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Archive for 2010

The Legal Minimum?

There are few businesses out there that have not had to restructure at some time or another. Sometimes its because their market has gone downhill and they need to ‘retrench’ and at other times its because they need to grow and re-invest in technology. Either way jobs change and some jobs are removed or ‘dis-established’.

When these situations occur good companies have always worked things through with their employees and managed the change with integrity and with respect for those whose lives will change. Of course, not everyone does it well and in my ‘leading through transition’ workshops I give a few examples that I have seen where distinct lack of empathy was shown.
Its because of those businesses who don’t see the benefit of managing change well (and there are many), that laws are put in place. Whatever country you are reading this from I know that you will be subject to some laws that are meant to protect employees from poor management practice. In New Zealand we are no different and have laws that require us to consult with our employees on the proposed changes that an employer wants to put in place. I can see the good intentions behind that idea. A good employer should want to engage with their workforce to work the changes through and would want their ideas in how best to implement the change. In the past, before such legislation, I have tried that approach and honestly explained the problem and opened up discussions with the workforce. Unfortunately it doesn’t really work and that is the first of the two problems with the legislative approach to managing restructuring.
The first thing that crosses anyones mind when you say that you have to bring about change in the business and that means some jobs have to go or change is that people are immediately concerned about ‘me’. What do you think would happen if you tried engaging in a decent wide ranging conversation to explore all ideas and options when you are thinking ‘this could mean I lose my job’ or ‘this could be a nice tidy sum and early retirement’? Natural human instincts of self preservation come in and you don’t have an honest conversation at all. The only person that you have such a conversation with is someone who is not affected. What happens when engage with the workforce in this way is that they soon say ‘You are management! Its your job to sort these things, why haven’t you done it?’
And soon you are back to the original approach of management coming up with a proposal and then talking it through with the workforce.
And then the second problem with the legislative approach comes in. The thing about the law is that it is open to interpretation. In fact there are people whose whole livelihood depends on their ability to interpret it differently and win. That means the law is never truly fixed and you are always looking at the last case and the last interpretation. This means that every time you start a consult you are spending a lot of your time trying to avoid being the next test case because going to court costs a lot of money with those guys who enjoy debating the law that you didn’t intend to break in the first place.
And how do you avoid being another case? By managing your proposal and process as tightly as possible. In fact in many cases the employer choses to follow a line of doing the legal minimum. Its often easier, as the less you say the less likely you are to get in to trouble. In addition you minimise risk by working the possible restructuring down to the tightest option. That means there is not a lot to discuss with the workforce as there are no real options. In fact I have sat with employers who have moved away from the smartest decision for the business, and in the long run their people, because that choice could result in a challenge in court.

Simplistically the less you say and the tighter the options you offer, the less likely you are to be really consulting and that defeats the higher intent of the reason for the legislation in the first place.

Why has this happened? Well, the courts have got wary of people who use restructuring as a way of managing performance and that means many of the actions in court and the decisions being made are to make it tougher on employers who may be trying this. Of course it is another story to consider why it could be easier to manage a restructuring than to manage poor performance but lets leave that aside. The point is that some employers try this route and the more they do so, the tougher the courts will make their testing of cases to see if it was a true consult.
Can we change it? I’m not sure whether we can unless the legislation is overhauled, but it may help if employers restructure when they need to restructure and manage performance when that is required!

Strategies for sameness

Let me ask you a question. ‘How unique is your business/division?’
If you could rate your business/division out of 10 for uniqueness what score would you give it?.
When I talk uniqueness I mean the kind of uniqueness that gets you market-place advantage over anyone else.

Unless you are one of the few products in the world that has a complete monopoly, you are likely to have someone who competes with you in the market. Your product may look different, taste a little different, be presented differently, named differently, but at a basic level its still something that someone else can make. In fact the consumer choice of your product over another is a preference. A car is still a car however well you market it.

So is there much true uniqueness there in your product?
If you are offering a service it’s likely that many other people will be offering that service too.
The conditions that surround your business are likely to be the same as your competition. The same marketplace, same customers to target, same environment, same labour pool opportunities. So no real uniqueness there. In fact a pretty level playing field.

The things that make your business unique or not must therefore be within your control. That means that they must be within your business/division and not in the context around you.
So how unique is your business inside? You think you score close to 10?

Do you have a unique vision, mission and values set? Really?
Is your strategising process commonly used?
Do you follow commonly methodologies to develop business plans?
Do you demand consistency on a daily basis but ask for innovation on that one strategy day?
So is your strategic start point really unique? Does your strategy give you advantage?

Lets look at the processes and tools you use to deliver strategy:

Do you use a commonly available I.T platform?
Do you use a commonly available data management tool?
Do you use a commonly available CRM system?
Do you buy and use commonly available equipment?
Is the machinery you use for manufacturing commonly available?
Is your office/factory any different from those around you?
Do your suppliers supply other people?
Do you have much uniqueness there? Are you using process, systems and tools that are unique to your business? So is there much competitive advantage in those?

Its a fact of the modern world that many of the platforms of business are commonly available. I often say to clients ‘anyone can buy the latest version of Microsoft windows, so is that something to hang your hat on as a competitive advantage?’ Yet many companies spend a vast fortune on new systems as if they will give them an advantage when in fact the system or tool just keeps them in the market

So by now you will be saying ’My people are my advantage!’.
Every business says that, but have you tested that against the uniqueness question?
Do you use commonly available HR ideas and approaches? e.g. competency maps.
Do you buy and use commonly available HR tools?
Do you use commonly accepted remuneration policies?
Do you follow commonly adopted appraisal approaches?
Do you follow commonly adopted selection processes?
Do your training and development approaches differ significantly from anyone else’s?
Do you have a tolerance for people who don’t make life easy?

It’s another fact of the modern world that many of the HR systems and processes adopted in the last decade have been designed to manage consistency and to provide certainty for the business. Business has demanded that of the HR community.

So the best approach to managing HR has been to ‘follow best practice’. Unfortunately following best practice means doing what someone else has already done.
There is nothing unique in following best practice. There is unfortunately no competitive advantage in best practice. Best practice is like benchmarking. It has a built in second place mentality.

My question for you this week is ‘how often do you ask your business to find you uniqueness?’ How often do you support the trying of something different? How often do you ask a supplier the question ‘who else have you delivered this for?’ Not because you want to be sure that it is already proven, but because you want to do something different to anyone else. Do you actively recruit people who will challenge the business? Do you tolerate the ‘deviant thinkers’ who go against the norm (but are difficult to manage). Do you review your best practices and say ‘tear them down because everyone else is doing that’ or ask the question ‘is that best practice doing anything for me other than keep us safe and second place?’

Let me ask you do you strategise for sameness or uniqueness?


The Quake Test

In the last month New Zealand has seen some of its biggest earthquake damage in over 80 years. The impact in Christchurch has been significant and many buildings have come down, homes have been ruined, businesses destroyed and many lives changed forever.

Earthquakes are not unusual around the world so it was not a surprise that Murray McCulley, our minister for foreign affairs, and mentioned the fact that, compared to many other countries, our structures and infrastructure did not fail as catastrophically as has been seen in other countries.

You might wonder why a change agent would write about earthquakes!

What occurred to me most, in watching the scenes from Christchurch, was how many of the tales told were about the response of the people and the way that they responded to the disaster, managed the disaster, and supported each other after the disaster.
What I saw was another reminder that when the structures fail, the ability to operate is down to the people. What I also saw was that the structures that did not fail had been designed for the conditions that they operated in. They weren’t designed for downtown London or the Chinese countryside. They were designed to work in New Zealand for the conditions that prevail here. They were designed to work for the people that needed to use them. The structure was for the people and not for itself.

It reminded me that in organisations we spend a lot of time on the way we are structured and we spend a lot of time restructuring, but that the structure itself delivers nothing. People do.

Now I am not saying that you shouldn’t care about the structure of the organisation. What I am saying is that your structure is there to pull people together in to groups or teams of common purpose to enable them to easily and effectively work together. It helps define boundaries where boundaries are needed. It should help define relationships so that people understand the connection between roles.
Organisational structure is not real. It is a self imposed concept and like all concepts it is designed to help give meaning and understanding to the people who need to use it.

Therefore the structure is not there for itself it is there for the people. The structure cannot be right or wrong or have a voice (as in the organisation says). It does not create or deliver. It cannot innovate or design or invent.

Structure shouldn’t be defined to ‘give a manager a job’ or to ‘create hierarchies of power’. It shouldn’t be redefined just to remove numbers from the business, nor should it be an alternative performance management tool. I have unfortunately seen it used for all of these and inevitably it doesn’t reap many benefits

Structure should be there to align, group, connect and make efficient work paths. And the unstated word there is people. Structure is there to support people.

The best test of a structure, and its suitability, is whether it supports the people within the conditions that the organisation finds itself.

Perhaps we can call this the ‘Earthquake test’.

New Broom, Soft Bristles?

Everyone knows the concept of a ‘new broom’ going in to an organisation and making sweeping changes to how things are done.

For some this starts with a refreshed vision/mission and roles on to new company values, some rebranding, followed by changes to the way the business operates (systems and I.T etc). For other’s it can just be that the new boss does things differently and people get used to the changes over time; the vision, mission and values are still on the walls but gradually fade, gather dust and fall off, while the new boss introduces methods, approaches and systems that they prefer and have delivered for them in the past.

Whether you’ve been part of the ‘Industrial Strength Hoover’ approach or the ‘Urban Decay’ methods of bringing changes to a business (and if you have definitions somewhere in between please share) then you will know that the arrival of a new boss or the leaving of a new boss can be an interesting time for employees.

In recent years I have noted that it is almost impossible for a new CEO/GM/MD to do anything other than adopt a new broom philosophy. In addition it is noticeable that there is an expectation that the sweeping starts very soon after their arrival. This creates some interesting changes scenarios for the business.

Firstly the business often goes in to hiatus when it is clear that a new boss is arriving. This hiatus continues until the new boss announces what they intend to do. The hiatus seems to occur because people ‘just know’ that changes will happen with a new boss, so initiatives that take a lot of effort are ‘delayed’ and changes that were part way through are put on hold. People hunker down and do the basics.
As a change agent this is an interesting time to observe the culture as it is an indication of what is culturally embedded but it is often a ‘lowest common denominator’ impression. At this point the new boss comes in and sees that lowest common denominator and rapidly comes to the conclusion that old vision/mission and values are not working (rapidly because that is the expectation these days) and low and behold they see that a new broom is needed.
If the new manager then acts soon after their arrival and takes the ‘industrial strength hoover’ approach then many good things are swept away and lost. This is sometimes because the manager had not seen them in action because of the hiatus and sometimes because thats what happens with an industrial strength hoover. When this happens people at least know where they stand (big announcements are part of the industrial strength hoover) but often those that have been there a while suffer the ‘we’ve done this before’ feeling as similar things come out in the new vision/ mission values.
If the new manager adopts an urban decay approach people have to be light on their feet and swift to learn what is acceptable and expected. Hiatus is swapped for confusion and concern as people try to work out what bits of the old are acceptable and which aren’t.

There are many other impacts on an organisation as a result of management change, but the real question is ‘how do you reduce the negative and maximise the positive?’

I believe that new leaders need time to observe and learn about their organisation. There are many conversations required before people stop treating them like a new boss and really speak their mind. The new manager has a lot of testing (and often indirect) questions to ask over a number of weeks to find out what parts of the vision are working, whether the organisation is functioning in line with that vision and whether departments/ divisions and teams are aligned, playing their part , etc. They need to stand outside and observe the culture in action and see what is positive about it and what isn’t. They need to assess the capability and fit of their people, the systems, processes and ways of working. They need to signal to the organisation that they are looking and learning and that they want everything to continue as it was before they arrived and that includes initiatives and change programmes.

They need to manage the tension between the board’s desire for swift and immediate action and the need to find out what the right actions are. They cannot take forever to decide but nor can they decide in their first few weeks.

They need to be a new broom with soft bristles.

What Restructuring Isn’t

At some point every leader considers restructuring their organisation/their division or their team. Getting restructuring right is one of the biggest challenges of any leaders life (and if you are sitting there thinking ‘whys that, just give everyone a new organisational chart and its done’ then we need to talk). In this blog I will share a few quick comments on what restructuring isn’t.

A Panacea
Structure change isn’t a way of solving all of the organisations problems. It doesn’t dissolve inter-team conflict. It doesn’t improve communication between people or solve interpersonal issues.It doesn’t speed up work flow or improve efficiency. It doesn’t deliver better results, new ideas or new products. It doesn’t make poor performers good performers.
Structure is a just a way of grouping people together to deliver the purpose of the organisation. Each part of the structure should exist to deliver something that contributes to the overall purpose. For the structure to work everyone should be clear what the purpose of their little bit of the organisation is there for. Structure is just another tool in your process armoury. If you have inter-team conflict take a look at the leaders. If you have poor communication between people, take a look at your leader’s and your communication systems. If you have inefficiencies or work flow problems look at the processes that you use. Once you’ve improved processes you may find that your structure needs changed to reflect the change’s to the process. Improved work flow often means a change in purpose for an individual or a group. And that’s a good reason for changing structure.

A Pay Grade
Structure should never be built around existing leaders to justify their salary or worst still their existence. I’ve seen many structure changes go wrong because a group of employees were added in to the reporting line of someone who ‘needed more to do’ or ‘needed protected from the owners’ etc. If you want to build a shared services area then do so, but understand what comes along with running shared services. But don’t make HR report to your finance director because they ‘need somewhere to live’ or because she only has three other reports. The purpose of a finance director isn’t often compatible with the purpose of HR (unless your people policies are all about compliance and risk). Where teams live in the structure tells them what you think about them. A Sales division is exactly that, a group of people whose role is to sell. Similarly Marketing, Manufacturing, Finance etc. Structure is just a way of grouping people with a common purpose. That commonality means something and to many people it is part of their sense of belonging. Move people to somewhere that they know does not have a shared purpose and it means that you did not care where they belong and watch the performance plummet.

Spring cleaning
Structure change isn’t a way of getting rid of people that are not performing. You have performance management systems for that. I cant tell you how many times I have been given a list of people ‘to go’ as part of a restructuring. These people have apparently been under-performing ‘for years’, but for some reason their annual appraisal says otherwise. All this means is that their manager doesn’t want to have the hard conversation with them or to coach them in the area they aren’t performing in or to follow the due process of performance management according to the company rules and national legislation. Makes you wonder why they get a managers pay doesn’t it!

Structure change isn’t easy. It isn’t about a new organisational chart being handed out and then everyone shuffling desks. You can’t just move people from an under-performing division to one that has been performing and hope that they catch the performance virus. Structure change isn’t something that will ‘sort itself out eventually’.
People need to understand ‘why’ the change. They need to understand that their purpose has changed and not just their boss. They need new expectations. If you don’t give them all this they will keep on doing what they were doing and that will produce the same result (at best) that you had before the structure change.
There are risks in structure change. Go in to one without a risk analysis at your peril.
You need a plan, for no other reason than for your people to see that you are in control of this, you do know what you are doing and you should be trusted to make decisions about them. You also need a plan so that you know where to turn to when there are hiccups (there will be).
You need good, solid, robust communication and feedback channels.
You need patience for the long haul. Structure change takes a while to bed in and to work.
You need empathy for the people whose lives you are throwing up in the air.
In my time I have seen organisational reputation improve as a result of structure change. I’ve seen employee engagement increase immediately after a structure change. I’ve seen increased business results after a structure change. These were nothing to do with the change, but the way the change was managed.

Restructure the right way for the right reasons and I hope that you too can get the right results.