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Archive for 2011

Setting up the change bubble

Change can be started from the middle and not just as a company wide initiative. i.e leaders can create culture change within their own department or division without any impetus from outside such as HR or their CEO/GM. Indeed many senior managers learn their way through change by taking smaller initiatives of their own when running departments, before they move on to running divisions, or indeed whole companies. Your successful implementation of change in the middle ranks can be a part of your rise to the top. After all when you get to the top, change is normally what you are expected to do.

But change from the middle brings a lot with it.

I often think of culture change in one small part of a bigger entity as building a bubble around your department or division. Localised change means that you are creating something different from the rest of the organisation, something that the organisation may, or may not like. Culture has a life of its own, and like any life form it tries to protect itself. So if your change requires any form of change in your local culture (and very few systems changes stand alone without a change of working habits, attitudes etc and that means a change in culture), be ready for the larger culture to impact on your small change. As a ‘life-form’ the dominant culture will try to wash over anything that is different from it so that ‘the way things are’ is protected. In change from the middle you are up against the status-quo.

To ensure that your change survives and grows you build a bubble around your department, the people within it and the change that you are promoting. That bubble needs to be strong enough to protect your change from outside influences that may not like what they see. Your change needs to captivate and hold the attention of those within your department because they are currently ‘infected’ with the old culture; after all your organisation has told them for long enough that the other way of doing things was the right way. Therefore your people need you to create a safe space for them to engage with that change, as they may be going against the organisational flow by getting on board your change.

So starting change from the middle requires something a little different from a change that is organisational wide. There are challenges that you will face as a manager driving change in your patch. Like any change you need to do your homework and prepare before you launch, so that you have everything in place to ensure success. Part of that is the logistics and mechanics of what you need to do for your specific change e.g. the hardware and software, the plan, the process, the comms plan, the engagement process, the budgeting and control processes.  All of these are the most obvious starting points for a change leader.But they aren’t everything.

Before you start you also need to understand what the change takes from you personally. Many changes fail, not because they were a bad idea, but because the leader did not understand what the change would take from them. They didn’t set up a safe place for change so the bubble burst well before the change had a chance to grow.

On December 21st I will be talking with Heather Stagl of Enclaria, on blogtalk radio, about creating a safe place for change from the perspective of what it takes from a leader. Listen here for that conversation.

As part of that conversation, my next few blogs will also continue this topic with an exploration of the four things a leader needs to consider when building their change bubble.

The end of the world as we know it?

I”ve been watching the recent fallout between NZ Softball and a few of its players with interest. It”s had remarkable coverage for a small sport in a country dominated by Rugby and Cricket. Thats probably because Softball is something that Nz can compete on the world stage (however small that stage may be). The problem is that some of the players are that good at swinging a bat or throwing a ball that a very similar sport, Baseball, is starting to look at a few of the NZ Players and say “want to play our game?”.

You can see the attraction for the players: Baseball in the USA has money and that means a chance for some of these young guys to make a living in a way they never could at softball. So they want to play baseball as well as softball.

Where”s the problem in that? You may say. Well, Nz Softball doesn”t like this and is saying “you can”t play with us if you play with them”

So what has this to do with change? (knowing I need to get to the point soon or you will switch off). The tendency to protect the established order is something that you see time and again in the history of business. This starts simply as “The way we do things is fine, so we don”t need to change”. This scenario has been repeated so often that you can almost plot a “rise and fall”  of great names as a result of it. Norton motorcycles died because they resisted the advent of simple things such as the push button start. Borders barely survived their belief that “we don”t need computers in a bookshop”. Many of the established names in the stock exchange of 100 years ago no longer exist. But with some its starts with that belief and then moves to a push to make sure that everyone else agrees or ensure that change doesn’t happen.

What we are seeing with NZ Softball is that interesting ‘protectionist’ thinking. When the established order not only rejects change, but tries to force their view of the world on the world by justifying their actions. We saw this a few years ago with Finance companies who  said “you cannot afford to let us fail” and instead of suffering the evolutionary penalty of their actions, forced the world to change instead of them changing. Look beyond the world of business and in our lives and times Libya tried it, Syria is trying is and Egypt is struggling against the ‘we like

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the world the way it is because it suits me’ mindset.

NZ Softball certainly isn”t in the same basket as all those American finance companies, or those countries, but the thinking is the same. The kind of thinking that shows they can see change coming and don”t like the look of it. Thinking that leads to actions to hold back the change, prevent it from happening. Whether they are people in government, in businesses, established institutions, managers of companies you will see people using their position and their authority to try to hold back change. Its a human tendency.

Yes, I said ‘Managers of companies’. Day in and day out managers can, and do, make decisions to protect themselves from changes that they don’t like, that threaten their knowledge or their position or their power. Projects gently scuppered, proposals rejected, promotions prevented, decisions made and people put back in their place. Its a human tendency.

History shows that you can only hold change back for so long if you have the power, but if change has momentum you can”t hold it back forever.  Indeed much of change seems part of the natural timeline of history. Wheels led to carts, carts led to carriages, carriages led to cars, cars to planes, planes to space travel (Please forgive the generalisation of Human history, but you know what I mean) and that”s why much of change is really just evolutionary.

What history shows is that if you don’t make the change, someone else will and before you know it you are the dinosaur that is dying out and the thing you were trying to prevent happens anyway. Evolution doesn’t give you many chances (so watch out Softball).

The Pace of Change

How quickly should you implement a change programme? Is there a benefit in quick or slow and is there a risk in either?

Some changes would appear to have a long timeline as a function of the time it takes to put in the hardware or software. But generally speaking the timeline where you have your staff involved and affected by the change is much shorter than the time it takes for your experts to install the equipment/system etc.

Its that time that has the biggest impact on the success of change; the time where your people have to engage in the new system or the structure or the changes to their job (as a result of the system or the structure) that you need to think about how quickly or slowly you take it.

Lets look at a few examples to see what they tell us about the risks and benefits in the choice of pace.

  • Its here!

When it comes to restructuring I have seen examples of change that involved a group of senior people being locked away in meetings over a couple of weeks or months. They make the decisions on structure and who is going to fit in that structure then go through the prep process (letters/payments etc) until they are ready to launch the change. If they manage to keep it quiet (a big if, discussed in this previous blog) they come out and tell everyone the structure, who has a job and its all over and done with in a day or two.

Clean, tidy and efficient?

Well, yes, on the face of it, but the residual after-effects say otherwise. Lack of trust in your leaders, communication channels failing and future change wariness all follow on from change that is implemented in this fashion. People are thinking ‘you knew but you didn’t tell us’ so they soon move to a place where they don’t trust you or believe what you do say. So going too quickly risks the trust that needs to exist in any successful organisation.

  • Heres another one!

What about situations where a few jobs are cut one week, then some more a few weeks later followed by a bit of a reshuffle here and there, then another announcement that we need to trim around the edges? The situations where change is one thing after another?

Now some organisations find themselves in situations where over the course of two or three years they need to make changes because the environment changes and they need to adapt. I am not talking about one change a year, I am talking about multiple changes within a year and multiple changes within months.

A policy of dragging your changes out over a few months so that each one is quite small can seem like a good way of reducing the pain tat a big announcement has. But it begins to feel like ‘death by a thousand cuts’. A thousand cuts that you don’t know when and where the next one is coming.

This approach tends to dampen motivation almost permanently. People live in ‘fear’ of what could be coming next. Their focus is therefore permanently aware of the ‘unknown threat’ (see my recent blog on the right time to prepare) and not on the job you really want them to do. Motivation down, focus down and of course your leaders gaining the reputation that they don’t know what they are doing. If every year you need to change, that can be communicated as a function of context, but every month?

So dragging the change out risks the motivation of the workforce.


  • Conclusions?

Too fast and too slow. Neither really work, so what does? Lets only look at what these examples tell us about pace (and not the trust and belief that is also inherent in the examples).

The key is in engagement in the change. The time that it takes for people to understand the change and believe it. If there is no time to ask questions, to have them answered, to discuss with colleagues and come round to the understanding that the change is necessary, whether they like it or not, then people will be mistrusting of the change.

Similarly with changes in software or hardware, people need time to engage in the ‘ why’ then the knowledge required before the change arrives, then they need time to practice the use of the tool before it matters too much and then they need time and support with the real live issues that come up when the system goes live.


Whatever your change there is an engagement phase and that involves time, before the change itself as well as during the change. Go too quickly and people don’t have time to get on the bus, go too slowly and people don’t know there is a bus to get on or whether they trust the bus you are driving!



The right time to prepare?

I am often asked ‘When is the right time to prepare an organisation for change?’. This normally comes up when an CEO has announced a change, or leaders have gone though my ‘Leading through transition seminar” seminar (then realising what is involved, they ask for their teams to go through my ‘Dealing with uncertainty seminar’ seminar).  Normally the driver is that change is here and happening.

My answer is generally ‘Yesterday’

The best time to prepare your people for change, is before change itself. That might not sound sensible but let”s think it through.

When you are in the midst of change your brain starts to behave differently. Change is normally something to worry about. If you are an employee you aren’t in control of it, probably don’t know what is happening exactly and are unlikely to know what is happening to you as a result of the change.

Your brain simplifies all this complexity and goes back to your caveman past and treats it like a threat. More importantly it treats it like an unknown threat. With unknown outcomes your brain will keep going back to the problem to see if you can solve it (you know this; thats why you wake up at night or can”t sleep for thinking about it). In addition your brain narrows in and focuses on the threat. In doing so it simplifies your attention and you tend to miss things. This makes sense when dealing with a threat because you cant be distracted when a threat is at hand (early cavemen probably learnt this the hard way). That”s also why its easier for leaders to say ‘business as usual’ than it is for the workforce to act that way.

So how attentive to new learning are you going to be?

But if you learn how to cope with change when you aren’t worrying about it, then it is far easier to go back to the knowledge/tools/processes/practices etc, because you will have learned that this is the way to deal with the unknown threat. It makes it easier for the leader too as they can gather the team together and say ‘remember that stuff we learnt a few months ago? Lets all dig it out and apply it to now’.

The normal situation that I come across is that the CEO/GM has announced that change is coming but doesn’t yet know what the change will be (structure, owners, system etc). So they decide to leave the training of people until the answer is know.Why does this happen? I find that managers tend to prefer certainty. They get promoted for creating it and like to be seen to know the answers, so its not surprising that they want to wait ‘till things are known’ (this is the case with change communication too and I’ve blogged on that before).

The problem with that approach is that people have been going through the emotional side of change for the weeks and months between knowing that change is coming, and then knowing how the change will be implemented. That’s weeks and months of the unknown. Through that time they will go through the roller-coaster of emotional change and their brains will be trying to deal with the problem (the threat) without any tools or capability.

Then someone comes along and tells them what they’ve been going through, and whilst that is a relief (and believe me when I tell you that the most immediate affect of my dealing with uncertainty seminar when delivered during change, is that of relief), its is still a harder job to consider your personal ‘coping’ mechanisms because you are in the change and that is your focus.

Whether you are in change now, thinking about going in to change, or change is on the horizon, prepare your people for change as soon as you can. Thats the right time.


I was sitting with a friend recently who was waxing lyrical about the rugby world cup. He admitted that he was one of the many people who had said ‘it will be a waste of money’ when it was announced a few years ago, but now that it is here and he can see it in the flesh he thinks it is something ‘New Zealand can be proud of’.

The word ‘Vision’ springs to mind.

In 2010 during the football world cup in South Africa I saw a report about the new stadium in Cape Town. Its inception was widely contested by the locals who thought it would spoil the view of Table Mountain and be an unnecessary eyesore. Once it was built, and full of supporters, the opinions changed as it was seen as a spectacular statement for the city.

Vision again.

Its good to be consultative as a leader. To understand what the mood of your staff is, to engage them on the journey, to involve them in the solutions to the business challenges.

However most people, when asked their view on things, will tend to the cautious, the pessimistic or a preference for stability. These characteristics are useful in many jobs, that rely on these tendencies, but when it comes to taking an organisation to a completely different place, that is where leaders should come in to their own.


True leadership is needed to express a vision for an organisation that is bold and challenging and potentially game-breaking. Apple, Xerox, Amazon, Google are names that we treat as mainstream now but at one time they challenged the existing order of things.

To do so takes not only a clear vision but the strength to hold to that vision when challenged and to carry your people with you.

Redesigning your business is not the same as the early start-up phase of Apple , etc. You will be surrounded by people who are used to ‘the way we do thing’ and if your organisation has been successful doing it that way, then most will have real difficulty accepting a change in the way things are done.

It takes vision.

The world is changing again I am sure. Technology has driven change for so long, but now the world looks like it is going through a phase of financial uncertainty, where the ‘way we have done things’ will be redesigned. In the future your business wont be able to just sit out bad times. The future will reward those who have the vision to redesign their business rapidly and sustainably. Old fashioned cutting of headcount in the hope you can rehire and spend later wont work when the recession cycle is shorter. Stopping your investment will have a more crippling effect when others are better equipped and better trained whatever the cycle. Change will need to be different. Evolutionary, rapidly, routinely, with agility. The way you do things.

It will take vision.