One Human at a Time

Some lessons learnt – so far – from an epic change journey

Red Cross (detail) painting by  Asphyxia

Red Cross (detail) painting by Asphyxia

Each one of us is responsible to all others for everything”.  Dostoevsky’s message, carved into a wall at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva, reminds us that everything is connected. That no individual can abdicate their conscience or find excuses in the collective. Each and everyone’s actions have consequences.

It is easy to go with the flow, to keep ourselves busy, to navel gaze and to raise all the good reasons for which things cannot change. It is easy, but in doing so, we are complicit of bad systems. Bad systems waste people’s energy, passion and desire to do good. They turn good intentions into soul-crunching bureaucracies, corporate puppet theater and dysfunctional societies. They shrink minds and hearts. They bring about toxic competition, division and wars. But we can all do something against that.

Community engagement and change management

As I gathered my thoughts a few weeks ago, ahead of a speech about community engagement and change at the ICRC, I got overwhelmed by a sense of humbling gratitude. Admiration for the crazy individual who, 150 years ago, acted to “civilize” war and protect victims of armed conflicts – Henry Dunant. Gratitude for the 17,000 ICRC men and women working across the globe for a more humane world. Deep appreciation for those trying to better this organization, so it can deliver on its mission with greater impact. How could I help?

The event I contributed to was put together by the talented Ernesto Izquierdo and his colleagues. It was attended by ICRC fellows but also by members of other Geneva-based international private and public organizations. I shared the story of the latest large-scale change I’ve been involved in, a people-powered leadership transformation that has evolved the corporate culture of my organization and improved its performance. Some elements of this story, our intentions and how we put them to motion, may be useful to others. But I also wanted to pass on the most critical pieces of knowledge I gained through this story. It is almost impossible to condense a 4 year long, very intense experience into a meaningful summary. Nevertheless I have tried, in the following 10 points. If I have missed anything important, I hope some of my change fellows will add to it in the comment section.

Changing organizations & leadership: ten lessons learnt


1.      Change is a journey, not a destination

Change is not about going from point A to point B, reaching an ideal state and stopping there. What really matters is what takes place from point A to whatever happens next. The organization may never reach point B; it may give up on its initial destination along the way, and focus on something else according to circumstances. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is to build capacity for change: to make people comfortable with the unfinished, the in-process, the let’s-see-what-happens-and-figure-out-the-next-steps.

I’ve heard in the past that constant re-organizations were a way to achieve this. To maintain employees in a constant state of discomfort, to “break the baronies” (little kingdoms, silos) supposedly made staff agile and efficient whatever the organizational setup. I believe it is totally wrong. It just destroys connections, damages trust, makes people unproductive during the time they have to build news connections and disengaged in the long term.

Instead, the more an organization relies on – and continuously strengthens – its formal and informal networks, the better it equips itself and its agents for change. The essence of change is what the individuals learn and how they grow, in a collective process that has no real end.


2.      Change is done with people, not to people

People don’t resist change, they resist change done to them (for a blunter elaboration, read this by friend Peter Vander Auwera People don’t resist change, they resist bullshit). It’s just human. I have a hard time understanding why it is not more understood.

My hypothesis is that our culture of expertise and efficiency, our passion for control, combined with the lack of diversity in decision-making spheres, business schools or consulting companies, supported by individual-based merit reward systems, creates systems with small brains (few people think), many hands (many people execute) and little to no heart. This sort of monster used to work well in the past, when changes in technology and business were slow, compatible with anticipation and long reaction times. It is not the case anymore.

What we now need instead are organizations where thinking power is shared more fairly, where more people are involved in the decision-making because we trust their judgement. Projects that engage the majority of people in the execution phase (“when things get clear enough to be shared”) are doomed to fail. People don’t own the change, therefore hardly commit to it. Don’t try to mitigate with a few pre-project surveys, or suggestion boxes. Take the time to engage with people, create decision-making bodies that are diverse in skills, ranks and gender, that are truly representative of the collective. Entrust front-line workers and volunteer networks with some decision-making. Create organizations where each and every cell is a brain, a heart, and a pair of hands.


3.      Change management is not project management

Ah! I can’t take this confusion any more. I talked about it recently with author, blogger and Change Agents Worldwide fellow Dr Jen Frahm in this #ChangeChat podcast.

Because of the common “management” wording, change is often considered as a “project”. Therefore to run the change, the skills sought after are those of… project managers. I believe it is not just ill-advised, it is counterproductive. Don’t get me wrong: some project managers are remarkable change agents. But some are unable to let go of the linear, controlled approaches which just do not work with complex change. Simplistic psychology (“People resist change” – see point 2) lead to solutions modeled on “death-and-dying” approaches that force-feed people with the new whatever, trick them into accepting it, and counts on the defeat of their initial resistance – human beings adapt to anything anyway. But how much do we win their heart? How much employee engagement do we build, or destroy, in doing so?

Again, what we need is not more project management; it’s a better balance of power with people affected by the change.


4.      Organizations often address change at the wrong level

It was a revelation when author and friend Myron Rogers, a long-time living systems specialist, explained this to me for the first time.

The phenomena of organizations (Structure & Policy & Procedures) emerge from the dynamics of organizing (Identity & Information & Relationships). The latter takes place at a deeper level, which creates the capacity for change. The former is just a consequence of it, the tip of the iceberg in a way. No real change can happen there. And yet, leaders keep trying to create change at this level: they reorganize the org structure… Delineate departments differently… Appoint new heads… They define new policies, design new procedures. While this may give the impression of “action” (and often, the impression is just what counts, in our short attention span world), it does not produce the expected results. Then what do leaders do? More change at the superficial level. Another re-organization. It never ends.

Instead, the change work needs to happen at the level of identity, information and relationship:

  • Create a common identity through shared significance, make actions congruent with identity

  • Make information available to everyone (there is no hierarchy to information, everyone is an expert about their own context and acts upon the information they possess)

  • improve the quality of relationships (everyone must have access to anyone, the system is healthy when it’s more connected to itself)

Apologies Myron for simplifying your thoughts to the extreme :-) Anyone interested in knowing more can read about this here and here, and on the Heart of the Art blog.


5.      The system strikes back

How the Organisation Subverts its Subversives by John Atkinson (Myron Roger’s business partner) is a fascinating post that describes extremely well how change is digested and re-interpreted by the organization so that it maintains its identity.

Sometimes, the backlash gets obvious, brutal – and expected. Petty bureaucrats will seize any opportunity to stand in the way of internal change agents, to exert their minuscule power, to police or silence the deviants. As Didier Marlier explains here, there is little truth behind the corporate calls to “challenge the status quo” – just see how whistle blowers are treated.  

A common mistake is to believe that younger people are more open to change than old-timers; it is not my experience. Young and bright minds are easily lured into obedience and conformity through power, privileges or simply from the weight of the dominant culture (read “How a corporate cult captures and destroys our best graduates”).

However, the system sometimes reacts against change through unexpected ways. The backlash is then insidious, and really disturbing when you realize that yourself (the change agent) reproduce the very culture you try to change. A couple of examples:

  • As a facilitator of a volunteer network, I had at some point created an additional hierarchy, instead of enabling a really different system. It took an external feedback for me to realize and change, maybe still imperfectly

  • Some volunteers, eager to act upon their purpose and bring about change, restrained themselves through precaution and consensus seeking and project-managing everything – applying the “normal” way of working. They were unable to let go and felt disappointed that the mountain of their ambition brought forth a mouse of impact.


6.      It’s really hard (but necessary) to unlearn

Learning can be hard and demanding. The more learning we do, the more competent we are – from a rational standpoint. Yet the pace and the nature of change require that we unlearn some skills and behaviors, which is even harder, especially when they have served us well until today. To “unlearn” is not to “forget”, but rather to know when this particular skill is useful or not, and to be able to operate with a very different skillset when needed.

What to unlearn? Well, one can start with this:

  • Control. Being in control is great to the point is becomes counter-productive. Leaders need to learn to let go. It’s tough. Without a plan, a governance, reporting… many think it’s going to be chaos. But “the opposite of control is not chaos; it’s trust” (one of my favorite quote by Holger Rathgeber).

  • Perfection. We do need perfection, just not everywhere! Not everything needs to be long and complex and costly. Improve here and there, get back to it later, keep it simple, to set the organization in motion and make it agile again

  • Territories. “Where am I entitled to act?” “Is it my job, or yours?” Even with good intentions, this mindset – shaped by our organizations – is a real innovation killer. Think connections instead. “What can we do together?”

I would add to this first list: we really need to unlearn the Parent/Child relationship behaviors in the workplace. Some say it is human nature, we will always be shaped by domination & submission patterns. I believe they are extremely toxic to the success of a collective in the 21st Century, and there are effective ways (corporate activism, cross-rank collaboration, social networking…) to get rid of them.


7.      Resist the temptation to change others

Change starts with you. Period. What are you ready to change about yourself? Only once you’ve done something significant about yourself, can you be taken seriously by others around you – and maybe imitated.

Think about those leaders who advocate change, collaboration, risk taking… and who remain stuck in micro-management, hierarchical thinking and ego-driven management. Prove them wrong. Be their opposite, and succeed.  


8.      Always look forward

While it is good sometimes to stop and reflect, don’t stop too long. Things move so fast. Change is a constant, high-intensity, high-emotion work. As friend Pat Cormier once told me, it is like plate-spinning. Doing large-scale change in a global organization, you just can’t rest. The moment you stop thinking “What’s next?”, when you think you’ve achieved something great and it should stay this way, when you stop spinning the plate, things may fall apart.

Always create movement.

Think purpose, not legacy.


9.      Organizations are living systems, not machines

I feel I’m repeating myself here, because I say it often (at the Business Innovation Factory – BIF Summit among others) but it is really important and still ignored or overlooked by organizations.

Many still operate as if the global purpose / intent could be split into simple parts, specialized to the extreme, running well independently and together in an effective ensemble of cogs. Cogs are serviced by interchangeable people, until automation replaces them eventually.

But an organization, since it gathers people, is not a machine. It is an ecology. It emerges from the “interconnected patterns in human interaction” (Esko Kilpi). Work is not something to be done, it is relational: “Work is an interaction”. New leadership concepts are needed, including leadership of the “in-between”: between people, between systems (Liminal leadership, Nora Bateson).

The consequence is that rules of living systems, not mechanics, apply to change. “If the organisational identity has been formed over time in the internal networks of its people (just like a sense is formed between the networks of cells in our own nervous systems) it is there that a new organisational identity needs to emerge (…)If you really want a Learning Organisation you must build the capacity to change the internal dialogue.” (John Atkinson, The Myth of The Learning Organisation).

10.   To change a culture, social media is a superpower

Obviously, used by all modern activist movements, social media seems a great enabler of change. But given the points exposed above, we now know why.

Social media is not just a set of tools that reduces geographical distances and makes expansive connections possible. It is not just convenient because it travels in everyone’s pocket and entertains. Social media overcomes the traditional barriers and filters to information; it eases connections and conversations between people who might have otherwise never “met”; it renders visible the community of intent that’s out there. Social media operates precisely at the deeper level of information / relationship / identity, and that’s why it is a superpower. It is the network enhancer that living systems need to thrive.

Too bad for those who don’t yet understand, or want to get involved in the social conversation. The relative absence of traditional leaders there is, in fact, a great opportunity for new types of leaders to emerge. They are the ones who will help shape the conversations and ultimately evolve our organizations’ culture and performance.


Voilà... I intended to write short and again, couldn’t stop writing. Large-scale change in complex organizations, leadership transformation are just so fascinating! Apologies :-) and a warm thank you to the ICRC for its kind invitation to speak.

To conclude this Lessons Learnt, I’d like to share my motivation – what calls me to this work. Here’s a try… and I’d love to hear about your call.

"Chacun est responsable de tout devant tous" - © MICR, photo  Alain Germond

"Chacun est responsable de tout devant tous" - © MICR, photo Alain Germond

By evolving leadership in organizations, I want to change the world of work for as many people as possible.

My aspiration is a world in which each and every person contributes with their full creativity and dignity to a healthy, collective work, free from domination relationships – so that no brain, heart or goodwill be wasted anymore. I want organizations to really maximize the potential provided by their people – all of them, including women, front-line workers, artists, minorities…

I believe it can have a real impact on society at large. More empowered, diverse, recognized, creative people at work means that society is less divided, more inclusive and more peaceful. There will be less burnout, less domestic violence, less racism, less votes for extremist parties and a stronger democracy. Business will benefit from this diversity and creativity and appeased society. The planet will benefit, as more people feel ownership about how big organizations run their business and more minds & hearts get together to solve problems.


PS – The title of this blog is inspired from a book published in 2014 by the Change Agents Worldwide collective: “Changing Work. One Human at a Time”.

PS2 – Meet me this summer in Avignon, France – Courage Camp Europe (June 30-July 1) with Jillian Reilly & Simona Ralph.