energising people, teams, organisations and communities
Do you manage change through heroic acts of substantial intrusion? Or is your style more akin to the oblique intervention proposed by Chia & Holt*?
These Professors argue that a more understated and oblique approach to strategic change than the usual dramatic strategic changes that occur can nevertheless prove to be more efficacious and sustainable in the longer term, although less spectacular and attention-grabbing. The more direct, single-minded and deliberate a specific strategic change is, the more it may initially produce impressive but often unsustainable results in the longer run because they generate internal friction, fuel resistance and stoke resentment; all of which works corrosively to erode and undermine the efficacy of such change efforts.
The authors seek to convince the reader that small, cumulative change-activities create a stronger acceptability amongst organisation-members and this in turn produces greater chance of sustainability. They talk about “… instilling and internalising a collective ‘habitus’; a set of honed instincts and shared predispositions”, something that evokes the principles of continuous improvement rather than transformational change.
They use as their basis for this argument a review of the classic change concepts: that change requires some external ‘shock’ input in order to kick-start a move toward a different and desirous state – which works well if one assumes that organisations are essentially in equilibrium. And they link these interventions with the ‘heroism of top management’ in dynamically tackling the need for change. They regard this as bad thing: it is intrusive and creates a ‘win-lose’ situation, generating anxiety and self-survival rather than a ‘for the good of the team’ mentality.
Instead, they advocate the use of oblique interventions, small incremental interventions that create a ‘perfecting of actions’. In place of grand schemes and spectacular interventions, this oblique approach resorts to ‘lighting small fires’; focussing intently on small incremental changes for improvement in a wide variety of ongoing operational activities. Doing this creates, in their view, a flow of events that go with the grain and harmonise with existing situations. It is precisely because it is non-intrusive, diffuse and little-and-often that gives the oblique-intervention approach its enduring effect.
I think this approach is thought-provoking and adds some value to the vast current stock of literature on change; much of which indeed promotes the ‘heroic change leader’ model. The oblique intervention concept has some good practical use for managers and team leaders precisely because it does start to balance the thinking about change.
* Chia, R., & R. Holt, (2009). Strategy Without Design: The Silent Efficacy of Indirect Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.