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Interview and Book Review Change Artistry

The book change artistry is a collection of essays from Esther Derby, Don Gray, Johanna Rothman and Gerald M. Weinberg. The essays cover a variety of topics to support professionals in developing their organizational change skills.

Change artistry combines the Satir’s Congruence Model with an Aikido framework to help organizations to change in a positive way.

InfoQ did an interview with Don, Esther and Johanna on their experiences with organizational change, resistance to change, and the importance of the self and congruence in change.

InfoQ: Why do you use them term "change artistry" in your book? Is it really an art to change people, teams, and organizations? 

Johanna: It is! Many people think about change as Big. But to make a change, you want to start small. That's why it's change artistry.

If you start big, you often alienate people. When you start small, you help them agree with the change. Or, you can invite them to do something they want to do anyway. When you start big, it's often too much for them to handle.

That's the artistry part.

Esther: Let's look at a more commonly used term, "change agent."

If you look at the definition of agent, there are two main threads. The first definition is someone who acts on behalf of another to complete some transaction. The second definition is a substance that causes a specific reaction when it comes in contact with another substance.

Neither of those metaphors fit how change really happens.

The term Change Artist implies that someone is an artist in change--skillful and adept at helping people and systems change.

Don: We use “artistry’ for these reasons.

  • An artist creates new reality.
  • An artist works with many different tools and materials and creates the new art from the materials at hand.
  • Artists appreciate and respect the context of their art.
  • Many ways exist to get to the final art. “Change by the numbers” hasn’t and won't work.

In organizations, change artists do “commissioned work”. We use our tools, palettes and skill to help the organization create the change they want, not what we want.

We do separate change artist activities into 4 basic areas. These loosely follow patterns in Aikido.

  • Center
  • Enter
  • Turn
  • Sustain

Johanna: Organizations change one person at a time. You can apply these lessons to yourself, your team, and your organization. But the organization will still change one person at a time. 

InfoQ: The book change artistry is a collection of essays from several authors. Why did you choose this format, and what is the connection between the essays? 

Esther: I guess you could say we had two motives in choosing this format: reuse and value.

In September, 2013, the four of us put on a week-long workshop on Change Artistry. We wanted a reader for our participants. So, we started looking at what we had each written about change--and discovered we had a lot of valuable material!

Based on the response from our workshop participants, we decided to make the collection available to everyone.

We've arranged the articles thematically, representing how Change Artists work. 

Johanna: We wanted to have a gift for the participants at our Change Artistry workshop. We've all been writing for years, so deciding on a book of essays was easy.

When you think about change artistry, there is a series of "steps," if you will. You need to center yourself, enter into the other person's situation, be able to understand it, so you can turn together. Then, and only then, can you sustain the change.

Each of us is different, so each of us has our own perspective on each of these positions. We thought it would be valuable for our readers to hear from each of us at each position.

Don: As change does not follow a linear process, writing a book with linear steps for change artists sends an incorrect message. We selected essays that have stood the test of time. I co-wrote “Managing in Mayberry” in 2001. Every couple of years some one new finds it, and it gets tweeted and retweeted.

We did group the essays in the same four areas; center, enter, turn, and sustain. As change is non-linear, we could have put some essays in multiple (or different) areas.

InfoQ: The first couple of essays in your book focus on the "self", the change artist. Why is this important?

Esther: You are your most valuable tool in bringing change.  

In my experience, the success of any change effort hinges on two things: the ability to enhance the environment so that the desired change emerges naturally, and the ability to connect with people and build trust. The first requires personal skills in observation, systems modeling, choosing how and where to act in complex and ambiguous situations. The second calls for interpersonal skills and the ability to work well with people. 

Don: The most important relationship for a change artist is the one they have with themselves. Clarity of purpose. Honesty in intent. Compassion for those involved. Understanding the context. Alignment with the change. This relationship cannot be faked. People involved in change can sense a charlatan and will resist and sabotage the effort.

A change artist who doesn’t change is a hypocrite.

Johanna: If you, the change artist, are not centered, you cannot hope to change anyone else. When your world is going crazy--and you're going nuts too--how can you effect change? You need to breathe. You need to center yourself. Once you're not frantic, now you have a hope of change.

InfoQ: Establishing a relationship is a prerequisite for change. Can you give us some do's and don'ts for change artists to build a relationship with the people that they will be working with?

Johanna: Building rapport is essential. Otherwise, as we say in the US, "I'm from the IRS, and I'm here to help!"

I like to see what's working first. I bet a bunch of things are working. Build on what's working. Start there.

Ask the people what they would like to change. They often have great ideas. Give credit to the people with the great ideas. If you are the change artist, do you really need the credit?

That's the beginning. There's more, but it's hard to say what, with an emergent project like a change project. (I have a blog post coming on emergent projects, this week.)

Esther: Don't start by telling them they've been doing it wrong all along. Spend time understanding their situation, their struggles, and their priorities. 

Don: My suggestions are to

  1. Do what you say you’re going to do.
  2. If you can’t do #1, immediately share what prevents you, and what you can do.
  3. Always work directly with the people affected.
  4. If as a change artist you’re changing too, you’re experiencing the process others go through. This helps with empathy.
  5. Remember that people will embrace change for different reasons and at different rates. Some people embrace the novelty and excitement change brings. Others move reluctantly missing the previous stability and routine. These both can bring their strengths to the change, but in different ways at different times.

InfoQ: You described in the book that resistance to change can be viewed as a source of information. Can you give some examples of that?

Johanna: Sure. When people resist change, they do so for any number of reasons. Often, it's because they fear losing *something.* You need to know what that something is.

It could be their competence, or concern that this is a management fad, or "we've tried this here" or any number of other things. Here are things I look for:

  1. Date pressures on the system. Is somebody putting pressure on the team to deliver? That's extra pressure. In that case, nobody wants to change. People need time to practice, to learn about this new way of working.
  2. Management interference. When managers change members of the team, it's impossible for a team to work together. Managers often do this instead of managing the project portfolio. Managers do this in the mistaken belief they need experts on teams.
  3. Has management had a fad-of-the-month/year before? What happened? If they have, what are the indications this is any different? Maybe the team is right, and this is going to go away.

You can reframe resistance as fear of loss. The question is what are people going to lose? A sense of normalcy? I might agree with them!

Esther: First, I wish people would stop using the term resistance. Once you've labeled behavior as "resistance" or designated someone as a "change resistor," you don't have much option other than to push or pull them in the direction you want them to go. In reality, "resistors" are simply not changing with the speed and enthusiasm you desire. There can be many reasons for this, but if you frame the response as resistance, you aren't likely to uncover that information.

Don: May I use the word “reluctance” for “resistance”? To me “resistance” in the context of change labels a person in a not useful way. For me reluctance means I haven’t successfully done 1 - 5 in the answer to question 4. That’s information for me to examine myself, the other person, and the context, and consider what to do next.

If people are reluctant to change, has my view crept into their future and spoiled their desired outcome?

Esther: Consider this example. Years ago, when I was a programmer, our managers spearheaded an effort to eliminate unnecessary reports and jobs in our over-night batch system. One of the jobs on the elimination list was a program I'd written. During the deletion review, I flagged that program as one we needed keep.

The analyst who had marked the program for deletion launched into an explanation of all the work she'd done to conclude that no one used the report. She sniffed that holding onto the program just because I wrote it was unprofessional. Then she put the program back on the deletion list.

Once she'd stopped justifying, I was able to explain that while the report from the program might be out of use, the program also preformed calculations that were necessary for several other processes.

This may seem like a trivial example, but it illustrates something important. People who label others as "resisters" assume they have all the relevant information. That is seldom the case. They also assume the "resisters" are holding onto the old way out of selfishness, ignorance, laziness, or some other motive that doesn't reflect intelligence and good will.

InfoQ: What if people keep resisting changes that are needed? Are there ways to convince them to change while keeping a good relationship?

Esther: I'd reframe that to, "What if people choose not to make the changes you believe are needed?"

First, I'd get curious. I'd want to find out why they are making that choice, and what they see that I am missing. They may have good and legitimate reasons. I'd also look for factors in the environment that re-enforce the current pattern, or inhibit the desired change.

Rather than hector them, I'd go about my business, working with people who are curious about the change and want to try it. Very often people come along once they see that it's not awful, and might even work. Sometimes they don't. Then, they often choose to go some place that is a better fit for them. 

Johanna: I invite people to experiment. I timebox experiments. And, I work with management to stay out of the way. Too often management interferes before the experiment is complete. That resets the experiment to the beginning.

Don: Change to something positive (I want to be healthy) works better than change way from something (I want to quit smoking). Are the changes expressed positively in a way that the “resistor” can accept? I’ve heard it said that people don’t mind change. They mind being changed. When two people face the same direction, it’s hard for them to resist. And again ... I resist the word "resistance".

Johanna: People change at their own pace. We have several introductory essays about the change model and how people change. You can't convince people to change. You can lead them to change, and invite them to change. They need to see a transforming idea, and practice it, so they can integrate it into their work. You cannot force it down their throats.

InfoQ: In most projects, project leaders have to negotiate with their stakeholder on what will be delivered. Sometimes there are also negotiations between the project leader and the teams. In agile teams I sometimes see product owners and development teams negotiate. Is negotiation an effective way to collaborate? Are there any alternative ways?

Johanna: Negotiation works. Influence also works.

But, if you're talking about what teams will deliver, I don't see much need for negotiation in agile. Not if you're really doing agile or lean. You have a product owner create a roadmap so people know where you're headed with the product. Then, create a ranked backlog. Now, work until you run out of money or time. What's the point of negotiation?

Maybe you have something else in mind. In a project, reality will always win. In an agile or lean project, you can see reality better than in any other project because of the transparency.

Esther: If you can't negotiate, you aren't collaborating, you are taking orders. That goes for project work and change. People don't resist change, they resist control and coercion.

InfoQ: There are many ways to influence people to change their behavior. How they are received by people also varies a lot. Doesn't that make it risky to influence people? What can you do to reduce the chance of failure?

Don: The risk in influencing people comes from loosing sight of their desired outcome and inserting “what we think is best” into our work. 

Johanna: Influence is always risky. That's okay. We influence all the time. You can reduce your risk by first centering yourself, and understanding what's important to the other person. You can look for short- and long-term solutions that will satisfy both of you. Assume you are in a long term relationship, not a one-time deal. That will help. There's a lot more. I have a whole workshop on influence!

This is why centering yourself is so important, as well as being congruent.

Esther: We influence other people every day. But we often aren't consciously aware that we are doing so.

It is true that people respond differently to influence. In my experience, failure usually comes from failing to understand what the other person cares about and values. For example, you aren't likely to influence the head of the finance department by talking about increasing employee happiness if he cares about revenues and costs. The other reason influence fails is the other person feels someone is trying to control, manipulate, or coerce them.

Don: If by risk you mean likely to not succeed, see the 5 do’s for a change artists that I mentioned earlier.

InfoQ: One of the essays in the book discusses the concept of congruence. Can you explain it briefly?

Don: For me congruence means keeping myself, the other person, and our surrounding context in mind and as balanced as possible. 

Johanna: In a conversation, you have yourself, the other person, and the context to consider. Congruence is when you take all three of these things into account. If you don't, you're not congruent.

If you don't take the other person into account, you blame the other person.

If you don't take yourself into account, you placate the other person.

If you don't take the people into account, you're superreasonable.

If you ignore everything, you're irrelevant.

None of these things are good. You need to take all three of these things into account.

Esther: In any interaction, there are three basic arenas to balance: your own needs and values, the needs and values of the other(s), and the context. When these are far from balance, connection and change are restrained. When they close to balance, connection, change and learning flow more readily

InfoQ: Why is congruence important in change?

Don: If we remove “the other person” leaving me and the context, I lose sight of what happens to others and what they would like to have happen. I think of this when I hear “drive change”. I’m not a driver. I’m an artist.

If we remove the context, I may have a great time with the other person, but will we do the work necessary?

Removing me means the other person is left to do what they can with what they have, losing the benefit of my artistry.

Esther: When I think about many of the "change programs" I've seen over the years, most focus on context. They talk about the reason for change or the business need behind the change. That's the context part. They assume legitimacy for the person asking for change, but they ignore the needs and values of the person(s) who must actually change.

I see this in so-called agile adoptions where the managers want the development teams to change the way they work, but don't see any need to change management practices. Most of these change efforts don't get very far.

Johanna: What if you blamed the other people trying to change? That wouldn't be effective, would it? Or, if you placated them? That wouldn't be effective.

InfoQ: At the end of the book there are several essays on the topic "sustain". In change initiatives we look for ways to make changes sustainable. Can you give some examples of how to do sustainable changes?

Esther: It is critically important to adjust the environment--the organizational system--to sustain change. I've seen many change efforts fail because all of the organizational systems--HR policies, accounting practices, reward structures--continue to re-enforce the old pattern. This happens at two levels. First, the old behavior is naturally supported by the old structures. Second, when there's a contradiction between the message communicated in the desired change and the existing policies and structures, that gap fills with cynicism and fear.

Don: For me, “how to do sustainable change” involves understanding

“… the act of playing a game successfully changes the game in itself.” - Jamshid Gharajedaghi

As such, I need to continually work on congruence, making sure I balance myself, have good interactions with the other person, and shift what I do based on changes in the context.

“Today’s problems come from yesterday’s ’solutions’” - Peter Senge

Johanna: Here are some ideas:

  1. Tell people what the goals are.
  2. Make sure people have time to practice everything they need to do for their change. People don't change overnight. They need practice for everything, to experiment, and then to get good at it.
  3. Ask people to retrospect themselves. If they look back, they will know how their change is proceeding.

If you are a manager, make sure you remove the obstacles. Beware, you might be creating obstacles!

Esther: A common (too common) example is a situation where people are asked to "work as a team” and yet stack ranked against each other. Ranking encourages people to make themselves look good, often at the expense of others and customer value. People notice when there's a difference between the words and the music … and they usually follow the music.

About the Book Authors

Esther Derby spent the last twenty-five years helping companies design their environment, culture, and human dynamics for optimum success. You can visit her website  and follow her on twitter: @estherderby. If you'd like to learn more about change artistry, join Coaching Beyond the Team.


Don Gray’s experience across a variety of industries, from small startups to Fortune 50 organizations, provides a solid platform for assisting clients. He mentors executives, managers and teams through their transition to Agile development practices. Read more about mentoring, coaching and the workshops that he provides here.


Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” provides frank advice to your tough problems. She helps organizational leaders recognize potential risks, seize opportunities, and remove impediments. Johanna is the author of several books and more than 200 articles. She writes two blogs on her web site, as well as here.

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