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Change Management: how do you overcome the Goldilocks problem?

Updated: May 29, 2021

The Goldilocks Problem: is your change management initiative struggling with adoption because the team is looking for solvable problems or opportunities?

First, let me state the obvious: change management teams are constrained by their limiting knowledge, skills and experience. Therefore, it is a fallacy to believe that a change management team can solve any challenges that come their way.

Change Management AND the Goldilocks principle

The reality is that change management teams only thrive in situations where the environment presents the right kind of solvable problem, problems that align with their BASKET: beliefs, attitudes, skills, knowledge, experience and talent. In this way, successful change management initiates are governed by the Goldilocks principle, where the change is only successful when the conditions are just right: the problems or opportunities presented in the environment align with the narrow spectrum of beliefs, attitudes, skills, knowledge, experience and talent available within the change team.

Change Management and the Goldilocks Principle

The Goldilocks Principle means that change teams succeed when they find solvable problems but stress and fail when they can't find solvable problems. It naturally follows that the less diversity in the team's BASKET, the narrower the view of the world, and the fewer solvable problems available to them. Thus, without purposive action at the outset, success is determined by luck and not design.

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We know that unknowns blindside change teams: the greater the number of unknowns, the greater the likelihood of unintended consequences from a given change team's actions. Therefore, change teams need to act with purposive curiosity or thoughtfulness to identify unknowns. In doing so, they reduce anxiety, fear, and conflict while amplifying motivation and adoption.

'Just Right!': Static Vs Dynamic Change Teams

The vast majority of change teams are static. By static, I mean that the change team is formed and does not purposely evolve to meet the environment's needs. A static team can quickly find themselves overwhelmed by the problems emerging in their change space, where their solution ability does not sync with the environment's needs. In other words, the environment is not just right, and they struggle to find the solvable problems they need to succeed. When this happens, the change team is purely reactive because they only perform well when they can find the solvable problems that allow them to shine.

In understanding the challenges of a static team, it can be helpful to think of a team in a landscape. Because change takes place in dynamic social environments, the landscape is formed of peaks and valleys that are in a constant state of flux caused by the actions of multiple adaptive agents with competing objectives. The static team forms to fit a given moment in time. They become trapped by local conditions lacking the beliefs, attitudes, skills, knowledge, experience and talent to search and traverse the broader landscape.

A dynamic change initiative starts with a thoughtful awareness of its limitations. It sets out with an adaptive mindset that seeks to identify and exploit emerging opportunities and overcome emergent challenges. High-performing change teams have an awareness of the problems they are likely to confront because they have converted environmental unknowns to knowns, which allows them to solve more of the problems, and exploit more of the opportunities, that they confront. A dynamic change team is more proactive, which amplifies resilience - the team's ability to deliver meaningful value over time - because they are more likely to identify and exploit whatever opportunities or problems come their way.

Ashby's Law in Action

Those of you who follow my work will know that Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety heavily influences me: variety overcomes variety. The variety of a change teams beliefs, attitudes, knowledge, skills, experience and talent must match or exceed the variety in its environment. Or, for a change team to exploit the variety of opportunities or problems it is likely to face, it must have the requisite capability to identify and solve that variety of opportunities or problems. To achieve this, a dynamic change initiative adopts a purposive swarming approach; the core leadership team takes a purposive approach to swarm the collective intelligence required to exploit the environment; the swarm is a pulse, growing and contracting, amplifying and dissipating; it adapts to exploit the opportunities emerging in the environment.

Read: The 2021 Thought Leader: Change leadership, mega spaces, colliders and the quest for immortality

What I am trying to say here is this: if you want your change initiative to be resilient - to deliver meaningful value over time - don't just look for solvable problems, be thoughtful and look to form dynamic purposive swarms that can identify and exploit emerging problems.

The alternative is to stick to static principles that rely on the Goldilocks Principle for success, and how many change initiatives do you know of that have ended up being just the right fit between the team and the environment to deliver success?

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