Recently, I have been doing much exploring, questioning and researching on the subject of the psychology of change. One such idea is the concept of how change works in a strict hierarchical organisation like the military.
Peter J. Reiley, PhD, an Industrial Organisational Psychology enthusiast, and one of the leading opinions on Military Veteran transition, is perfectly positioned to give us an understanding as to how an organisation with a strict hierarchy, like the military, reacts to change. His thoughts shine some light on the thought process that goes on behind the change as well the reasons why they do or don’t succeed. Thanks Peter!
Q: In your view – what are the top 3 mistakes companies (and the military) make when trying to implement a change? What are some key differentiators you recognize in a successful change?
A: It seems many companies, and particularly the military, attempt to drive change using a top-down approach only.
They often expect leaders to be the ones to manifest these changes and play a myriad of roles (e.g., creative architect, inspirational champion, resource steward, universal problem solver, and a sheriff who holds underlings accountable for following “the new way”).
Successful change may often start at the top, but it is nurtured and sustained from the bottom up as well.
This allows companies to draw on the experience and perspectives of everyone involved to flesh out the best ideas, to understand the true problem at hand, or to share ownership and accountability for achieving effective change.
Second, when working with change you often hear, “there’s nothing new under the sun” or “we tried something like that before and it didn’t really work.”
Okay, why did it fail? Was it the idea? The process? The personalities involved? What were the interim objectives? Did you have the right resources? What were people expected to do to sustain this change? Did they know how, when, or why to do those things? Was the change addressing the right problem to begin with? What metric or milestone were you using to determine success and how would you know when you achieved it?
These are just a few questions successful change management needs to answer. Third, companies often misconstrue action for progress. Successful change is a process, not an event.
Working toward change requires a thoughtful and deliberate approach (…do not misinterpret this to mean slow and indecisive) that stresses the need for change, addresses these needs appropriately, and reinforces or reevaluates the elements that sustain the change.
Sometimes this means failing quickly to improve the approach, but you can’t skip steps by rushing into action under the delusion that you’re making a difference in the long run.
Q: Which innovative trends do you recognize in change management and organisational psych. nowadays?
A: Contemporary insight into Org Psych has helped us recognize how bad ideas get implemented, why good ideas go unheard, or why some change efforts ultimately fail to take hold in an organization.
For example, “brainstorming” is a common and long-standing start for many organizations hoping to spark innovation and create change.
Org Psych has progressively pointed us to consider a range of factors affecting how ideas are generated and discussed among group members during these brainstorming sessions (e.g., sources of bias, leader-follower-situational dynamics, social power, individual engagement, team dynamics, mental models, and knowledge sharing).
One innovative, and relatively simple, approach is to write out ideas and share them with the group before getting into discussions. This practical, evidence-based solution attempts to overcome traditional brainstorming limitations and often sheds light on ideas that may otherwise go unheard or unsupported.
Q: Do you feel that the military responds better to change because of their strict hierarchy? Or does this hinder the change being implemented?
A: As an organizational psychologist, I reserve the right to answer: “it depends.” From a strategic standpoint, the military’s strict hierarchy and bureaucratic culture make it risk averse and slow to change foundational doctrine.
At the tactical level, however, strict hierarchy (bolstered by trust) allows military team members to understand and execute their roles in order to overcome obstacles decisively, adapt to quickly changing conditions, and find a way to make it work—or at least make the best of a bad situation.
Q: Do you feel that there is room in the military for agile change systems?
A: Yes, the military is determined to achieve success. It has to…the challenges it faces demand it. The only way to move forward is to find a path or make one; this makes change necessary and inevitable.
With the right training, personnel development, and organizational support, I believe the right agile change systems can drive that success.
Q: Let us in on some of your secrets… where do you look for innovation? For inspiration and revolutionary ideas?
A: I place great value in evidence-based approaches to organizational challenges. I try to dig into challenges that I’m dealing with by examining how researchers have attempted to understand or assess similar issues.
For this, I often look to academic journals and publications that balance rigor with application. I also find social media to be a valuable resource for sharing and discussing ideas with experienced professionals and thought leaders in areas I wouldn’t normally have access to—or think to look.
I’m also a bit of a history buff; you’d be surprised how often an innovative spark can come from studying lesser-known successes and raw failures of historical figures and civilizations. Somehow, the past lends itself to framing the future.