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Acknowledging what “is” – a crucial first step in sustainable change

Posted on Thursday, April 4th, 2019

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Acknowledging what is | Tess Cope

We live in a fast-paced volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world. It can be easy to get caught up in a polarised position of either staying on the treadmill of known territory (keeping your head down and doing what you know well) OR jumping over to the next ‘big thing’ (becoming an early adopter of the latest initiative that looks like it will move things forwards). Perhaps there’s another way….

Start by slowing down

When we incorporate a systemic perspective, it asks us to slow down. Before trying to change anything, we need to acknowledge that there’s a very good reason as to why we are where we are right now. We need to respect that which has gone before and it’s part in creating the opportunity that is in front of us. By doing so, we create a genuine potential for movement. We are freed up from the patterns of the past and released to meet the force of evolution that is coming towards us.

If we don’t do this right, then we risk triggering ‘blind loyalties’ to the past (and/or previous leaders) and ultimately create unconscious resistance.

Applying this approach in your business

Within an organisational context, this means acknowledging the founders, the founding principles and the predecessors…in a respectful way. This is about overtly (and within yourself as a leader) including all of the history as part of the narrative. It’s about fully including and respectfully acknowledging those that have made a significant contribution to the business as it is today.

Whilst we may not agree with all of what has happened before, we can and must acknowledge that everything that has happened up to now, has created the opportunity we have today. In doing so, we send the message to employees – everything and everyone that contributes, belongs. We are tapping into a basic human need.

Practical advice for new leaders

As a new leader, it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to stamp our own brand and identity on the business within that infamous first 90 days. We ask our people to ‘draw a line’ under what has happened and grab ‘the bull by the horns’ to drive towards your perceived vision. I know I have certainly been in this position, driving the agenda with an intention of ‘making my mark’ and hoping to prove to the business (and my peers) that I was a worthwhile addition to the team.

With this approach, we unconsciously send the message – everything that has gone before is ‘redundant’ and anything that you contributed previously, is useless. Perhaps not the most engaging strategy! Without realising it, we are creating a sense of ‘looking away’ rather than ‘looking forward’ – we are creating a drag factor rather than enabling energy and positive momentum.

Here are some suggestions for leaders taking up a new role:

1. Spend some time gathering your understanding of the history and what it has taken in terms of effort from all
concerned: take time to ask about the history AND take time to truly listen

2. Acknowledge publicly (and inwardly) the significant contributions of those still in the team/business AND those that have left – this includes (but not limited to) the founders and those that have made sacrifices along the way

3. It may be helpful to create some kind of public capture of the history e.g. a timeline, where key people and events are included

4. Take time to review and refresh the Purpose – from a systemic perspective. This has a strong orienting effect and provides an anchor point that enables teams and functions to find their rightful place, from which to perform at their best.

Applying a systemic approach to yourself

On an individual basis, and in the context of your own growth and development, this phenomenon of acknowledging and honouring your own history and where you have come from, is also relevant.

Each of us are the product of our ancestors (our family system) and all of these experiences have informed how we instinctively operate. The system within which we have lived has also had a formative impact on how we see the world.

We can often try to skip over this aspect – in the belief that we can keep these elements separate. Sometimes it’s about hiding the pain/truth of our experience and yet, this is often what has contributed to our strength, resilience and core identity. To exclude it, we exclude part of ourselves and ultimately weaken. When we can honour what has made us who we are, we can accept it, include it and extend beyond it. The good news is that with a systemic approach, you can be released from the unhelpful patterns that are holding you back, without excluding your history AND you can bring the gifts & skills with you!

Please enjoy this poem as a stimulus to include all of ourselves.

Poem - The stone in my shoe

Are you ready to look at things in a systemic way?

If you’re a new leader and you’d like to reflect on your approach to setting your team or business up for success on a change journey – we’d be delighted to help.

If you’re leading a significant change project within your organisation, building your systemic awareness & skills may prove valuable. We provide open and bespoke programmes aimed at building the systemic skills of Internal Change Agents.

If you’d like more information or we can help in any way, please do get in touch.

More information available on our services page.

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Tess (O’Kane) Cope is the founder of The Transformation Agency and has extensive experience within organisational and personal development across both the private and public sectors – working within global and UK based organisations at Board level – media, distribution, financial services and healthcare sectors. She works with senior management teams and HR leaders across a range of diverse organisations and specialises in Cultural Transformation, Leadership Development, and Executive Coaching. She is a qualified practitioner of a range of diagnostics, psychometrics and integral methodologies which she applies for whole system sustainable change with clients.

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