Stage 0.7   When Everything is "Fine."

How people show and don't show they are in trouble

As the change agent enters the scene, different client systems may show widely differing "caring" postures. For example, they may profess that everything is fine: no need for change. At the opposite extreme, they may appear to be so completely absorbed with a particular concern that they have no time for you. The ways in which people express and hide their concerns can present a baffling array to the change agent. Almost like a good psycho≠therapist, the change agent needs to listen with the third ear. What the client says may not be what he or she really means, and what they say may be a cover for something else.  

Is there such a thing as a system without concerns? Without the need for change? Perhaps there are such systems in theory but not in practice. All human systems are unfulfilled, incomplete, or lacking in some ways. Yet, ironically, those that are most able and willing to change are probably in the best shape. These are the systems which can adapt to changing circumstances, which can grow and take on new missions. So if a system presents itself to you as being without concerns that require significant change effort, what is really going on? There are at least four possibilities, dismissing the "perfection" alternative: (a) the system is frozen; (b) the system members are not yet engaged; (c) the key concerns have not reached the boiling point; or (d) they are not willing to tell you what is going on.

(a) The frozen state

Having achieved a certain level of equilibrium and integration, members of a system may not wish to go further at this time, to rock the boat, particularly if the state of integration has been very recently achieved. At the opposite extreme, some systems may have existed at one level of integration for so long that even the thought of change is seen as a threat to system stability. In either case, such a system needs to be unfrozen (Figure 0-4) before any serious change effort can begin.

(b) Not yet engaged 

We often make the mistake of assuming that people hear what they are told and see what they are looking at. Very often, especially on first encounters, what appears to be "hearing," "seeing," "understanding," and "agreeing" are merely polite or ritualistic posturing.  The supposed audience is not really attending to your message. Change agents will often be angry and frustrated when they proceed on a plan of action which. they thought was agreed to, only to find what they are doing unsupported, contradicted, and undermined by the very people they thought were on their side. No doubt there is venality involved in some of these cases, but one should first consider that it was simply lack of real engagement. The other parties simply weren't attending to what you were saying. The antidote is effective initial communication and active solicitation of feedback. If you can get your listeners to repeat to you what you told them, there is a good chance that the message got through.

(c) Bubbling just under the surface

Think of concerns in terms of threshold. Below a certain level of intensity they remain unarticulated, we might say "unconscious." Then something happens to bring them to the surface: something breaks, someone dies, someone quits   Many really vital concerns can lie just underneath the surface for years, waiting for some catalytic event to come along to bring them to serious attention. Of course, you can be that catalytic event (change agent as catalyst).

(d) Not levelling with outsiders

If you enter the scene from outside the system, you may observe or hear no concerns because you are not permitted to, particularly if you are perceived as (i) a threat, (ii) someone of inferior status, (iii) someone from an alien culture, or (iv) simply someone who, for any number of reasons, will not understand and will not respond appropriately. All these are aspects of the definition of "outsider" that the change agent must overcome before he or she can obtain real insights of many client systems. If you think this may be the case, then your first task as change agent is to work on building relationships (Stage 1). Then get back to a consideration of what your client's concerns are or should be.