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Organisational change; reconciling the need for clarity and certainty with complexity - CITI
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Organisational change; reconciling the need for clarity and certainty with complexity

Organisational change; reconciling the need for clarity and certainty with complexityIn the last post (Change; where process and complexity collide), which provoked some interesting reaction, the question arose of how we determine the right process/es for achieving organisational change.  You see, once it’s understood that a process designed for one change situation (e.g., using Agile to address complex product development challenges) doesn’t necessarily translate smoothly to another change situation (e.g., trying to use Agile to balance a corporate portfolio of change), this becomes an important question.

The thing is not to start with the process.  It’s a bit like trying to determine the solution before you know the problem it is trying to address.  But, funnily enough, it is what many organisations try to do; they quite literally say “this is our process so we’re going to do it this way!”  Written down like that it seems absurd but we encounter it constantly and very often in failing change initiatives.  So why do intelligent people, working in reputable organisations behave in this way?

There appear to be two reasons, one is that it is a basic human behaviour to be solution rather than problem oriented.  Your great grandfather10 didn’t look at a charging sabre tooth tiger and think ‘time for some problem analysis’, he simply looked for the solution ‘fight tiger or run from tiger?’ and thank heavens he did or you wouldn’t be reading this.

The other reason is that one of the real beauties of processes is that, because they are concrete and have been successfully practiced, they offer the illusion of clarity and certainty.  If there is one thing that all organisations and most individuals find hard to manage, it is uncertainty.  So, a process offering certainty, is a dreadfully attractive option.

For these two reasons the almost automatic human reaction is to reach out for an attractive solution before the problem is fully understood.  This is frequently a reasonable strategy, not just for survival but in general, as the majority of situations are relatively simple and the analysis of the problem is more or less intuitive, quick and accurate.  It is where you face a complex situation (such as organisational change) that this rapid or automatic selection or mandating of a process is not the best strategy.

You see, the Agile processes are excellent for product development where there are ambiguous requirements or the technology is evolving faster than the users understanding, but this does not mean that Agile processes will make great sense of the organisational-change challenge of balancing the corporate portfolio when several product owners are at odds over which products and which development sequences should have precedence.  Some, if not many, of the principles that underpin Agile might well help in addressing the latter situation but these principles are transferable, not the process, and nor are these principles (in the nature of principles) exclusive to the Agile process.

The same is true of nearly all models and tools that assist us in structuring and conducting change.  They have huge merit in the right circumstances but to expect them to work in all circumstances is, probably most kindly termed as, a folly.  Knowing the nature of the situation or problem that one faces and the related level of complexity is critical to being able to select, modify or develop an appropriate process by which to address change.  This means, in the first instance, not having a toolset or model to manage the process of change; but rather having a toolset and models to be able to understand problems and related complexity before thinking about the process of change.  This is something that CITI has been practicing, with great success, for over thirty years now.

What this boils down to is; don’t just reach for the standard model when confronted with a non-standard situation.  Understand the situation in the first instance and then determine the model.  If you want to explore ways to do this, or add your own perspective to the debate, please visit our Centre of Excellence Club (also known as CofEe club) and join the dialogue.

Nick Dobson

Nick Dobson, Principal Consultant

Nick is a highly experienced consultant in project and programme management and the sponsorship of such initiatives.  A practitioner, with over 25 years of experience, he has been deeply involved in projects, throughout the lifecycle, as well as discharging operational management functions in a variety of sectors. Nick can be contacted via email at


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