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Do we need to change the way we change?

The other day, the CEO of a large automotive firm told me something that was both interesting and alarming. “Business and society did not fundamentally alter for around a hundred years after the onset of the Industrial Revolution,” he said. Contrast that with now. In just the last five years, the ‘rules’ have altered indelibly. Companies like Uber and Airbnb are dismantling traditional business models. Consumers who didn’t know an ‘app’ from a ‘program’ today use apps to fix plumbing and order in high-protein dinners. A recent HBR study says 9 out of 10 people are willing to earn less for more meaningful work. Consumers are shifting their loyalties from ‘feel-good’ brands to ‘do-good’ products. And societies are demanding more from those in power. When radical change touches all dimensions of business reality – revenue models, technology, work, brand loyalty, culture – it’s time for leaders to re-examine the way their firms change. Or risk becoming irrelevant. There are many ways firms can change. In this blog, I want to examine some of them by adapting Ken Wilber’s ground-breaking integral theory.

Beliefs underlying change

Whether they realise it or not, firms have underlying beliefs regarding change.

The 4 quadrants of the integral approach can provide an overview of these belief systems. Figure 1 captures some of the most common perspectives of change subscribed to by many firms. Although each school of change is sincere in its conception of what it takes to change, we at Yayati have found that these approaches are partial. Typically, only one or two quadrants are privileged. Let’s dig deeper.

The Four Schools of Change


The “Who are we?” school 

Firms that approach change from the Upper-Left perspective (refer Figure 1) believe that change occurs by bringing what is ‘hidden’ in the firm’s inner world into the light. The guiding principle is Freudian; everything the firm needs for change is already within it. Just dig deep. High-intensity discovery programs help people and teams gain access to secret inner potential. Then they chart a roadmap on how to translate that potential into change. It’s an inspiring approach that can significantly boost self-knowledge and confidence. But without the other quadrants, it is partial.


The “Let’s get things done” school 

Firms that approach change from the Upper-Right perspective believe change occurs by deliberate action. Leaders exhort people to roll up their sleeves and prepare to get their hands dirty. “Stretch goals”, “Measurable progress”, and “Breakthrough results” make up the motivational vocabulary of this change approach. It can fire up teams to take action, develop new skills, and achieve unmatched results. But teams may depend on action plans to deliver the deep, long-term change that can only come from a conscious, self-sustaining competency within. In isolation, this approach is partial.


The “Let’s reboot the team” school of change

Firms that approach change from a Lower-Left perspective believe change is sparked by pattern-breaking interactions between people. This approach calls for the voice of an “other” to smash and re-engineer old views of reality. This is an emotionally rich and incendiary approach. People get honest. They call one another out on issues. Some break down. Then they pledge to change, and crush goals together. But there is a risk of people being unable to embody what they so richly talked about. Some of us know this anti-climactic feeling; that post-workshop ‘high’ that fades as soon as the rubber hits the road on Monday morning. This approach tears down walls and galvanizes the team’s esprit de corps. But without the other quadrants, it is partial.


The “How do we fit better” school of change

Let’s say a restaurant’s standard menu is at odds with the changing needs of its clientele. The restaurant reboots its menu. People are trained to make new dishes. A new chef is hired. Firms that orient from the Lower-Right perspective believe change happens when you optimize the firm’s fit into the overall system in which it operates. The premise is that if we better align with the system in which we want to contribute, we’ll strike gold sooner or later. This approach enables many critical aspects of change: understanding the larger system, knowing one’s role it, learning how to ace the system or alter it to one’s advantage. It is the most popular approach, embraced by market-savvy firms who emphasize that the customer is king, even if she wants mashed potatoes with her burger. But as a dominant focus, it is partial.


 Looking ahead: The integral approach to change

An investigation of the underlying beliefs of these change management approaches show that they are all right and they are all partial. So is there another way to assess and execute change? Yes, there is. The view that we hold for our Integral Business approach is this: for deep, powerful and sustained transformation, firms need to embrace all four perspectives of how change occurs. That’s not all. They also need to ensure each perspective is communicating with the other. How does that work? Stay tuned.

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