Change as Shifting Conversations
If we believe that organizations are socially constructed realities, we should be open to consider change management as the enterprise of shifting conversations.
When I talk about socially constructed reality, I mean that the reality that we know is not objective but is constructed by each single person trying to make sense of the world through their perceptions, assumptions, and interpretations, and is modified through each of their interactions with others.
In an outdated structural-functionalist view, the job of the change agent is that of setting up a series of interventions to align or adapt the organization to an objective reality. In the approach I am proposing, the organization as a socially constructed reality, the job of the change agent takes a whole new perspective: they shall not be focused on aligning the organization to a “true” reality, but on shifting realities to provide a context in which people can bring the best of themselves and be more performing. And because realities are constructed in, through and by conversations, the change agent must be a champion of shifting conversations.
Conversations are and provide the very texture of organizations. Organizations can be defined as networks of conversations that include both the physically demonstrable reality (elements and objects that can be described by their characteristics or attributes and that can be measurable and empirically verifiable, like a “chair”, an “orange”, the price of a competitor’s product,) and the interpreted reality (whatever is interpreted by an observer through opinion, judgments, assessments, evaluations). When we interpret reality, we attach meaning to it and we act based on this attributed meaning.
It is very difficult for us human beings to distinguish between demonstrable and interpreted reality and realize how interconnected the two are. Our interpretations fuse what is demonstrable with our assumptions and opinions about it. And because we are not aware of this fusing, we believe that our interpretation is the objective reality. If I experience my boss as “aggressive” (so I attach my opinion “aggressive” to him), I consequently experience him as aggressive. I don’t see that aggressive is a feature that I attached to him, rather I see it as a quality inherent to the person and right there for everyone to see. Real organizational change happens when we surface, recognize and shift our individual and collective interpreted realities through conversations.
Conversations bring both history and future into the present flow of words, because they refer and rework the past while anticipating and shaping the conversation that is yet to come. Not only are conversations the process through which we construct reality, but they are also the product of that construction: conversations become the reality.
Conversations are also what produce and manage change. As Jeffrey D. Ford puts it, change is an unfolding of conversations into already existing conversations and how “a change” occurs to participants will depend on the interpreted realities within which they engage the unfolding dynamic. These realities, in turn, specify what can and cannot be done, what will and will not be done, who should or should not do what, etc. and thereby set the conversational dynamics of change.
Organizational change cannot occur independent of individual change. To make an organization shift, people have to shift what they talk about, which in turn alters the context in which they find themselves, making new actions possible. Quite simply, in the absence of people’s willingness to speak and listen differently, there can be no conversational shift and no organizational change.
Producing organizational change, therefore, requires a type of language shift that produces an attractive and empowering reality in which the consequences of a shift fulfill the intentions for which it was undertaken.
The cultural transformation programmes that Asterys has implemented in so many organizations have all been based on shifting conversations. When large numbers of managers go through such transformational programmes within a brief time frame, small group by small group, the graduates create a critical mass of individuals who willingly embrace a new conversation, a new mindset and culture so that the new reality is more likely to be sustained.