In the last month I’ve talked with several colleagues in higher education, non-profits, and associations who are either leading change efforts or frustrated by the way current change efforts are negatively impacting people in their organizations. One colleague asked me to focus some of my blog posts on leading change, so I agreed to dedicate the next couple of months to that endeavor. My hope is that it will start a helpful conversation and readers will join in.

At the outset, it might be useful to examine some common pitfalls to change. Knowing common pitfalls doesn’t necessarily help you avoid them completely, but can help you recognize them and manage them better during a change effort. In their research on transformational change, Scott Keller and Colin Price, authors of Beyond Performance, have identified common pitfalls that organizations typically encounter. Interestingly enough, these pitfalls are all polarities that people struggle with in organizational life.

For example, here are a few:

  1. Change vs. Continuity
  2. Planning vs. Piloting/Experimentation
  3. Standardization vs. Autonomous Practices
  4. Pressure for Progress vs. Discovery
  5. Independent Initiatives vs. Connected Initiatives

The key to managing any of these pitfalls is to see them not as EITHER/OR solutions, but to view them as BOTH/AND equations.  For instance:

  • To manage change and continuity, ask:  What do we need to do to preserve the core of the service/product we provide, but make room for leaps of innovation that will support future success?
  • To manage planning and experimentation, ask: How do we balance our planning efforts with wise action that moves progress forward?
  • To manage standardization and autonomy, ask: What processes would benefit from standardization across business units and where is it best to allow for autonomy among them?

Well, you get the picture. But what if mere questioning doesn’t help get you unstuck when you are dealing with one of these common pitfalls? That’s when it’s helpful to do some deeper exploratory work.  Using a tool called a polarity map can be extraordinarily helpful to discover what what underlying values and mindsets are responsible for polarizing people in the organization. Most importantly, the process of polarity mapping can help you explore common ground and strategies for moving forward, so you can manage change effectively and avoid common pitfalls.

For more on understanding polarities, see: Barry Johnson’s book on Polarity Management or you can contact me at anita@riosconsulting.org for resources and consultation. You can also read my blog post on common leadership polarities.

Anita Rios

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