Climbing the ladder (of change)

Since I started practicing team coaching five years ago, I got in touch with the coaching community at large, only to discover that, historically, most coaching is done in individual, 1:1 settings.

Approaching companies and teams systemically like a got used to represents just a specific niche of coaching, of which Agile coaching is an even tinier niche.

Since a lot of coaching models are then based on personal, individual change and since I’m always looking for ways of scaling down change, I just did an exercise in understanding how many levels of change should we take into account — only to realize how many of them gets ignored!

If we take into account a sort of “ladder of change”, we have:

  1. Individual level (it’s you)
  2. Inter-personal level (it’s you and someone else)
  3. Intra-team level (it’s your team)
  4. Inter-teams level (it’s your team and other teams)
  5. Organizational level (it’s the whole company)

So much about any scaling framework is described and happens mainly at the organizational or inter-team level, so that we take for granted of having the first three levels already sorted out.

It’s very often not the case: raise your hand if you’ve been asked to make an organizational transformation work while nobody had a clue of what a Product Owner or a Scrum Master (or even Agile) is.

That led me to some considerations about how many people we need to make a change.

When starting out as a consultant helping out a company, you are one person.

Are you enough? How many people are you going to work with? Are they going to be enough to bring about the change the company is expecting them to bring forward?

There is some preliminary, incomplete but extremely interesting evidence that it might take just about 25% of a group to steer the whole group toward a different direction. And the best news is that it start with just one person bringing in the group a different view.

Political science is a great field to observe if we want to get some insights on how change works on a bigger scale. Yes, I’m very well aware that we are living in particular troubling times and considerations about how societal and political change happen are more than timely.

A research on the history of violent and non-violent change campaigns by Erica Chenoweth has found astonishing results: not only non-violent campaigns are way more effective than violent ones both before, during and after the change – and that should be taken into account in the world of corporate transformations… – but they need, on average, only the 3.5% of the population involved in order to create a meaningful shift.

Sure thing, that 3.5% has to be really, really, deeply involved and committed, but I find it incredible that political turnaround and civil rights wins can happen with the involvement of quite a few people.

I’m aware that it might seem and oversimplification, but we all know how human phenomena are complex in nature, they involve network effects, tipping points, non-linear growth.

Could you change an entire company with just the help and commitment of something in between the 3.5% and 25% of the people working there? And if that’s possible, be really, really mindful of what kind of change you want to bring about – extremists can be successful too…

So after rambling about such a big and complex topics as political and civil movements, this month I invite you to think about the tiniest level possible: yourself.

Esther Derby has a great, brief and on-point podcast episode about how to consider yourself as an agent of change, I invite you to listen to the podcast episode in its entirety – it’s very brief – there are some gems among which:

  • Questions for yourself about yourself, such as “How are my feelings and capabilities related to this change?” or “What do I fear?”
  • Questions for yourself and about the others, such as “What do they know that I might not know?”
  • Questions for yourself and about the whole organization, such as “What can be controlled or influenced?”

I don’t think change can happen “at scale”, as we like to say, if we don’t carefully take ourselves and our neighbours into account: it might not be true that you need to involve everyone but it surely true that we need more shared awareness about what is change at the smallest scale we can observe.

Reflections is a series of articles about wide-ranging topics where I explore more open-endend questions about complex subjects.

Header photo by Tom Wilson on Unsplash