I know that’s an unusual title for a blog on change but I was spurred to the thoughts that follow by a recent trip that took me through a few airports on the way to a week of sunshine in the pacific (and yes Auckland Domestic you are not the best ‘welcome to New Zealand’ any tourist would have when they travel to the regions).
It was after one such toilet stop that I remarked to my partner that the gents was once again pretty average in cleanliness, facilities and appearance. My partner replied that the ladies was nice, with special scented ‘sticks’ and natural light as well as attractive wallpaper. For not the first time I commented that this seems to be the same story the world over (Disneyworld excepted), where the gents are often smelly, dingy and poorly equipped. We then had a conversation about whether it’s because women looked after nice facilities and men have messy habits so it’s not worth it (and I so love conversations with gender generalities sprinkled through them).
So what’s this to do with change? Well it got me thinking about the expectations we set and the standards we have in our organisations. It’s not new thinking to say that people act in line with our expectations of them. From the likes of Rosenthal onwards there has been research around performance being driven by not only perception but expectation. But I was reminded about how unconscious and unintended these messages can be. I don’t know whether my partner is correct that many places don’t put efforts into the gents because of a perception that Men are messy (disgusting was the word she used though), but I do know that in many change initiatives I’ve observed it is the unspoken, unintended and often unthought about actions of leadership that can bring your programme to a crashing halt.
From the manager that still asks for one specific report even though we’ve spent a fortune on a new information system to the comment that something is ‘just an HR thing so let’s get on with it’.
From senior executives travelling first class after a general travel embargo to reduce costs to managers referring to their pet behavioural expectations/model/process when we have shifted to a new set of values and associated appraisal system.
I’m sure you can think I’ve more now I’ve started a list, but if you can’t you may want to see if Richard Argyris book ‘the unintended consequences’ is available in your part of the world as I found this many years ago and a lot of what he reported there struck a chord with me.
As a change agent it’s something I was often alert to and the words ‘what was the outcome you were looking for with that action/decision’ often became a forerunner to an ‘unintended consequences’ conversation. Whilst it’s something I think leaders need to be aware of in everything they do I think that change agents need to act as leaderships conscience. This is because it’s not easy to step outside your own head all the time, but it is easier to observe and think ‘does that match what we set out to achieve?’, ‘is that re-enforcing our new approach or undermining it?’, and ‘is that unintentional or a buy-in issue’.
And as our toilet stops prove its not the big ticket items that really establish perceptions, it’s the small and often necessary that set the tone for your organisation.
Over the last decade I found that I was writing regularly for not only for thechangefactor about all things organisational change related but also about leadership and people insights for altris. At times it felt like a veritable outpouring which also included two books. But in the last few months I’ve slowed down a lot to a bare trickle. Have I dried up? People have asked me and others have gently commented . So have I dried up and got nothing to say? Well the truth is I’m doing everything I ever did and that was watch clients in action and reporting what I saw (no names mentioned to protect the innocent), but now as I watch I’m saying to myself ‘seen that before’, ‘wrote about that in 2009′, ‘chapter 6 of the book’.
And there is the problem in change I think. It’s not that ‘I’ve seen it all’; it’s that we are still struggling with the same issues. All the blogs I read and ‘new’ products, processes and approaches I see are mostly dealing wit the same issues, just packaged for another generation of managers and change agents. The problem is that the change industry hasn’t fully solved the problems of change, we are just dealing wth each group of managers we work with coming through their change experience and learning from it the same way their forebears did. Sure we have better tools, apps for everything, online stuff that make comms easier or provide instant access to our resources. And the industries where we are driving change have changed a lot too but that means more people using multiple computer screens compared to the days where the computer was the change.But If every change agent boiled down the essence of what they do and distilled it down to an elixir of perfect change that we could sell in online change supermarkets then I’m sure it would come down to managers and the way they operate (or don’t operate) with their staff and the elixir would be ‘perfect change leadership’.And this is why when I look at what my clients are doing, the models they are buying (often for big $) and the expensive processes they are paying for their people to learn, all of them seem to be sold on to the idea that if we all followed the perfect process, installed the perfect culture, did things the same way then change would miraculously happen. And all of this ignores the one great unpredictable variable in our workplace and that is our people. The inconsistent, non processable, unique and flawed human beings whose creativity and intelligence we spend a lot of money going out to hire to then find that they don’t have the culture we want or that the way they are doing things needs to change. So we process them and train them and often ‘get them off the bus’ and I watch and I think ‘have you tried leadership?’ And the answer is often ‘we sent our managers on a training course so they must be leaders’. So I breath deeply and I watch and I still see a dearth of leadership in the day to day. Whole cultures of confused yet bright people waiting to be told what to do because they know they have to. Desperate for feedback yet only ever seeing the red pen marks through their report and wondering ‘why?’. Looking for guidance, for clarity, for a sense of belonging, for regular communications, for someone to engage in dialogue so they can understand our new heading. And they wait as managers have meetings with other managers and say they have ‘no time for this leadership stuff’ and then the new CEO comes in and demands change so another round of initiatives is launched based on me persons ‘success’ in another business. To be a change agent requires eternal optimism that your client/your organisation can make something happen, but sometimes I think we all need to sit our leadership teams down and say ‘if you lot don’t actually go out and lead and stop expecting us to do it for you, then we are all out of here and you can just get on with it’. Until we do, and they communicate, engage, listen, guide, feedback, support, then there will be no change in change.
P.s Martin would love all leaders to buy his book on change and not just leave it on a shelf with all the other books from their training courses held in expensive locations, but actually read it and yes, do something with it! If anybody can prove that they did and got a different result from usual he will happily give the earnings from the sale of that book to a charity of their choice. Honestly.
For many years a large part of my work was restructuring business, downsizing organisations and disestablishing roles. All lovely change jargon to make ‘redundant’ sound less harsh. I worked with some organisations many times and my arrival at the office reception immediately raised concerns and thoughts of ‘hear we go again’ amongst staff who knew me. Even when I was there to do the many other things I am called for I was often referred to as ‘the grim reaper’ in some organisations.
These days I’m called on less often to guide an organisation through such changes because everyone thinks they can handle it themselves. Lawyers will often be called upon and many HR practitioners will have ‘restructuring’ on their Cv. But organisations handling structure change themselves was often why I was called upon in the first place (when they got themselves in a tangle) and there is still a case for outside support I believe, that many organisations are missing.
Above the politics
The external change agent can give pure and clean guidance without affecting their next pay rise or performance review. Internal HR advisors can be sidelined by powerful GM’s/CEOs that think they know what to do and/or know what they want and don’t want to consider alternatives. They can become so much a part of the internal political scene that they know they can’t raise certain topics with the CEO/VP/GM and if they do the guidance can be couched so carefully that the message is lost. As an external change agent advice can be given, risks raised and the unmentionable mentioned because they are outside the performance review process.
They care about your reputation not the numbers
A good change agent isn’t just interested in how many roles are to be changed or removed. For them it’s not a numbers game or a target to focus their attention on. A good change agent isn’t really bothered about the law because they know the law is a minimum standard designed to catch the negligent or uninterested. A good change agent is neither.
A good change agent is focused on how the change happens because they know that the way the process is run, and the approach taken has a lasting effect on morale, reputation, employer brand and culture to say the least. A lawyer will advise you on the law but not on how people will feel. They may even advise you that ‘if it went to court you would win’. These days, less and less time is taken on consulting because nobody thinks they really need to go that far. A good change agent knows that the way you treat those that go tells everyone else how you really are as a company, and that’s why a good restructure is never done to the legal minimum but to the reputational maximum.
Better than a training course
I’ve always been a great advocate of training managers in how to lead people through the emotional side of change, but theory is one thing and reality is another. A good change agent shouldn’t do the job for you (like a George Clooney clone) but they will be able to mentor your managers through each state of the process, transferring knowledge and upping skills in a way that HR can’t (they have 200 other projects going on) or the lawyer can’t (they advise on law not on what to do when someone bursts into tears).
Nothing through the cracks
It may seem like an unnecessary extra pair of hands but internal staff have so much more going on than just the structure change that things get missed. Change is like juggling an extra ball when you are just managing to handle the 3 you had. So an extra pair of hands will help make sure that nothing about the change is missed as they only have to focus on that. A good change agent can often hear things that the managers don’t because they can go places, chat and listen (now I’m not saying managers can’t do this, but so many move from one meeting to the other that it is nigh on impossible to sit them down at their desk never mind walk the floor). More importantly they know what they are listening for. The emotional signals of someone who doesn’t want to let on that a whole load of their life wasn’t good and now you’ve added to it are part of a change agents radar.
So don’t fear the reaper, they are there to help your organisation come out of change in better shape than you went in.
In July this year we moved from the New Zealand hub of Auckland to Marlborough in the South Island. Granted, we didn’t live in the city itself and had a few acres to ourselves, but this was a move to a different lifestyle entirely. Three weeks ago we finally moved in to our own place and this blog reflects on the last few months in the context of change.
Different doesn’t need to be bad
When we moved out of our old house we left behind a large spread with a great swimming pool, orchards, loads of rooms, space to spread out to have fun together or find a bit of personal peace. We hadn’t found a new place of our own so we were lucky enough to rent a few rooms in a homestay. Two small bedrooms, a tiny kitchen and a living room/dining area became home for four months. All our gear was in storage so we had very little around us that we were used to. Many people said to us ‘I couldn’t cope with that’ and I could see why. Such a dramatic shift in life is often a recipe for disaster.
But we turned a negative into a positive. It became an adventure and an opportunity to see what life could be like in our new setting. We relied less on our toys and more on us. And in that I saw the essence of many successful organisational turnarounds. Dwelling on what’s wrong is a common issue in major change initiatives. People often only see the negative, the loss, the downside. The spirit of adventure is lost and the opportunity to pull together with colleagues and see ‘what can be’ is missed.
Some things aren’t optional
In changing our life we really changed our life. We’ve taken on 9 hectares including a producing vineyard and whilst that sounds romantic and conjures up images of quaffing our own wine on warm summer evenings there is a lot of hard grunt involved in growing grapes that you don’t see when you are looking for the latest deal in the supermarket.
Within three days of moving in we learnt that frost happens between 1am and 5am in the morning. That may sound obvious but on chilly nights, while you are tucked up in your bed under a nice warm duvet, we are in the vineyard turning on our Amarillo Frost Fan (a propellor on a 10m pole driven by a diesel engine). Once that is done, we walk around taking temperature readings and if certain zones get too low we light frost pots (a tub with a 1m chimney on it containing 20 litres of diesel that we light with a blowtorch). History said that we wouldn’t need to light these often. History said we wouldn’t get two nights of frost in a row. Well, night one we lit all 12 frost pots. The next night we lit them all again.
After three weeks in our new home, we have slept in the UTE (utility vehicle) out in the vines while monitoring all this 5 times. You can talk about what you want to change. You can talk about what will change. But until it is changed you’ve got to do what needs to be done. No point grumbling, you’ve just got to do it. How many changes have you seen where that’s the case? Whole systems that need updating. Processes just not in place. People having to do the basics because there is no fancy software/hardware available, etc. In change you’ve got to know what you are signing the organisation up for and they’ve got to know too. It can become the stuff of company legend (remember those years when..) if you lead change well. If you don’t, the discontent can become debilitating and the organisation won’t perform.
Old dogs can learn new tricks
Frost fans, frost pots and tractors have now become part of our lives. How to couple and decouple various implements to the tractor has been ‘interesting’ learning. So has learning to drive up rows of vines pulling a mower bed, then turn and do the next one, without hitting vines/posts/fences with the 2 metre chunk of metal you have behind you. Colleagues in Auckland think it is exciting/daunting owning a tractor. People in Marlborough think it is normal.
I’ve seen many changes where people decide for themselves that they are ‘too long in the tooth’ to learn new things. They decide that technology is ‘just too hard’, that new equipment is too difficult to get their head around. They then expect the organisation to keep their job just the way it has always been so that they don’t need to bother about such things. It’s a tractor, it’s normal in Marlborough, so it will become normal for us too. It is just another thing to learn. I’ve been learning all my life so I can keep learning now. It’s all about mindset and that is the same with organisational change. Anyone can learn if they put their mind to it. Sure we can’t all become rocket scientists, but tapping a few keys on a keyboard isn’t rocket science. It’s just a new way of applying existing experience. Next time you have someone who says that they are too old to change, just say ‘let me tell you a story about tractors and frost pots’.
Understand your business.
Do we want to spend all day driving tractors? No we don’t. We’ve already found a great guy who is much better at it than us. Do we know what it involves? Yes we do now. Could we pull our weight if we needed to? Yes we could. Can we have a sensible discussion with the guy who does it? More than we could if we had stayed inside our house and just delegated.
Want to restructure the organisation? Can you do that from your ivory tower? Can you engage in dialogue with the people whose roles you are changing if you truly don’t understand what their life is like? Ever tried negotiations on a topic you have no feel for?
These days really good CEOs know that they need to get out amongst their teams and see what their life is like. Really really good ones spend a day in others’ shoes. They don’t have organised tours around the workplace being shown around by middle management, they get out there, wear the gear, do the work, ask the questions, understand the stresses and the challenges. It doesn’t take much, just a day or so every quarter. Not a PR exercise. Not an engagement tool. Do the job. Meet the people on their terms, in their place. Then think about what the change really is.
Is it all worth it?
Some changes are really hard and I’ve seen people going through massive organisational change and experiencing huge stress. Those that get through it well know what was in it for them: experience, learning, new skills, shared stories, camaraderie are often cited when I ask people what they got out of organisational change on a personal level.
Every day I look at my new world and find something to take joy in. At 3am the sky is beautiful and the helicopters (up-market frost fans) hovering over our neighbours at Brancott Estate (up-market frost fans) are like a scene from a movie.
Want to enjoy the sunrise? Then stay up all night. I can walk my piece of the world and see it growing and know that I’m helping it to do that. And yes, in 18 months time all this hard work will be in a bottle of Fromm Brancott Valley that hopefully some of you will enjoy.
I’ve been involved in change all of my life and I’ve learnt that unless you roll your sleeves up and do what needs to be done, enjoy each success as it happens, reflect on each challenge and how it was met, engage in the positive, the adventure and the opportunity to learn, then the change becomes a chore, a bind, a joyless task to be done for salary alone and that doesn’t nourish anyone’s soul even if it does put wine on the table.
Anyone who is familiar with John Kotters’ definition of leadership will know leaders make changes – whereas managers maintain stability. The struggle to do both is the daily balancing act of any senior executive.
But, the bigger challenge is the defining of change in the first place.
Many leaders are employed primarily to make change happen. Words like ‘improve’, ‘efficiencies’, ‘growth’ and ‘competitiveness’ litter the job descriptions of C-suite roles. Many are tested for their vision and those known to have this skill are often paid more on the REM circuit.
They’re expected to march in, ‘rally the troops’, point them towards the ‘brave new world’ and take them there. Moses, Caeser and Alexander the Great all rolled in to one.
Yet we all know that change fails when the employees:
Don’t embrace the vision
Don’t share the direction
Don’t ‘buy-in’ to our new plans.
We talk about change resistance, how to engage with the vision, generate buy-in and teach leaders to go out there and do it. And when we say, “go out there and do it,” what we really mean is, “do it to them,” with “them” meaning ‘the staff’.
Persuade, convince, cajole and ultimately ‘help people off the bus’ if they don’t want to be on it. Everyone knows what’s coming, so if you want security you’d better look like this is the bus for you. After all, we’ve also learned that if you hang around long enough, the bus will change.
C-suites come and go – and the next one will want a blue bus anyway (as opposed to the green one we are jumping on now).
We employ for a vision, reward for a vision and then push that vision out there…and that’s the skill of leadership.
But is it really?
Imagine a leader who had no vision for the business. Would you employ them? No.
So, what about a leader who had no personal vision for the business, but believed the people in it did. Would you employ them? “Maybe,” I’m sure you would say. But something is still missing.
What about the leader who believed the organisation could be smarter, faster, more creative and agile – and that the people within in knew how to unlock such potential if he worked with them?
A leader whose tools were not visioning, but engagement?
A leader who stayed open to approaches that were not his – and whose only vision was one which everyone shared in?
A leader who listened not in judgement, but in interest?
The hardest change of all is where we let go of the certainty of our own vision and instead, engage with others to create a vision that is more sophisticated…because it is owned by many.
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