Recently I attended a new training course offered by the United Nations System Staff College (UNSSC) on designing and managing organizational change in the UN system. The course was offered through a programme that has been established by UNSSC which is entirely devoted to organizational change and transformation — UNLOCK (UN Lab for Organisational Change and Knowledge). Intrigued and delighted that the UN has recognized the need to transform the way it works for the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, off I went to Geneva for a week to see what I would learn, who would I meet and what could I bring back to my team in Jakarta.

The academic part of the course was drawn in part from the teaching of John P. Kotter, a widely renowned expert on leadership and change. Kotter’s hypothesis is that the typical hierarchical structure of leading an organization is not built for an environment where change has become the norm. Incremental adjustments to how you manage and strategise are just not enough in this fast paced world. This resonated with me as managing change in the UN system has been at times straight forward and at times frustrating, so it was good to learn about some theoretical frameworks and tools that can be drawn on to keep change initiatives on track.

We were about ten participants in this course and it was wonderfully managed with equal parts on theory and hands-on practical case studies, with refresher games thrown in to make sure we were all listening! Central to the teaching was that two operating systems are required for managing change within an organization. One is the standard hierarchy which manages the organization, the other is a network based operating system which complements rather than overburdens the hierarchy. It seems fairly obvious but we learned that it is sensible to build a change team or guiding coalition within the organization who can get on with the change initiatives without being burdened by day-to-day operations and legacy systems. This network or change team are given the space to think and act differently, and sounds a lot like the innovation lab environment we have at Pulse Lab Jakarta.

It’s important to communicate the vision for change to give staff a sense for what the future may look like and where we are heading. It also serves to provide direction and clarity which may reduce the fear and anxiety that inevitably comes along with any change. If managed correctly, it can unify the staff and concentrate efforts towards common objectives.

Some other takeaways:

A bad experience multiplies many times quicker than a good experience.

Be prepared, as in any change exercise you need to have many change agents who can help manage the process. Ensure, at least, that you empower the people who have good inter-personal skills and have expertise in the given subject matter and are enthusiastic and positive so messages get delivered effectively. Probably wise not to ask for volunteers, as a bad experience multiplies many times quicker than a good experience.

One can demand compliance but cannot demand sustained change

This resonated with me from my experience of running an innovation lab and working with development partners. Sustained change is more cultural and more difficult to achieve. It also takes a lot longer than compliance. It is important here to agree to an approach for measuring the implementation process against the change and continuously monitoring progress or setbacks along the way. Keep communicating the successes and be honest about the slip ups along the way.

It takes time to change a culture

Whilst figuring out the different change approaches that are best suited for a particular organisation, it’s important to understand that building change takes time. Trust and building partnerships are essential in any organisation and none more so than a sensitive area as organizational change! And stay positive, because someone clever once said that we overestimate our ability to create change over the short-term, but underestimate it over the long-term.

Most of all I learned that often these courses are less about the theoretical frameworks and academic tuition, and more about the people that you meet along the way. I was thrilled to meet with peers within the UN system who are agents and managers of change within their own units and agencies. Every little tip, anecdote and connection helps and I came away really enthused and optimistic about the way forward for the UN.

A big shout out to the two fabulous trainers on the course, Sabine and Daphne who did a wonderful job managing us and, above all, enabling us to learn. And also to the experts who came in throughout the week to share experiences from their own organization which helped us to relate the theory with the practical and also allowed us the opportunity to ask questions and challenge assumptions.

The new and improved UN for the 21st century — count me in!

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