowledge, experience and talent: e.g. pattern recognition capability of the individual/group/team/wider community (see our blog on the Leadership Barrel - watch our video below - and see our blog on change knowledge flows).

  • Signal Load: (natural) characteristics of the change signal (simple, complicated or complex); (resource) effort to organise the change initiative into a schema or project plan (increase in resource load from simple through to complex); (extraneous) external influences (e.g. culture, time, etc.)

  • Starting Conditions: e.g. considerations of bias in an organisation operating in a liberal market economy.

  • Stakeholder influence and interest: the greater the sense of stakeholder engagement and involvement, the greater the entanglement between the change team and their customers, the greater the potential for the change team to sense unknown-knowns.

We have used this approach to help organisations the world over recognise the vulnerability of their change initiatives to adverse outcomes. Take a look at your change programmes, are you focused on following instructions and building defensible spaces, or do you see the danger lurking below the inversion layer?


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