Leading Change – Ironies of Change (Week 9)

Change is a serious business or is it?

This week teaches us that we need to maintain an ironic sensibility to be an effective change leader. The concept is that we all experience irony in how organisations tackle change. The image that all directed change is for the better and will add value to our lives, is conducted by rational, inclusive leaders in a rational inclusive way is set against what we all know to be true that change projects can and often do go off the rails, are not always for the better and change leaders can be irrational and selective in a curious juxtaposition of fantasy and reality. This folks, is irony.

So how can irony help? Well, it always pays to have a sense of humour in embarking on any change initiative. But beyond that is this notion of being enthusiastic whilst maintaining a healthy distance and not being too caught up in the imperfect outcomes of the change process or a step in it, and being able to accept and communicate the ironies of change to the  right audience at the right time to the right level. In other words, as David Forster Wallace points out it is the ability to see and use the flaws, the hypocrisies and duplicates and not rally against them. This is part of the Ironic Performance.

Irony as the Snorkel of Sanity – the Ironic Perspective

We were introduced to irony being seen as a snorkel of sanity as a way of keeping and understanding the ironic perspective. Way back in week 1 and 2 we talked about the organizational iceberg. It looks like this (borrowed, with thanks Torben Rick – www.Torbenrick.eu):


Above the water is the visible culture of the organisation driven by the instruments of rationality – strategy, vision, goals, polices and procedures. Below the water line is the way things are really done in the organisation through the irrational drivers of perceptions, traditions, cultural norms and storytelling.

What irony lets us do is swim along the top of the water with our head down to the below the surface whilst providing a funnel through which we can breathe.  It allows for fluidity to navigate both above the line and below the line and allows for a seriously playful view of the organisation, change process and how we act in it.

I really love this image of the snorkel and it really resonated with me. I have always tried to use humour in my work. It is wonderful way of sharing what could be controversial thoughts in a non-confronting way. Done in the right way and in the right time it can act as a bonding agent and can diffuse tension and stress. I am also a big fan of sarcasm and irony; I love the cleverness of it and banter makes the work go round. How wonderful to realise that irony can be a constructive tool and outlook in the world of work, rather than a destructive one. I have practiced it subtly my whole career. Often, the deadlines I am running to are tight with resources thin on the ground.

Instead of complaining about it which will get me nowhere I have put up this sign behind my desk as a way of saying worried, not worried about the work load. It’s a wonderful saying from Alice in Wonderland and to me embodies this ironic perspective. It far better than lashing out at the next person who adds to my work pile and an acknowledgement that its OK if I never get to the end. As I learned this week, this ironic perspective helps plug the gap between what I do accomplish and what I set out to accomplish and helps me deal with the notion of how little I can actually control. I will be using this tool a lot more in the future now that I understand it has a rightful place in the world of work.

Ironic Performance – masks and the art of the cosmopolitan performance

Earlier in the course we learned about the need for performance and the use of masks to aid that performance in leading change. We have to know when to perform on the front stage and when on the back and which mask to wear, if any at all, at any one time. The ironic mask is one of the and helps to alleviate the tension of change and allows solutions to be formed for problems that arise. We need to be able to admit that the change process is imperfect to be able to bring people along for the ride.

We learned that it takes a cosmopolitan performance that communicates the tension of unrealistic expectations of change and the ability of working though the tension in collaboration with others who may have diverse viewpoints. Such a performance requires five viewpoints:

  • Diversity – the need to find common ground in recognising difference
  • Toggling – standing inside and outside your view of change, both acting in change and looking at the performance from the audience
  • Duality – double part- being able to laugh at ourselves and others, double plots – recognising the multi-layered aspects of performance
  • Humour – ability to use wit and parody to bring about desired outcomes
  • Humility – create identification with others whilst acknowledging your own limited perspective

We viewed ironic performance through the actions of Mahtma Gandhi who lead India to independence from British rule. He used compassion, non-violent resistance and civil disobedience to avoid armed struggle, largely through symbolism, humility and verbal irony. Ghandi played the long game, reflecting and adjusting his performance along the way.

He understood and used the duality, such as in verbal irony:

British: “Do you expect the British to just walk out?”

 Ghandi: “Yes, that’s exactly what the British will do”

He also understood the art of what I call screaming subtlety, a subtlety that was non aggressive but pointed in its message. An example of this is how Ghandi dressed in a knee-length toga whilst visiting Britain on a cold, rainy day. He displayed all of the five traits listed above and was ultimately effective in bringing about monumental change.

Ironic Temperament – a discipline one can master

We learned that maintaining an ironic performance and perspective requires an ironic temperament of poise and balance. This is a discipline we can leant qualities of an ironic temperament include:

  • Tolerance
  • Humility
  • Liberal
  • Reflective.

Prior organisational studies have labelled those with ironic temperament in various ways. We looked at the following three:

  1. Tempered radical – trying to bring about change but working within the system
  2. Principled infidel – crafting out ways to maintain autonomy whilst being seen to follow the rules to achieve for the client
  3. Insider/outsider – as an insider they work the culture and system to mobilise and build credibility whilst at the same time they can see where these get in the way of performance and use ideas and connections from outside to question assumptions and change frames and perceptions. Blended distance and commitment.

We also learned that it pays to have a playful outlook and to not hesitate to engage in playfulness even in an organisational setting when the need arises. This, I can understand as it has saved me many times from various work situations. However, it generally is a backstage tool I use and given it’s a discipline that should be built, I feel there is now room for it in frontstage performance as well. The trick is to use that snorkel of sanity to know when it is useful.

Looking at the above list of labels, I think I have been all of these at one time or another in my career, but in response to a situation. I think right now, I’m more principled infidel than the other two. That said, I need to be much more focussed on what’s happening emotionally than I have in the past to become more effective. One of the metaphors we learned that I think is really helpful here is that of the movie.

Each of us have an inbuilt editor’s suite – a disciplined reflection mechanism – where we stand outside of ourselves and replay the video of our action and critically analyse.  The more we do this, the better ability we have to actually see the movie as it is being played out in the moment and correct.

Reflecting on my journey this year, I have become better at entering the editor’s suite and reflecting on my performance. I find myself on occasion switching gears whilst in the interaction as a result of looking down at my actions. It’s the knack of being aware of what I am saying, how I am sounding and recognising the need to pivot if I have to. Understanding that I am the producer of this movie, at least as to how I say my lines and turn up and being able to improvise will help me increase my proficiency in this.

The Bottom Line

I love that irony has a legitimate part to play in leading change and that it can be seen as a snorkel of sanity. This is a really useful metaphor not least because having a snorkel can be a life saver! I think the analogy of the movie is also helpful in understanding you need to be actor and audience all at the same time and that trips to the editing suit should be frequent. To me this week can be summed up by caring, not caring – being committed, but not a zealot whilst holding some nonchalance at the outcome. As Frederick Douglas said: “At a time like this, scorching irony not convincing argument is needed.” Sounds like sound advice to me.

Leading Change – Paradoxes of Change (Week 8)


Change is full of paradoxes and that’s OK, no really!

The Cambridge Dictionary defines paradox as “a situation or statement that seems impossible or is difficult to understand because it contains two opposite facts or characteristics.” In organizational change there are plenty of these and as change leaders we ignore them at our peril. This week we heard about three of these:

  • Paradox of rationality  – this recognizes that organisations are made up of humans who are often guided by intuition, emotion, prejudice and unthinking habit. The fact of humans’ irrationality runs against the current of perception that organisations are rational systems in the pursuit of strategic goals. In fact, organisations have lots of competing goals and attention and energy for these goals shifts over time.

In my last blog on gaps within change, I mentioned Rosabeth Moss-Alice in Wonderland croquet gameKanter and the work she has done on innovation within organisations. Rosabeth likens organisations to the Alice in Wonderland croquet game, with flamingo clubs, guinea pig croquet balls, Queen’s guards in the place of gates and goals all changing shape and direction on their own whilst keeping an eye on the Queen and her performance in the game. To survive Alice needs to navigate this irrational environment, just like the change leader. We need to be aware of and adapt to all of the changes in the game and understand the interplay of rationality and irrationality. We need to do so whilst also recognising the inherent limitations of the myth that organisations are rational.

To do this we need to accept what complexity, ambiguity, disagreement and uncertainty create and appreciate the ensuing tension between Big R rationality and little r rationality. The former is the authoritarian view of rationality that systems, logic and evidence provide the one true solution, whilst the latter uses logic and evidence to challenge the notion that there is one universal truth. This requires us to be self critical, experimental and exploratory to adapt to situations in practice to get things done.

  • Paradox of performance – this is the tension that exists in communicating the myth of the rational organisation and dealing with the duality of performance  required to bring about change.  Success generally comes in that space between thinking and acting with complete knowledge and certainty and total improvisation. Change leaders need to embrace both and appear to be confident in their directives whilst still feeling conflicted and uncertain. Can you embrace this hypocrisy?

This is a real tricky one for me. My own attitude in seeing hypocrisy in others’ actions makes me recoil at the notion of deliberately being hypocritical to achieve an outcome. I don’t want to think about myself being hypocritical and yet….

I see this play out in my organisation a lot as I have been granted the privilege of earning a place in some of our senior leaders’ backrooms. I also see them drawing strength from each other – at least those that they trust –  and swapping out their masks depending on the situation with various degrees of effectiveness.  The best analogy I have on this is being a parent. How often do we as parents, make things appear smooth and easy for our children when below the surface we are frantic and worrying about health, finances and handling job stress? Like it to or not, we all filter information to drive outcomes. But in dealing with this paradox we have to understand that others will judge us not by our intentions, but by our actions, so there is a delicate balance here.

I still think hypocrisy is too strong a term for this. I would prefer to view it as a duality to drive nuance.

  • Paradox of meaning  – can we find meaning in change activities and projects when we know careful thought and action do not guarantee success? Can we learn to live with the gap between what we hope to accomplish and what we can achieve?

stoxoi-stoxos-goal-target-500x330One interesting thought is this concept of synthesis. Reflecting back on my experience of change that I have driven, I think I have been doing this without having a term it. I am a change journeyman, it seems. I really enjoy the strategy, complexity and uncertainty that comes from the process. If I could do nothing all day other than to experiment and solve complex problems, I would would be supremely happy – the magic being in the exploration not in the destination. I am insatiably curious and courageous within bounds in exploring this game of change. The trick is to fire a dart of change without it going ballistic and moving on to the next target if it misses whilst taking out the learning.

Not all qualities are created equal when it comes to change 

So having outlined the main paradoxes of changes, we explored some ways to deal with them. My main take away here is it starts with me and developing certain metaqualities. As Buckley and Monks (2004) point out, these are qualities that drive other skills and abilities and determine how and when knowledge, skills and competencies  are used. They include the following and provide a means to restructure information and shift perspectives on problems rather than just come up with a quick fix:

  • self-knowledge
  • emotional resilience
  • personal drive
  • creativity
  • mental agility
  • critical reflection
  • balanced learning habits and skills
  • cognitive skills
  • self directed pro activity.

Learning by doing and experimenting here is key. Therefore it starts with some confidence and moving knowledge into action which then translates to increasing self confidence in dealing with ambiguity and influencing others. In other words becoming a deviant innovator.

I really like this concept of a deviant innovator. I guess I have always seen myself as one. But, looking back, I realise that I have focused far too heavily on the Big R rationality andcreative-class have not spent enough time probing and sensing. I am just now tentatively dipping my toe in the water of dealing with little r rationality and becoming more experimental in seeing if I can learn to deal with the rationality paradox. This comes in the form of learning to understand emotional agility and looking for emotional cues in myself and others and viewing emotion as data rather than as something scary to be avoided in business. It requires a lot of self knowledge, seeking feedback and reflecting. Its scary and often times feels uneasy, but since making a conscious effort in doing so, I feel I am now seeing the world in multi-colour, whereas before it was in muted hues. Doing this course at this time in my own personal development is surely not a coincidence.

The paradox of reducing complexity into simplicity

In class we learned about the Stacey Matrix as a tool to assist with the paradox of rationality. The matrix was designed by Richard Stacey in 1996 to assist with decision making in complex environments based on the degree of certainty and level of agreement on the issue. It is reproduced here.


Zone 1 in the matrix is ordinary management decision making and operates in simple environments.

Zones 2 and 3  are complex decision making zones operating where there is more uncertainty and less alignment.

Zone 4 is chaos where no conclusions are drawn. The system is not ready to tackle the issue and discussions are circular without resolution.

Zone 5 is the extraordinary zone where more probing and sensing is required and intuition plays a part before a decision can be made.

The tool is quite neat and has been adopted widely. Stacey, however, has distanced himself from the matrix as he felt it invoked the very opposite of what he was trying to show by it. The matrix did the very thing that its existence was trying to discourage, namely  making complexity seem simple. The matrix could be used to reason that we just have to plan and prepare more in more complex environments, when clearly new ways of thinking are required. Another paradox!

An alternative to the above matrix is the Cynefin Framework developed by David Snowden. It outlines the different path to decision making in each of the various environments. Only in the Obvious quadrant is the traditional path of plan, evaluate, do relevant. In the middle is disorder and David Snowden points out that it is where we mostly operate until we have figured out which environment we are in. In that place we have a tendency to interpret the situation according to our preference for action. In practice it certainly feels that way, so it is somewhat gratifying to have this confirmed pictorially.


Cynefin Framework for Problem Solving

Snowden also points out that between each quadrant there is a transition point, but the boundary between Obvious and Chaos is a sharp cliff from which it is very hard to recover. To get to the edge, one has to pass through the zone of complacency. Most decision making should therefore be in the Complex or Chaotic quadrants.

These frameworks reinforce the myriad of factors which can determine the outcome of change, most of which have nothing to do with logic and rationality and the need for different ways of thinking in different phases and environments. Apart from degree of agreement and certainty, communication, skill and capability, culture and pure chance all play a part in change. As change agents we need to be constantly scanning the environment to understand what really is at play.

The bottom line 

I can really relate to the paradox of rationality. I had already figured out that I needed to broaden my organizational inter-relationship tool box beyond just logic and evidence alone. I had been trying some techniques in my conversations with others, listening more closely and being able to observe myself in these interactions whilst they were occurring. It feels like real positive step forward in understanding that others might be butting up against the same paradox and it is inherent in organisational structure. Whereas I was a bit tentative in my approach, after reading about metaqualities and the need for experiential learning, I plan to be more confident in my approach. The achievement of reaching deviant innovator will be my guiding star. Naming something can make all the difference! I also see that it is impossible to remove uncertainty from the organisational environment and understand that I need to make peace with it.



Leading Change – Knowing/Doing Gaps (Week 7)

Do you ever feel that there is never enough knowledge or resources (including time) to do what needs to be done in life, or work?

I feel this is a Captain Obvious question given the copious quantities of captain-obvious-strikes-againleadership/management/self development literature around and because, well, I feel like this often.  In our personal and business lives we spend a lot of time figuring out what needs to be done and assume that once we have figured it out, implementation will be easy. Recalling how many times I have started on a journey to eat more healthy and exercise more and not being able to sustain it long term, implementation is certainly not the easy part! This failure can’t all be down to lack of willpower or motivation, can it?

This is where the knowing/doing gap comes in – knowing what should be done but not being able to get it done. It’s a relief to be able to acknowledge that getting things done to bring about change is genuinely difficult because we have to jump this gap. We need to approach change knowing that it will take energy and resources to overcome the gap, get through the messy middle as noted by Rosebeth Moss-Kanter and embed this new way of being. 

Minding the Gaps

In the world of work there are three sub-gaps which feed into the knowing/doing gap and we need to be mindful of them. These are:

  • the Leadership gap – change should be 80% lead and 20% managed. Instead its usually the opposite. The focus tends to be on the short term fix, tasks, details, procedures and trying to smash the unpredictable into the predictable and increasing control. These are levers of management which sacrifice bigger picture, inspirational and transformative thinking indicative of leadership.

How this plays out in our organisation is the constant starting of new projects before the old ones are bedded down. You can almost hear groans of “here we go again”  from the team, as we watch our leaders roll up their sleeves for about 5 minutes, hand it over for implementation and then prospect for the next shiny thing. Implementation reports are never as “sexy” as new shiny thing prospects. As leaders we need to have the courage to prioritise and face up to the prospect that there will be prospective projects that we will have to consign to the “one that got away” category and be at peace with that.

  • the Practice gap – this is the gap between the knowledge, tools, policies and mike tyson imagechecklists we have and applying these to make things happen in complex and challenging environments and situations. I see this as a theory vs practice gap because between theory and practice exists uncertainty, limits of prescription and unpredictability. As Mike Tyson says “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face“. We need to accept as Mike Tyson did that we will get punched in the face with change. The idea is that it doesn’t have to end as a Knock Out! 

I have to admit relief in acknowledging the existence of this gap. I think back to the energy I have spent in making implementation look easy – peddling furiously under that lake whilst gliding serenely over its glassy surface. There is a real light bulb  moment for me here  – understanding I need to be less hard on myself in viewing  my own performance in change – no matter how thoroughly I prepare my tools and checklists, they are only one part of the script and the performance gap is inevitable. It is only by accepting this that I can be free to experiment, question myself and others, recognise the possibility of error and build resilience to overcome the gap. Getting creative is what it is about.

  • the Power gap – the gap between what managers are expected, requested or required to do and the time, people and resources that are available to them to get the job done. There are 4 reasons for the gap:
    • diversity and inclusion – change initiatives may depend on actions and support of people holding divergent views whom we have no control over. This increases the complexity of change
    • power and powerlessness  – both of these can act against change where the powerful and the powerless oppose the change. The less autonomy and discretion people have in their jobs the more desperately they will cling to the status quo
    • structural inequalities – readiness to change means the change is relevant to you. Are people ready to change? Do they have faith that leaders will live up to their promise?
    • over-promising and under-delivering – leaders being committed to the aspirations of change but being uninterested in the problems that need to be addressed to see them through. This is so common in my organisation and I confess I have been guilty of it on occasion and I now understand more the impact this can have on a team.

Navigating the Gaps – Act Like an Entrepreneur

Knowing that the gaps are inevitable what can we do about them? My key take away here is to approach these problems like an entrepreneur – with all the energy, vision, creativity, tenacity and resilience you can muster. As Rosabeth Moss-Kanter says entrepreneurs are dissatisfied and feel restless about a problem, but have a firm belief they can do something about it. Rosebeth also reminds us that answers to problems can be found from anywhere, at any level and reinforces that not all who wander are lost. Wandering is in fact required to bring new ideas to add to the organisational  kaleidoscope to foster creativity. Often innovation comes from putting fragments of existing ideas together in different ways, just like a kaleidoscope. For more on this, have a look at Rosebeth’s video:

So what does entrepreneurship  look like? Here’s a check list, but remember the limits of prescription from the discussion on the Practice Gap above!

  1. Learn to deal not just with the rational, but also the emotional  – in yourself and others
  2. Influence yourself as well as others – leadership
  3. Overcome your fear of failure
  4. Create safe spaces for learning (play) and failure in the process
  5. Be mindful and considered in your approach and others’ reactions to change
  6. Maintain adaptability
  7. Be a do-er and not a complainer
  8. Network and build a power base
  9. Understand the politics and environment – work the grain with the grain and use the politics and environment against the politics and environment to bring about the right conditions for change
  10. Expect criticism and push through the messy middle, but keep the rose coloured glasses in the back pocket so you can call a spade  failure a spade failure when you need to.

Navigating the Gaps – Act Your Way to Being a Leader

What really resonated with me this week was Hermina Ibbara’s work on the authenticity paradox and on acting and thinking like a leader. You can find the videos on her work below:

Hermina provides us with her own personal example of knowing what to do, seeing others do it to achieve success, but not doing it because “it is not who we are”. So how can we be the leaders we want to be, ie. be more effective and still be who we are? I have been grappling with this question for some time in my own role within my current organisation and not coming up with any clear answers, so hearing Hermina articulate her experience and learning was transformative.

Before starting with my current organisation, I worked in private legal practice for over 20 years. I was good it it, solving complex legal problems, implementing legal strategy and coming up with innovative solutions. In that environment it helped to be the smartest person in the room. In the not for profit sector where I now work, that is not the currency for effectiveness. In this environment, heart is important, social factors are critical and emotional connection is vital. Having a logical solution alone just doesn’t cut it anymore. Knowing this, I had no idea on how to move in the right direction, to let go of having everything steeped in logic or how to grapple with the discomfort of working it out.

But Herminia’s idea of redfining our job and acting our way into leadership thinking makes sense. What I have been doing (unknowingly) over the past couple of years is redefining my job and expanding my network to better align with my leadership aspirations and to make me more effective in the environment in which I now find myself. After hearing Herminia, I now understand that I have been too tentative in my approach and feeling like I would be “found out”. This hasn’t happened yet and in fact, I have had moments where I have come up with the very idea that has moved a problem forward even though the subject matter is not totally in my patch. The leader to which I aspire to become is not afraid to throw in an idea that may be outside of her core area of technical expertise.

Herminia also gave me clarity in her discussion of the authenticity paradox. Is there a way to be effective and still be yourself? Focusing on the emotional and not the rational goes against how I see myself. I tell myself that emotions are fickle and have no role to play in a being competent lawyer analysing a complex legal problem and coming up with a solution. After all, the lawyer is the one that everyone looks at to be calm in the time of crisis and complexity.

However, what I am trying to be here is a leader with legal skills rather than just a lawyer, so it is not serving me. Taking on board what Herminia says, I now realise the better we are at something the harder it is to want to feel discomfort in something in which we are a novice. I also realise that there is more than one self at play in a transformation moment  – the self you are now and the self you are aspiring to be. This means that taking on new ways of being effective that don’t feel right (yet) does not have to be alienating of self. You can be you and take on board new ways of being.

This allows me to experiment more with confidence, know that it won’t feel comfortable and understand this is OK. Knowing that these feelings are not uncommon will also make me a better coach and mentor.

The Bottom Line

The knowing/ doing gap will always be there. As a leader of change, I need to acknowledge it and factor it into any change plan. Tackling this gaps with an entrepreneurial spirit whilst not being afraid to experiment and fail, but maintaining vision and influence is a challenge. Knowing that the discomfort in transformation is likely coming from experimentation and shedding old perceptions of self , rather than lack of ability will fuel action, where hesitation once lived.

dilbert project plan