Your skeletal system is not your nervous system. Anyone who has worked with me, especially in the last couple of years will know that this is my favourite expression when starting the discussion around how to optimise the way we approach change.
The skeletal system is of course important. It’s the tangible, structural and probably most visual aspect of change, represented by things like a change plan, the organisation charts in a restructure or documented work flows for a new system. We need the skeletal system because people need structure throughout change. We know that people like structure at the best of times, and when the ground is moving underneath us, structure is needed more than ever.
However we also know that the skeletal system is only as effective as the nervous system that powers it. If the skeletal system is about the solid and structural elements of change, then the nervous system can be considered as the way we approach the change and work with the intangibles.
Consider stakeholder management throughout change. This is often thought of as sharp end of engagement throughout change, and the process is usually one of asking: who are our stakeholders, and why are they our stakeholders? What if we reframed this to ask a different question that combines the approaches of the skeletal and nervous systems? It would sound something like this:
Who do we think:
- will be ready for the change?
- will be confused about the change?
- will resist the change?
- won’t be acknowledging the change?
We are then armed with a powerful piece of information that is ready to be validated through informal conversations and checking in with each team member or group to get a sense of where they are at. Once the validation has occurred you can then structure your leadership around what those in each category need to hear or experience to help them engage with the change.
And then of course, there is the more recent COVID-19 situation. The rapid change experienced by everyone as we transitioned to virtual working didn’t give anyone a chance to manage the transition as well as we would normally like. But we are now talking about what the near future looks like, including talk of returning to the workplace. In this situation, you can use the above analysis to gather a picture of where your team is at in terms of the next transition; in fact I would suggest it’s a non-negotiable if you are looking to lead in an engaging manner, and build engagement between your team and what’s next.
The final word?
Both the skeletal and the nervous system are required for the human body to function effectively and the same goes for ensuring there is engagement throughout change. If we focus only on the tangibles, we miss the opportunity to get people involved and engaged with what’s going on. If we focus only on the intangibles, such as who we need to engage and what they need to hear or know, we risk losing them because they can’t see or sense how the whole thing hangs together and more importantly what there is for them to hold onto throughout the change.