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.
Anyone who is familiar with John Kotters’ definition of leadership will know leaders make changes – whereas managers maintain stability. The struggle to do both is the daily balancing act of any senior executive.
But, the bigger challenge is the defining of change in the first place.
Many leaders are employed primarily to make change happen. Words like ‘improve’, ‘efficiencies’, ‘growth’ and ‘competitiveness’ litter the job descriptions of C-suite roles. Many are tested for their vision and those known to have this skill are often paid more on the REM circuit.
They’re expected to march in, ‘rally the troops’, point them towards the ‘brave new world’ and take them there. Moses, Caeser and Alexander the Great all rolled in to one.
Yet we all know that change fails when the employees:
Don’t embrace the vision
Don’t share the direction
Don’t ‘buy-in’ to our new plans.
We talk about change resistance, how to engage with the vision, generate buy-in and teach leaders to go out there and do it. And when we say, “go out there and do it,” what we really mean is, “do it to them,” with “them” meaning ‘the staff’.
Persuade, convince, cajole and ultimately ‘help people off the bus’ if they don’t want to be on it. Everyone knows what’s coming, so if you want security you’d better look like this is the bus for you. After all, we’ve also learned that if you hang around long enough, the bus will change.
C-suites come and go – and the next one will want a blue bus anyway (as opposed to the green one we are jumping on now).
We employ for a vision, reward for a vision and then push that vision out there…and that’s the skill of leadership.
But is it really?
Imagine a leader who had no vision for the business. Would you employ them? No.
So, what about a leader who had no personal vision for the business, but believed the people in it did. Would you employ them? “Maybe,” I’m sure you would say. But something is still missing.
What about the leader who believed the organisation could be smarter, faster, more creative and agile – and that the people within in knew how to unlock such potential if he worked with them?
A leader whose tools were not visioning, but engagement?
A leader who stayed open to approaches that were not his – and whose only vision was one which everyone shared in?
A leader who listened not in judgement, but in interest?
The hardest change of all is where we let go of the certainty of our own vision and instead, engage with others to create a vision that is more sophisticated…because it is owned by many.
The first quarter of 2015 is over and I’ve not written many blogs. I’ve not been writing but I have been watching, reading and observing. With the proliferation of social media and online business tools you can easily spend days reading other people’s blogs, questions answered and opinions given. It’s amazing how many views there are about change and how to make it happen and I suppose that is a sign of how big an issue managing change is and how fraught it can be.
There are some perspectives that come up regularly and for anyone, like me, that has been involved in change for a long time, they seem to come in cycles. The packaging might be different, but the message is the same, like a 1960s advert for washing powder they pronounce that they are the solution to your change miseries.
Over the next three Blogs I want to talk about some current trends and why I think they may be an issue when it comes to driving your change.
Your Culture Needs to be..
Having a great Organisational Culture is an incredibly powerful to way to boost production, output, efficiency, sales or whatever it is you need to boost. Your culture is also becoming a key aspect of your employee value proposition in a world where smart young people want to chose where they work. So no wonder that ‘culture’ is high on many organisations agenda. And with it being so high, then it’s no wonder that Engagement Surveys and Culture Surveys abound. Some of my clients get these confused and I’m not surprised. Is an Culture survey more important than an engagement survey? Is Engagement part of Culture? Is Engagement just an enabler of Culture or is it the other way round? And like a snake eating its own tail the two chase each other to the point that some organisations do both just in case.
But does it really matter which type you run? I’m not sure it is, despite what the surveyors will tell you. Isn’t what matters whether it asks the questions that you need the answers to? The answers that help you get the culture that you want?
But ‘you are missing the benchmarking against other organisations’ I hear people cry. And my response to that is ‘so what’. What do you actually get from that benchmark? A nice award, a moment in a magazine and some nice PR for sure. But do you get much more because you scored more in a set of questions, that someone else decided we’re important, than a few other firms? Does the scoring more really drive you to do things that matter for your organisation? Or does benchmarking become ‘saming’ and drive a whole load of organisations to do the same as each other?
Additionally some of these surveys drive to a preconceived view of the perfect culture or engagement defined by the designer. And that lo and behold every company you work with that uses that survey is told that they need to be more ‘XXXX’ (Substutute a name, a type a colour or whatever is used to categorise your culture or engagement) and that XXXX is the same for every one of them.
What does all this lead to? I’ve worked with an organisation that were told they needing to increase career planning to improve their engagement score, yet a large number of their people did manual roles and frankly had no interest in a career. I’ve seen people trying to hide who they are because their natural style doesn’t fit in with the cultural norm that the organisation had targetted. But most importantly I see a drive for sameness. Organisation after organisation with the same approaches because they are trying to be a fixed pattern of the ‘perfect culture/engaged organisation’ as defined by a survey/model.
My view is that your organisation is unique and its success is predicated by using that uniqueness to do things that other organisations don’t do. Doing the same as a competitor will at best leave you second and at worst drive a culture that is counter-innovative I.e where innovation is not ‘how we do things around here’ because you will be saying to your people that ‘doing what others do is what we do around here’. Your culture is a unique component in your ability to be better than the other organisations that you compare yourself to. Therefore, surely your culture has to be unique too and to fit your unique view of ‘how we do things around here’ to drive that competitive advantage. That also means that the way that you work with your employees has to fit your uniqueness and if they are the right employees, there because they want to be part of your uniqueness then won’t they be engaged? i.e. engagement is an outcomes of how you organisation works, not an objective in itself. As one CEO recently said to me ‘when I arrived here there had just been an engagement survey run, and I was being pressured to do something to improve aspects of that. I felt that taking action in that way was trite, and employees would see it as such. So I’ve engaged our teams in our vision, the direction we want to head in, and how they are a part of that. If that engages them, then I am on the right track’. A few months later their next engagement survey showed a 30% uplift. Engagement was a result of engaging.
In summary, own your culture, don’t let anyone else own it for you.
Don’t define what it looks like based on anyone else’s view of the perfect culture as you lose your opportunity for advantage. A cultural vision of all being nice and collaborative may sound great, but if it alienates those with a competitive go getting edge have a think about how competitive you would be in the future without them.
Measure what you need to measure to show that you are doing what needs done to live that vision of your organisation.
Engage people in real ways and not just to get a better survey score; staff see through that and resent it anyway.
Be Unique. Don’t be sheep, huddling together round the same tools for comfort.
I regularly find myself astonished by kiwi driving habits. From zipping round you while you are manoeuvring in a car park to pushing you along by sitting close to your rear bumper as you overtake, I find some ‘normal’ Nz habits rude at least and unsafe at worse. What’s interesting is that when I talk to other drivers trained in Britain, they often say the same, yet when I talk to those brought up to drive in Nz many of them don’t see why I think it’s not good driving. But as the years go by, I find myself getting more used to it. Still don’t like it but I treat it as ‘normal’.
It raises an interesting perspective on what’s ‘normal’ and how it can become so culturally. Looking inside organisations many employees get used to the way that things are done. But if you think about any time you have moved from one company to another, there is a short period where you look at the way things are done and wonder about some of the unusual, unproductive or downright bad. That period only lasts for a little while as people convince you of that way, shrug and say it can’t be changed or look at you with the same look I get when I talk to kiwis about kiwi driving. Gradually you accept it, live with, comply with it then do it the same way. This is normal behaviour because to work in a place the last thing you need to do is not blend in or be part of the place. Whether it’s because people are essentially tribal (they are but that’s in another blog) or because non of us like to upset the apple cart (you do have to work there every day), we tend to adapt and get used to what we initially found as strange.
As a change agent I am privileged to see different companies doing different things and I find that whilst some are bad at some things they can always be brilliant at something else. I often share observations as I work with organisations, because let’s face it if a change agent can’t say ‘really?’ when faced with justification of bad culture, who can? But I don’t get asked in every day. Normally its when something clearly needs changed.
What this tends to means for many organisations is that when it comes to envisaging a change in culture they find it quite hard. Its hard to see something better when you defend the norm. Even painful processes get defended as ‘the way we do things around here’.
As a response some organisations look to recruit from outside and tell new people that their outside perspective will be helpful. But people can’t swim against the tide for long so soon that perspective is lost too. Even CEOs, who have the most authority to enable change and speak up about things that are not good, can find themselves gradually becoming accepting of the culture they find themselves in.
So how do you deal with the problem of the outside perspectives gradually diminishing over time?
Create deliberate structures around new hires to build in discussions with the CEO and HR Director about their observations of the culture over their first 100 days.
Don’t assume senior people will change things when you hire them. Build it in to their objectives that their first 90 days report will have a culture issues topic and follow on actions will have cultural improvements.
Don’t wait till it gets so bad and then try and change. The focus groups you use when you are suggesting change can be a regular feature of the business. Get people together to talk about the black side of ‘how we do things around here’.
Normalise the discussion of the organisations culture. Don’t assume that your annual survey is enough. Make it ok for people to raise poor cultural tendencies every week and every month.
Routinely bring in outsiders, such as change agents, to spend a day or two with your managers and staff to ask questions about the way things are done. Value their report back.
Don’t ignore what you learn, whether by survey, focus group, review or new people. When you ignore it you condone it and that locks it in.
Whatever you do don’t let perspectives dwindle over time or one day it may be too late to change anything.
When you are setting out your change communication strategy, what are you trying to achieve? Are you just there to keep people up to date with the timeline of the project? Are you setting out to market all the good things that your change will bring? Are you planning to deal with all the people issues and manage all the ‘what’s happening to me?’ questions that come with change?
Hopefully the answer is all three, but I often see comms that is only about one or two at best. Sometimes it’s because people don’t see the value in a three part comms strategy, but sometimes it’s old fashioned turf wars at play. Whatever the reason, if your change comms is not a cohesive mix of all three then you are missing an opportunity at best an potentially putting your change at risk at worst.
Progressing the Timeline
It’s a change programme so no doubt you’ve told people that something is going to change. In days gone past that was it, but most of us know that the most basic element of change is that people want to know what’s happening. Without knowing what’s happening they can’t identify with the change. If they can’t identify they won’t buy in. So the most basic change comms takes us through the change programme as and when it happens, which is my circus analogy. The Comms tells us that ‘the circus is coming’ to ‘the circus is here’ with updates in between telling us about the different acts as they arrive. This is a necessary part of any change communication strategy, but on its own it’s limited. It’s limited by lack of meaning to the individual who wants to know what the circus means to them and why they should care about it, what acts matter from their perspective and which ones will affect their role.
Comms as a marketing aid.
When something new is being rolled out, it’s no surprise that management want to sell in the advantages of it. This is particularly true of technology changes, most of which are highly expensive, take a lot of effort, can cause disruption whilst being installed, but can look like little has changed for the user, particularly if the are replacing something existing. Often the tech teams can see lots of advantages in the new equipment or software, but face a constant barrage of requests to modify it to keep it the ‘way we do things now’. The trouble is, every change to replicate today, reduces the impact of the new. Take your laptop as an example. How many of the apps and software that come with it do you use? Is the fist thing you do when you get a new machine check that it does everything you do today? Admit it, is your email set to traditional view?
The possibilities of technology in the workplace can easily come to naught of we are not guided to use them, as are all changes of system & process whether technological or not. So marketing the possibilities is a necessary part of change communications. On its own though it has no context, as it’s a one pitch sale, ‘buy this and your life will be better’. However if the message is linked to the flow of the programme its possible that you have more than one chance at making the pitch (and we all know that people need to hear at least seventeen times before they buy)
What’s happening to me?
The third part of a comms strategy is the one that helps people understand the impact of the change on them. Every time the technology or process is marketed, people will ask ‘what does this mean for my role?’ And if there is any hint of job reductions they will ask ‘is this the bit that takes away my job?’ If you are rolling the change out but haven’t worked out which jobs are affected (as you are still trying to understand the potential of the new process/system/technology) then every time you communicate in timeline mode or marketing mode, the receivers are listening in ‘what’s happening to me mode’ and that means they aren’t taking your message on board. They can’t if they think their job is at risk.
So the perfect Comms strategy includes the human impact in the Comms flow. However people changes are often seen as the domain of HR, particularly when some aspect of the change affects roles, or reduces them. Project managers and Technologists often don’t like to touch this aspect of change in case it tarnishes the nice aspects of their nice new equipment and software. HR often prefer to manage this themselves as it’s their domain, they don’t trust the technologists or the project manager or in some cases they want control or credit. So what happens is the project markets their product and sound disconnected from the people (‘I know you are in fear of your job, but but my nice shiny gadget’) and HR come out to communicate when they are ready to tell you whether you have your job. They don’t come out alongside the project timeline and tell you how the decision us going to be made etc, they come out separate to it.
Even worse, the Comms is often not connected. The HR language is legalized to ensure the company doesn’t get taken to court, and there is a risk that they say something differently than the project has been marketing for weeks or months. Disconnected and contradictory means that every good message the project has been trying to put out is lost. In addition if people are only listening to hear if they have a role there are two states of mind with this approach. Firstly ‘I’ve still got my job so nothing has changed’ or ‘I’ve got no job so I don’t care about what is happening here’. In either case a disconnect from the project. In the end the project keeps clear of the HR issue in case it was tarnished and it ends up tarnished anyway because of that separation.
HR will have done their job in reducing numbers and changing job descriptions. The project team will have done theirs in installing new technology or process. But unfortunately for the operations team who are their customer they have a group of people who probably haven’t bought in, are often suspicious of the company and their management and in many cases don’t think anyone told them about it because of the lack of cohesion in the messaging.
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