The psychologist, Manfred Kets de Vries recounts a Sufi tale in his book.
In this story, a man notices a lump under a rug which he tries in vain to flatten before lifting the rug to find a snake. Kets de Vries uses this story as a metaphor for trying to create change in organisations, where organisations try to implement interventions to deal with issues without understanding the underlying problem.
This metaphor is worth remembering for all of us who work to enact change within organisations. Many years ago, I did an organisation design project within local government. We were tasked with creating a new structure for the whole organisation and so had to review all the existing structure charts. Discussing these charts with key stakeholders, it was interesting to note how many roles had been created to deal with difficult working relationships. This is clearly an extreme example but in many organisations, the structures and processes that can be seen are only a tiny fraction of the unseen and hidden factors underneath. The well known iceberg model dating from the 1970’s, explains the nature and impact of these hidden, underlying factors on the way an organisation functions.
So, how can we dig down and excavate these hidden features of organisations?
Using storytelling can be a useful means of digging below the surface of organisations to reach what is hidden. In my PhD research, I used appreciative inquiry to gather stories from individuals experiencing change in an organisation. These stories of change highlighted the changing nature of the way these individuals saw themselves in relation to others during the change process.
Change practitioners and leaders often conduct a stakeholder analysis at the start of the change process to determine how to engage with each group throughout the change. But how many organisations repeat this exercise throughout a change programme? My research showed that the participants moved from being supporters of the change programme to being resistors, and this happened multiple times through the duration of the programme. By meeting with them regularly and listening to their stories, I was able to see this movement. It is likely that this pattern of identity shift happens in other organisations and so it is important to engage deeply with stakeholders frequently during periods of change.
Gathering stories from people in organisations is time consuming and creates a lot of data. But, it also gives a deep insight into how people are thinking and feeling during a period of change.
Change is messy and difficult to manage and so using stories to get underneath the organisational rhetoric is useful in understanding some of this messiness. Yiannis Gabriel talks about this as the “unmanaged organisation”, the part of the organisation that is not under its control. The snakes under the rug so to speak. To truly create sustainable change, we need to embrace and engage with this messiness rather than trying to constrict it into a structured plan.
So I’m off, armed with a metaphorical trowel to excavate the hidden depths of another organisation and hope that I don’t meet too many snakes along the way.
I’d love to hear your stories about snakes you have met and hidden depths you have uncovered in organisations. Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org