To implement change is possibly the hardest thing that anyone ever has to do, if they choose to do it. Moreover, change itself is a dangerous thing – be careful for what you wish for; you might very well just get it.
Ok, enough of the cryptic, truistic sentences. What did I really mean? Change is difficult to implement – that’s a truism – everyone accepts the inertia of existing systems, the power of existing incentive structures, and the risk that comes along with the changes in incentives. The fact that there are frequent changes in the bureaucracy is itself a minor miracle – proving that there are internal entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks and implement changes. This description is by itself, too simplistic.
The changemaker has to mobilize people to his/her own side – get others to believe strongly, that a change is required, and to follow him/her into believing in the change, and to accept the consequences that come with the changes. The changemaker has to engage existing stakeholders in the system, and convince them that the new system to be birthed, with their own set of indicators, will not cause them to lose their previous positions, and that they can benefit in the new paradigms. Winning everyone over – that is clearly not a task for the fainthearted. Along the way, the changemaker will encounter cynicism and criticism – people who may have tried something similar before, failed and sidelined; there are others who might have something to lose in the new situation. At every stage towards change, the changemaker has to find ways to neutralize these criticisms, either by bringing them on board, or circumvent them, or summon additional resources (having someone superior in position to the critics helps).
What does mobilisation mean? That means meeting people, and empowering them with the permission to influence others, as the original changemaker does. The original changemaker has to be ok with the idea that their followers are going to be, if not more, popular than he originally is. As time progresses, the relationship between the original changemaker and others will change along too. The changemaker has to have a persevering personality – to have the emotional stamina to withstand the many meetings and responses that would be expected in a change exercise. The exhaustion is to be expected; the changemaker has to find ways to recharge and continue with the journey.
Movements splinter when some of the followers realize that they can do the same things without acknowledgement or subordination to the original changemaker. “Hey, the [changemaker] is not as great as I thought he was at the beginning. I can do this on my own if I wanted to.” In a bureaucratic setting of risk-aversion, the likelihood of such changes happening might be smaller, if only because people are ‘used’ to the idea of following orders from someone else. The hierarchical nature of bureaucracy lends itself to less division as power is neatly territorialised – everyone individual has a demarcated sphere of influence; to breach into the spheres of others require permission from different parties. That is why change in a bureaucratic setting is also harder – especially if the change cuts across different ‘territories’.
Change also has unintended consequences – hence the, “be careful for what you wish for – you might just get it.” For example, in a autocratic, illiterate society, control is easy – have a few simple messages that people can understand, and everyone could live with. Improving education access, and people can learn about the misery of their situation and demand democratisation of their country. The example is certainly simplistic, if only to demonstrate that introducing the idea of change, and in empowering people to act for themselves, can result in outcomes not anticipated. Introducing empowerment in a hierarchical system could result in internal dissension and dysfunction as a whole, preventing vital functions from being performed.
The content of change is not a trivial thing, nor is it something that can be done as a sideline. In a bureaucracy, performing change is an extra burden on top of the main work that has to be done. In society, performing change is such a major activity that people start up organisations – civil society, political parties or even companies to achieve their vision of change. I don’t believe that there are many people who have the conviction to see through their own visions of change (including myself). I admire and applaud others who have done the same, and wish them well.
Many young people have passed by this station before – thinking about how they can make the world a better place. With that lens, identifying the opportunities for change becomes too easy. You see how there are poor people, and wonder why they are poor; you think about why there is congestion in the day and how to reduce that; you think about the stresses that people experience and think about if there are other modes of living that haven’t been thought of.
And then you wonder if other people have started to embark on making changes, and you will soon find many – there are many associations and organizations that are founded on the premise on making the lives of some better; on a more philosophical point, you start to see the point of effective governance, and the need for a strong public sector; along the way, you see how products that are meant to make people’s lives better become the way to make money.
Another step along the way to imagining better worlds often comes passes the stop of “mindset change” or “paradigm change” – thinking about things through a systems-lens – understanding how there are people and structures that interact with one another to create the phenomena we see. Systems thinking/dynamics is a pretty established discipline – we actually think like this everytime we think in a broader context. The same also applies to any project of creating change.
The structures we see in reality depend on indicators. More than that, indicators reflect the assumptions and the thinking behind the way systems operate. Over time, these indicators become important and become the points on which whole systems turn. Grades that were used to evaluate students’ level of understanding become the basis for promotion for teachers and principals; GDP runs the economic thinking of policy makers across the world even though all it measures is economic activity; on the other hand, there is less emphasis on the ecosystem services – just to point to one underrated variable.
The other thing that people ought to think about when creating change is this: think about the structures in organizations. Think about who could win and who could lose from these changes that are being proposed. Think about how the losers and winners might react to this. Will the losers lose too much that they object violently to new changes? Who wins more? How can these changes be equitable? How do we keep the losers on the side of change?
I find that the talk of change-making often does not go deeper than this. Prevailing discussion tends to have a naive view that change will come about and be introduced without resistance, and will be accepted wholeheartedly in any organization or institution in society. That is clearly not the case. Any change results in people winning and losing. In the rational sense, we often weigh this as costs and benefits but in reality, change is an emotional issue. To ignore the emotional aspect of change would be to ignore the reality of human psyche.
There’s a lot more to this entire issue, obviously, and there’s an entire industry – literally devoted to change management and all that. More to come in future posts.