The Arenas of Change for assessing change readiness

To communicate effectively, you should align your message to your audience. And to drive effective change, you should align your change to the drivers and constraints faced by those you are planning to impact.

But, as I discuss in a long-winded recent article, that is easier said than done. And unfortunately my solution here is just as long-winded as the last article.

So grab a coffee and sit back if you want to know how I assess readiness for change and how I think change can be implemented successfully.

Academics and practitioners have come up with a lot of different models and approaches to assessing a group’s readiness for change and then setting the change up to be successful. 

One of the approaches I really like is called the “arenas of change”.

Why this approach?

In modern change theory, some people are “innovators” and others are “laggards”.  Some adopt change and others reject it. Some are supporters and others are opponents.

But the “arenas of change” takes things a little further. It claims that the same person will be a supporter of and idea in one situation and an opponent in another. For example I might be really generous at home but really tight with money in my business.  I might even have a vision of myself as a socialist at home but a corporate Moghul at work.

What is an arena?

So the “arena” refers to the context, location and situation in which a change (or any activity) occurs. And to understand the way I or anyone else will interpret and adopt a new idea, you need to understand the arena in which I am interacting with the idea.

The word arena is used because I am not just interacting with the idea in isolation:

  • I am interacting with a number of other ideas at the same time; and
  • It is not just me interacting with the idea.  There are a number of people interacting with both me and the idea (and their own ideas, and each other) at the same time.

So change might happen in “The corporate arena”, “Between international offices” or “when the team get together on projects”.  Thus the first step in understanding how change will unfold is to clarify the arena in which it will occur:

  • Is the change limited to a small group and to specific times and places;
  • Are multiple groups involved; or
  • Does the change apply widely across a number of “arenas”.

What happens in the arena?

If you understand the concept of an arena, then the next idea follows on from this.

In each arena, there are multiple activities occurring. Some are routine transactions, some are personal interactions and some are major projects.  So we refer to these activities as “games”.

Thus, my project is a game, with its own goals, rules and events. It in turn interacts with your project and with the day to day interactions and activities of the team:

  • I might be fighting with Peter, helping to induct Mary into the team, delivering widgets to my customers and running a project to update our timesheet system (these are the  games I am playing in);
  • You might be running a project to improve customer service, planning a wedding and working on getting your long-overdue promotion; but
  • These games played in multiple arenas and we only care that they interact in one arena – My team at work. 

So, in order to understand my team’s readiness for your project, you define the arena as your project stakeholder group, including me and my team when they are at work. Hopefully, this allows you to study and mitigate the constraints and challenges me an my team will bring to the game, as well as understanding the drivers you can leverage to make your change successful.

Is this different to just asking me what I think?

The theory of WIIFM (What’s in it for me) suggests that I will be interested in your change if I can see a connection to my goals, my ego, my priorities etc.  So it would be great if you could ask me what my goals and priorities are.

Unfortunately, there may be a lot of people for you to talk to in the team (which takes a lot of time) and even when you do talk to me, I might not be very helpful.

I will try to be helpful but (like many of my peers) I do not have one over-riding goal or priority. Instead I have competing goals and priorities in for each of my “games”.

So when you come and ask me about my needs, priorities, etc the answers depend on the context of our discussion. 

Usually, you will tell me about the customer service initiative and then ask me what I think. I will consider this in terms of one game “customer improvements” and answer accordingly. Thus, I will probably agree with you that it is important and start talking about the resources I would need to support your improvements, any obvious constraints and what I think of the improvements (I think they are great … in theory).

But then I will start yabbering on (ie talking endlessly) about my own pet projects, which you will interpret as resistance or noise. So you will bring me back on message and we will finally agree that your project is worth doing.  And then … I will do nothing about it.

Because the second you leave I am over-whelmed by other games and I start playing them.  Some of their goals are aligned with your game so I am reminded of your project and do a bit of work on it, but then another game interferes. 

I am due at your stakeholder meeting at 2pm but Mary is having trouble at 1:30 so I start helping her with her work. Then at 2:15pm I wander off to your meeting, while checking my emails and getting really annoyed about Peter’s latest absurdity.  You detail your project plan for me and I nod politely, but really I need to get back to stopping Peter and his Machiavellian plan to take some of my team’s desks off me.

It would be better if only one game was being played at a time. We would hardly schedule a cricket game at a sports arena at the same time we had a game of baseball on. But in corporate life we have do have multiple games being played at the same time in the same arena.

How do you analyse an arena?

So if you want your game (customer service improvements) to be played and “won” by the players (me, you, my team, Jo from accounts and others), then you need to understand the conflicting rules, players and goals involved in multiple games. That way you can anticipate and deal with clashes and exploit common ground.

But asking me what games I am playing may not convey the right message. And what’s worse, if I do detail accurately (and even concisely) all the games I am involved in and all the rules I play by, as well as all the goals I have and all the issues I face – it will turn into a four hour therapy session for me and a big time commitment from you.

You need a quicker way of working out what is going on. And the quicker way is to focus on what is going on in the arena generally rather than fully understanding every game that every player in the arena is playing.

Here are the areas to examine when understanding the arena:

  1. What games are being played in the arena (don’t ask it like this)?
    • What projects are on? What activities is the team involved in?
    • For each one, who are the players (stakeholders, team, customers, vendors)?
    • For each one – is there an umpire? What are the rules and goals?
  2. What rules are observed in the arena?
    • What needs to be done? What cannot be done?
    • Who makes these rules and who actually follows them? Is there an umpire?
    • What is acceptable even though officially not done?
    • What is considered cool or offensive?
    • What standards are used in the team’s work?
    • What customs do the team observe?
  3. How do the team see themselves?
    • What metaphor works for the team in describing themselves (eg a sports team, a mini-google, crisis managers like the crew in “24”, unappreciated artists, a slave ship, whatever)?
    • How do others see the team (vendors, customers, competitors, associated teams, management)? Is this consistent with the team view of themselves?
  4. What networks exist outside the specific games (projects/activities)?
    • Who knows who?
    • How do different people/groups interact/get on?
  5. What resources are available?
    • What resources (budgets, friends, equipment, knowledge) do the team have access to?
    • Where can help be found?
  6. What ceremonies and rituals exist?
    • All groups have ceremonies – they might share morning tea together or the might all go to the same coffee shop for informal meetings.  What ceremonies exist in the group that seem important to the members? How should you go about interacting with group members?
    • Many groups also have rituals – the processes and ceremonies team members must go through to accomplish particular outcomes.  For example the hoops to jump through to get project funding, or having to go through a particular secretary to get to a particular exec, borrow a projector or even book a special meeting room. What rituals are used in the group to get things done? Will it upset people if you don’t go through the ritual? Are you changing the rituals?
  7. What symbols exist?
    • A sports team has a uniform and the fans where funny hats.  What symbols in this arena suggest membership of the group? Is there a dress-code, club membership etc that is common among the team?
    • What symbols represent different status or roles in the group? Does the big chair go to the boss, or the longest serving employee? Who gets a business card?
    • What symbols represent bad behaviour or dis-favour (red cards, an old PC)?
    • What do the team put up on their walls? What about their desks?
    • What might the team’s offices, meeting rooms and factory floors say about them?
    • Can you pick the roles or status of team members by looking at what they wear, what equipment they have or what they have on their desk? What symbols might matter to them?
  8. What are the team’s taboos and mantras?
    • Are there things that everyone in the team suspects (or knows or is assumed to know) that the team will not discuss?
    • What basic tenets exist?  In other words what core beliefs exist in the team?
    • Are their mantras that managers or team members frequently recite (eg “management have no idea what is going on” or “the customer comes first”)?
  9. What is the team’s mythology?
    • What stories do the team tell?
    • Are there heroes or villains the team talk about (competitors, managers, vendors, past or current employees, other teams or tribes)?
    • Do you understand the team’s view of good and evil? How do the team define “good” work or “good” people?
    • Are there examples of past victories (eg projects) or cautionary tales (eg failed projects) that the team talk about?
    • Are their holy grails (great aspirations) the team seek, or scary monsters (deadlines, restructures) the team fear?
    • Are there multiple views of the team’s goals and values. For example is there an official view discussed in formal meetings, but a very different “unofficial” view that is discussed when out of view?
    • Do sub-groups within the team share the same history, stories and priorities? Or do these clash in places?

So what?

So now you have heaps of areas to look at in a team. In fact you could become an anthropologist and live with the team for 6 months before producing a book about their unique culture.

But obviously you don’t have time for that. But fortunately a lot of this information comes up in existing conversations or can be observed by visiting the team.

So instead of doing months of research, you can just scrawl the headings above on a sheet of paper and scribble rough notes against any of the headings. Or if you are really short of time, you can just ask what Games (projects and activities) are going on, what Rituals (meetings and processes) exist and how you think the team see themselves.

Even if you take the arenas of change into account a little bit in your next project, you will plan and implement changes far better than many of the initiatives that I have seen attempted.

If you have the stamina for it though, I will write another long article for you to read. This time on how to collate the information you gather so you can either:

  • Rank the readiness for change for different stakeholder groups; or
  • Assess the likely constraints and drivers that will inhibit or support the implementation and sustainability of the changes you are leading.
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One thought on “The Arenas of Change for assessing change readiness

  1. Pingback: Using a moments of truth analysis to assess a team’s readiness for change « James King

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