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How to navigate the complex field of change

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Ben French explores why the process of change is more art than science

"It's intuition…" Those, at least, were the words of my matrix algebra professor. Unfortunately, I didn’t seem to have it! Matrix algebra is defined by its rules and formulas, but despite understanding each rule individually, how they came together was always a black box to me. It is more about 'getting the feel for it' than understanding and applying the rules.

Much of the international development sector is focused on enabling change that lasts beyond the life of the policy intervention. These policy changes look at how organisations function to bring about a different outcome.

Being able to understand how change happens, and is sustained, is critical for success. But what enables this change in policy or organisational behaviour? Is it a mechanical formula and set of rules, or is there something else? In short, can we follow a set of rules to get to the answer, or is something else required? These are fundamental questions in international development, and they are particularly relevant when engaging directly with governments.

There is something deeply liberating about seeing the process of change as something intuitive, and not something technical which could be distilled into a shiny report. This takes us away from another deliverable towards a way of thinking and acting, which, from experience, can be deeply satisfying. However, it is also deeply worrying because it means that you cannot just apply a framework to come up with an answer.

The importance of incorporating a change management mindset into how the international development sector works has gained traction in the past two decades, although it is known by different names, from doing development differently to thinking and working politically. The most recent statement of this intent is the Department for International Development’s (DFID) position paper on Governance.

Despite the proliferation of thinking and statements of intent, really incorporating this change management mindset into how we work has proven exceptionally difficult. Not because we do not have an effective way to explain what we are seeing or trying to do, but because we rely on applying a formula without the intuition behind it. Why? There are three reasons:

Habit

All organisations and individuals have habits, and those of us with a bad habit (we all have them!) know just how difficult they can be to change. We have been talking about the importance of embedding change as key success criteria for a while, and embedding different concepts into the way we work. Each version has attempted to change our current practice, or habit, and replace it with a new habit that is less technical in nature and more aware of the environment in which we work, and thus better adapted to enabling change.

To understand the challenge we face, we do not need to look further than the organisation we currently work for. Just think about an organisational project that has fizzled out and one that has succeeded. Why is that? Because that IT project that was rolled out may have been a great solution in theory, but everyone already uses Dropbox and frankly it was just difficult to change. Or, what about the recycling project that the environment team launched but it just did not take off because of your company’s reliance on the Starbucks across the street for coffee? These habits are organisationally difficult to change – just as our habit of turning everything into a report, framework, or tool that should be applied mechanically is a difficult habit to break.

Perspective

The intuition for how to bring about change is a frame of mind, and a way of perceiving context. Changing your perspective, or becoming aware of other perspectives, is not always easy. Think about your own workplace, home, or community organisation – can you picture that one person who gets the people, is able to navigate around the organisation with relative ease, and seems to get their projects approved and accomplished while other projects languish? Now think of the person who everyone sees as the supreme technical specialist, but who also seems stuck, not able to move forward with their specific project.

What sets these two people apart? It is their intuition and their ability to see the organisation and people, as well as the needs, and their ability to navigate, and instinctively understand the individual politics and interests of those around them. For some people this is a natural state of being, for others – well, it is hard, but not impossible to learn.

Intuition

In the popular psych we talk about the dark arts of bureaucracy, the ability to navigate through all that organisational red tape to get something done. Often we refer to this as acting politically. There are some standout examples, usually civil servants, who make the news for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, we don’t see these dark arts as something to be valued. Instead we attach a stigma to them, which makes it hard to recognise that if we are serious about bringing about change into our programmes, we need to build our ability to use these ‘dark arts’.

Even in our organisations there are seldom more than a handful of individuals able to successfully navigate the internal political landscape. It is more comfortable to take a technical or procedural viewpoint, and have the certainty of a framework for understanding the world. Recognising that progress requires both the technical competence and understanding to make the changes, as well as the intuition to gain support for change, are critical first steps to successful change management.