Solving the problem of process-constrained change: Transforming assumptions

-Lucinda Garthwaite and Daniel Sewell, CMP Founders and Lead Partners

In our March 12, 2015 CMP Blog post, we introduced the concept of process-constrained change, and promised to bring you more posts dedicated to solving that problem. In today’s post, we identify three key assumptions that can burden process, thus constraining change:

  • The Vision and Purpose Assumption
  • The Final Decision Assumption
  • The Weight of Input Assumption

Process-constrained change

We developed the concept of process-constrained change to describe the dynamic that some call “discussing something to death” and others call “death by committee.”    This generally occurs in organizations that value diverse perspectives in decision making. These organizations value diverse perspectives for good reason; it pays to inform change initiatives with the wisdom of stakeholders.  When that wisdom isn’t considered, we risk missing information that could make or break the success of the change, saving or costing substantial time and resources.

So we create process:  committee structures, task forces, work groups, conversation and dialog opportunities, community meetings, and retreats.  Process inevitably adds time to decision-making.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing; a little extra time at the front end can save a lot of time and resources in the long run.

Process itself isn’t the problem. Process can release, propel, and assure positive change.  When process constrains change, though, there’s something wrong.   Often the something that’s wrong has to do with the assumptions that underlie process.

Assumptions and organizational change

One of the basic tenets of organizational learning theory is that unseen, unquestioned, or unarticulated assumptions can eat away at an organization’s ability to respond to the changing nature of its environment.  In other words, assumptions can constrain change.  Loosening that constraint requires an initial investment of time and attention – yes, a bit more process -- and regular tune-ups, but it is always well worth the effort.

In our experience, the trouble usually resides in one or more of several kinds of assumptions.  The trick is to assure to the greatest extent possible that these assumptions are transformed into clear, transparent, and shared principles that can guide process, change and organizational learning.

The nature of an assumption, of course, is that it is most commonly unconscious. Or, if it is conscious, is considered by its holder to be the truth – not an assumption at all.  So the first step in unpacking assumptions is to establish that, no matter who holds them, they are only assumptions.  Even if you are the founder, board chair, CEO, the longest-serving staff member or the most honored supporter – until assumptions are transformed into clear, transparent, and shared  principles, they are only assumptions and cannot effectively guide change.

We have identified three assumptions most likely to cause process-constrained change. They are: the vision and purpose assumption, the final decision assumption, and the weight-of-input assumption.   We’ll introduce each of those here.

The vision and purpose assumption

Shared vision and purpose  is the central assumption of any organization, answering the question, what is the organization for?  Every organization needs to ask this question specifically.  For example, what  social or ecological change does the organization intend to create or contribute to?  What would the world begin to look like if this organization does what it’s meant to do?

This is much more than a mission statement, which by its nature is generally concise enough to fit on a website banner or masthead.  This is a thorough articulation of the organization’s reason for being.   You might be surprised by how seldom the purpose and vision assumption is understood and shared throughout an organizational system. If your organization is dogged by process-constrained change, look here first.

The final decision assumption

Final decisions are the green light for change. Someone makes a final decision and says “go.”  The final decision assumption is about who gets to say go about what kinds of changes. We know of one organization where a mid-level manager has been asking for a  “decision tree,” for close to ten years.  When we last checked, still no decision tree.  That is in part because it’s clear to those at the top of the organization who decides what, so it seems like a waste of time to go through the process of articulating that.  Moreover, there is some concern about push-back; maybe the rank and file won’t like the decision tree the top brass has in mind.

Maybe. Probably. And that’s exactly why this organization should take the time to create that “tree.”  When the final decision assumption isn’t clear, one of two things will happen: the process will get bogged down with arguments and discussions about it, or people will just    slow down, resentful that their perspectives on final decisions, or their request for clarity, are being ignored.  It is well worth the time to sort this out.

The weight-of-input assumption

Weight-of-input is among trickiest assumptions to tackle. Whose input has how much influence when a change is under consideration? This is particularly challenging in organizations that espouse commitments to social justice and inclusion, because weight-of-input is about influence and agency, and those are among the cornerstones of social justice.  Organizational changes will inevitably affect people’s lives, both in and outside the organization.  People who care about social justice are particularly aware of that dynamic.

If your organization does not have a clear, transparent and shared understanding of weight-of-input, it is very likely that assumption is creating a severely constrained change process.  Weight-of-input assumptions will even drag down discussions of vision and purpose, and final decisions. It is essential that these understandings be made explicit.

A caveat

Transforming these assumptions into clear, transparent and shared principles won’t guarantee a shift to a more nimble change process, but it will move an organization well beyond a completely constrained process.   Certainly without transforming  assumptions about visions and purpose, final decisions, and weight-of-input, the process will remain constrained.  Eventually change will slow to a stop, and a system that stops changing, stops existing.

In future posts, we’ll offer more discussion of these three change-constraining assumptions, and focus on implications for mission-driven organizations.