Sustainable change: moving from driven to organic approaches

Doug Parkin, programme director, reflects on the live case study that is one of the centrepiece learning activities on the Future Professional Directors Programme.  The case study contributed by the University of Hertfordshire in March this year captured the essence of co-inquiry as a process for engagement and change. 

With thanks to Gill Sadler, Head of Planning, Development and Change at the University of Hertfordshire for her input and support.

People don’t resist change, they resist being changed (something done to them)Peter M Senge.

Terms like ownership, having a voice, creating buy-in and personal investment will be familiar to many leaders who have considered what it means to create staff engagement with organisational change. Likewise, through their own experience or the wisdom of others, they will have reflected on the importance of high quality communication outlining the need for change, the purpose of change, the benefits of change and the process through which change will be achieved. Often these reflections are framed ‘in absentia’ where either the lack of engagement or the poverty of communication caused the change initiative to falter or fail. And these menu-like observations regarding the ingredients for leading successful and sustainable change, including engagement, communication and having a compelling vision, have become well established in the change literature. For example, in 1996 John Kotter identified undercommunicating as ‘Error #4’ in the thinking which gave rise to his well-known 8-Step Change Model:

“Without credible communication, and a lot of it, employee’s hearts and minds are never captured.”

However, this methodology of change can feel very driven. These steps or stages can come across as leadership imperatives that are ‘done to others’ within a system. The leader (or leadership group) develops a vision, communicates, creates buy-in, develops a sense of ownership, looks to highlight early signs of progress, and so on. It is, perhaps, questionable how well such ‘driven’ approaches work in collaborative environments with committed teams and empowered individuals, such as the modern university context. Do we need a more organic approach that is about co-creating change? Do we need engagement to be the very means by which change takes place rather than something leaders strive for within a more abstract process? And if change is to be about culture as well as systems and structures, then is a more organic, engagement-driven approach essential?

The Leadership Foundation’s Future Professional Directors (FPD) programme aims to support the development of leaders who can not only thrive in a culture of change but also work collaboratively with diverse communities of colleagues to develop collective commitment, shared purpose and new and enhanced ways of working together. Key ideas relating to this approach are:

  • Co-inquiry – The principle of working “‘with’ rather than ‘on’ people”
  • Collaborative engagement“The key to collaborative engagement… is to bring people together and ask good questions”
  • An appreciative spirit“We need to discover the root causes of success rather than the root causes of failure”
  • Being at ease with complexity – Containing “the anxiety of creative activity in the midst of… complexity”

The live case study

To explore these ideas actively and have a hands-on experience of this approach we have introduced a live case study as the centrepiece for the first three-day residential FPD module. An unfolding inquiry process is used to work with the university team contributing the case study.  It is a ‘live’ case study because it is real, still active in the institutional context concerned and has further stages to run, and levels of complexity to scale as a change initiative. This year, in March 2017, the live case study was generously contributed by the University of Hertfordshire based on their highly innovative Engagement Driven Approach to Process Improvement (EDA).  The case study was led by Gill Sadler, Head of Planning, Development and Change, with colleagues from the University of Hertfordshire’s Improvement and Change Team and other colleagues from across the university who had been active participants in and champions of the EDA.

In outline, the learning process for the live case study follows a reflective structure that combines both looking back and projecting forwards. The shorter ‘looking back’ phase, focussed on the story so far, is an opportunity for the group to explore things like the strategic context, drivers for change, different organisational perspectives and key decisions.  Most of the time is then spent on the ‘projecting forwards’ phase. The FPD participants work with the live case study team on three questions or themes identified by the team in advance that open up an active inquiry into the future of the project or initiative and particularly next steps. Working in teams, the final stage of the exercise involves the FPD participants presenting back to the live case study team their impressions, recommendations and challenges. Alongside the exercise, we invite participants to reflect on the idea of internal consultancy as part of the skills-set for enabling transformational and sustainable change using collaborative engagement. In one sense, the live case study could be regarded as a piece of collaborative consultancy.

An engagement driven approach

What was exceptional about the live case study this year was the close fit between the University of Hertfordshire’s change initiative and the process and principles we were using. Gill Sadler summarises the engagement driven approach as:

“An approach to process improvement within Higher Education that focuses on people, taking differing perspectives seriously, in an iterative process of improvement to enhance both individual and organisational capability. Key to its success is early and ongoing engagement with staff not as stakeholders but as full members of the improvement team.

The approach brings people together at the beginning of a project and encourages their involvement throughout. It focuses on facilitating discussion, raising awareness of processes, improving communications and building relationships.”

Within the live case study exercise, this close alignment between what we were exploring, an approach to change based on collaborative engagement, and the style of learning activity we were using to engage with it (also collaborative engagement) created a real sense of excitement. The learning itself became very deep, highly energised and multi-layered.  Everything became about engagement, from the questions the FPD participants asked and the way they asked them through to the detailed narratives the Hertfordshire team were able to share. There was, for example, something fascinating and liberating about the way Hertfordshire had defined engagement based on four levels:

  • Attraction – to interest
  • Involvement – to draw in
  • Connection – to bring together
  • Bond – to build relationships (Ibid.)

As the FPD participants discovered, through the examples shared, these levels were used as references in the selection of engagement practices for different change projects.

Considering the involvement of senior leaders, it was also valuable to reflect on the role of effective sponsorship for the success of an engagement driven initiative:

“We found that strong, visible and accessible sponsorship was essential for the success of an engagement driven project. By demonstrating active commitment to engagement, sponsors set the tone and mood of the review.” (Ibid.)

Mutual learning

A key premise for the live case study is mutual learning. It is a purposeful approach which should benefit the live case study team as much as it does the course participants. Reflecting on this after the event, Gill Sadler made the following observations regarding the Hertfordshire team’s experience of the exercise:

“The case study provided us with a safe environment away from the pressures and distractions of `business as usual’ to review the way in which we use our approach to change. By bringing to the event both members of the change team and colleagues affected by engagement driven change, we benefitted again from those different perspectives on which the approach is based.  We had a unique opportunity to reflect on our `elephants in the room’ – those tricky issues that we knew were there but which we had been unable or unwilling to address! The FPD participants provided innovative and diverse ideas on how we can move forward.  Free consultancy – what’s not to like!”

Learning points and take-aways

In terms of specific learning points, take-aways, new insights and realisations that the Hertfordshire team gained to apply to both current and future initiatives, Gill highlighted the following:

  • The case study emphasised what we already knew – the engagement driven approach takes time and commitment but is well worth the investment.
  • The approach needs all players to remain engaged through what may be a lengthy process; this sustained engagement must be supported and resourced.
  • The case study reminded us that the model is not suitable for all change situations. For example, where change must be delivered quickly or there are fixed parameters (such as legislative change or cost reductions), it is difficult to apply the model in full. However, elements and principles of the approach may still help to progress such change.
  • Early engagement with a committed sponsor is essential and the sponsor must remain visible, engaged and committed through the process.
  • Project boundaries must be clear with `red lines’ open and transparent but flexibility is essential if significant issues emerge which challenge the scope.
  • Participants will develop trust in the process if any issues can be raised and recorded. If those issues are in scope they must be considered, if they’re not, they will be captured and redirected or addressed at a later date. Trust grows if participants see their views and comments are not being ignored.
  • Senior managers need support in hearing what may be tough messages. People watch the way managers respond to these messages and see it as evidence of the culture of the organisation.
  • Communication is key – a range of channels must be made available for comment, including confidential ones. The wider change team must be kept informed, even when there may not be much progress to report.
  • The case study reminded us that an organisation must always be aware of the impact change has on service delivery. Few organisations have the luxury of isolating or suspending a service whilst change happens.

Using engagement organically as the very means by which change takes place is the key to the engagement driven approach or people-powered change. It is not only empowering, energising and interactive, it also draws people into strategic thinking, and uses them as a resource to re-imagine or co-create the future. It brings change leadership out from behind closed doors and makes it an active and involving part of organisational life, and it is also a key means of sharing leadership.


Doug Parkin is the programme director for the Future Professional Directors programme at the Leadership Foundation. He also runs a number of other bespoke and core programmes, in addition to international projects. 

Gill Sadler is the Head of Planning, Development and Change at the University of Hertfordshire. In 2016 she produced a report on a practice-based project funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the Higher Education Funding Council for England Innovation and Transformation Fund: Engagement driven approach to process improvement.

Applications for Future Professional Directors are now open
Application Deadline: 
Friday 23 February 2018
Module 1: 
Wednesday 21 – Friday 23 March 2018
Webinar: 
Friday 20 April 2018
360 Day: 
Tuesday 22 May 2018
Action Learning Set 1: 
Wednesday 23 May 2018
Module 2: 
Tuesday 3 – Wednesday 4 July 2018
Action Learning Set 2: 
Thursday 6 September 2018
Challenge Group Submission Deadline: 
Friday 12 October 2018
Module 3: 
Thursday 15 – Friday 16 November 2018