Solving the problem of process-constrained change: The weight-of-input assumption

Lucinda Garthwaite and Daniel Sewell, CMP Founders and Lead Partners

In our March 12th CMP blog post, we introduced the concept of process-constrained change. We suggested that process itself is not a problem; without deep consideration of stakeholders’ perspectives and insights, organizations make mistakes that seriously degrade their impact. But process can also slow down the pace of change such that organizations miss opportunities to respond to a changing environment. That is process-constrained change.  We suggested that systems thinking offers a way to approach this challenge.

Among other things, systems thinking includes  awareness of assumptions that underlie organizational life.  In our April 2nd CMP blog post, we introduced three assumptions that can create process-constrained change:  The vision and purpose assumption, the final decision assumption, and the weight-of-input assumption.  In our April 10 CMP blog post, exploring vision and purpose, we suggested that without transforming this assumption into a clear, transparent, and shared principle, vision and purpose can slow and even stop organizational change.  There are ways to make this transformation happen, we wrote, but not until assumptions about final decisions and weight-of-input are resolved.  Today, we’re addressing the weight-of-input assumption.

Whose input matters most?

“Whose input matters most?” is  the essential question of the weight-of-input assumption, and it’s not a simple one to answer.  It’s one thing to gather wisdom from a number of people and groups throughout the organization. It’s another thing altogether to consider which input will rise to the fore and influence the direction of change.

This is different than the final decision assumption, which we’ll write about in our next post.  Final decision is about the last word, the green light, the “go” that sets change in motion.  Weight-of-input is about what influences that last word.  How much agency does each individual or group have?  Individuals and groups who are asked for input spend time and energy thinking about, documenting and sharing their perspective on the change at hand.   Without clarity about weight-of-input, each individual or group is likely to assume that the final decision should demonstrably reflect that carefully-wrought perspective.

But if there are several conflicting perspectives, equally hard-wrought, how can they all be reflected in the final decision?  This is the paradox that underlies the weight-of-input assumption:  all perspectives offer wisdom, all wisdom matters, and not all wisdom can always be reflected in the direction of change.

The most complex process-constraining assumption

The complexity of the weight-of-input assumption is driven by organizational, individual, social, and attitudinal factors. Weight-of-input is about structure, position, relationships and dynamics. Every organization has entities and individuals in relationship with one another, and the unexamined dynamics of those relationships foster lack of shared understandings   about weight-of-input.

Weight-of-input is about influence and agency, which are among the cornerstones of social justice. So assumptions about weight-of-input are particularly challenging in organizations that value social justice.  Organizational changes will inevitably affect people’s lives, both in and outside the organization, and people who care about social justice are particularly aware of that dynamic.

The weight-of-input assumption is further complicated by conscious and unconscious attitudes and beliefs about social identity, including race, class, gender, physical or mental ability, age, and religion.  Attitudes and beliefs about -- and attachments to  -- professional standing make weight-of-input assumptions even more complex: which professional groups’ perspectives ought to be weighted most heavily?   And to complicate weight-of-input assumptions even further, professional status and social identity are often deeply connected.

All of this complexity makes the weight-of-input assumption particularly challenging to sort out. Still, leaving it unsorted leads to entrenched resentment, resistance, disengagement, and ultimately obstruction. In a fast changing environment,  where impact depends on a nimble response to a changing climate, organizations can not afford these constraints.  

Transforming the weight-of-input assumption

We have known some managers and leaders who are tempted to address the weight-of-input assumption with authority.  Resistance, disengagement and obstruction are “not tolerated,” met with consequences through supervision and performance evaluations.  While these approaches quell overt behaviors,  the quality of input suffers,  and covert or unconscious drag on process continues.

Other leaders address the weight-of-input assumption with a decree; the input of this group and that individual will have more weight than the other.  This achieves transparency, and it can work if the reasoning is clear and accepted, and the authority that issues the decree is respected and accepted.  Those are difficult criteria to meet, though, especially given the complex nature of this assumption.

More often, the weight-of-input assumption is most effectively transformed through skilled facilitation that unpacks assumptions and promotes the development of clear, transparent and shared principles about weight-of-input. Some organizations are gifted with an internal, universally trusted and skilled facilitator who deeply understands social and professional identity dynamics. If that kind of resource isn’t available internally, it is well worth the investment to bring in outside help to facilitate the effort needed to transform the weight-of-input assumption.

In our next blog post, we’ll unpack the final decision assumption, and offer some thoughts about process-constrained change to conclude this series of posts.