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Agenda One or Agenda Two - what sort of change?

Agenda One or Agenda Two - what sort of change?

For a number of years, we have facilitated ‘off-sites’ for groups of between 6 and 60 plus senior leaders, in organisations all over the world. We are usually there to gain clarity and commitment around a number of new strategic objectives - either to agree them or to establish deeper understanding of the implications of them amongst the leadership population.

Somewhere early in the process I tend to show them this slide. For me, it represents two quite different approaches to organisational change.

Agenda One is about the ‘hardware’ of change. This is what you are ‘supposed’ to do when seeking a strategic shift in performance: restructure the business, change reporting lines, establish new responsibilities, implement new technologies to support new processes, etc. All good worthy work; rational, technical and most of all simple to see! 

Agenda Two is the subtler stuff; focusing on changing mindset, behaviour and collectively, the culture of an organisation. All in all, this means helping people to refocus on different things with commitment and enthusiasm, think in new ways about problems, and act differently; often more collectively and collaboratively.

The questions I often ask are: “Which agenda is the most important to get right, which is the most difficult to pursue well and which gets the highest level of investment?”. The clear majority of people in every instance have said Agenda Two is the most important and difficult to get right and then almost ruefully report that Agenda One gets by far the biggest investment. The truth is that both are vital and interdependent if substantive and sustainable change is to be achieved.

Why is this?

In general, there seems to be a lack of confidence in making an impact on Agenda Two. People and organisations invest on the whole, unless they are feeling self-destructive, where they have a reasonable level of confidence in a return.  Evidence of return is usually demanded for Agenda 1 and Agenda 2 investments. Call me cynical but in many cases for either, evidence of return is at best hazily collated.  And this problem moves the search from evidence to self-evidence. And here Agenda 1 wins out as, as alluded to earlier, you ‘can see’ the inputs in the form of a restructuring or to an extent a process and certainly a new piece software - something ‘tangible’ seems to have happened. It is much harder ‘see’ so directly, culture change or consistent patterns of behaviour change.  My perception is that intangibility and lack of the specificity of Agenda 2 undermines confidence in addressing it. (Note the words we often use to describe it: ‘soft’, ‘fluffy’, ‘HR-stuff’.)

There are growing reasons however to start seeing Agenda 2 in much more tangible and addressable terms.

Developments over the last few years, based on insights from Evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology and increasingly, neurophysiology have given us more and more practical insights into how people behave - not just individually but in small groups and larger networks. And with those insights has come a whole range of techniques and interventions including: narrative development, ‘Agile’ approaches, mediation, collaboration / dialogue interventions, and perhaps most clearly the range of techniques arising from ‘nudge’ theory and the work of the Behavioural Insights Team in the UK which is increasingly being copied elsewhere. (President Obama set up a similar unit in the Unites States.) This is a government quango, that blends psychology and behavioural economics, seeking by indirect means to further the successful implementation of government policy and services. Their success has been highlighted through a range of results including: improving tax collection rates; reducing medical prescription errors; increasing charitable donations.

In our own work, we have seen substantive change in the way people work together, leading to direct uplifts in performance, arising from a broad portfolio of techniques related to these psychological insights. Increasingly the ability to tackle Agenda 2 and provide appropriate investments alongside and integrated into Agenda 1 initiatives is now open to organisations.

Of course, there are other issues which also need to be overcome if we are to more successfully and consistently deliver on Agenda 2. The skill set for successful intervention are not generally held in sufficient depth in organisations.  Moreover, the apparent would-be champions of culture change such as HR and Comms can lack influence. The structure of businesses with the, often unhelpful, division between the ‘line’ and support or staff roles often creates a power imbalance which means that change efforts around Agenda 2 can more easily be de-prioritised.

It works well where there is very visible and personal support from the CEO and it is driven by either the CEO themselves or someone with both line credibility and seen as absolutely representing the CEO in pursuit of this.

But these are issues really worth addressing in pursuit of successful implementation of change where a lack of confidence in tackling Agenda 2, it could be argued, is increasingly perverse.

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