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.
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