The unwritten rules of organisational change

The unwritten rules of organisational change

Dominic Fitch


I was speaking at a digital transformation conference last year in Portugal. During my bus journey to the conference venue on one of the mornings, I met someone who was diligently typing away on his laptop. I assumed he was working, checking in on emails. A little way into our trip he sat up, smiled and asked me this genius question…

‘Do you like Ikea?’

‘I do’. I replied, with a little too much enthusiasm.

‘Can you remember what they used before the Kallax?’

Game on I thought…

I am partial to a Kallax, I enjoy a Billy and have a particular fondness for the Malm range. I have spent many weekends following the easy to use guides. Sure, there have been swears along the way, even the odd growl but without fail I create a sublime piece of furniture, congratulate myself, kick back with a well-deserved beer and think I am an expert carpenter.

I’m not. Ikea are. I am just good at following instructions.

So back on board the Portuguese bus, my fellow passenger had recently upcycled a piece of furniture. The particular item of furniture was an older model of one of Ikea’s best sellers. He had however lost the instructions. What he had been doing during our journey was taking time to write out what to do in order to help the lady who had bought the furniture. Line by line, using words to join the furniture together. Just imagine if you had to do that job.

If it was me it would look something like this:

  1. Take the long wooden base with 2 holes at the bottom.
  2. Insert the medium dowel into the hole on the left.
  3. Now get the wood…
  4. No not that one, the other one.
  5. Hit it with a hammer?
  6. Do some crying.
  7. Phone a grown up…


You get the idea. Roland Barthes discusses this in his essay The responsibility of forms: “It is impossible for words to ‘duplicate' the image, for in the shift from one structure to the other, secondary signifiers are inevitably elaborated.”

Words do not always help, sometimes they can hinder. In the case of my colleague in Portugal the message had become muddled, things were confused, and people were frustrated.

There is a reason why the visual diagrams of Ikea work. They are simple and clear, and the form and the content are in unison.

Now as a slight deviation, I’m going to do what the man on the bus did to me and ask you a question – 4th wall break.

Do you remember playing tag, stuck in the mud or even better British Bulldog?

Do you remember those halcyon days, long summer evenings, fired up on Lilt and Tango charging around without a care in the world? I’m not going on a nostalgia trip but just indulge yourself for a moment and go back there…

Do you remember making up games, hybrids of other games with different variations and rules – people born in the early 80’s may well remember Releaso or Lurgy…that’s what we played in mid Bedfordshire anyway.

I bet if we were to have a game, you’d love it and probably have your own unique name.

Do you remember how you learnt to play these games?

Do you remember writing the rules down? Do you remember reading the rulebook?

That’s because there wasn’t one.

We learnt by playing, and we made it up as we went along. The rules were fluid depending on who we played with and were often broken or modified.

Organisations going through change are sometimes in a similar position to my friend on that bus. We are very clear on ‘what’ needs to happen and ‘why’, but do we really know ‘how’ to make it happen? Getting closer to the ‘how’ is a bit like trying to write out those instructions for Ikea.

Furthermore, to accentuate this problem, when people do think about how change is going to happen, they often want a rule book, a set process they have to follow – start here, do a bit of this, gather some stuff, do a bit more stuff and kaboom we’ve changed. And lots of consultancies and experts and books all try and serve that market and make everyone feel better. But the core point is that there isn’t a one size fits all instruction manual on how to do change in organisations. An organisation is a collection of people; for the organisation to change, the people within that organisation need to change how they work or what they do.

Businesses are trying to change but often hold onto the current ways of doing things. The content and the form are not in unison. In our experience this is because the systems in place do not help and support what changes need to be made.

It is important to challenge the content and language of change. It can come across as a bit elusive, it infantilises people and puts them firmly into boxes.

“We need people to change first time, be more agile, change the wings whilst in flight, get on the bus. Yes, it’s important we listen to you, we must all embrace digital, shift the culture and then we’ll win.”

Good then. What does that mean and can you please stop using travel based metaphors?

Likewise, it’s really important to think about the form of change, how this takes place. Otherwise it can become bewildering and confusing. Change isn’t just going to happen because there is a new strategy, some data driven new frameworks and a jazzy vision, mission and value statement. Don’t get me wrong these things are important but they are not enough on their own.

I’m minded by this brilliant maxim from Myron Rogers.

“The process you use to get to the future is the future you getMyron Rogers.

At Impact that is exactly what we are interested in, the process of change. It is complex, messy, wonderful and scary, because the process of change is a human process. It is a learning process. It can’t just be about what we want to do, it has to also be about how we do it and why we are doing it. The interplay between these areas is what helps to activate change. So, our work is about constantly spotting patterns and disrupting them. Our work is aligning form to content and changing form and content. Alongside organisations our work is iterative and is about learning. We do not produce a linear standard rule book. We prefer dialogue and collaboration at all levels, since this will maximize learning and understanding which is at the heart of any change process, whether that be learning to do work differently or learning to do different work.

We will be exploring these concepts further at Shift Happens on 27th March. Perhaps you will join us and challenge us?

We’ll also be assembling some furniture and hopefully drinking some Tango and Lilt.

Dominic Fitch is Head of Creative Change at Impact.