7 Rules for Positive, Productive Change, by Esther Derby

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Subtitled “Micro Shifts, Macro Results”, Esther Derby’s short but powerful book shares her wisdom on how to enable change in organizations. I first met Esther ten years ago at the Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference, and then got to know her better in 2015 while attending the Problem Solving Leadership workshop that she led with Jerry Weinberg. I was impressed with her straightforward but powerful questions – she has a knack for cutting straight to the heart of an issue, developed over twenty years of consulting work with organizations.

A key framework to understand this book is the Cynefin framework, and in particular, the distinction between simple and complicated domains, and complex domains. In simple and complicated domains where there is a consistent causal relationship between inputs and outputs, there are clear answers or best practices based on the expertise people have in dealing with these consistent systems. In such domains, you find an expert who has experience with this type of problem, and you do what they say – many forms of engineering fall into this category.

In complex domains, however, there are shifting patterns between inputs and outputs, so what worked last time may not work this time because circumstances have changed. Pretty much every human system falls into this category; as a new parent, I’m discovering this anew as what calmed my baby last week may cause him to scream louder this week. In such situations, Dave Snowden, the creator of the Cynefin framework, recommends probe-sense-respond as a strategy. There are no best practices that always work, so the thing to do is construct safe-to-fail experiments (probes) to figure out what the current state of the system is, nudge the system with a response, and then probe again in an iterative fashion.

With that context, Derby’s assumptions behind her 7 rules are:

  • There isn’t one right way.
  • It is often beneficial for a group to arrive at their own solution.
  • Experimentation and learning are likely to lead to engagement.
  • New solutions often need to be discovered.
  • Possibilities exist that are not foreseeable from the here and now.

She notes that her 7 Rules are more like heuristics to “help answer the question What should I do next? when there isn’t an obvious path”. They don’t have to be done in order, nor are all of them always applicable, but they are meant to jiggle (probe and respond to) the system to figure out a next step.

I’ll just quote the 7 rules directly:

  1. Strive for Congruence: Congruence is the foundation of integrity and open communication in times of change.
  2. Honor the Past, Present, and People: Paradoxically, honoring the past helps people let go of it.
  3. Assess What Is: People think change starts with a vision, but it really starts from where you are now.
  4. Attend to Networks: Work – and change – happens through webs of relationships.
  5. Experiment: Little changes limit disruption and allow people to learn.
  6. Guide, and Allow for Variation: Empower reasonable deviation and new possibilities – share the vision with people but let them adapt it to their local context.
  7. Use Your Self: You are your most important tool for change, using your skills of empathy, curiosity, patience and observation.

You can see how these Rules might confound an organization that is used to operating in simple or complicated domains – these aren’t prescriptive rules that say “Just do X, Y and Z, and your problem will be solved!” These are more like philosophical tenets on how to live your life.

And yet, I can attest to the hard-won wisdom in these Rules. You can read the book for her stories of how applying these Rules led to organizational change, but as I look back at my own career, I can see how the principles embodied in these Rules enabled successful organizational changes, and how the opposite of these principles pretty much guarantee stuckness.

To build on that point, it is instructive to imagine the kind of organization that would result from inverting these principles.

  1. Lack of Congruence: Do what I say, not what I do.
  2. Ignore the Past and People: It doesn’t matter how we got here and getting people on board, let’s just start taking action.
  3. Start with the Vision: Let me tell you about my grand vision of where this organization should be (and never mind the realities of how things actually get done here).
  4. Every Person for Themselves: It’s a dog-eat-dog world, so I’m going to get mine, and try to undermine everybody else so that my group “wins” this change.
  5. One Big Change will Fix Everything: Everything is broken, but if we just implement this new work process system, everything will be fixed!
  6. Follow the Process: We wrote this process in our global headquarters, and it’s the best process, so everybody should follow it to the letter in every single regional office worldwide.
  7. Use Others as Tools: Other people aren’t subjects whose opinion I have to care about, but objects whose job is to do what I say.

I’m exaggerating slightly for effect, but I have been at organizations where several of those 7 “Anti-Rules” have been in effect, and have felt the devastating impact on my morale and productivity as a result.

The 7 Rules may seem simple compared to the complicated best practices that management consultants would prescribe, but from my own experience across many organizations, fragile best practices no longer work when conditions change (and they always change). In a complex ever-changing world, I feel that Derby’s wisdom in the form of these 7 simple Rules is resilient and adaptable across most situations, and I am thankful that she has shared these Rules in the form of this book.

P.S. Full disclosure: I received a pre-release copy for review, but I also purchased a copy myself, so I have two copies. I’m happy to give away my extra copy to the first person who expresses interest [now claimed!]

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