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The Pace of Change, Part 3: What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There

by Holly Pendleton, Director, Organizational Change Management

The Pace of Change is an article series that explores the quickening pace of change, how organizations are responding, and why the only way to keep up is to fundamentally shift our view on change. Note to the reader: we suggest starting with Pace of Change Part 1 and Part 2, which create a solid base for the information shared in this third and final part.

Leaders are generally great at keeping in tune with the world around them – disruptive innovations, new competitors, and evolved ways of working. This article challenges these same leaders to consider the world within their organizations. They must consider the internal capabilities required to keep up with and navigate outside changes.

Historically, change was facilitated by leaders, project-specific teams, and centralized functions. These traditional top-down and centralized change programs, while essential, are limited in their ability to curate organizational change capability.

At today’s rate of change, organizations must move away from older models and create organization-wide capability to recognize, navigate, absorb, and maintain resilience through change. The result is a paradigm in which organizations are intentionally creating environments that allow themselves to self-adapt to change.

Yes, we are talking about culture change – but let’s look at it a little differently. Let’s consider the concept of culture emergence. This concept is based on Complexity Sciencewhich studies an organization as a Complex Adaptive System, just like an ecosystem.

How Cultures Emerge: The Complex Adaptive System

Complex Adaptive Systems follow a predictable process:

  • They consist of a diverse set of agents(people, budgets, tools, technologies) that interact with each other.
  • These agents interact within boundaries(geography, teams, business units, processes, competency, skill limitations).
  • These interactions create patternsof behavior.
  • These patterns generate feedback to which agents respond and continually adapt.

This is how organizational culture emerges.

Traditional change management programs introduce agents and boundaries, but they are not alone in impacting the patterns and ultimately organizational capability to thrive through change. As the discipline of change management evolves, we emphasize introducing enablers of change capability emergence, rather than focusing on one project at a time.

How to Build Change Competency

Let’s level-set with the definition of competence from BusinessDictionary:

A cluster of related abilities, commitments, knowledge, and skills that enable a person (or an organization) to act effectively in a job or situation. Competence indicates sufficiency of knowledge and skills that enable someone to act in a wide variety of situations. Because each level of responsibility has its own requirements, competence can occur in any period of a person’s life or at any stage of his or her career.

As the definition indicates, developing competence isn’t a simple task. It’s not merely about providing training, creating awareness, or following a template. It’s about helping people develop the skill – and eventually the expertise – of applying critical knowledge to a variety of situations.

Individual limitations in competency at the employee level act as barriers for the entire adaptive system. As individual competence increases, agents can interact in new ways, resulting in different patterns – new ways of working. By intentionally developing and hiring people with defined change-related competencies, organizational change capability is better able to emerge. This means we must focus on developing individual competencies at scale.

Of course, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all order. An effective way to develop individual competency at scale, and thus enable organizational change capability to emerge, is by focusing on skills specific to each level in your org structure. Below are examples of the change-related competencies to prioritize at different levels of the organization:

This is more than training. This is a strategy. Competence is truly achieved when we witness new patterns of behavior emerging in the organization.

Allow Individuals to Build Change-Related Skills

According to Peter Senge, founder of the Society for Organizational Learning, all individuals have the ability to learn, but organizations must support this learning by allowing people time to reflect and connect to a larger picture. This concept is in direct contrast to today’s trend of “fast-paced” corporate cultures. While just-in-time learning has a rightful place, it does not replace the need for deeper reflection, knowledge sharing, knowledge application, and experimentation.

Beware a common culture pitfall: claiming to value learning and innovation but punishing for failure. Even if it’s not formal punishment like poor performance ratings, be aware of behavioral punishment such as managers “black-sheeping” an employee or withholding future experiences and opportunities. Failure is a necessary part of cultures that enable learning and competency development.

Time for Change

We pride ourselves in being strategic leaders but often fall into the cycle of spotlighting single changes that wear our organizations down. By taking a step back and setting the right prioritization, talent landscape, culture, and internal programs, organizations can shift the spotlight from focusing on “this change” to enabling the emergence of organizational change capability.

Individual change competency leads to organizational change capability.

Related reading:


Holly Pendleton is a Director on SBE’s National Accounts team and is based in Phoenix, AZ. Holly focuses on Human Capital Management, Change Management, and Executive Coaching. She is passionate about helping people and organizations become change-agile while focusing on employee experience.

Holly has over 20 years of experience in CPG, manufacturing, financial services, aerospace/defense, healthcare, high-tech, start-up/fast growth, and local and national non-profit organizations. She brings consulting expertise in organizational strategy, business transformation & culture change, M&A integration, organizational effectiveness, human capital management strategy & design, change management, leadership development, executive coaching, learning strategy and instructional design, and strategic facilitation.

In 2018 Holly was selected to join the Forbes Coaches Council, which focuses on curating insights from proven leaders across industries. Email Holly here and follow her on LinkedIn.