16 June 2009 • 10:55 am

Consonance vs. Dissonance in the Change Agenda

(After two consecutive posts on the topic of the Strategy-Focused IT Organization, and two well-received posts on strategy map design, I return to one of my favorite themes: musing about organization behavior and its impact on strategy and change. Don’t like this topic? As the number of readers of the Tenacious Blog grows, I will rely ever more on your feedback to know which postings are most valuable to, so please share your comments and criticisms below every post that you read.)

One key benefit of having an outsider facilitate an organization’s change process is the outsider’s objective viewpoint. In preparing to facilitate a strategy development workshop, I insist on prior, separate, one-on-one interviews with each member of the leadership team charged with developing the strategy. My aim during these interviews is not to promote a particular change agenda, but to understand the extent to which the members of the team have identical, aligned, or divergent beliefs and values about the change agenda for the organization. In short, I look for consonance or dissonance (wonderful musical terms that apply here as well) in the strategic song of the leadership team. The understanding I gain is of vital importance when facilitating the team as a whole.

Identical Expectations for Change

During interviews, when each member of the leadership team is not only expressing the same aims for the organization, but using the exactly the same words and phrases, a healthy skepticism is in order. It may be tempting to view the harmony as good news; it implies a team that is in agreement on the strategy and ready to move into execution, and sometimes this is actually the case. But it may also indicate the insidious disease of groupthink, a behavior demonstrated by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Groupthink may result from complacency in a successful organization, the charisma or power of the group’s leader, or anxiety from being in an organization where dissent is punished. In these organizations, the facilitator’s role is to gently prod leaders to express their own understanding of the dogma, to ensure that each has understood and internalized its meaning, rather than just parroting the words. In a few cases, it has even turned out that members of a client’s leadership team have actually met privately before the interviews to “get their stories straight” for the facilitator.

Aligned Expectations for Change

The second condition is less likely to occur, and yet probably the healthiest. Leaders who hold the same basic values and aims for the organization may be seen as having aligned expectations. These leaders have strongly-held ideas about the direction of the organization, and demonstrate their internalization of the ideas by using their own language to express them. This is a good indication of a culture of critical thinking in the leadership team, and perhaps the organization as a whole. When I encounter the condition of aligned expectations, my aim is primarily to identify an essential shared vocabulary for change;  the few critical words that encapsulate the shared agenda that will best enable the leadership team to communicate it across the organization, perhaps in a strategy map.

Divergent Expectations for Change

It is easy to imagine that leaders with somewhat or radically different ideas about the necessary direction for the organization are out of touch with each other, flailing under the stress of a failing organization, or simply lack the leadership they need to gravitate to a central set of ideas. While this is likely to be the case, this result may also indicate that the organization itself has a fragmented value proposition, or that the organization level of the leadership team is operating as a holding company, with little or no synergies among its constituent parts. But a diversity of beliefs may also represent the wisdom of independent thinkers whose unique perspectives will be valuable when integrated. The challenge when facilitating this type of leadership team is to distill a shared consensus for strategy that incorporates the best ideas from the team, and to shelve or discard some ideas in pursuit of a tight, coherent strategy. The facilitator should not pass judgment on each ideas, but instead enable members of the team to advocate their unique views to colleagues to gain their support. While the biggest risk in this scenario is failing to reach consensus, there is also considerable risk in losing a good idea in the name of achieving that consensus. But as a wise client once told me, “the essence of strategic planning is choosing what not to do.”

A Case for Objective Facilitation

Organizations engaging in a new or ongoing strategic management process may be tempted to delegate strategy development to a staff member, or arrive at strategy without the benefit of objective facilitation of the leadership team. This approach is penny wise, and pound foolish. It is most likely to result in a change agenda that reinforces a comfortable status quo, or is so fragmented as to be incomprehensible by employees and stakeholders. Please share your comments and experiences below.

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