Leadership and Change

Leadership and Change

In this chapter we will explore:

  • The nature and inevitability of change
  • Change in different systems
  • Reactions to change
  • How change is facilitated or inhibited
  • Leadership for change

The prevailing narrative around change and leadership in an organisational context is that it is hard, and that many change efforts fail (Kotter 2007). There has been much focus on change processes and difficulties such as resistance. Much of this is driven by the linkage of knowledge brokers and researchers to corporate business and hierarchical, industrial models of business organisations. There are, however, other ways of thinking about change.

Change is all around us, moment by moment. Our world is in flux. Changing the hour, changing the year, even changing the TV channels, is normal. Humans are evolved and adapted to function with change. Indeed, when we think of change in the context of growth and development (of ourselves and others) and the rituals we associate with the celebration of change (e.g. birthdays, weddings, graduations) change can be reconfigured as a positive part of being human. It is the change we do not notice, or we even embrace, that is powerful and amazing, with the potential to make the world a better place.

When thinking about change, therefore, whilst we need to consider the challenges and puzzles that change brings forth, it is helpful to reframe it as something positive which we can use to enhance our professional practice and our contribution. There is a temptation to simplify change and create processes within machinery metaphors of organisations. This is dangerous thinking for complex systems and bringing together some of the important concepts and considerations discussed in previous chapters, I will attempt, not to simplify, but at least clarify some up‐to‐date thinking on change and how it might apply within the veterinary context, where the overriding purpose is the maintenance of human and animal welfare.

10.1 What Is Change?

Change is the act of becoming different. In the context of leadership, it is framed as either events to respond (or not) to, or a conscious act. It can be painful and disruptive, or easy and pleasurable. Whilst change is framed as ‘good’ and or ‘bad’; some change is harmful, some is beneficial, and some neither. Random genetic mutations create change between generations that either create fitness or do not; they are amoral, and their benefit or otherwise can only be assessed retrospectively.

Stable systems respond to change by use of balancing feedback loops and keep themselves within acceptable ranges; they are in states of constant flux and this flexibility is advantageous. Rigid hierarchies and rule‐bound systems that are strong and of low perceived risk to the individual are, inherently, rigid, and unresponsive. Healthcare organisations have many rigid rules to defend professionals against the anxiety and shame of failure or not knowing (Obholzer and Roberts 1994). That makes them resilient in the short‐term but much less able to respond to change as it happens around them.

Strategy encapsulates much the why, what, and when of change, but not the how (Chapter 7). That becomes the focus of this chapter. How do you, and the organisation around you, change, and how does leadership fit into this?

Individuals and organisations (groups of individuals acting together) can change the why, the how, or what of their activity, or the where. The where could be physical (e.g. the building space) or virtual (e.g. the chosen market or client group).

Change can be organic, incremental, and emergent (growth, development, and adaptation) or it can happen suddenly and dramatically, when there is a rapid transition between two states (e.g. the switching on of a lightbulb). Divergent change involves dramatic shifts in values and activities, whereas nondivergent change builds on existing norms and practices (Table 10.1).

We can consider change in systems terms; marked change can be driven from within systems, simple internal reinforcing feedback loops can create marked change in response to internal fluctuations, without guiding leadership (Meadows and Wright 2009). Alternatively, external forces can trigger change, which acts as a self‐correcting homeostatic response or as a driver to notable divergence from the previous state. The new state might be stable in its own right. When we add the human capacity to respond, anticipate, relate, and communicate into a system, then leadership can influence outcomes and help create the conditions for effective change (Higgs and Rowland 2010).

Change can occur at a number of levels – the individual, the inter‐individual, the team, the organisation, and beyond. The complex relationships and exchanges that exist between different components of a human network mean that even changes in one individual might have the potential to influence and dramatically change a whole system.

Table 10.1 Examples of nondivergent and divergent changes in different veterinary sectors.

Source: Battilana, J. and Casciaro, T. (2013), The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents, Harvard Business Review 91 (7): 62–68.

Nondivergent change Divergent change
Small Animal Practice Preferred NSAID Veterinary nurses consulting
Laboratory Addition of PCR tests Addition of equine work
Pharmaceutical Company Bringing a new antibiotic to market Merger
Horse Welfare Charity New local centre New country of operation
Zoo Additional breeding program Ending cetacean captivity

10.2 Systemic Perspectives on Change

We outlined frameworks of professional services, i.e. commoditised, customised, expertise driven and ‘rocket‐science’ (Chapter 6). Systemically, these could be conceived as simple (commoditised/customised), complicated (expertise driven) and complex (’rocket science’), although, given the inherent complexity in veterinary professional service work (Chapter 2), this modelling needs to be applied cautiously.

10.2.1 How Does Change Happen in Simple Systems?

In simple systems, change happens through application of single changes. By doing one thing in a linear process differently, the output changes. When blood‐sampling cattle, if you can sample every 5 minutes instead of every 10, you should be twice as fast. Theoretically.

One of the dangers of simple systems, in organisational contexts, is that they are not truly simple and there are many more variables and ambiguities in real life than on paper. The blood sampling pipeline, restrain‐prep‐find vein‐draw blood‐out, is simple but a part of a much more variable system (e.g. having the cattle ready, penned and calm), and the unpredictable (e.g. the heifer that panics and is much more difficult to sample, or there is a dramatic change in the weather).

Nevertheless, communication of best practice as it changes, and delegation, become the modes of change in commoditised work; with the professionals generally determining and communicating rather than doing (assuming this is within regulatory boundaries).

10.2.2 How Does Change Happen in Complicated Systems?

In complicated systems (expertise driven), change is achieved through changing parts of the system. The parts might be individuals, processes, or even teams. Clients are accessing the expertise (knowledge or skills) of the veterinary professional because they do not possess them themselves and it is cost‐effective to employ someone. They can employ another professional with similar expertise and expect similar outcomes. Change comes as the standards of practice change, and this might require development or addition of different equipment, skills, and training. Since the expertise is a trusted aspect of this realm of practice, it holds sway.

Notwithstanding the ascendance of the expert in complicated systems, change will still have an impact on people and may require learning, development, and training. Professionals who do not adapt to the latest expected methods are at risk of becoming irrelevant and uncompetitive if they remain in the same market. Professional egos that resist change and see the world one way only can only compete for so long as the world changes around them.

10.2.3 How Does Change Happen in Complex Systems?

Given the paradoxical challenges of managing profit (or impact in the nonprofit sectors), different professional archetypes, multidisciplinary teams, animal welfare and professional well‐being, most systems in which veterinary professionals practice are inherently complex (Chapter 2). Understanding how change does, and does not, happen in complex systems is critical to effective leadership in many areas of veterinary medicine.

In complex systems, it is the interrelationships that make it impossible to change a part without changing the whole. Whilst we are tempted to use models to simplify complexity, this requires the creation of artificial boundaries such that when you simplify your move the complexity elsewhere (Meadows and Wright 2009). Many complex systems have found ways to function in a challenging environment with feedback loops, which tend to revert to a stable state (Meadows and Wright 2009). The ability of a complex system to change makes it a Complex Adaptive System (CAS); it is argued that human organisations include the ability to learn and predict through relational interdependence and are, therefore, Complex Responsive Systems (CRS) (Stacey et al. 2000; Stacey 2003). In this conception, learning (from within) becomes an essential component of change. In addition, Marion and Uhl‐Bien (2001) argue that complex human short‐term prediction is possible from dynamic stability, and this gives optimism that attempting to change a CRS is not a hopeless endeavour.

Change manifests as emergence of a new order, as innovation, renewal, or even extinction. It is influenced by the presence of ‘tags’, which act as points around which ‘attractors’ encourage aggregation and development of new patterns. Tags can be ideas, people, new connections, infrastructure – anything that interacts as part of the system (Uhl‐bien et al. 2017). Human needs, drives and constraints, collective intelligence, as well as physical resources will influence how change emerges; resource scarcity creates instability. Emergent change tends to come from those closest to the reality and happens through the rich interconnectivity of the system. A stable and embedded organisation with strong, consistent relationships and a guiding, firmly held, shared purpose will be much less likely to create emergent change than one that is fluid, dynamic, messy, and uncomfortable. Change that is fit will survive and change that is not will fail. Change can occur incrementally or, in complex systems, can be abrupt and irreversible (and potentially catastrophic) as a tipping point is passed (Gladwell 2001).

Complex systems possess points of leverage that influence their function and behaviour (Table 10.2). Change at a leverage point can influence the system downstream and, potentially upstream through feedback loops. The more complex the system, the less individual leverage points might be significant. Additionally, care needs to be exercised when thinking in this way because the direction to push is often counterintuitive (Meadows and Wright 2009).

There are different types of change in a networked organisation (Figure 10.1). The nature and effectiveness of change are influenced by the stability of relationships, the influence of individuals and their relationships (not necessarily formal or hierarchical) on others, the ability to grow through the creation of new relationships or, where there is sufficient energy, force, or imperative, through breaking and re‐making of bonds. In the latter case, there is risk of fracture and breakdown.

Table 10.2 Change leverage points in a complex responsive system.

Source: Adapted from Meadows, D. H. and Wright, D. (2009), Thinking in Systems: A Primer. London: Earthscan.

Leverage points Examples in veterinary professions
Events Stocks, buffers, and flows Vaccine supply
Feedback Feedback loops and delays, learning Student selection methods
Structures Information, rules, agency Ownership rules
Models Purpose, goals, and mindsets Species focus of practise
Image described by caption.

Figure 10.1 Conceptual models of change. An organisation network (See Figure 6.3, page 87) (a) can be ‘elastic’ in the face of attempted change which can be influenced by change agents with strong relationships (b). The shift of the organisation as a whole is more likely with engagement of all (or sufficient) actors (c) or change can through organic growth and development and the influence of ‘bridgers’ (d). Marked organisational change requires breaking and re‐making of bonds (e) and may lead to breakdown into separate, independent, entities where those bonds are weak, insufficient, or brittle; stability is provided by ‘gluers’ (f).

10.2.4 What Is Successful Change?

In organisational terms, successful change might mean ongoing survival in the face of altered circumstances. In human terms, however, this could mean people, or animals, are harmed for the greater good, which should completely reframe how successful change is gauged. If change is conceived as necessary by a leadership group, and an organisation does not change because the attempted change meets valid and respectful challenge, and the outcome is not what was planned but harm is not done and the group or organisation thrives, is this unsuccessful? How we frame success and tie it in to the identity and ego of individual leaders is important when we think about change.

10.3 Psychological Aspects of Change

Humans are evolved to notice and respond to change around us as if it might be a threat. We focus on difference because this is where danger comes from. That, at least, is the simplistic view but, of course, humans are curious about the new and unfamiliar and adapted to exploit it to our advantage. Conceiving change as simply threatening, and something which we need protection from, is, therefore, somewhat patronising and fails to give agency to our real ability to respond constructively and create alternative possibilities from difference.

10.3.1 Change, Threat, and Identity

There is, of course, potential threat in change, and our human bias has evolved to emphasis negative change as a form of protection (Rozin and Royzman 2001). Framing change as threatening, however, provokes responses and defences (fight‐flight‐freeze), which inhibit learning, whereas a positive, affective state promotes creativity at work (Amabile et al. 2005). Psychological safety is, therefore, important for learning and creativity in teams (Edmondson 1999; Kessel et al. 2012). Creative and emergent change may be enhanced in a safe environment.

A sense of threat, on the other hand, can promote stress and movement. Creating a sense of urgency because of impending crisis has been proposed as one step in effecting organisational change (Kotter 2007). This is relevant where there is, indeed, a significant threat but it can be used as a tactic to manipulate and must be exercised with integrity and care.

In professional work, change can threaten on a number of levels. We are judged, by ourselves, by our peers and by our professional standards, on the quality of the work we do. Once we have a system of professional work with which we are comfortable, variability as a result of change threatens this professional standard. When our professional and personal identities are intertwined (which they all too often are) then ‘That could be better’ becomes ‘I am not good enough’; change can be deeply threatening of self. This is evident where knowing is held as more important that problem‐solving (Armitage‐Chan and May 2018). When proposed change in a professional context has the potential to devalue hard‐earned skills (e.g. through technological advances), then the threat is not just to ego and one’s sense of achievement but to the economic value of your professional services. This impacts not just remuneration but the influence you can command if you possess irreplaceable skills and the opportunities this might represent, such as access to power and the ego strokes of acknowledgement.

Having the ability to engage in identity growth in the face of change, which fits in with the concept of a growth mindset is a healthy ability but can be challenging, particularly if the professional identity is a significant defence against deep anxieties, and where time and energy are required to re‐frame self‐image and the perception of others (Ibarra and Petriglieri 2010; Dweck 2016). This concept is illustrated in the difficulties acknowledged by doctors moving from clinical to managerial roles, and one I have experienced myself (Spehar et al. 2015; Elwood 2019).

10.3.2 Mindsets, Emotions, and Adaptive Spaces

Creating space for change to be conceived and put into motion means being brave enough to face into the fear of negative reactions and prepared to nurture and sustain a positive perspective. Evidence from positive psychology practice suggests that noticing and working with ‘What is good?’ through techniques such as appreciative inquiry is fruitful (Wall et al. 2017). This approach must take into account the underpinning workplace culture and where there is a risk of cynicism and negativity, which might be based on experience of prior failed change and associated toxicity and a lack of psychological safety, this needs to be considered as part of any change program. Positive practices such as caring, compassionate support, forgiveness, inspiration, focus on meaning, respect, integrity, and gratitude are associated with organisational performance (Cameron et al. 2011). Support (autonomy, supervisory coaching, cooperation, warmth) positive emotion (self‐efficacy, self‐esteem, optimism) are important to sustain change (Xanthopoulou et al. 2012; Wall et al. 2017).

Change is often associated with competing demands, resource scarcity, and tensions over time available for task work and change work. The importance of growth versus fixed mindsets has been discussed; recent work suggests that those with a paradox mindset, i.e. the ability to thrive in the face of contradictory tensions are best placed to innovate and create (Dweck 2016; Miron‐Spektor et al. 2018).

10.3.3 Noticing Change

We all notice the big changes, particularly in areas we care about, but much change around us goes unnoticed and unrecognised. Change blindness is a noted aspect of our visual function and where we direct our attention is important; which is why misdirection can be such a powerful manipulative activity (Simons and Rensink 2005). The implication for leadership through change is that incremental change is much more likely to go unnoticed although multiple small changes (e.g. 1.0136 = 1.43) can lead to large differences (in linear systems); the marginal gains concept (Harrell 2015).

Nov 6, 2022 | Posted by in SMALL ANIMAL | Comments Off on Leadership and Change
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