Theories of organisational and cultural change

Comfort, Growth, Panic

Let us begin with a theory that which is frequently used within individual and organisational coaching settings.  The comfort, growth, and panic zone model is a good metaphorical device from which to explain the necessary change requisites of person-centred planning, from an individual, organisational, community or national-policy perspective. Here we will apply it from an organisational perspective. Following Vermeylen (2010) this model explains both the (un-)conscious dynamics that can often prevent or sometimes enable individuals and organisations from the necessary steps they have to undergo when they are committing to change – a process that Vermeylen describes as experiential learning:

The model is guided by the assumption that all systems strive for balance. The Comfort zone is thus made up of an organisation´s and its members´ experiences of learning and their mutual interactions with the environment. The comfort zone represents the organisations historically developed own frame of reference to deal with stakeholder’s demands and expectations and its subsequent behavioural regulations and restrictions for its members by decreasing complexity and uncertainty.  In this frame of reference the actors of this system can act in ways that feel familiar and comfortable. When it comes to organisations for disabled people many, if not most, support services have been traditionally organized to respond to entities that are far removed from the people for whom the services and supports were originally intended. Program structures, resource use and allocations, job descriptions, and outcome measurements are crafted based on external expectations, such as funding sources or political agendas. In this sense organizations were led to develop comfort zones that rather served themselves than the unique interests and needs of the individuals who were relying upon the system to be responsive to them. The comfort zone is upheld with often not reflected institutional or cultural images and assumptions of the (dis-)abilities of its users or customers. Still the size of the comfort zone can vary from organisation to organisation and provide more or less opportunities for offering (individualised) support for - in our case - people with disabilities.

Changes in societies and/or stakeholders´ expectations towards the organisation can create demands for change which shake the boundaries of the comfort zone. With the passing and (within many countries) ratification of the UN Convention of the Rights of people with Disabilities such a paradigm shift has occurred, requiring not only new images of people with disabilities but also fundamental shifts in the way organizations are organised. Learning, as Vermeylen puts it, “requires challenge and discomfort”.  In many cases services for disabled people have so far been very reluctant in engaging in real deep changes as Schädler (2002) has portrayed with the term 'institutional insistency'.

Here it is important to differentiate two different kinds of answers of organisations to change demands – one is the outward image of the institution forwarded mainly through means of marketing, the second and far more complex one is the inward process of change which requires a deep cultural shift in the organisation and an extension of its previous comfort zone. Only if organisations really commit themselves to the necessary inward changes then new opportunities for learning will emerge for its members and users.

One way to achieve these cultural changes necessary that is line with the UN Convention and which is endorsed here and within the New Paths to Inclusion project and the training course is to start introducing Person-centred thinking and planning methods as new ways of assisting and guiding positive changes for individuals and their families.

But why have so few organisations worldwide committed to these changes? Because changing organisational values and practises almost always gives raise to diverse forms of resistance, or as Vermeylen puts it “such situations confront people with the limitations of their figures of thought and cause confusion, surprise, frustration, disappointment and fear.  The closer one gets to the “edge,” the more the uneasiness is felt”.

This feeling of uneasiness leads to a variety of defence mechanisms which can be seen as ways of dealing with the anxiety of the upcoming changes. These forms of resistance described by Vermeylen include: “denial, blaming others, taking control, rage, aggression, overly-responsible, perfectionism, intellectualizing, charming others and humour.” But anxiety of what, what are organizations and its members afraid of? The answer provided within this model is framed within the Concept of the PANIC Zone. Especially for organizations the Panic zone poses multiple threats. Panic can be understood as the condition where no more learning is possible and even the most secure routines seem to fall out of hand. Just with the comfort zone the boundaries of the panic zone can vary extremely and are shaped through negative experiences of the organization and its members as well as through the organizations readiness and subsequent security mechanisms for risk taking. As we will also see in Scharmers Theory-U and his “Three enemies of Change” the importance of leadership is crucial in the phase of transgressing from the comfort to the growth and avoiding the dangers of the panic zone.

Once organisations have started this promising path to move from system-centred to person centred they will have entered the Growth Zone, defined by Vermeylen as an „area of novelty, exploration and adventure, an arsenal of growth potential“. To maximise the learning potential within the growth zone collaboration and shared learning become crucial. This belief is also upheld by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky who framed the concept of the „Zone of proximal development“  as the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving in collaboration with others. Through this lens the Growth zone indicates that it’s about positive, cooperative and attainable possibilities.  As Vermeylen puts it: “This zone is not always a comfortable place, but it is a stimulating one.“ It is made up of new images which guide new ways of thinking and working which in the long run can become integrated in a culturally drifted person-centred comfort zone with new and more flexible boundaries that creates more opportunities for all of its members.

Theory U:

Another and much more subtle and complex theory to look at organisational and cultural change is provided by Otto Scharmers Theory-U.  The following description provided is a highly condensed version of some of its elements and it`s applicability to our purpose . Scharmer begins his „field-journey“ with a quote by former Czech President Vaclav Hawel who, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, said: „We live in an era of intense conflict and massive institutional failures, a time of painful endings and of hopeful beginnings. It is a time that feels as if something profound is shifting and dying while something else wants to be born.” In the face of the global ecological, social, economic and spiritual challenges of our times Scharmer follows Havel’s understanding of the current period as a Transitional period,  as “this time calls for a new consciousness and a new collective leadership capacity to meet challenges in a more conscious, intentional, and strategic way. The development of such a capacity will allow us to create a future of greater possibility.“ (Scharmer 2007, 1).

We could very well transfer Havel’s quote together with the notion of a transitional period to the disability service sector, heralded by the signing and ratification of the UN-Convention of the Rights of People with disabilities within many countries in the world including the European Union.  Following Quinn (2009, 246) the UN-Convention brings with it an Ethics of Justification that requires states to respond, which he describes by using a mirror as a metaphor: “the treaty basically places a mirror before society. It makes us face up to our own values… It forces us to acknowledge the large gap that still exists between the “myth system” of our values and the “operations systems” of how these values are in fact dishonoured in daily practice…As with all mirrors we can refuse to look into them, or we can look at them but ignore their reflections or we can take notice of our reflections and commit to a process of real change.”

Scharmers work was highly inspired in his childhood, with his father being a pioneer in organic farming. Through walking together the “fields” of their farm, his father taught him that the essence of a good culture (“crop”) lies beneath the surface and the thoughtful nourishing of the soil. One could also follow Antoine de Saint-Exupéry “Little Prince” and his famous quote: “The essential is invisible to the eyes”.

The Core of Scharmers Theory-U is to differentiate between two different kinds of learning: downloading, which remains above the surface and presencing, which digs deeper and reaches the real cultural facets – the soil of change. Let me explain first the concepts of “downloading” by telling a story from the training course: During the final module we invited the CEOs of the participating organizations to attend the training. In the introduction round the participants were asked to choose a picture from NEULANDS set of “Emotion cards” to describe how they were seeing their organization. The CEO of a large traditional service provider chose the picture of an old Italian Vespa which was missing the back wheel. He said just about the following: “Just like this Vespa our organizations once was cool and very fashionable, but as time proceeded the Vespa was missing more and more parts which we always tried to fix. And this is also our task for the future, not only to repair the VESPA so that it drives but to do all our best it will also become cool again.” In this explanation the CEO caught the essence of downloading – which is learning and acting only by reflecting upon the experiences of the past – what once proved helpful will also help if conditions and times have changed.

In tune with Scharmer I would argue that the challenges and new demands faced upon today and in the disability sector in the light of the UN-Convention of People with disabilities will require new answers. In following Scharmer one could argue that there is no bigger source of frustration and waste of resources than to constantly try to solve problems in a technical way to a situation that requires changes in the identity of organisations. By sticking onto the beaten track real changes that involve shifts in the culture (identity) of an organization are doomed for failure, or as Schamer explains: “The cause of our collective failure is that we are blind to the deeper dimension of leadership and transformational change. This “blind spot” exists not only in our collective leadership but also in our everyday social interactions. We are blind to the source dimension from which effective leadership and social action come into being“ (Scharmer 2008, 52). Following John O`Brien the U-Process raises an important question: „Will we find what we desire by proceeding in a straight line from where we are, taking our direction from our past and doing more of what we are already doing, or do we need to invest time and energy in moving beneath the surface of our current understanding of the person and the possibilities for action“ (O`Brien 2006,7).

In over 100 dialogue interviews with the leaders of the world’s most innovative business and non-governmental organisations Scharmer framed his alternative concept of learning: presencing – a term that encapsules the two words „presence“ and „sensing“. Not only must leaders develop a much deeper state of attention and awareness to the inner source of their ambitions, but also develop the capacity to sense in the present situation the highest possible future that wants to be brought into being through them and their organizations – thus learning from the future as it emerges.

The ability to connect to one`s best future possibility and to create new and innovative ideas requires, what Scharmer calls the „three friends of change“ the openness and intelligence of the mind, the heart and the will. In following through the journey of  the U-Process, leaders of change processes at all levels will face three corresponding enemies:
The voice of Judgement as the enemy to the open mind, will appear in familiar ways in statements Stefan Doose so accurately named „killer phrases“.
As one digs deeper and consensus has been reached on a cognitive basis, the open heart is a prerequisite for facing the real cultural issues of an organisation. The ability of presencing will be threatened by the „voice of cynicism“, a very powerful enemy that always comes into existence when our identity gets questioned. To overcome this enemy leaders will require a great amount of sensibility and empathy honouring the past in ways that enable the members of an organisation to let go of the old. As Schamer pointed out the indo-German word root of „leadership“„Leith“ actually means „to let die“.
Once an organisation has reached the bottom of the U and actually has been able to presence new ways of working together, the openness of the will as a precondition to bring this new reality into existence will face the last enemy – „the voice of fear“. As we will see in the application of the PATH-Process for organisational development – asking the fourth question of the PATH process „how can we develop strength“ is a very fruitful and yet for many organizations unfamiliar way of looking for resources that will give the extra amount of strength to overcome difficult situations that produce fear. Finding ways of encouraging and supporting each other as well as celebrating success even when having achieved only small steps become crucial elements who will need extra recognition.
To enable organisations to develop this kind of capacity and nourish the three friends of change Scharmer proposes seven steps and corresponding leadership tools to be undertaken in a change process, which he visualises in his U-Process, which will only be explained very briefly here:

(1) Holding the Space: In order to be able to start practising what Scharmer calls „seeing with fresh eyes“ organizations must regularly provide space and time for stepping out of the demands of daily work and routine. Unlike many formal meeting formats the space that needs to be created must encourage the contribution of everyone and not have a „hidden“ agenda that is to be worked off. A possible format that was practised in the Training course was to apply the person-centred review meeting format „What`s working/not working” to the situation of the organization, and in our case especially focussing on the implementation of person-centred practises.

(2) Observing: Go to the places and people where Innovations are found. This step can be incorporated by telling „Stories of success“ from one`s own and other organisations and their learning experiences. Leaders can also allow time and space provided for direct contact and exchange among members of the organization or organise learning journeys to leading and innovative organizations in the field. Another precondition is to start listening carefully to the most important stakeholder groups in an authentic person-centred way. Scharmer recommends creating change teams or a core group to conduct a change tool called stakeholder-interviews. First it will be of importance to identify for one`s own purpose the relevant stakeholders. It has proofed fruitful by looking at these groups in terms of who could be potential allies and who are gatekeepers that could enable us access other important groups and (new) resources. The actual carrying out of the interviews can be done either via phone or more personal in a direct setting. Scharmer proposes a sample questionnaire with four very powerful questions:

  • What is your most important objective, and how can I help you realize it? (What do you need me for?)
  • What criteria do you use to assess whether my contribution to your work has been successful?
  • If I were able to change two things in my area of responsibility within the next six months, what two things would create the most value and benefit for you?
  • What barriers in the current systems or other issues have made it difficult for people in my role to meet your expectations?

(3) Sensing: The third capacity that is to be developed involves opening up the heart. Schmarmer suggests having groups of people working in real projects in contexts that they truly care about – this also means taking a very close look at their strengths, abilities and ambitions. Person-centred team building tools, as a way of applying the same person-centred tools organizations use to work with their customers to build person-centred teams provides a good base to start doing this and redirects the organization onto a person-centred path .

(4) Presencing: This central capacity takes place at the bottom of the U-Process, the deepest point of attention and awareness and the source for cultivation, where through the openness of the mind and the heart, the opening of the will enables us to connect to this source and become aware of the greatest possible future that wants to emerge. A precondition for this capacity to develop is to let go of the past in an appreciative way. To allow the inner knowledge to emerge Organizations should choose an appropriate surrounding, atmosphere and timing. New possibilities typically emerge as a commonly felt sense of direction rather than as a detailed archi¬tectural model, as a shared feeling of “this is the way forward for our organization”. The PATH process and the focus on the leading values and feelings in the North Star, followed by the outline of a positive and attainable future can provide an understanding of the fine qualities of the presencing capacity
(5) Crystallizing: After organizations have let go of the old and presenced the future, this capacity involves letting the future come as it wants to emerge, and crystallizing the shape, size and structure of this new future. A dedicated core group should be appointed responsible at that time and be given the resources ready to seize the momentum.

(6) Prototyping: The sixth capacity is the skill of integrating the head, heart and the hand and to rapidly develop a prototype which can be refined through the learning and reflecting that occurs during the actual process of bringing it to life and carrying it out.

(7) Performing: The last capacity is to incorporate the learning of the improved prototype so that it can be transformed to the organization and become mainstream practice (the new Comfort zone).

As John O`Brien (2006) says the U-Process shows us not only a way to understand and improve our organizations and it`s dynamics but also serves as a blueprint for a mindful approach to Person-centred planning through asking „What is the best possible future we can imagine for this person“.