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Volume 9, Issue 52;   December 30, 2009: Letting Go of the Status Quo: the Debate

Letting Go of the Status Quo: the Debate

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Before we can change, we must want to change, or at least accept that we must change. And somewhere in there, we must let go of some part of what is now in place — the status quo. In organizations, the decision to let go involves debate.
A polar bear, feeding, on land

A polar bear, feeding, on land. Polar bears, among the most visibly endangered species, have become emblematic of the phenomenon of Global Warming (often called "Climate Change"). In the "debate" that most affects the polar bear, the bear is a rejecter. It is simply unable to adapt to the coming climatic change. Acceptors are species that are already adapting. For instance, in the western United States, bark beetles are devastating forests, because they are able to withstand mild winters.

In organizational change dynamics, what makes people acceptors or rejecters might not be anything they can control. Like the polar bear, some people simply cannot adapt to some changes. Trouble occurs when the people who cannot adapt are indispensable to the organization. Monitoring the informal debate that accompanies the change effort can expose these difficulties early, when a course correction is still possible. Photo by Dave Olsen of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, courtesy Wikimedia, Division of Public Affairs.

Organizational change necessarily entails letting go of parts of the status quo. Even when no existing processes are affected, we must let go of the belief that the status quo was ideal.

People carry out this letting go in their own ways, at their own times, for their own reasons. Because letting go is personal, those who accept change (acceptors) often come into conflict with those who are undecided, and with those who reject it (rejecters).

Although these tensions prove that Change is happening, they can limit effectiveness, sometimes threatening organizational survival. Managing these tensions makes change efforts more effective.

Among the many indicators of tension are the content and structure of the often-informal debate about the need for change. The debate tends to proceed in three stages.

Early stages
Acceptors are generally in a defensive position. Undecideds, who neither see the need for change, nor oppose it, quietly outnumber both acceptors and rejecters. rejecters tend to be vociferous — often more vociferous than acceptors.
Estimating the sizes of these three populations is a common technique for gauging progress. But a better predictor of future progress is the content of the informal debate. Use focus groups to measure the power of the arguments used by acceptors and rejecters. Try to determine what keeps undecideds from deciding.
Intermediate stages
The need for change is now obvious to many. Acceptors are growing in number, if not effect. Rejecting change has become difficult to justify, marked by increasingly inventive re-justification of the status quo and increasingly energetic attacks on the case for change and on the acceptors themselves. In desperation, some rejecters adopt emotionally charged tactics, such as name-calling, blaming, and fearmongering.
Since polarization of opinion in the group is usually deleterious, and since it and its effects can last beyond the change process, preventing polarization is preferable Use focus groups to measure
the power of the arguments used
by acceptors and rejecters
to repairing it. Training in prevention and management of polarization of opinion is always valuable, but never more so than when that training is applied to preparing for organizational change efforts.
Late stages
Now the undecideds have accepted change, for the most part, as have most rejecters. Some of the most confirmed rejecters are those who feel most threatened by the change. They are often important to the organization. If polarization has set in, the last rejecters experience isolation and loss that sometimes turns to bitterness. Some depart the organization, voluntarily or otherwise.
To achieve organizational acceptance with little bitterness or turnover, monitor the emotional energy of debate. If polarization sets in, professional intervention might be needed.

When people understand that diversity of opinion is a natural result of our uniqueness as people, leading to differences in letting go of the status quo they're more likely to see debate as helpful and constructive. Probably some of you, dear readers, disagree. That's OK. We're all different. Go to top Top  Next issue: Backtracking in Incremental Problem Solving  Next Issue

For more about organizational change, see "Now We're in Chaos," Point Lookout for September 19, 2001; "Piling Change Upon Change: Management Credibility," Point Lookout for October 18, 2006; and an archive of past issues of Point Lookout relating to Organizational Change.

101 Tips for Managing ChangeIs your organization embroiled in Change? Are you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt? Read 101 Tips for Managing Change to learn how to survive, how to plan and how to execute change efforts to inspire real, passionate support. Order Now!

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