Listening Might Be Your Greatest Strength in Leading Change

I have been thinking about “tuning to the edges” of the system, after a wonderful discussion with Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes, the minister at Maple Grove United Church. Morar was a close friend of Brenda Zimmerman and was therefore an avid student of complexity theory. Who wouldn’t be after getting to know Brenda! In fact, I first met Morar at Brenda’s funeral during which Morar spoke of their relationship and the various ways that complexity theory has influenced Morar’s ministry.   Morar graciously agreed to spend time with my DMin class at Tyndale, which was in the midst of a week-long immersion into complexity theory.

One of the key points was the importance of tuning to, or listening to, the edges of the system. In systems as in organizations, real change rarely if ever comes from the centre (or the top, depending how you view the organization). Many efforts at top-down change are made but meet with such resistance or apathy that they fail or simply fade away. The frequency of this is a reminder to heed Peter Drucker’s caution that, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Tuning to the edges means listening carefully to the people who are doing the work of the organization. They often have really deep insights into small but significant process improvements that, when aggregated, can have huge impacts.

They key difference I have found is that when people generate their own ideas about what needs to change they are not only more accurate but they have a significantly higher level of ownership for developing, implementing and monitoring successful outcomes. They do this within a larger framework of strategic priorities, but they own the problem. This is far superior to the concept of “buy-in”, which is discussed at length at management tables. As my colleague Michael Gardom suggests, even the word suggests some sort of transaction (at best) and a form of bribe (at worst).


Michael is a leading expert in the concept of positive deviance, which has been used to great effect in a healthcare setting particularly in the area of infection control (which is Michael’s responsibility at University Health Network in Toronto). The basic premise is that in any organization, there are people doing the “wrong thing” but getting the right results.  By wrong thing I mean that they are not following a standard protocol but have found a better way to achieve results that works within their local context. It does not lead to a standardized best practice but it is an approach that allows for multiple variations all focused on the same ends.

Leaders need to listen. They need to listen to people across the organization and then they need to provide the systems, structures, and supports that allow those same people to take ownership for the changes that really matter to them. The whole organization will be better served as a result.

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Peter_bio2Peter Dickens
Peter Dickens is passionate about leadership and change. He helps people and organizations that serve others to revitalize their leadership and ministry at Follow Peter on Twitter (@Dr_PeterDickens).

4 comments on “Listening Might Be Your Greatest Strength in Leading Change
  1. Thank you for this important insight into leading change in an organization. After 42 years in this business, I can certainly agree that the most influential changes I have seen have almost all been generated by the “worker bees” not the ‘queens’. Hopefully more of our colleagues in senior management positions will heed this advice, especially as it invovles the current trend towards “hospital physician engagement”. Look forward to reading more from you. Cheers! Dick Seeley, M.D.,C.C.P.E., Chief Department of Complex Care, Aging and Palliative Care, Hamilton Health Sciences.

    • Thanks Dick. In studying complex systems like healthcare, we think a lot about “tuning to the edges”. My colleague Dr. Michael Gardom is showing how approaches like positive deviance can really surface important new ideas in areas like infection control, but it takes leaders who will really listen.

  2. Peter – Thanks for sharing your insight here. I just finished working with a senior leadership team who continually asked for protocols and action plans to be developed to address organizational challenges. Getting them to listen to the edges was difficult and as my work wrapped up I thought about that Drucker quote. I would love to sit in on that week of immersion in complexity theory.

  3. Thanks Sandy. Despite all the evidence, senior leaders still want to approach change as if its linear, predicable and, perhaps most importantly, controllable. And they fail! Emergent “from the edges” change is so powerful but it scares people who fear a loss of place and power.

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