Nudging Change at Four Levels

Skills change coaches need to help organisations transform

by Susanne Burgstaller

How to nudge change at four levels of the organisation

Change must be supported from the top - otherwise it has no power.
Change must be bottom-up - otherwise it has no traction.

These are statements made by leaders and change coaches alike. Which one is true?

Both. And neither. Impulses for change can come from any corner of the organisation. Limiting the options to the dualistic view of “top” and “bottom” is far too simplistic. In fact, if organisation-wide change is required, then change needs to be nudged on several different levels. Change coaches need to acquire the skills required for work on those levels.

Nudging change at four levels

  1. Individuals or small teams
  2. Large groups
  3. Units and whole organisations (beyond the Dunbar number of 150+ people)(1)
  4. Organisational ecosystems – beyond and between organisations
Often when I am training coaches the focus of our work is on acquiring the necessary skills for work on level three, which is reasonable because it is not often taught. But we must not ignore that in order to foster organisational change, coaches will need to be able to work on all four levels – and increasingly take the world into account. So let me give you a brief characterisation of these levels and point out the most important skills required to be effective.

Level 1: Coaching Individuals and Small Teams

The distinguishing factor of this level is that Solution Focused coaches directly participate in or even lead the conversations. Examples may be explicit business coachings, briefing and de-briefing conversations, or facilitating workshops with groups of executives or change teams. At that level the work is largely comparable to that of a therapist or coach in so far as the coach is asking questions, listening, and responding in the moment to how the conversation unfolds while bearing the SF model in mind. Except that in formats other than explicit coaching sessions and with powerful executives in the round, the level of control over the conversation for the coach can often be slippery and require high levels of improvisational co-construction.

Level 2: Coaching Large Groups

In this setting the work is usually done through conducting workshops, team buildings or large group events. The distinguishing factor here is that the coach cannot hold conversations with everyone present directly and in person. Instead, they need to split the large group into subgroups and rely on the groups themselves to make the best possible use of the questions offered to them.

The focus of work is therefore on preparing an event design that proposes powerful questions, allows the participants to actively engage with their topics and hold lively and productive conversations. When facilitating, the Solution-Focused worker needs to attentively guide these conversations and respond in the moment to changing needs.

Preparing such an event requires being able to carefully think through a group process, imagining the conversational flow and polishing the questions like gems. Facilitating such a workshop requires excellent improvisation skills focused on dealing with groups and a good range of groupwork techniques.

Level 3: Coaching Large Units and Whole Organisations (beyond 150 people)

Work in this setting involves forging a cooperation process with the whole organisation – or a large segment thereof – that may last a number of months or even years. It usually entails designing and facilitating change journeys or other organisational development missions. The topics may be as diverse as strategy, business processes, changes in company structures, cultural change or all of the above combined. It involves engaging the sponsors and relevant stakeholders with an image of their preferred future, co-creating the process iteratively in a series of stages or sprints, re-visiting their idea of the preferred future and re-contracting continuously.

The focus of the work is on co-creating with the sponsor a Solution Focused roadmap for the transformation journey, planning and facilitating a series of events and meetings, as well holding many structured or unstructured conversations during and around them. The work may also involve laying down Solution Focused pathways for conversations in the organization by “infecting” internal facilitators, creating or adapting organisational tools, or defining new meeting protocols. When working on that level it is usually necessary to have a good understanding of the business domain and a solid grasp of process and organizational design options suitable for complex organisations.

Level 4: Coaching Ecosystems: Beyond and Between Organisations

When we coach an organisation for change, we always also work with the organisational ecosystem: it´s customers, suppliers, partners, competitors, the communities around, etc. - whether explicitly or implicitly. Work on that level may be as simple as directing the change team´s attention towards the interests of strategic stakeholder groups when drawing up the change strategy or keeping their focus on the desired impact of the change for customer satisfaction. On the other hand, it may involve aligning a common strategy between several organisations or communities, cluster building, community-citizen work, or coordinating policies or strategies in a socio-political or macroeconomic context. It may go as far as holding the thread in a multi-stakeholder process often involving a timespan of several years and more players than the worker can ever meet, as well as planning, conducting or facilitating many structured and unstructured interventions.

The focus of the work is on network building, establishing good will and cooperation with different groups, forging alliances as well as accepting differences that cannot be bridged. It requires regular stakeholder monitoring, drawing up constantly shifting stakeholder maps and engaging with them actively. It also calls for solid Solution-Focused negotiation and conflict management skills, coping with many and often competing demands, and being able to sometimes work without a clear contract or identifiable sponsor.

And what about the world?

The need to consider the world in all this – our communities, the planet, humanity as a whole, possibly even our universe – has increased in urgency. Solution-Focused change coaches and leaders are well advised to bring those concerns well beyond the usual lipservice paid to corporate social responsibility and into the heart of their work.

What skills remain the same on all levels?

With so many variations of skills demanded by work on the different levels, what remains the same? Being Solution-Focused remains a constant. In fact, the “way of being in the world” that the change coach exhibits often has a larger impact on the work than any of the more technical aspects and tools. Being credible, mature, authentic, and walking the talk of change – that is required.

Read more about Being SF here

Susanne Burgstaller has worked in organisational development and change for nearly 35 years. She writes about Solution-Focus, organisational development, leadership and change, and mentors agile and change coaches.

(1) What is the Dunbar number and why is it important? - British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that humans can comfortably maintain about 150 stable relationships (the number lying between 100 and 250, with a commonly used value of 150). Groups larger than this – so Dunbar assumed - generally require more restrictive rules, laws or enforced norms to maintain stability and cohesiveness. I am not so sure I agree with the last statement, but larger groups certainly require different organizational principles.

Go back