The Tough Process of Organizational Change

view of the alps from the office in Grenoble

view of the alps from the office in Grenoble

Grenoble     Over the last week from Birmingham to Edinburgh to London and now in Grenoble,  it’s amazing how often conversations and questions focus as much on organizational change as organizing programs and prospects. Talking to Martin Smith, the organizing director for the GMB in London, he made the point as clearly as anyone saying that in 10 years in the job, he had spent an equal amount of time on internal organizational change as he had on external organizing.

He’s not alone! And, it’s hard work!

In Smith’s case, it is probably not an overstatement that he either succeeded along with many of his other colleagues in making changes or the union itself might not have survived. The “B” in GMB had stood Boilermakers, speaking to the industrial roots of the union, while the “M” came from representing Municipal workers. The union’s strategy to survive after years of declines has been to embrace its standing as a general union, and throw open the doors to one and all. Membership growth has rewarded the strategy. Smith told me that the GMB membership at  Walmart’s ASDA supermarket chain was going to be 10,000 this year, where it had only been a couple of hundred annually even a couple of years ago. Place to place though, he was also clear that the work of internal change was far from done.

I’ve always repeated the mantra and warning to organizers that the “beginnings prejudice the ends” in organizational development, which in clearer English means that the roots of an organization and its structure can predetermine and limit what it is able to do. Because of membership expectations, change is hard to achieve and sometimes impossible. It’s also scary for the organizing staff accustomed to a certain way of working and set of proven skills and often threatening to leadership as the base and underpinnings of their relationships to the organization shift as well.

For several days I’ve been working with an extremely dedicated and talented team of organizers and leaders with the Alliance Citoyenne in Grenoble at the foot of the Alps, where the organization has grown and enjoyed early success over the last several years. On the one hand their work has excited other communities throughout France leading to requests for help in building similar organizations in several other cities, including Paris. On the other hand, the organizers and the board were realistic in seeing limits within the organization’s development and are working hard to see if it is possible in this still early stage to develop a hybrid system of sorts that would allow them to do more.  It has been fascinating to be “at the table” in the discussion to help identify problems and outline decisions and options they will have to face.

staff and leaders of Alliance hard at it

staff and leaders of Alliance hard at it

 

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the bell that kept the discussion moving!

the bell that kept the discussion moving!

Is a hybrid possible, well, maybe, though it’s a little like being partially pregnant. Will they be able to supervise and evaluate the new practice they are trying to introduce, if they also want to run back to what they knew and valued from their work in the past? How will they keep their own organizers and leaders from not being confused?

In a meeting with the sharp as nails regional director for Unison in the West Midlands centered around Birmingham, it was clear as he faced similar challenges within this program of both maintaining the base and trying to expand, that he would have to segregate a team to allow them to experiment, fail, and succeed without falling back into old habits, tasks, and expectations. The Alliance may have to do the thing by isolating the pieces so they can nurture the process to see if it works or trying their new system in a new city and then retraining and exporting it back.

Change is necessary and unavoidable for organizations, but part of the reason that many organizations don’t survive is because of its extraordinary difficulty.

view of the alps from the office in grenoble

view of the alps from the office in Grenoble

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