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.
I recently moved house, from the north island of Nz to the South. As you can imagine shifting everything you have, your cars and your dogs in this way is a little bit different from moving to another street in a big town. Everything changes, friends are a bit more distant, routines have to be redesigned and a whole way of life recreated. In the middle of all this I tweeted that I was in the midst of a big change in life but I couldn’t be a change agent if I couldn’t cope with it. A peer and colleague answered my tweet to say that they thought change agents did what they did because they didn’t like change and preferred to control it.
She got me thinking, whether said in humour or not. What if she was right and out there all the change agents in operation are change resistant coupled with a high need for control? So I thought I would ask as well as write this week and you can tell me about you and if I get enough responses you will get a blog back about the data.
But back to her view on change agents. My perspective has always been that to be able to lead change that impacts on others you should have been through change yourself, both poorly and well managed. That experience can be used to understand how people feel in the situation where their future is not in their control and what a good or bad boss can do to about that. An example I always give is that you can’t truly know how to make someone redundant unless you’ve been through it yourself. You can do some training, understand in theory, but your perspective is always intellectual. I think that’s why peers often give such poor advice during change (just as the happily single give to a divorcing friend) it’s all based on a ‘you will get over it’ mindset. Which is true but not that helpful on the day. So a change agent that hadn’t coped in adversity or dealt with being powerless?
And what about the aspect of needing to control? Now I do know that some people have a vision of the world and move heaven on earth to change it to that. But the successful tend to be those whose vision of the world has some leeway, An ability for others to engage in it, enrichen it and join in the co-creation. Successful change has always seemed like an epidemic that you can’t help catching rather than a cattle drive (albeit a well meaning one that will hopefully take us to a land of milk and honey that they will thank them for in the end).
As a change agent I’m open to another perspective though (or is that not a pre-requisite?) so tell me Changed or Changer? What does it take to be a change agent when it comes to control.
This Poll is just for fun so please don’t write to me and tell me I’m asking the wrong question the wrong way (If you do I will mark you down as a need to control anyway)
In this, the third blog in this series I explore the trend in change methodologies that become in themselves the latest trend.
Process is king
Every few years another trend happens in Organisational design and a ‘new’ approach comes along. Whatever they are called they are a process or a methodology that you are supposed to follow to make change happen within the organisation. Generally speaking every manager has to be trained in it or it apparently won’t work, and the really well marketed ones have degrees of capability built in to show that you are more expert in the process than anyone else. They have
their own terminology and jargon and you can put people from different organisations together and they can be using the same terminology to talk about a totally different business. But the fact that so many come and go should tell you something.
So let’s say first off that I’m not against a bit of process or methodology. I think it’s a good thing to give managers tools and skills to help them look at the way their area does things.
Let’s face it most organisations are full of processes. Processes that should be designed to help
people deliver the Organisational outcomes. No process is for ever so what worked a few years ago should always be reviewed to see if it is still working effectively. That’s a managers role, ergo you tool them up to be able to do that. It’s a simple as that.
However from many consultancies point of view you put a few tools together and you have a methodology for that review process. You can sell a methodology. You can’t sell ‘well I get a few people in a room, get them talking about what is holding them up and get them to design a different approach’. For one thing who would need HR (only kidding), but secondly getting people in a room and working the problems together is what managers are meant to do isn’t it? Well actually no in the case of many, so HR often buys a methodology that gets managers doing what good managers have always done.
Trouble is that these methodologies are often treated as if they are a panacea; only the process will solve our problems. That only this methodology can get out the stains that others leave behind. And then some of them can get quite meticulous and exacting, probably because the designer was, but often to make sure that you have to buy the training, the software, the conference, the online forum and the helpdesk. And at that point the process becomes king.
When the point of the process becomes all about following the process then it’s likely that the process is preventing the most sophisticated tool on the planet from doing what it’s good at. The human brain, thinking. And that’s what many methodologies do, even if that’s not what the original designer wanted.
This can also be why so many become passing fads. Because the end user is ‘put through’ training and just doesn’t want to use it to such a high degree, or feels that it takes a long time to get very little, or just doesn’t like being regimented in the way they think, etc.
Organisations need processes and most always will. But an over-reliance on process minimizes people and what they are there for just as an under-processed business can be chaotically inefficient. And when it comes to changing the process then any methodology that is in itself more important than the dialogue between capable people, seems to miss the long term point of change, which is to get people working together to use their brains to improve what they know best; the job they do every day.
In this, the second in a three part blog on current trends or perspectives in change, I explore some of the views expressed in social media about change and organisational culture
Peace, love and harmony, man
If you take a look at some of the online discussion channels that are around and look at the responses to questions that look a little like ‘What are the key attributes of a change leader’ or ‘how do you create change in an organisation?’ and inevitably ‘Trust your employees’ will raise its head in some shape or form.
I wasn’t a child of the flower power generation, nor am I old enough to have been part of that movement, but the ‘all you need is love’ period of the sixties didn’t pass me by, as many of my school teachers were of that era. It doesn’t seem to have passed change by either as we still have many who believe that the workplace would be so much better if we ‘just trust everyone to do their job’ , that structure is just shackles in disguise and that managers and management are unnecessary at best and a form of modern day slave traders at worst
I’ve worked on culture change and structure change alike and believe that they go hand in hand but can’t be confused for each other. I’ve met my share of those who should never have been given responsibility for other people whether it be that they haven’t got a people bone in their body or that they care so much they can’t take hard decisions or hard actions. And I’ve met wonderful talented, self directed, self motivated people who need little management as much as I’ve met those who were a danger to themselves and others (one operator that as they explained their most recent injury actually started to do it again to show me). And all that has shown me is that trust is a flexible term that needs repeatedly earned as much as its given, that everyone is different to the point that some need structure to function whilst others need freedom to create, and that the skills of manager and leader rest in their ability to read and meet the different needs of their team members and adjust accordingly.
Yes the workplace needs trust. Yes a harmonious atmosphere helps production and Yes if people could appreciate each other’s differences and talents (the appropriate form of ‘Love’ in the workplace I believe) then human interactions would be easier. But a global ‘let the people go’ won’t work however good the vision and well articulated the direction of the business is. People just see things so differently that you can’t assume that they will all align themselves to the vision, direction and strategy perfectly every day.
Organisations need structures, processes, policies, leadership and management that help people to use their skills and talents effectively. Most change is about getting the balancing act of that mix right for the organisation to deliver its vision and strategy. Too much or too little can get in the way of people performing. So trust is an enabler of a culture but on its own it delivers as much as a bunch of 1960s hippies at a music festival.
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