Start where the system is

Yet again I turn to my 'rules of thumb for change agents' first printed, as far as I know, in Organization Development Practitioner in November 1975. The author was Herbert A Shepard who was according to the introduction on the Herbert Shepard Foundation website.

A pioneering thinker in the Organization Development movement, an engaging teacher and mentor of exceptional depth, scope and humility with a gift for recognizing and nurturing the potential of others. His unselfishness, utter sincerity, compassion and unwavering commitment touched lives, forged lasting friendships and helped shape the careers of a generation of leaders and social scientists. He held faculty posts at several universities including M.I.T., where he received his doctorate in Industrial Economics. He founded and directed the first doctoral program in Organization Development at Case Western; developed a residency in administrative psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, and was also President of The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland.

I'm interested in his work for two reasons: immediately because with a colleague yesterday we ran a workshop that, about an hour before the start time we changed the design of fairly radically. Why? Because the internal noise we were getting about the session reached a crescendo about midday (the session was scheduled for 2 hours in the late afternoon). I went to discuss the situation with two of the people who'd expressed their concern. In different ways, and for different reasons, they were very anxious about the session – the number of people involved in session design (not many) and the number invited (lots), the lack of communication and information on session content including who 'owned the meeting, the perceived value of the session judged on the value people attributed to previous similar sessions (not highly valued), etc.

So listening to these views and in partnership with one of the two people we redesigned the second half of the session. This meant that 5 minutes before kick off I was still amending slides and handouts. Was it worthwhile? Should I have stuck to the original design as, after the event, my colleague said I should? That's when I brought out the rules of thumb that had guided my decision. This time the one I had in mind was 'Start where the system is' Shepard explains this as follows:

Starting where the system is can be called the Empathy Rule. To communicate effectively, to obtain a basis for building sound strategy, you need to understand how clients see themselves and their situation, and you need to understand the culture of the system. Establishing the required rapport does not mean that the change agent who wants to work in a traditional industrial setting should refrain from growing a
beard. It does mean that, if he has a beard, the beard is likely to determine where the client is when they first meet, and the client's curiosity needs to be dealt with. Similarly, the rule does not mean that a female change agent in a male organization should try to act like one of the boys, or that a young change agent should try to act like a senior executive. One thing it does mean is that sometimes where the client is,
is wondering where the change agent is. Rarely is the client in anyone place at anyone time. That is, he/she may be ready to pursue any of several paths. The task is to walk together on the most promising path. Even unwitting or accidental violations of the empathy rule can destroy the situation…

To my thinking going with the originally conceived design would have violated the Empathy Rule. There may be all sorts of sound(ish) reasons for doing so like 'taking the client out of their comfort zones' or 'challenging their beliefs' to force change, but is this a good thing to do? Perhaps I'd also been influenced by Peter Block's questions in the introduction to the second edition of his book Flawless Consulting in which he asks:

Is it even legitimate to call ourselves 'change agents'? It is common for consultants to talk about how to 'intervene' in order to achieve change in an organization. It may feel fine for us to intervene in another's world, but which of us wants to be intervened upon? If we are change agents who are we trying to change? We can claim we are trying to change systems, but systems are still people in various formations. The mind-set that we can change another is risky business. And what about the common phrase "change management"? Can change be managed, and if it can, is it not someone else that we have in mind?

He ends the introduction commenting that

the core of consulting is about social contracting and managing in a self-managing world. It will take only minor shifts in language for line managers to apply most of the methods in the book to their own challenges of supervision.

Changing the workshop design in line with what I was listening to seemed to be to be less of a violation of the empathy rule than ploughing on regardless. The outcome of the session for me was lessons learned, and points taken for future use. Ultimately the session itself had a good outcome which will bear fruit at the follow up session next month.

The second reason I am interested in Herbert Shepard is because he was one of the founding fathers of organization development and on this count will be part of the research I am doing for a chapter of a book on organization development to be published next year.

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