Accelerating the transition to transition

The time it currently takes to motivate a local community to set up an effective Transition Town group is, by conventional reckoning, a year and more. This is corroborated, I think, not only by the Transition movement’s own practical experience but also by the experience of organisational change experts.

I have recently managed a very small ‘transition’ of sorts in a well-known British company. It was only a relatively small change, that, in purely technical terms, it should have taken only about three months, even allowing for building absolutely everything from scratch. We were also fortunate in that practically all the participants understood and accepted (and in many cases actively demanded). Yet it still took more than a year to complete.

Why so long? It’s not hard to understand. Here are some factors that slowed us down.

  1. There were far too few people involved. Basically it was me managing it full-time and a few part—timers doing the local changes.
  2. Everyone apart from me had a day-job to do, so even when they positively wanted to join in, it was hard.
  3. The important always gives place to the urgent. So every time I wanted to do something quickly, there were always a hundred other, more urgent things the people I needed to take action had to do.
  4. Misalignment is another potentially fatal source of disruption. There is no shortage of other initiatives that the well motivated are also involved in. Right in the middle of my own change programme, the HR department kicked off an ‘excellence programme’, aimed at creating a qualitative leap in the company’s level of performance. I felt that this was a bit odd, given that we could not do ‘competent’ yet, but the real difficulty was that several of the key participants in my own scheme were effectively put on hold while their ‘excellence profiles’ were agreed.
  5. Internal friction was another problem. Those who were actively involved were often at loggerheads about exactly what needed doing and exactly how it should be done. More delays, and in some cases a lot of muttering and unspoken resentment.
  6. Resentment. Some participants ( and others who effectively refused to participate, even though the programme aimed to achieve goals they shared) resented the fact that they were not in charge.
  7. Individual parts of the change programme were not well thought through, I am ashamed to say. I took too much understanding and agreement for granted. Given the Transition Network’s own 7 Buts (which will resonate with every change manager in the country), there is no shortage of things of resistance points, of that need thinking through or that, conversely, can disrupt, if not sink, even a popular initiative.
  8. Few of the individuals involved had any real experience of change management. Or rather, they had all been ‘changed’ by previous initiatives, often to the point of radical disillusion about the effectiveness of change itself. But they have few of the skills and knowledge needed to design, build and implement the change themselves. Again, given that the Transition process is unlikely to succeed unless it is taken up by a very large proportion of the population, this is even more of a problem for Transition than for the biggest corporate organisation.

Yet in other respects, I was very lucky. I did not have to face dissent from organised groups or the powers that be. The nature of the change was well defined in ways that had pretty much universal consent in advance. And I had done this many times before, and managed to avoid many of the standard elephant traps change programmes often fall into.

And so on. Hence the slow pace of change.

Yet this timescale can probably be cut very considerably. Each of the slowing factors mentioned above can be anticipated, prepared for and actively managed. The question is not whether such change is possible, but only how well it can be done.

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