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  • Asiri Senaratne

Transformation Excellence - The intersection of psychological safety & systems thinking

What I love most about organizational change is the alchemy involved in helping bring something to life, that was once nebulous and unformed.

Successful change no doubt consists of many materials. For me, the base metals can be distilled down to two elements: psychological safety & systems thinking.

When considering change, it's easy to frame it as a journey of three stages: starting in the current state, the change moves through the transition phase before arriving in the future state where it is embedded as BAU.

This trajectory suggests the change journey is a linear one, projects and organizations go from A to C, with a brief (or not so brief) period in the middle: β.

I have intentionally used the functional symbol for beta to represent the transition phase. In my experience, the time (read: blood, sweat and tears) spent in transition is as much a function of the scale, and complexity of the change as it is the caliber of leadership involved. This is hardly a revelation.

Looking a little closer, though, I have observed that the most successful leaders have an uncanny ability to be vulnerable in the face of feedback while being decisive when pursuing true north. Not easy.

By allowing for vulnerability, a leader lays the groundwork for establishing a culture that is built on psychological safety (Googles work on this is excellent, read it HERE). Those participating in the change are permitted to challenge assumptions, status quos, or white elephants in a safe and respectful space. This results in the most beautiful paradox. By enabling the seemingly intangible virtue of vulnerability, the leader creates a space for risks, assumptions, issues, and dependencies to be assessed in the cold light of day. The benefits (saving otherwise wasted time and cost) could not be more tangible.

A contrarian view could be that this style of leadership is anything but effective, and undoubtedly not efficient. It would be easy to argue complex, and large-scale change brings with it emotion. How can a leader maintain momentum and stay on course while allowing a well-meaning (yet emotionally invested) team member from derailing the change effort? It would be easy for a leader to be encouraged to adopt a different strategy, perhaps bite off a smaller piece, head down a different path. How can a leader make the right decision when presented with the option of changing or maintaining course? Systems Thinking.

Systems thinking is a function of systems analysis which is part of systems theory. Of course, systems theory exists in many disciplines. My reference to the term stems from the work of Peter Senge, who used it in his study of organizational development. Senge views organizations as dynamic systems which exist in states of constant change (read more about Peters work HERE).

Senge observes that it is those organizations that establish, and then nurture, a culture of learning that will be most successful when dealing with change. Senge distills the importance of data, measurement, and analysis (amongst many other concepts) in his reference to learning. It is the leader that enables learning by championing the need for objective insights that can cultivate a culture of safety while laying the foundations for operational excellence.

Of course. Some may baulk at the mere mention of psychological safety in the context of organizational change. It is a sign of the times, that Change and Transformation have become synonymous with cost-cutting and therefore, layoffs. This is tragic and traumatic. It is for this very reason; I could not think of a louder call to action for vulnerability in leadership and excellence in decision making.

Now more than ever, we need psychological safety and systems thinking to consistently enable rigorous and objective decision making. We need those decisions to be made in mindful, compassionate and empathetic ways.

With rapid large-scale change ramping up globally Change & Transformation practitioners are well placed to support our clients and organizations in establishing cultures and systems that enable just that. 

At ZENgagement we are passionate about working with our clients on the development and delivery of empowering and sustainable organizational change. Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you would like to start a conversation on what this could look like in your organization. This is not a sales pitch, but a genuine invitation to connect. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

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