We are human not a Cartesian machine

Why is it that with all the books and methodologies available to us we still hear the phrase; “But I thought everything was going well!?”  The problem can’t be the lack of information or the lack of desire to improve. I suspect it is our narrow view when it comes to improving the way we do things. By and large, we have been focusing on rules and logical processes for improving the management of people-oriented activities.

We all have experienced or know of an initiative that is heading towards failure but attracts very little attention from the executives. I was recently asked by a client to review a Change Programme. We started by running a half-day workshop with the team. It didn’t take long before it became obvious that the organisation has not allocated sufficient capacity to the programme and it is going to miss most of its targets. The team already knew that. As far as they were concerned they have communicated all the ‘risks and issues’ to the steering. It took another two months before the organisation formally acknowledged that the Programme is in trouble.

This organisation has all the necessary governance, reporting and processes for managing and implementing change programmes and there was nothing out of ordinary about this particular case or the culture of the organisation. Such situations are common and they happen because we are human and not processing machines.

I have found three familiar human attributes in most projects: (1) We like to have certainty so we latch on to processes; (2) we don’t want to be seen as a failure which results in a tendency to operate in denial or hope; and (3) we don’t like to give or hear what is consider as ‘bad news’ so we make the situation worse by delaying the inevitable.  We call these Cultural or Behavioural challenges and then feel justified to ignore them. I reckon it is the way we deal with these that create great results.

Organisations assume by following Change Management processes they can successfully manage their change portfolio and subsequently the execution of their strategy. These processes are logical and give a sense of certainty and control but they can detach us from the concerns of individuals and communities. Change happens and takes shape by people acting in networks of human relationships. The problem is not with the processes but our perspective when using them; we look at projects as a set of tasks that need to be fulfilled. We need to develop a new orientation.

Commitment – We operate in a network of commitments people make to each other in order to create an outcome. This is a complex network of living relationships with various ambitions and anxieties.

Trust – To get results, we need reliable and authentic relationships around us; relationships that are based on trust. Misaligned concerns and varied interpretations of events create mistrust. Breakdowns cannot be totally avoided but we can build trust by dealing with them promptly.

Listening – We listen to words but interpret the situation in our own unique ways. To truly listen we need to remain curious and aware that our assessments and moods are based on our interpretations and not what is actually in play.

Reporting – often through cordial, protective or hopeful intentions messages get diluted and distorted as they travel through organisations. It is our tendency to tranquilise and avoid tension that causes delays and disappointments.

I am pretty sure that we will not find the answers in improved information processing or new methodologies but in cultivating new ways of seeing work and how to mobilise action. To start with we can challenge ourselves and our teams by asking these simple questions:

  1. Has everyone committed to what we need and do we trust their commitments?
  2. Do we understand the situation holistically or have we jumped to a conclusion?
  3. Are we reporting authentically and have spoken what we truly believe?
  4. Are we ignoring things because we are avoiding tension or worried about our position?
  5. Have we dealt with all mistrust related breakdowns?

Author: Saiid Ordibehesht

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