Avoiding The Iceberg of Organisational Change

Formal reorganisation is an elaborate illusion. Reorganisation has to be part of an organisation, not something done to it Harold Jarche

The concept of the ‘iceberg of ignorance’ – that most problems in organisations are invisible to leaders, and therefore unsolvable – was popularised by Sidney Yoshida in the late 1980’s.

Nearly 30 years later we find ourselves in the place where most transformation efforts fail,  or seem to be based on a strategy of changing the business as little as possible.

It’s not difficult to see a link between the two. If change is delivered top down, by the people furthest away from the problem, it’s a hardly a surprise we get this perfect illusion.

Change appears to be happening, but what we are really witnessing is just a makeover of the status quo. A new way of getting the same results we always got.

A couple of weeks ago Bromford Lab hosted a session looking at the future of work and a really interesting thing happened.

Two colleagues who had never met (one in the room, one on Skype) started talking about a problem they faced and how they’d go about resolving it.

  • They’d free up resources and get them as close to the customer as possible
  • They’d devolve responsibility and decision making to themselves and a few other colleagues
  • They’d deliver a better and more personalised service to their customers that they felt would save a lot of time and money

In just a few minutes of conversation they’d come up with something more rebellious, and more workable, than I’d heard from months of other sessions.

The reason is they are personally invested in the problem – and want change now – not in a few years time.

At the moment most change programmes are mostly linear, planned, time-framed, well resourced.

The behaviour is totally at odds with digital networks that are fluid. messy and have erased all hierarchies.

R1412B_B1 (1)

There are two worlds of power in our organisations right now. The challenge is resisting the lure to presume one is automatically better than the other.

Maybe there’s a third way.  Where one provides the platform for the other.

It’s helpful to think of large scale change programmes as just the infrastructure for change. A reboot of organisational governance.

It’s building a stage  – just an empty one.

The real action will only happen when you free up people to take the stage, break the rules and experiment.

(1) Disobey unjust rules, (2) ask for forgiveness, not permission, (3) team up, and (4) go public – Corporate Rebels

The opportunity is for large scale programmes to use their resources to leverage in a culture that embraces new and foreign ideas and quickly assimilates them.

  • A culture where change is led by everyone – not initiated by leaders and consultants
  • Where everyone is actively questioning the status quo.

You can’t have a mass movement without the masses.

Truly transformational change would be to take back control: from the bottom up.


10 thoughts on “Avoiding The Iceberg of Organisational Change

  1. There is no excuse for ignorance of the problems facing an organisation and its staff in the modern age. A bit of social media monitoring will probably throw up most “hidden” problems. It could be that in the social media era, people outside the organisation know more about its issues than those at the top, not using social media, do.

    1. I think I’d challenge that only 4% of problems are known to top managers – certainly untrue where I work. That said one of the problems is that even if you do have a good overview of problems at a functional level – it then becomes siloed – and nobody has the holistic overview spotting linkages and patterns.

      You’re right that strategic use of social media and transparency could do a lot to alleviate this. Question is – why isn’t it?

  2. In an organisation like the nhs any hint of criticism in the public domain by an employee is likely to get the perpetrator into a whole lot of hot water so I am not sure that particular argument stacks up. For example, it would be far more insightful to go spend a week in a public ward in an acute hospital bed as an inpatient with a life changing diagnosis or chronic disability and just observe and experience what is going on for yourself!!! That might change a lot of people’s minds about how things need to change!!

  3. I agree with the thinking hear, but would add an extra on to the sentence “The real action will only happen when you free up people to take the stage, break the rules and experiment.” add – and provide those people with the skills (confidence) and security to make change happen. By security I mean really allow people the ‘freedom to fail’ but ensure they learn from any failures without any retribution or threat. Difficult in this day and age where we all want instant results !

    1. Too true Kevin. I remember an organisation organising a series of Dragons Den type pitches a few years ago. Some of the ‘Dragons’ took it a little too seriously and came down hard on the relative failure of one the ideas. Result = the participants never pitched again…

    2. That sounds a lot what I tell organization to do: Employee Empowerment. Don’t tell them what to do but provide the tools so they can do what they are capable of (and what you pay them for) best. It is always linked to let go.

  4. ”You can’t have a mass movement without the masses” is such an apt truth. One to keep for future reference. If only others saw wiith clarity what’s in the article, might see actual change in organisations.

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