Leading lasting organization-wide change and building new organizational capabilities are no small challenges. In most cases, they require a special 'transition architecture' — a bridge of sorts — and the careful design and construction of three strong spans:

It is important to approach the design of the social architecture of our change and capability building initiatives (i.e. C-work) with the same level of deliberation and commitment as we do for our physical structures.

An organizational capability building initiative is only as strong as its weakest span.

The Expertise Span

We can easily visualize the range and distribution of expertise required to design and construct a new office building. Hundreds of people may be involved. Expertise in dozens of specialized technologies and crafts are required in order to plan, design and construct a building that satisfies the diverse needs of the many people who will ultimately be involved. We know that the expertise of an experienced architect will be essential to the success of such a project.

Organizational capability building initiatives can have much more at stake than an office building project. And yet, it has become common for organizations to undertake such initiatives without having developed adequate B&C-work expertise throughout their leadership.

C-work expertise is critical to discovering highly leveraged, generative approaches to organizational capability building. C-work requires skills of a social architect, the ability to understand and design for many different kinds of developmental work required along the change journey.

Generative approaches to C-work usually involve developing a high level of B&C-work expertise in key players throughout the system. For example, one proven approach involves recruiting/selecting line organization leaders with developmental aptitude and placing them on temporary assignments as B&C-work practitioners. This has the multiplying benefit of developing high potential players into transformational leaders through hands-on experience.

The Infrastructure Span

Organizational capability building work usually requires special infrastructure to be successful. Just as scaffolding and forms are essential to the construction of complex physical structures, so capability building needs special support and protection, especially during its formative stages.

Perhaps the most elegantly effective infrastructure for capability-building initiatives is an organizing fabric woven from “action-learning strands.”

These highly flexible structures can be easily adapted to the various levels and stages of any initiative. Action-learning strands consist of an on-going cycle, from “learning nodes” with learning in the foreground and doing is in the background, to “action threads” with doing in the foreground and learning in the background.

The “Community of Practice” model is a common example of an infrastructure that takes the form of an “action-learning strand.” In a community of practice, practitioners interested in developing their particular area of expertise meet together periodically to share their stories and to seek help on specific challenges they’ve encountered.

The resemblance of this graphic depiction to DNA is nicely synchronous. When woven into the fabric of an organization these strands help shape, develop and sustain a culture of on-going, ever-improving systemic learning and change.

First we shape our structures, then our structures shape us

Leaders can speak of high purpose, compelling visions and inspiring values. However, if an appropriate infrastructure isn’t created to address the capability building challenges implicit in their visions, they’re just blowing smoke. Conversely, if an infrastructure is constructed that is both robust and congruent with the special needs of the initiative, a powerful message is sent—and commitment energy is unleashed.

Resources

Just as designing and building a physical structure requires an investment of time, attention and money, so it is with building new organizational capabilities or managing systemic change. While this is obviously true in the early stages of exploring, planning and designing such initiatives, it is equally true during the startup and implementation stages.

Bill Veltrop has been engaged in, witnessed and studied organizational learning and change initiatives for well over 30 years. According to Bill, there’s nothing more painful than to witness the incredible direct and hidden costs incurred when these initiatives aren’t adequately resourced. It can be as serious as taking off on a transatlantic flight without adequate fuel.

It is always best to stack the deck for success when birthing and nurturing a new organization culture and/or growing new organizational capabilities. You can always reduce resources when they are no longer needed. You only have one opportunity to do things for the first time.

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