Researching ‘transformational change’

Recently I have been involved with a team of researchers in researching so called ‘transformational change’ in a not-for-profit sector. I suspect the research has been commissioned on the understanding that transformational change is something which senior managers choose, and can, to a degree control. We are at the beginning of the research but the process itself has thrown up interesting insights into research methods , but also how the idea of transformation is framed and understood by our commissioners, and by the respondents. This helps us researchers understand the term anew too, but makes it no easier to think and write about.The experience of interviewing confirms the problematics of research. We transcribe all of our interviews, but there is no way of verifying, cross-checking or even really probing seriously what we were told in the time we are allocated to do the research, by the commissioners, and by the managers who have generously given up their time to see us. All we have time for is to try and make sense together of what they think is going on in the brief time we spend together. It would probably take a couple of weeks in the same place to find out what some of the claims mean in the wider organisational environment, and maybe a second and third interview with the same respondents to really unpick what they said. Our respondents were thoughtful, but were also aware that they were being taped. There were moments when people gave us a small peek at what some of the difficulties were, but mostly they presented a unified and positive front. The interviews were by no means glossy and superficial, but the profound difficulties and organisational cleavages, particularly those between colleagues, were only really hinted at. These are, of course, the most difficult to speak about but potentially the most interesting if we are to get under the skin of this.

The conversations did not unfold as our prepared checklist of questions would suggest it might if we had stuck to it as we conceived it. We still mostly covered the ground we had anticipated, but not in any linear way. We usually opened asking the respondent to locate themselves in the organisation: how long they had been there; what they understood their job to be; what they had been caught up in; how they understood the change processes they were party to; what the difficulties were; what they understood now that they didn’t understand at the beginning; how they were working, concretely, with others in trying to do what they are trying to do. How did they understand transformation?

This last question caused the most consternation, even if they had pre-identified their own projects as transformational: most of our respondents stuttered and stumbled. The more direct the question towards a huge nebulous concept, the weaker the response. This was particularly the case when respondents strayed into the domain of ‘culture change’. Transformational change means Big Change. Big positive change. Changes to the Culture. But interestingly, at other times in the conversation, and unprompted, they each gave often small micro-examples of changes taking place in the way people related to each other and understood themselves, and the community they were part of, differently. This, I think, is research gold dust, such as it is and is perhaps an indication that some of these big terms can get in the way of what our respondents knew about their practice.

Hannah Arendt wrote that the problem with thinking is that it makes things unravel. This was illustrated quite starkly when one of the respondents got so carried away with the part of the ‘change project’ he was responsible for that he argued in favour of it for the first part of the interview, then argued why the organisation couldn’t cope with the change if it happened in the second half. He found himself capable of saying both things in the course of the hour and half we spent with him, to notice the contradiction and still to press on with his unmediated idea for transforming the area of the business he was responsible for. One of the interesting things about the rhetoric of change is the way the respondents can entertain six impossible things before breakfast. This was an intelligent and serious man, who was very experienced, and yet at the same time was carried away with his own rhetoric. The idea of transformational change, and much of the vocabulary which accompanies it, is highly idealised, and is impervious to much probing. Thinking too much may destroy the ideal.

In this vein had to sit through an enormous amount of abstractions and what Andre Spicer, amongst others, terms management bullshit before we got an insight into what people thought was going on. This included all the tropes one might expect: ‘positive change for the good, buy-in, ownership, stakeholders, products, offer, brand, culture change’ etc etc. I would say that all the interviews only became really interesting in the last 20 minutes. I wonder if this was about familiarity, trust perhaps, but certainly all of us sitting in anticipation of the ending. No one wanted to ‘die’ without some last minute confession. Often, after sitting patiently through a gale of abstractions and pressing gently but firmly on how they talk about their work with their colleagues, how often they meet together, how much sense-making they do, what forms of resistance are there, how they understand the resistance, who the winners and losers in the change are, how they understand the symbolic importance of talking to others, presenting publicly to staff, persuading and doing everyday politics that we began to gain some insight into what was going on. A gentle move towards exploring the micro-interactions between people began to give us the best opportunity of writing a report where we can say something meaningful to the sector more generally.

The other thing to say about the research brief, which was relatively easy to anticipate but became  obvious in the course of the interviews, is that there is unlikely to be one discrete thing which any organisation is doing which is a ‘transformational change project’ discrete and with a clear beginning and end. As Churchill said about history, it is simply one damned thing after another. Our respondents were mostly dealing with 16 things all at the same time. Some of these are more obviously ‘transformational’ in the sense that if you sell a building and move into spanking new buildings elsewhere, then that is visibly transformational. But if at the same time you appoint a new CEO, who in turn appoints a whole new top team, some of whom start bringing in new senior managers from elsewhere, then all kinds of other dynamics are set in train. Then Brexit happens. Then the government changes its funding formula. So which is the transformational change project? And which is the one managers are ‘driving’ rather than in turn being driven?

When we were conducting the research I listened to Gordon Brown on the radio saying very directly that the phenomenon which dominated his time in government, as Chancellor and briefly as PM, was how to ameliorate the excesses of neoliberalism. It was interesting to hear him say this so directly, because there are scholars who argue that ‘neoliberalism’ is a meaningless term except in economics, and just becomes a catch-all for opposing every change you disagree with.  However, my expectation is that each of the organisations we visit are responding to neoliberalism, or at least the dramatic changes brought on the sector by extreme marketization. Transformational change is blasting through the whole sector to which our not-for-profit organisations belong, and this is something that absolutely no senior management team is in control of. The interesting question, then, becomes how they respond to it.

2 thoughts on “Researching ‘transformational change’

  1. Pingback: Researching ‘transformational change’ – fairlyradical

  2. Jere Talonen

    Thank you for an interresting blog proving same things also encoutered in my practice in Finland with non-profit organizations in the middle of the biggest “transformation” ever in Finnish healthcare, urbanization and all levels of education.


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