Why leaders need to address context to deliver transformational change

Leadership Blog  |  3 minute read

Mike Straw

Written by Mike Straw

Why leaders need to address context to deliver transformational change
Transformation is often pinned on a new vision, structure or process. Trusting that these will unlock superior performance. However, a frequently cited survey by Boston Consulting Group showed that 75% of transformation efforts fail to deliver on their promise. Why? - There is a missing piece of the jigsaw.
If you write down all the things you need to do to successfully transform your organisation and achieve superior performance, most lists will include:
  • Have a clear vision and strategy
  • Restructure
  • Improve processes
  • Empower people
  • Be creative and take risks
At one level we don’t disagree with this, but the real issue is the level of thinking that is required - the context in which all of the above happen.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” - Marcel Proust

The missing piece is an ability to fundamentally change the mindsets, attitudes and behaviours of how the organisation works – the organisation's context.


The power of context

Context is the invisible environment in which we live and work, shaped by a variety of different beliefs and behaviours. To illustrate this, let’s consider this picture of fish tank. What do you see?Screen Shot 2018-09-10 at 16.31.13

People tend to see fish, rocks and plants, but rarely notice the water itself. Context is like the water in the aquarium; rarely noticed, yet critical to our existence. If the water is toxic, everything dies! Context is often referred to as the culture of an organisation - the invisible force that can either make something possible, or not. 

If a fish jumped out of the aquarium, we can only imagine what they might see for the first time...the water, the size and shape of their tank, how limited they've been all this time! Yet, when you’re in the “water”, you can feel the frustration, but don’t always know how to change it or see what's really holding you back.

Consider the last time you joined a new company – the organisational context or culture is evident to you at first but after a while it disappears and becomes “just the way things are done around here”.

When trying to cause transformation, we need to get very aware of our existing context, like a fish jumping out of the tank. To be able to see what's limiting us, to create a new possibility. 


Context is decisive

Context shapes an individual’s perceptions. It is the foundation on which people construct their understanding of the world. When you alter someone's context you automatically change their actions.

A change in an individual’s frame of reference leads to different thoughts, actions and behaviours. The organisation's context determines if these actions and behaviours will be effective. If you want people to change their actions, a new context may need creating to give people a new perspective, and the possibility of transformational change.

Recognizing and understanding both the organisational context and an individual’s frame of reference is a critical step in leading and delivering transformational change. If you can shift the context for yourself and for your organisation, then you can develop the ability to consistently and predictably deliver extraordinary results. This is the missing piece of the jigsaw that can truly transform organisations. 

Uncover your context

The first step to identify an existing context is uncovering the assumptions people have. What they hold as 'true', that keeps them thinking the same things and working the same way, whilst expecting something to be different. When starting your next transformation, ask what assumptions are core to your organisation's culture. What is it 'like around here'? What 'truths' do we have that might stop this transformation being successful? From here, you can challenge the assumptions that keep you as you are, and create a new context for the future. Unlocking the potential for real transformation.
This article is adapted from our book, The Little Black Book of Change, written by Mike Straw and Paul Adams. 


Published 21/09/2018

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