You conducted numerous interviews with CEOs, project leaders, controllers and communication professionals for your doctoral thesis. What was it that surprised you?
Many of the respondents were convinced that change projects usually do not achieve the desired result. In practice, there is a certain powerlessness when it comes to the question of what needs to be done better. It’s a paradox – scientifically, the topic is extremely well researched, but in practice it is still rarely implemented.
What could be the source of the problem?
Change processes, such as efficiency or restructuring programmes, are often designed too rigidly, which leads to emergent as well as system-theoretical aspects not being taken into account enough. Moreover, they are often completed far too quickly.
One year you do this, the next you do something else…
…and this way you don’t give people enough time to establish genuine changes in their routines, ways of working and thinking.
What roles do the so-called blank spaces, or gaps, play?
These gaps are a kind of buffer: free spaces that are consciously allowed and already built in while preparing the change process.
In other words, a kind of leeway that is granted to acting protagonists?
Correct, and this is true for very different tasks. Such gaps are admitted, for example, in decisions on how the participants communicate the change process, how they define its meaning or what leadership model is in practice. These topics can hardly be prescribed in detail from superordinate hierarchies. Instead, the participants can find their own way in a predefined direction.
Do you have an example?
A company which determines that administrative costs are to be saved, for instance. Top-down a package of measures is put together and a classic, rigid implementation is ordered. However, the employees may not even realise what their own benefit and that behind the change is. The defined savings measures may also turn out to be disadvantageous for some individuals, due to incorrect assessments or changing environmental conditions. With a consciously acknowledged leadership gap, the employees themselves are responsible.
What do you mean by this?
Employees themselves can suggest which measures they would like to initiate in order to achieve the management’s goals. It helps them to feel integrated in a participatory way and to support the changing framework conditions.
So it’s more like: We have a goal, but how we actually get there is something we can decide for ourselves?
The findings of my dissertation are clear: participation is a key factor. Changes can be realised more promisingly, if the management of gaps in the change process takes place actively, i.e. the employees are explicitly asked to use their freedom. Today, mere numbers or the reference to the company’s success are no longer enough for people. They need a different sense of purpose, also one that they recognise for themselves. This is why corporate culture has increasingly become a scientific focus in recent decades. It has been recognised that sense-making and corporate culture are closely related. Another advantage of the gaps is that people are even more committed to the overarching goal. They have to see themselves as part of the change, according to the motto: It’s cool I’m part of it.
But what if this also creates resistance?
Resistance should also be given space, and one should not simply react with measures. Many leaders perceive resistance as something negative. The absence of resistance, however, should rather be seen as detrimental.
However, there are also change topics that have a high approval rate per se, such as sustainable management. Do you think these also need free space?
Absolutely, if we give sustainability topics the space for conscious integration and interaction in a gap, there is a greater chance for the majority of employees to really feel a meaningful connection with change and then to also actively participate in it..
Dominic Bannholzer has been working at STRABAG for 19 years. He came across the topic of change management during his Master’s degree. It fascinated him so much that he took a second Master’s degree on the same topic and completed a doctorate on it at Middlesex University in London. The dissertation was published by Springer Gabler. The transcriptions of his discursive, semi-structured and guided interviews fill almost 400 A4 pages.
‘We have recognised a potential to use gaps in change processes, i.e. to use them sensibly and in a meaningful way. Today, with some distance, we would also associate them with Michel Foucault’s idea of “heterotopias“, i.e. places where certain rules do not, no longer or not yet fully recognisably prevail. Gaps in processes of change can also be understood as “transition spaces“ according to Donald Winnicott. Spaces, in other words, that lie in between in a peculiar way and offer opportunities for the manifold development of potential.’Prof. Dr. Michael Zirkler (ZHAW)Preface to the doctoral thesis by Dominic Bannholzer