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Archive for 2013

Beating Busy

‘Things are going to change around here’ is a rallying call for culture change that I’ve heard many times from many leaders. Unfortunately I’ve also seen many situations where nothing happens after the call is made. Culture change is different from a change of hardware in that the hardware delivery drives the change. Culture change is largely about changing mindsets and is reliant on soft activities. The trouble with soft activities is that they need people more than things.

I got busy’ is one of the most frequent ‘reasons’ for culture change ‘delays’ and is generally given after the fact when the change has ground to a halt.

The bottom line is you are busy, were busy before you announced change, and will be busy after the change. So busy is not really a good reason to not follow through after you announce change. If busyness is predictable then why not think of how to beat busy in advance and beat your after the events with some ‘ready before the events’

  1. Don’t just announce the idea of change. Do some work on the proposed changes before you announce. If you are wanting to change culture then you will know what needs changed and you can plan the steps of those changes in advance. Sure, some stages rely on the output of other stages, but your first two or three activities can be planned, designed, facilitators booked etc so that everything is ready to role of the shelf.
  2. Who got busy? If the change is all down to you and you got busy then you’ve got even more problems coming (and maybe that’s part of the necessary . Ensure that your senior team/management team etc are involved in planning and preparing the change and can take ownership of certain topics. If something happens that means one topic needs delayed then another can be slotted in.
  3. Change thrives on multiple inputs and multiples of people being involved. Indeed the more people that engage in the change and take ownership for the implementation the better. One way of ensuring that your likely busyness doesn’t get in the way of change is to make your first planned change activities a series of events that engage large groups of the workforce in what the change can look like and how we can get there. Design these so that ‘champions’ from the workforce are sought and empowered to take easy actions as a result.
  4. Communication is your ally. If everything happens at once and you just have no option but to drop the plan for a few weeks then use communication to keep people engaged. Your early Comms will be announcement focused, so follow on Comms will be deeper and more exploratory. Have some pre-written Comms ready before you make an announcement and as your change rolls on always have some topics as ‘ emergency Comms’ to use in the event of a drop in activity.

So what’s the key to these suggestions? Minimise total reliance on you. Maximise involvement of others, launch the change with pre-planned activities that create momentum, communicate.

The answer is?

A few months ago I was asked to support two very different organisations going through change. They both sell very different services in very different marketplaces, have different processes, structures and approaches to their business and very different histories. Their only similarity is that both restructured to respond to changing market demands.

The other difference is the way that they went about the change. One organisation (call them A) asked me to help them plan and prepare their launch. As part of the process they agreed to my suggestion that we work through the way they answered questions. I asked them to give me all of the questions that they thought they might be asked, to which I added the challenging questions that tend to get asked when change has a major human impact. As part of our ‘Launch readiness’ discussions I put some of these questions to them as if I was an employee. They all listened to each others answers, offered suggestions and alternatives and had a good, if personally challenging session. Whilst they handled them pretty well they acknowledged that there were some things that needed to be worked on prior to launch. These were not unusual so I will share them here:

They noticed that different leaders answered the same question very differently. A bell curve of distribution would have been very flat indeed. They quickly realised that this range of difference would give them issues in the longer term because they knew that people would talk and compare answers. If every answer was different then the organisation would be confused about the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of the change. With that confusion would come rising tension.

Another aspect that they noted was a tendency to elaborate on their answer by adding more and more information. This is often a function of under-preparedness I.e the answer is actually being made up from the vast amount of data that the answerer has in their head. As they rapidly search the data they tend to go ‘here’s another piece of useful info’ and throw that into the mix. The problem is that they haven’t had time to sort through the data and ensure that the extra pieces really help. Instead the listener gets a scatter-gun of info and that leads to confusion again. Of course the next time the question is answered the answer is tuned a little bit more and then again the time after. This of course leads back to point 1.

Committing a no-no.
The third aspect was making sure that you don’t say something that gets you into trouble. When leaders have spent a long time thinking about the proposed changes they are mentally way ahead and virtually living in the future. They may be excited about the possibilities, and they are certainly vested in the proposal. But if your laws require to consult, then you have to consult. That means a shift in language from ‘will’ to ‘possible’. Some of them didn’t like the shift, but its either that or a legal employment issue. Secondly if your changes mean people have to go, you need to empathize with that and understand what your staff will be feeling. Too much excitement about the change is just not right at the announcement stage when jobs are going. The managers realised that they needed to manage their voice tone and manage their answers.

Organisation A quickly added these up for themselves and realised they needed a bit more preparation. They pounced on the Q&A’s I’d prepared, worked them through and rehearsed a little bit more. They were never aiming to have the consistency of robots, but they were determined to be prepared and to do their best.

When the launch period came, they were composed, empathetic, really clear on their proposals and sounding like they were singing from the same sheet. Many of the questions they prepared for were never asked as they ‘weaved’ them into their presentations. Many were never asked because the consistent messages given calmed everyone down and created confidence that things would happen as promised. In the post launch review, some asked if we really needed that many Q&A’s but others stated that the prep was what allowed them to reduce the uncertainty and confusion.

And what about organisation B?
The reason I was called in was because three months after they launched, stress levels were high, confidence was low, uncertainty remained and confusion reigned.

Did they prepare their managers? Did they achieve Consistency, No-no’s and over-answering?

What do you think?

The Battle of Wills

Can you imagine a change where a project team has been put in place to drive process and culture, the staff are showing an interest in what the change is about and what it will bring, but the managers aren’t interstellar at best and totally against it at worst? It’s not that hard to imagine because you can see it all the time in large organisations and many of you will have lived through it.

In most culture change I rely on the managers as being the main drivers of change, the communicators of the changes and the removers of obstacles that fall in the way. After all, they have the authority to make changes and are there on the ground, day by day to coach and support their staff. The main task for the change agent is the alignment of the managers to what the change is, what that means and what is required of everyone. If they are not aligned they pull different ways and change crumbles. But if the only thing that they are aligned to is that they don’t want change, what can you do?

For those in the project team, this can be a major challenge. What do you do when every conversation is pushed back, no manager gives your Comms the support it needs and every decision is litigated to death in the hope that you go away?

DIY Comms
If the manager isn’t engaging their staff in the Comms then a vital part of culture change is being missed. Project teams often resort to communicating direct with staff, but all that ensures is that the ‘are they getting the information?’ box can be ticked. The key to comms is two way and the discussion to get understanding of what and why. This dialogue deals with fears and concerns too so if its missing the project can develop unnecessary resistance and stress. Reluctant Managers can then say ‘look how you are stressing out my people, we need to kill this project’. So you need those opportunities for dialogue.

Stepping in
Some project teams respond by taking over the managers role more and more. As the manager ignores them they in turn begin to ignore the manager and go direct to the staff that are showing an interest and working with them. In the short term this may appear to work, but in the long term there is a risk because the project team can’t take over all aspects of the managers role in full and forever. In addition the manager can then make the case that they are being bypassed and the mood of the staff can swing against the project.

The other route is to spend more time with the manager trying to sway them. Of course the project team will believe strongly in the project (how could they not) and this often ends up as a series of heated arguments where two ‘world views’ clash. This can damage the project as any moral high ground is lost. The manager will be dealing with their own fears and concerns and they too need help to align and engage and this is often forgotten (they are a manager what do they have to worry about?). Managers risk a lot in change as the basis for their positional power is often taken away, knowledge that keeps them in the expert position is also rendered useless when process is totally overhauled. So the conversation of project roll out ‘right or wrong’ isn’t what they need either.

Let them fail
One approach can be to let the manager fail by leaving them to it. Staff will shout out and demand more from their manager and someone senior will step in and make the manager do their job. Well that’s the theory, but staff tend to stoically accept theirmanagers deficiency and the ‘there goes another failed initiative’ syndrome sets in. And of course the manager will not fail, the project will.


The natural tendency when you see a gap is to fill a gap. For project teams, when that gap is a manager then frustration that the manager ‘isn’t doing their job’ can mean that steps are taken for the right reason, with the wrong outcomes. Whilst leaving the manager to it, doesn’t work, stepping in as above doesn’t either.
Instead adjust your approach to get alongside the manager as much as you can. Offer to attend some of their team meetings or host discussion sessions with their teams as a partner. Their weakness in the Comms area may be lack comfort as opposed to a deliberate attempt to trip up the project. Spend time with them and listen out for their personal concerns and worries and where you can help them (and listening is often enough). Do what you can to make them look good in front of their staff. Moderate your processes if accepting their suggestions to do so moves things along at little cost to you. Don’t fight over right or wrong, don’t get stuck in a battle over the perfect roll out that took you months to design. Keep in mind that the project can live and die on how you handle the receiving managers.

So take a lesson from trees and bend with the wind rather than battle it.

Crimes against Teams

Clarity. It’s one of the most critical words in an organisation; clarity. But it’s often missing. Role clarity, clarity of leadership, clarity of purpose, clarity of objectives, outcomes, expectations, boundaries, responsibilities, accountabilities, measures, consequences. Many organizations have people working away within one, or many of these missing. They do what they think they need to, or should do, or only what they’ve been asked to do. But somehow there is a performance gap, something meaning that the results aren’t quite there. And often its lack of clarity.

And then there are teams without clarity, because they’ve been thrown together as part of the structure. They have team meetings and they are dissatisfied by them or find them a waste of time. ‘What are we doing in this meeting? Why are we talking about this? It is irrelevant to what I do!’

Then they ask ‘Why are we a team?’

And the answer is often ‘there would be lots of benefits if we were’ and that is followed by reasons such as ‘sharing information’ ‘sharing best practice’ ‘cross skilling’ ‘sickness cover’, and other such answers. And the manager sits back happily and expects that to make a difference and everyone to be happy.

The problem is that those aren’t a teams purpose. They are benefits for a team that is a team and activities that make a team more effective. But they don’t solve the clarity problem. Indeed they make it worse, because all people hear in the answers are ‘you didn’t know what to do with us and put us all in one room’ and ‘if you don’t really know, then what hope is there for the rest of us’.
Everyone knows that ‘team’ means you are dependent on each other, that you need each other to do your job and that in doing your job you are part of the success of the whole. If it doesn’t look like a team, feel like a team, then its probably not a team.

So the crime of sudo-team is committed. Activities are created to make us think we are what we know what we aren’t. Meetings waste time. Measures don’t reflect reality.

Instead of saying, ‘we aren’t a team as such, we are a group of individuals with similar skills /roles/activities for this organisation so it makes sense we live together and have the same manager to look after us.’ ‘So given that we don’t depend on each other day by day, can we get any benefit by being under the same roof?’

And suddenly its clear. We aren’t expected to be a team, there is a reason why my goals and objectives are mine and not shared, there is a reason why we have the same manager. So if that’s the case, well it would make things easier if we all got some of the same info about what is going on, so that’s better done in one meeting to be efficient. And maybe we can help each other solve problems, so how about we have a rule that anyone can call for a ‘problem-solve session’, and whilst we work on different things we use the same piece of software/process/base skills (tick as appropriate) so some way of sharing best practice may benefit all of us.

Hang on you say, that’s the same things that the manager gave when asked ‘why are we a team’, so what’s the difference? The difference is firstly that there is now no expectation of shared results and interdependency so the sham of being a real team is over. Secondly the team is now looking for benefits in being together as opposed to being told by their manager. As a result the group working practices can now be designed fit for purpose by a willing cadre e.g. Meetings get focused on what we all need to know, not what one of us needs to know. And you can’t discount the benefit of people wanting to be engaged in something because they see a benefit in it.

And most of all, what we are there for is now clear, with how and when we work together being based on that clarity.
People are happier in a crime free team.


Restructuring is a phrase that is common around the business world. If you’ve not been involved in one as a leader or employee you are very unusual.
Despite the amount of restructuring that takes place (or maybe because of it) very few deliver any real and lasting change. Indeed many just cut the wage bill, and some are done purely for that reason. But that always seems a very limited reason to change your structure.
Indeed if you are running your business well you should always have the most effective number of people engaged in the most effective process for delivering your business results. And those people should be grouped together in work units that enable them to best deliver the task that they are there for. That grouping of work units is effectively your structure.
If you look at it that way, structure should fall out of a process that groups people together to make it easy to do their job when their job requires them to engage with other people.
But if that was the case, why do many workplace problems occur because people from one work unit have to interact with people from another work unit. Indeed many restructures are done to manage these issues of interaction. But again, most don’t succeed because the issues are with the interacting people and not with the structure. Because structure is not real. It’s an imaginary construct designed by managers to create order where order would not exist otherwise. It’s there to prevent chaos, remove inefficiencies and speed up process. But most don’t do that.
Because it’s imaginary. So it can’t do anything.
So why are so many $’s spent on changing something that is unlikely to do anything but change the wage bill for a short time (and many wage bills gradually creep back up after a restructure as people are brought back to do things that still need done and were forgotten about until they were missed). The answer might lie in looking at the organisation if we had no structure.
I’ve always wondered what would happen if that was the case. if organisations had no structure imposed and people were given a very clear job description, defined and measurable outcomes and clear boundaries (you can’t spend any money, but you can solicit the support and know-how of anyone else in the organisation to deliver what you’ve been asked to deliver). Would it work? If you had 100% of your employees fully skilled in delivering what they had been asked to do, self starting, with self-discipline, built in risk sensitivity, attitudes that were positively aligned to the environment (so unlikely to mess up others work to advance themselves, un-selfish with their skills and knowledge etc) and a heep of other attributes. Then you might succeed in delivering without any structure whatsoever.
But people aren’t like that in the main, so we need the out in place supervision to make sure that people stay on the path we need them to, to clarify things and answer questions etc. We need quality checkers to keep an eye out for those places where human imperfection comes to play . We need HR people to help us employ people, pay them and help in disciplinary cases. And the list goes on.
So we need structure. But I wonder if we need all the structure we sometimes put in place or have we got used to putting in structures that we don’t think about some of them any more.
Look at some job descriptions for managers and you will find things in there that are to justify position or salary as opposed to a real need to get the best from those who report to them (the prime role of a manager). Structures are often defined based on how many direct reports a manger can manage and yet the manager spends very little of their time managing those people. Leadership posts are created that are still expected to deliver specialist activities and specialists are given people to manage to justify paying a leadership salary. People are put in groups and told they are a team but they have no interaction with each other and the manager creates false team activities to justify the word team. People are aligned in technical skills groupings yet 90% of their time is spent with people in other units. People with specialist skills are embedded in units to support those people and then find that their work is being dictated by a manager sitting outside of the unit. People are pulled together under one GM because they are all roughly engaged in the same thing and then layers of managers managing layers are put in place over the top of them. And many more poor decisions are made because the wrong problem was trying to be solved.

So the next time you draw a structure out why not ask yourself ‘will this enable people to do their job easier by aligning people that are interconnected in our processes? Then test it for unnecessary hierarchies, role and salary justifications, unclear groupings or changes just to deal with problem interactions.

Or maybe ask yourself, ‘how would people align if we didn’t have a structure?’and then work backwards from that.