What Needs to be True to Succeed with Change?

“Yesterday, we had a meeting with another department to talk about our IT business change project. We were meant to discuss the next steps, but it was an absolute disaster. They hadn’t done a thing we agreed. They just don’t understand IT, so we ended up explaining it to them yet again. That enabled them to sit back and make it our problem. I feel so frustrated by all of this. We’re having these kinds of meetings over and over, and nothing ever changes. It’s draining and I have had enough of it.”

In many organisations, situations like this one are business as usual. They are not new. In fact, they are ancient.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

You might have once heard the story of the blind men and the elephant, a parable that originated in the Indian subcontinent over 2,500 years ago. The story goes that, once upon a time in India, there was a group of blind men who were curious to learn what an elephant was. When they encountered an elephant, they approached the animal and touched it to imagine what an elephant is like. Each man felt a different part of the elephant’s body.

One blind man touched the side of the elephant and exclaimed, “An elephant is nothing but a wall!”

Another blind man stroked a tusk and said, “An elephant is like a spear!”

The next blind man felt the elephant’s ear and said, “Even the blindest man cannot deny that an elephant is a fan!”

And so it went with each part of the elephant’s body. Each blind man touched just one, different part of the animal and imagined seeing the whole elephant. Of course, they each believed they were right and it didn’t take long before they started arguing with and disputing each other.

Fast Forward to Today

The same happens within, across, and between individuals, teams, departments, and organisations to this day. You experience it strongest when conditions change due to external events, the introduction of new strategies, and during digital transformations. That is when established forms of social coordination are irreversibly disrupted. Existing beliefs and attitudes collide, causing friction between different social groupings who are keen to protect and champion their identity and status in the face of turmoil.

Creating breakthrough change

In situations like these, trying to make change happen by pushing others with your arguments will only lead to pushback. Regardless who wins that contest, it creates winners and losers, which is not a conducive beginning for any change initiative that depends on cross-boundary collaboration for success.

The obstacles to success are the beliefs of what is true and on which existing perceptions, behaviours, and attitudes are based.

To change key beliefs, you need to change how people feel about what they believe to be true by giving them a new experience. Creating such a new experience starts with one question:

What needs to be true to create the desired outcome?

To answer this question, you need to understand and feel how others experience the world from their perspective. Without judgment, you need to experience what is true for each of your key stakeholders. Only when you have gained these deep insights from others’ perspectives, can you work out what needs to be true for each stakeholder group to see that better, different is possible and to feel the urge to make it happen together.

When you can achieve that, you are not only seeing the whole elephant together, you’re dancing with it.

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Arnoud Franken

Arnoud Franken

Helping leaders to accelerate meaningful change | Senior Consultant, Strategic Change Leadership | Professor | Keynote Speaker