The Small Change Paradox: how to transform leaders, boards and work in the 21st. Century

Ideally your organisation should be comprised of leaders and followers who all share in an exciting purpose. And, if you’re a leader, your job is to create an environment in which the people you lead thrive in the service of that purpose. That’s the dream.

But we’re not even close.

The financial crash of 2008 put an end to any doubt, if any existed, that the world order had changed. Fundamentally, you’re on your own. There is no social contract. Yet organisations still cleave to human capital asset and human resource models as if they own “their people” by some sort of magical unwritten consent. They don’t.

Despite many attempts at modernising work theory, most organisations doggedly refuse to come anywhere close to leading the revolution necessary. That’s not because they don’t want to. They desperately do. Most people would love to change the system but they’re afraid of being the pioneer with the arrow in their backs.

They’re waiting for permission to change. And so they wait. And wait. But Godot never comes.

The answer to this dystopia is evolution, not revolution. It starts with you. If you are a follower and you change how you behave at work others will change too. This may seem like pie in the sky, which is why most people don’t attempt it. That and, of course, not wanting to “rock the boat”. But small change doesn’t cause big waves.

If you are a leader and you change how you lead, then the evolution will be even faster. Your career will yield more fulfillment and your organisation will improve in the process.

The term “Change Management” has been part of the business lexicon since the 1960s. Somewhere along the way this morphed into the now widely used term “Transformational Change”. This came to be used as shorthand for an organisation wide step-change or the fabled quantum leap forward.

The term is now as ubiquitous as it is meaningless. Change is change. Transformation is different. In my experience organisational change comes from individuals changing their worst behaviour. That’s where the transformation occurs. Your worst behaviour is that behaviour which others experience as having the most negative impact on them and on the objectives of the organisation. And you don’t have to make big changes, just small changes in improving your worst behaviour and exploiting your best.

In general, there will be broad consensus on the exact nature of this behaviour. It’s easily discovered by playing the “Least Likely To Say” game with your friends. They will very quickly let you know what it is. If you are self-aware you will know before they tell you.

Your best behaviour is probably hidden from you as you read this. It’s what you’re capable of achieving given half a chance. If supported in making small changes to your worst behaviour your best will be revealed to you by you and from feedback from others.

This is an exciting prospect for you and for the organisation for which you work because you are unique and small changes in unique beings are highly visible and impactful. Uniqueness has never been celebrated but denied. Management speak reinforces this commoditisation of people: you’re a hire; a direct report or a leaver. You’re certainly not seen as unique.

But you are unique – check out your fingerprints – and your organisation is made up of unique people which makes it infinitely dynamic because each person can trade in unique behavioural change agreements. This means that you can agree to make small changes in your behaviour on the understanding that others will reciprocate. With this approach anything is possible. Leaders, boards and work itself could be transformed through small change at low cost, high return. What’s not to like?

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