Guidelines and Resources for Whole Systems Change in Organizations

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    Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.

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    Understanding the Nature of Organizational Change

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    What is Whole Systems Organizational Change?

    Whole systems change is a type of large-scale intervention to accomplish transformational — radical and fundamental — change in an organization. There are a variety of approaches to accomplish whole systems change, for example, Marv Weisbord’s Future Search Conference, Dick Axelrod’s Conference Model Redesign, organizational redesign and roles, and cultural change. The approaches seek to involve all stakeholders in the intervention and where that is not possible, representatives are involved.

    It is based on the premise that people will not accomplish significant change unless they have strong ownership of the approach to change. That, in turn, comes from each person’s understanding of the need for change, helping to articulate the vision for change, participating in the selection of the most suitable approach to accomplish the change, and doing his or her part to implement the change. That is, the entire system needs to be involved in accomplishing the change. Large-scale interventions are often done in a highly facilitative and collaborative manner with participants.

    The need for whole systems change is brought about by the organization’s need to respond to dramatic changes in its external environment, for example, globalization of cultures and markets, changes in technology, and new sensibilities among populations regarding the nature of leadership and change. See New Paradigm in Management

    Whole systems change is based on whole systems thinking, that the parts of a system are all connected and, therefore, influence each other. In turn, all systems are connected, comprising a much large whole, including collaborations, communities, and societies.

    A Definition of Whole Systems Change (Whole Systems Transformation)

    There are a variety of different models of whole systems change. Roland Sullivan provides the Whole Systems Transformation (WST) model. In his blog article, Whole Systems Transformation: An Effectiveness Paradigm Shift for Strategic Change, he defines it as an enterprise-wide breakthrough led by aligned leaders engaging the critical mass to join in strategic accomplishment. More specifically it is:

    • A methodology for the organization to reinvent itself with the latest social psychology. Small and large group technology using organization dynamics is foundational.
    • A process for breaking down borders so participants can create business intelligence from diverse data and establish collaborative relationships across boundaries and between levels in the organization.
    • A search for common ground and clear focus for the organization to be effective in an external environment that is perplexing, quickening, and in flux.
    • Based on the premise that effective change must come from within rather than from external experts or change managers.
    • An enabling journey whereby the critical mass creates a new more effective culture and meaningful customer experiences in real time.
    • Philosophically based, utilizing appreciative inquiry, social constructionism, positive social psychology, applied behavior science, and polarity management depending on the situation.
    • The use of microcosms that transcend borders and represent the entire range of levels, functions, geography, and ideas in and beyond the organization–that is, customers, industry experts, supply chain entities, and so forth.
    • Engaging and empowering the whole system to put into use evolved twenty-first-century action research to sustain a change journey embedded in an agile organization. He also shares the elements of the WST model.

    Additional Descriptions of Whole Systems Change

    Also, See These Closely Related Topics

    Additional Library Resources in the Category of Organizational
    Change and Development