Organisations are busy places.  People meet together in formal and informal contexts and talk about what’s going on, what should be going on, and what’s ‘in the wind’.  Others are planning, proposing and discussing ideas, strategies, and approaches.  People are involved in a myriad of activities as they go about their working life.

What is the effect of all this talk and all this activity?  Hopefully it is helping the organisation fulfil its purpose, but what is in no doubt is that it is establishing a ‘background noise’ – a network of background conversations.  What happens when that informal conversation around the water cooler ends?  Does the conversation cease to have any effect once the people split up?  No, the people take their ideas back to their desks or into the next meeting and past conversations have an on-going impact on how people interact with others and how they do their jobs. 

Let me illustrate what I mean.  A few years ago I planted some citrus trees in my garden.  I prepared the soil and planted the small trees, hoping to harvest my first crop in about a year’s time.  Unfortunately, the trees didn’t make the progress I was hoping for.  To get them growing I began fertilising them and giving them more water.  With the warmth of the sun and the fresh supply of nutrients and water they responded quickly, sending out new shoots and, before long, produced their first fruits.  The point is that everything that happens to the plant has an impact.  The fruit you harvest today embodies in some form the fertilisers that were used, the buckets of water that were carried, and the warm sunny days throughout the year.  Certainly these elements have been processed by the plant, but the plant is giving you back the things you and nature gave it in the first place.  Nothing is ever really lost.

The network of background conversations are never really lost either.  They become absorbed into how people perform, how they think, what they think about, how they feel, how they interact, what they expect, and how they behave.   As they become absorbed and processed by more and more people within the organisation, they stabilise and become patterns of conversations – patterns of how people think and talk and act.  They become the defining storylines that are embedded in how the organisation works; defining what is real, what is important, what is possible, and what is right.  They become embedded in the organisation’s culture, just like the bags of fertiliser become embedded in the fruit of the tree.

How do you get an organisation to change?  It is certainly not easy to get an organization to make major behavioural or cultural change.  It is much more complex than simply instituting new strategies, processes, or structures.  It involves changing the patterns of conversations that, often sub-consciously, are embedded in the very fabric of the organisation.  That’s why change leaders need to be conversation leaders.  

Change leaders must recognise the importance of language and its critical role in shaping an organisation.  In part, change interventions are language interventions.  Language provides a powerful tool that can be used to shape how people think, what they think, what they come to believe and expect, and what they see as possible.  Leaders must learn to shape the conversations that, bit by bit, become embedded into the organisation’s DNA.   Why should you consider getting someone from outside your organisation to help you with this?  Because people who are ‘insiders’ are often too close to the ground to actually see what is going on.  Trained outsiders can often see what is really going on because they are not caught up in the storylines – they are more objective.

In this world of rapid and sometimes assaulting change, failing to handle it well can cost you some of the most valuable assets in this modern business world – your reputation, and your position in the marketplace. 

Steve Barlow

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