Navigating the White Space of Change

Few people would argue change has become embedded in almost every part of every organization. Change is no longer the occasional or special project but is now an essential element for business success. Almost 84% of organizations have undergone at least one organizational change and it is estimated 46% of organizations are currently undertaking three or more organizational change initiatives (Bareil, Savoie, & Meunier, 2007).

Despite organizations’ familiarity with change, successful implementation of change still remains elusive. It is estimated that almost 70% of organizational change initiatives fail and 75% of those deemed successful fail to achieve their intended outcome (Beer & Nohria, 2000). The bottom line, failure is expensive.   A recent McKinsey report (2002 in Petouhoff, Chandler, & Montag-Shcultz, 2006) found organizations that implemented change poorly received only a 35% return on their investment (ROI) which means that for every change dollar spent, the organization is losing .65 cents.

Two reasons attributed for the high failure rates are the lack of sufficient attention to the human dynamics or people side of change, and managers’ lack of knowledge about the underlying theory and processes of change (Andrews, Cameron, & Harris, 2008; Burnes, 1996, 2004). In an effort to stem the tide of failure many organizations are turning toward the development, adoption and use of change management methodologies. However, a change management methodology will not work unless leaders fundamentally shift their thinking about the management of change. To achieve success with organizational change, leaders will need to redefine what management during change looks like. They will need to learn to navigate in the “White Space of change”.

The Two Dimensions of Change

Organizational leaders in their effort to manage, gain value for their shareholders, and meet their bottom line often focus on the concrete aspects of business. The common mantra of many CEO’s is “show me the numbers, what are the deliverables and get it done”.  There is no doubt that this dimension of business is necessary. When this type of thinking is applied to organizational change however, it isolates the leaders’ thinking around only one dimension of change.  Successful organizational change requires leaders to recognize and acknowledge the multi-dimensional aspect of change and effectively lead within both dimensions.

One dimension of change and what most people think about when they think about change is the Event. The Event is, for example the implementation of a new computer system, acquiring/merging with another company, the hiring of a new CEO, the re-organization of a department or company or any of the many other events that organizations undertake to grow and maintain their business. The Event dimension of change is concrete, visible and finite. Therefore, it is not surprising if change is going to be managed in an organization the focus is on the Event dimension of the change. In addition tasks and activities associated with managing the Event dimension produce concrete and visible deliverables such as a training curriculum, the documentation of new processes, the signed deal for the acquisition or merger and the installation of new software or hardware. The concrete nature of these deliverables give leaders the illusion of progress and create the perception the change is being managed. However it is an illusion because it does not provide leaders with the whole picture. Like the iceberg that sank the Titanic what is not seen is a significant predictor of success or failure.

The second dimension of change is the White Space. This is the unseen portion of change and the one most often overlooked by leaders.  The White Space is that intangible space between where the individuals are now and where the organization needs them to be to achieve the results of any organizational change. William Bridges in his book Managing Transitions called this dimension the Transition and stated “the transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation”.

The White Space sits below the surface of your organizational change making it invisible to leaders, unless you know it is there.  Like the modern sonar has made the iceberg below the water visible, leaders who learn the art and science of navigating in the White Space gain the ability to see below the surface of their change initiatives, and avoid two of the most common mistakes when implementing change.

Navigating the White Space

One of the most common mistakes leaders make when they fail to work within the White Space is to manage the change under the misconception that individuals’ agreement to the change Event is the same as commitment to make change. The reality is that agreement to the Event is simply the first step – it represents only an acknowledgement of the problem or opportunity to be addressed.
Diane Dreher in her book the Tao of Leadership noted that people often confuse product with process and then proceed to operate as if the product drives the result. When leaders manage change as if the Event drives success, the result is often frustration, anger, and resistance.  It is not the purchasing, delivery or even the set up of the new treadmill that will make you fit, but the process of use that creates the result. Without careful attention to the process of getting fit, all you really have is another place to store your laundry.

Similarly when organizational leaders focus only on the Event dimension they proceed to manage on the belief that agreement on the event and planning for the details of the event (e.g., training, process redesign, and the purchase of new equipment) will deliver the expected change.  Instead they often experience disappointment and a low return on investment. Planning for the Event dimension is necessary and cannot be overlooked, but by itself it is not sufficient, because it overlooks the invisible process that enables people to form knowledge into action. It is in the White Space where knowledge is transformed into the actions needed to achieve the intended outcome and see the return on the change investment.

Another common mistake leaders make when they fail to navigate the White Space is to take the wrong action at the wrong time. For example, without an understanding of the White Space leaders often miscalculate the starting point of the change initiative, as a result the change is launched with the expectation that once informed of the change, training defined, and other Event details planned, the individuals affected will begin to implement. When the individuals don’t implement, question the change, its need or value, leaders become discouraged, frustrated and label the individuals as resistant, setting the stage for failure.  Preventing this scenario requires leaders to understand and enable the internalization process, without it, change cannot occur.  Creating the mechanisms for active dialogue about the change and allowing the time needed, are two examples of activities leaders who have learned to navigate the white space do to ensure the internalization process takes place.

Maximizing your Change Dollar

Leaders who want to successfully harness the power of change and receive a greater return on their change investment will need to combine the management techniques of the White Space, such as creating and enabling active dialogue, with the traditional activities needed for managing the change Event.  The Tao teaches, that effective leadership must work with what is there and what is not there. To ignore the gaps is to ignore the whole, and miss crucial elements that provide leaders with meaningful guidance.  Taking the time to effectively navigate the White Space of change will save you time, money, and resources for it must be remembered, that although the leader makes the decision and defines the change Event, it is the affected individuals that will ultimately determine whether it achieves the return on investment.