Change: So what's new?
by Steve Whiddett, WHE-UK Ltd
So what's new? Not a lot really. Darwin has shown us that change is the very essence of survival. We need to adapt to changes around us in order to survive as individuals and organisations have the double challenge of managing changes in the environment as well as the organisations itself. To do so continually and successfully is the hallmark of truly effective organisations. Change is not a one off event but a continuous process and it should not need to be a project. That addressing change is often presented as a step change and a surprise to those that need to implement it is testament to our curious inability to manage change effectively.
Individually we are likely to be aware of how we need to adapt but in organisations it is all too easy to stay with what we feel comfortable with and let others deal with changes that might affect our future, i.e. leave it to those people ‘up there’. But the people ‘up there’ are also in the organisation, they may not be trained in what being ‘up there’ involves and many will feel the same way about change as the rest of us. Very few seem to see the need to keep adjusting course and to manage the influences diverting us from that course. Some people have what it takes to change direction completely and steer toward a new destination. Unfortunately those tasked with changing direction are not necessarily skilled at doing so and those whose roles require that they manage and adjust the course don’t necessarily know or want to be reminded that they should be doing it - or how they should be doing it.
Changing the direction of a large moving object requires a very good understanding of where that object is heading, at what velocity, why it is on that course and what effect a change of direction will have on it, its people and everything within its scope of operation – as a few cruise ship captains dramatically demonstrated recently!
Following a very successful performance improvement change programme in a local authority, where we embedded the management of change into the roles of all staff and into systems and processes for managing performance, the authority received positive national recognition for changes in its performance. The CEO took this opportunity to take on a similar role in a much larger authority and a new CEO was appointed to replace him. The new CEO immediately introduced new values, new competencies, new performance management processes and new people at senior level. Consequently, the authority lost many of the staff and discarded many of the systems and processes that had supported and enabled the changes. The authority returned to its old ways, staff motivation dropped and individual ownership of performance management stopped in its tracks. In many organisations significant change work has been discarded by uninformed decision making that reinforces the view that investing in consultancy is a waste of money.
There are positive exceptions. We recently worked with a new CEO to help analyse and understand their ‘new’ organisation prior to deciding and developing a strategy to meet specific business needs. By exploring and understanding the organisation before making any changes, decisions were then based on evidence of what worked well, what didn’t work well enough and what needed to be done differently. The change programme identified that the management team needed to work differently to achieve the objectives that had been identified as necessary for the future of the organisation. Until this point, the team with their previous CEO, had developed a strategy each year and then failed to deliver on it each year – apparently without too much concern that this cycle was not producing the results that the private equity owners had required. It would appear that the private equity owners did recognise this, hence the new CEO. Within 18 months, as planned, the organisation was performing, as planned, at a level that enabled it to be sold, as planned.
Dramatic organisational changes would not be necessary if influences on an organisation’s direction were managed as a normal part of everyone’s day job. However, most organisations reserve the management of direction for people in jobs defined as ‘strategic’. That does not mean that it happens. For example, following the banking crisis it was clear, to many, that public sector organisations would be required to make very significant budget cuts, yet most of the strategic level public sector managers I worked with over the last few years did not take action to prepare for the cuts until they were told to make them and then they reacted surprised and as if the cuts were unwarranted. Continual and very public warnings over three years had not been acted on. True, some managers may not have wanted to see what was coming but it was also true many of these managers had only ever had to meet short term operational needs. They moved into and were promoted through the management ranks and yet they had not changed their focus from operational to strategic issues.
Even with a lot of support these managers were not producing plans to address the cuts. Consultants (not us) were brought in to ‘help’ the managers focus on the psychology of change and on helping individual managers understand their personal psychological needs and drivers. The process was very protracted and despite lots of counselling it was not producing results. The situation, which I observed in public and private sector organisations, had not been appropriately explored and assumptions had been made about the ability of the managers to identify the changes required and to act accordingly. After meeting with some of the providers and their clients, two issues became very clear, one was that managers didn’t know how to write business plans to address changing circumstances. And the other was that their organisational cultures dissuaded managers from committing themselves in writing until directed to do so – history having demonstrated that those ‘directing’ would then be blamed if there were problems.
Even when able to identify necessary changes to affect the long term direction of an organisation, managers often focus more on things that have shorter term outcomes. This is not so surprising; we like to feel valued and be recognised for being useful and/or needed. It is not easy to maintain enthusiasm for actions that will not be recognised as worthwhile for several years. It can be much more tempting to take on something that will readily show others our worth rather than plug away at something that, even if essential, may go unnoticed. Rewards may come to those who wait, but that isn’t what we see happening in most organisations.
Adapting to the market place requires constant attention and adjustment to a system of interrelated influences, i.e. strategic aspirations, operating conditions and people. If these are not explored and managed as a system it is easy to make assumptions that waste time and effort and even bring about calamitous changes. This is true for those working in an organisation and for those who advise organisations. We are not the only advisers in this field and while we criticise other advisers for being too narrow and too formulaic we also fall into the same traps.
When we start to think about organisational needs we must start from our understanding of the organisation, its environment and its people; not from our understanding of our tools, our theories and the varied perspectives within our discipline. The latter are tools we use to do our work, do not get confused into believing they are the work.