By Dr Kay Trainor

Organisations and those who lead them have extraordinarily powerful tools at their disposal for achieving change. Vast amounts of information, significant resources, sophisticated techniques, and renowned experts to name a few.  Yet, no matter how rational or sensible or digitally advanced the plans produced from these tools, something else often happens. Something is missing, which is to do with the deep underlying emotions that are stirred up by change, and what we DO with these emotions.

If change programmes are to be successful and sustainable, they need to engage with the emotional and seemingly irrational reactions they generate or risk being scuppered. We spend a lot of time at Tavistock Consulting working with the fall out when this hasn’t been understood. Therefore, following an article in the Financial Times about employee anxiety (‘Strategies to soothe disrupted staff’, 23rd July 2015), we were delighted to be invited by Ovum to speak at their ‘Future of Work Technology Summit’, held in London in November 2015.

During the Summit we were fascinated to hear about new technologies, including: an app that helps engineers locate and repair runway cracks in the dark; a 3-D interactive model that reveals the infrastructure and services beneath proposed building projects; and several new communication tools that allow teams to hold complex meetings online.

Participants seemed preoccupied with the readiness of organisations to adopt new technologies and the knotty issue of changing organisational culture.

Our presentation was called ‘The paradox of change: Digital Innovation – Why it doesn’t always work out’ and our challenge was how to get across some of the Tavistock’s ideas around change – and to bring the learning alive.  In our training courses we often use ‘temporary learning organisations’ and decided to create one at the conference, which lasted just twenty minutes!

We first asked delegates to imagine, for the purposes of our presentation, that they were all employees of a company called Planet Ovum.  We then described a hypothetical new ‘app’, which we wanted Ovum to buy.  We called it the Change Accelerator and described how, with this app, organisations could download all the expertise of the Tavistock and achieve sustainable change – at the swipe of a screen.

We then asked delegates to share their emotional responses (to the proposal in this case).  Whilst there was a mix of responses, the majority were akin to: ‘Sceptical!’, ‘Disengaged’, ‘Irritated’.

We then shared the ‘news’ that the CEO of Planet Ovum, despite the widespread cynicism, was a strong supporter of the app and was due to invest several million pounds of the firm’s money in the app, which they would all be obliged to use.

Would this news, we asked, change what they felt about the Change Accelerator?  Whilst most of the delegates said it wouldn’t change their feelings, they acknowledged that they might keep quiet about their negative feelings in the future.  They might push them away, in other words.

We were then able to explore the unconscious dynamics of change, asking questions such as:

  • What contributes to the emergence of ‘shadow IT’ (people voting with their mouse, and setting up alternative systems)?

While sophisticated planning and analytic methods are essential to effective change, they are not enough in themselves.

The ‘myth of rationality’ (Krantz 2001) often steers managers away from anticipating and addressing the emotional ‘undertow’ of change efforts. It’s as if irrational reactions and behaviours were merely an unwanted side effect or sign of failure, rather than an inherent and inevitable part of human change efforts.

Whilst the example we used at the Summit was relatively straight forward, designed to get a complex idea across quickly, to an audience relatively unfamiliar with the idea of the unconscious and psychodynamics – in its wake we’re now working to develop a product focused on helping organisations understand the impact of and resistance to the implementation of advanced IT systems in organisations.

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