This question needs to be asked carefully. I don’t ask it too early, else it blocks creative thinking. It can encourage people to hunker down in their comfort zones - which usually means keeping the status quo.
Also I try not to ask it when the creative juices are flowing with full force. This question can act as a break on innovation and dull the excitement that arises when people are imaging better future states.
But it does need to be asked at some point. Often a good time is when good progress has been made creating a vision of a future state and the energy levels in the room are dropping down.
At first, when you ask teams, “afterwards, what should be the same”, you may get little response. But with a few prompts such as “really, you don’t mind if absolutely everything changes”, people will start to share their thoughts. These thoughts are interesting and expose a lot!
I ask this question for three different reasons.
The first is the avoid reason. During change we can lose sight of what is actually good about our organization. What makes us the organization we are and still want to be?
Change initiatives can create all sorts of unintended damage. Sometimes this is damage to aspects of our organization we value. By explicitly keeping these aspects in sight we can reduce the risk of such collateral damage.
The second reason is almost the opposite to the first. Sooner or later someone will raise something that they believe should stay the same, but which others do not. Asking “what should be the same” is a nice way of exposing those givens or assumptions about an organization that change initiatives should actually be setting out to alter. This can be challenging – but that’s the point!
If you ask people “what are the givens” or “what are the basic assumptions of our organization” they often struggle. But ask them “what must stay the same”, and people soon generate a long list of important items. This list is a great place to discuss and reach agreement on what really needs to stay the same versus what are those challenging alterations the organization should be aiming for.
The final reason is more subtle. This question can start to give good insight into the way people in an organization really think. What do they value versus what do they consider as disposable? This insight is both useful for them – and for someone like me trying to work out what is really going on in an organization.