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Optimum Interventions

Change – Our Worlds, Contexts and Conversations

The imperatives to change and transform our organisations, and the risks of not responding coherently and appropriately to those imperatives have never been greater or more pressing.

During change, the emphasis is often on the ‘programme’ and the programme management tools; the Gantt charts; the HR procedures, cost-management and delivering the ‘benefits’ (how I recoil from that particular term) and so on – and perhaps rightly so. Without appropriate emphasis on those technical aspects, many change programmes (again, not keen on that way of describing change, as programmatic, almost guaranteed to succeed) can and often do falter or fail to achieve their goals.

Gifted ‘steerers’ of change efforts know how much time and energy to give to these facets. They also know though, that are there are other features and activities in change that require regular attention and clear focus. These other aspects of change can be just as important, fundamental even, to the long term success  and sustainability of a change effort. Aspects such as culture, engagement, and the quality of our conversations.

I’m supporting several organisations, local authorities and charities, in navigating large-scale change; through fulfilling roles with them as diverse as executive coach with their leaders, facilitator of strategic planning with the leadership teams and as a Board Member of two large charities that are merging to create a new entity.

One of the things that strikes me in all of the various settings of change and regardless of whether I’m working with individuals, teams or the whole-system, is that the quality of the conversations held across the piece can have a direct and meaningful impact on the progress and eventual outcomes of the change effort.

Conversations, with one person or hundreds of colleagues, can be thoughtful, collaborative, meaningful and productive, particularly with conscious effort and high degrees of self-awareness on behalf of the participants. Just as often though I notice and have been involved in conversations that are composed of the opposite of those features. These conversations are characterised by a certain ‘blindness,’ an impatience, a desire to always be ‘sticking to the programme’ and viewing engagement and culture development as the ‘soft’, i.e. relatively easy or unimportant aspect, of the change  effort or ‘programme.’

Barry Oshry talks of context and how we each inhabit different worlds within the same organisation or system. Our worlds impact deeply on how we feel about our organisation and changes within it or around it. He talks of Tops, Middles and Bottoms in his excellent book Seeing Systems. He says about these worlds, contexts and groups:

“When interacting with Tops we are dealing with people living in a world of considerable complexity (they are having difficult, ambiguous, unpredictable issues to deal with) and responsibility (they are held accountable for the success and failures of the system).

When interacting with the Bottoms, we are dealing with people living in a world of invisibility (they are often not seen by the higher ups) and vulnerability (higher-ups can influence their lives in major and minor ways).

When interacting with Middles we are dealing with people living in a tearing world (they are pulled between you and others). What you want from them, they don’t have; they need to go to others to get it. And what others want from them, they need to come to you to get. They experience “simple” requests from you or others as complex tearing between you and others.”

For successful conversations and indeed, successful change, we each need to understand each others’ worlds. When we think we are dealing  person-to-person we are, in fact, dealing context-to-context.

When it comes to our clients and customers (and other contexts I would suggest), Oshry says:

“Stuff happens. We have two choices: we can take the actions of others personally and see what that gets us: Lots of good stories with good parts for US and bad parts for THEM


We can take their worlds into account. What are they dealing with? It may be harder work this second way: Less reflex, more thought, less blame, more compassion, less righteous indignation, more power

It’s our choice”

Indeed it is, our choice.

At a more individual level, for more inspiration around effective conversations, I often turn to Meg Wheatley’s excellent book, ‘Turning to One Another – simple conversations to restore hope to the future’. Her advice to us in trying to host meaningful conversations is to practice new behaviours based on conversational principles. These are:

  • We acknowledge one another as equals
  • We try to stay curious about each other
  • We recognise that we need each other’s help to become better listeners
  • We slow down so we have time to think and reflect
  • We remember that conversation is the natural way humans think together
  • We expect it to be messy at times

As Wheatley says, “the practice of conversation takes courage, faith and time. We don’t get it right first time, and we don’t have to… as we risk talking to each other about something we care about, as we become curious about each other, as we slow things down, gradually we remember this timeless way of being together. Our rushed and thoughtless behaviours fade away, and we sit quietly in the gift of being together, just as we have always done.”

How frequently do we make the time and have the courage to slow down, reflect, and recognise those behaviours that keep us apart, ostensibly in the name of being a hard-headed ‘leader’ or change ‘manager?’ We might even have been rewarded in the past for behaviours that keep us apart, e.g. speaking too fast, interrupting others, giving speeches or making pronouncements. These behaviours do not lead to quality of thought, collaborative outcomes or healthy relationships – they tend more to drive us apart and keep us apart.

Using the principles above and practicing effective behaviours to host meaningful conversations must be a goal for all of us who have the responsibility to lead organisations through change.

This entry was posted in change, Culture change, engagement, Illuminate, leadership, Seeing Systems, Strategic Planning, strategy, Transformation. Bookmark the permalink.

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Steve Lorraine