Developing a Mindset for Transformation

Leading the transformation of an organisation is a major undertaking that can be daunting to even the most seasoned of senior leaders. Once a leader realises that transformation necessarily means disrupting ‘business as usual’ (BAU) they also have to come to terms with the need to think differently, but this is far more easily said than done when BAU is usually required to keep the business going and resource the transformation simultaneously – if you keep doing what you’re doing, you will become irrelevant in the digital economy but if you don’t keep doing what you’re doing you won’t be able to fund the radical changes that are required.

How do you shield status quo and existing revenue streams and disrupt your own business processes at the same time?

The paradox of business transformation is a difficult thing to fully grasp and requires a complex mind to navigate successfully. Emerging research shows that leaders who have successfully led an organisation through transformation are able to hold this paradox lightly, can work with multiple perspectives on a single issue and are tolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty (Read and Keating, 2018). At the very core of a mindset for transformation is ‘active sensemaking’.

Sensemaking is the cognitive process, or type of thinking, that enables us to turn the ongoing complexity of the world into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words, often through story or narrative, and that serves as a call to action (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005).

In the past, organizational structure informed by the bureaucratic and administrative perspectives have led to passive sensemaking, the acceptance of explanations given to you by people in positions of authority. However, the collaborative, agile work practices emerging today, that require resilience and adaptability, also engender active sensemaking at all levels, the intentional process of collecting and processing information, and making sense of it for yourself.

Weick’s (1969) explanation of sensemaking (from The Social Psychology of Organisations) is that it is the review, exploration, creation and eventual attribution of meaning in the context of information or experience that does not match existing expectations, norms or assumptions. In other words, how do you make sense of what’s going on when things are uncertain, ambiguous and complex? Do you simply seek guidance from someone else and follow their instruction (passive sensemaking) or do you seek out information for yourself and interpret it in the context of your current situation (active sensemaking)?

Active sensemakers are people who trust their own critical reasoning, problem recognition and problem-solving processes, who trust their own research, their knowledge and their experiences and are confident in their ability to counter or avoid falling to their own biases and assumptions that have arisen through conditioning. This level of intellectual autonomy and ability to ‘think on purpose’ requires well-developed meta-cognition; the capacity to reflect on and think about your thinking.

Coupled with the capacity to actively lead an organisation and simultaneously manage a large complex change program, being able to ‘hold a space’ for the transformation paradox and help others to be okay with it, is a vital skill for leaders of transformation.  A large part of that help that employees and other stakeholders need from business leaders is guidance in how to understand the changes that are occurring.

What does it mean to integrate robotics, machine learning or automation into the workplace?

What does it mean to be user-centric or to apply agile methodologies?

What new business models do we have to choose from or do we have to make up our own, and how do we do that?

The transformation jargon is almost as confusing as the underlying paradox. People don’t need jargon, they need a story to believe in and a way of making sense of the complexity they find themselves in.

In times of uncertainty and volatility, we look to our leaders to share a vision of the future that is worth investing in. Having a mindset for transformation, is as much as anything, about having a story to share that inspires and motivates people to want to change.

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Dr Shari Read is an award-winning educator with a focus on teaching skills for our digital future. As a clinically trained social psychologist and design enthusiast, Shari emphasises human-centred approaches to leadership, management and new ways of working. Her research and teaching in the area of transformation and change management emphasise the capabilities required to lead effectively through uncertainty and complexity.

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